May 25th, 2006

Old singers never die, they just Sail to Byzantium

Commenter “snowonpine” made an interesting observation in the American Idol thread, in response to my praise of the getting-on-in-years Dionne Warwick’s performance:

Ms. Warwick seemed, to me, to exemplify the inability of a star–be it a TV star, prize fighter or singer–to let go and retire gracefully at the top of their form rather than drag it out, year after weary year until all that made them great has vanished and only an embarrasing croak or just the ability to take punishment remains. When they start to rearrange your charts, so that notes you once sang with ease but which are now unattainable are eliminated and the song is changed, its time to retire.

I can understand snowonpine’s point; sometimes performers stay way too long at the fair. And if all that had made Ms. Warwick great had vanished, I would agree with snowonpine that it was time for her to hang it up.

But listening to Warwick at this point–when of course her voice has changed and isn’t what it once was–was still wonderful, and far more enjoyable (to me) than listening to the Idol contestants with young, strong, more perfect voices. Warwick still retains that je ne sais quoi that made her great.

Another analogy is to ballet dancers. The really great ones (Fonteyn, Ulanova) tended to dance long past their prime of optimal technical skill. But those same really great ones made up for it in artistry, often exhibiting a growth in spirit and the ability to convey something meaningful through their art. In the end, they transcended technique.

Of course there comes a time for many, if they live long enough, when technique falls so very precipitously that performance is an embarrassment and it is indeed time to retire. But that time’s a while away for Warwick, at least for this listener.

Since I’m in a poetry-quoting mood today, I’ll post one of my favorite poems, Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” And it just happens to be especially relevant, as I think you’ll see:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees –
Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

10 Responses to “Old singers never die, they just Sail to Byzantium”

  1. Ymarsakar Says:

    As Bart Simpson, who surely knows whereof he speaks said, “Hollywood stars, what don’t they know.”

    They don’t know themselves, that is what.

  2. snowonpine Says:


    Of course the other aspect of stardom that your post brings to mind is the problem of celebrities/stars/artists who step out of their fields of expertise and use their prominence to get a probably unmerited hearing for their “informed” and “enlightened” commentary on a host of political, military and foreign affairs issues including the war on terror, world hunger and Peace in the Middle East: Rob Reiner,Barbara Streisand, Bianca Jagger,Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin and Lynn Redgrave are names that spring to mind.

    In judging their contributions one should first remember that many of these luminaries never went to college, some never finished high school and while they may seem smart and articulate when reading a script written by somebody else, this is not necessarily an indication of their true level of knowledge or intelligence.

    Congress has not helped to dispel the confusion between seeming and reality and has actuallly made the problem worse by inviting stars to testify as expert witnesses at hearings devoted to subjects related to the characters they have played. Thus Sally Field, who once played a gritty Texas farm wife in the 1984 movie, “Places in the Heart”, was called on to testify at a hearing about the plight of the American farm family. Vince Edwards, who played Dr. Ben Casey in the early 1960’s TV series, was called upon to testify about the state of American medicine.

    As Bart Simpson, who surely knows whereof he speaks said, “Hollywood stars, what don’t they know.”

  3. paleomythia Says:

    Sailing to Byzantium is often a ticket to Absurdia. The fans should not encourage that — like lovely looking smiling people offering roses bouquets to Michael Jackson. Old artist are not Gods – not saying that’s what’s being said – it’s just an observation brought on by the topic.

    MJ isn’t old – but he is a somewhat of a great sage in his art.

  4. snowonpine Says:

    You mean the Psychic Friends Network is phony?
    I need to call my broker right away. Then, I guess, I need to call my new psychic pals Mookie and Whanghanna and tell them our get acquainted dinner at the restaurant next to my bank is off. It even looks like that bequest to my newly discovered Avatar of the great spirit on earth, Ka-ching, has to be rethought too.

  5. SteveR Says:

    this conversation of singers who hang on too long reminds me of how amazing are the ones that still sound the same well into their 60’s.

    Jay Black (born David Blatt) can still hit all those high notes, just as he did years ago with Jay and the Americans. You should hear him sing “Cara Mia”

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    Joshua: I think another strike against Warwick in people’s minds–at least those who remember this–is those ads she did for the Psychic Friends Network a while back.

  7. Joshua Says:

    Ms. Warwick isn’t alone. Joe Jackson used to have one of the most distinctive singing voices around, but it slowly became barely recognizable as he aged. [Listen to his albums Look Sharp! (1979) and Volume 4 (2003) back-to-back to hear how different he sounds now.]

    Of course, it didn’t help that Jackson insisted upon making a bunch of side trips into other musical genres like classical music and showtunes (a la Billy Joel), but that’s another discussion.

  8. Goesh Says:

    I apologize for the intrusion but old regimes never seem to want to die either. Students in Iran have been protesting and fighting with the mullah’s security forces: Bloggers from Iran do so at great risk and any Iranian blogger opposed to the mullahs needs encouraging words/support. They are wondering why our media is not picking up on this.

  9. Goesh Says:

    – I think so too,SCA, nice comment about the rent – expensive tastes don’t diminish well, from designer clothes to top-shelf Pennys doesn’t sit well with most folks….from prime rib to beans is a long fall

  10. Sigmund, Carl and Alfred Says:

    Well stated, to be sure.

    Now, to be a bit sanguine, Ms Warwick may be promoting herself and what is left of her career because she has to.

    Rent influences things like that.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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