Bob Dylan might be turning 70 today, but he's younger than that now
A tribute to Bob and other musicians who rock well past rocking-chair age
Today, the man born Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan , turns 70 years old. In an era when careers can be defined by a matter of months, he is a musician entering the eighth decade of life with a fanbase that still wants to buy (or steal from the Internet) his records and see him play live. That is pretty extraordinary. There aren't all that many like him.
But there are certainly a few. The king of late-in-life career comebacks is, of course, Johnny Cash, whose Rick Rubin-produced "American Recordings" album was released in 1994, when Cash was 63. Many people have tried to duplicate his formula, sometimes at the behest of Rubin himself. (Hello, Neil Diamond.)
Are these folks still relevant? Well, yes and no. Are kids who are going to buy Lady Gaga's new album today also going to plunk down for one of these folks? Probably not many. (Then again, many will probably just steal Gaga's album off the Internet.) Are any of these artists going to be on the pop chart? Again, unlikely. But making the pop chart isn't what is used to be.
This is a terrific time to be an artist of any age who isn't necessarily a superstar, or was once a superstar and has aged out of the record-buying mainstream. Email, social networking, Twitter and the preponderance of smart phones and broadband Internet help artists choose their level of engagement with their fans. (And relevance is in the eye of the ticket-buyer.)
Here are a few musicians 70 or older who have maintained careers, sustained recent comebacks or generally continued to rock well past rocking-chair age.
DOB: May 24, 1941 (age 70)
Most relevant period: The artist for whom the phrase 'his best work since X' was virtually invented. Most agree that he was one of the most important artists in the world from 1962 to about 1970, with periodic revivals in 1975, 1989 (sort of) and 1997. Since '97, he's made good-to-excellent albums every few years and continues to play more dates a year than virtually all the artists in his age bracket put together.
Best recent album: 'Modern Times' (2006) (Sorry, 'Together Through Life' and 'Christmas in the Heart.')
Still got it? Against many odds and a decade of terrible albums known as 'the '80s,' his work still yields revelatory, sometimes startling moments.
DOB: March 9, 1930 (age 81)
Most relevant period: The Texas-born jazz man was, in the 1960s and '70s, as forward-thinking as anyone in music.
Best recent album: His last, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Sound Grammar' (2006).
Still got it? As with many improvisationally minded jazz artists, it likely varies from night to night, but he is still capable of astonishing beauty.
DOB: Sept. 21, 1934 (age 76)
Most relevant period: Tough call. His cult is down for whatever he does, and he wasn't ever all that prolific. But 1967 ('Songs of Leonard Cohen') to 1977 ('Death of a Ladies Man') is pretty outstanding.
Best recent album: 'Live in London' (2009)
Still got it? Since a brutal bankruptcy put him back on the road, his shows have received rapturous reviews. Most definitely.
DOB: Oct. 20, 1937 (age 73)
Most relevant period: Two. The 1950s, when she became the queen of rockabilly with a couple of almost scandalously hot singles ('Honey Bop,' 'Fujiyama Mama'), and the 1960s, when she had a decent country career.
Best recent album: She turned to Jack White to make his Loretta Lynn-style magic with this year's 'The Party Ain't Over.'
Still got it? Apparently. She was everywhere at this year's South by Southwest and has been booked for the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
DOB: April 14, 1932 (age 79)
Most relevant period: From 1965 to about 1971 or so, she released at least 10 killer albums of smart, well-sung, forward-thinking pure country, and stacked up hit after hit well into the 1970s.
Best recent album: The probably overpraised (by me included) but still impressive 'Van Lear Rose' (2004), which was produced by Jack White.
Still got it? Chart-wise, no. But she's toured as much as she can since the bump 'Van Lear Rose' gave her, and is rumored to be working on a follow-up. She's playing ACL Live on Sept. 22; tickets on sale at 10 a.m. Friday.
DOB: April 30, 1933 (age 78)
Most relevant period: The 1970s, when he remade country music in his image.
Best recent album: He releases way too many, so let's go with 'You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker' (2006).
Still got it? At least live (and I wrote 'at least,' so no letters about how much you liked 'Countryman,' please). And 'worked with Wille Nelson' remains a box musicians love to check off.
DOB: Feb. 25, 1927 (age 84)
Most relevant period: The guy has cut great songs in every decade since the late 1940s, but the 1950s and 1960s were pretty tremendous.
Best recent album: This year's 'A Mother's Prayer' was great.
Still got it? As long as he is pickin'.
DOB: May 3, 1919 (age 92)
Most relevant period: He was a devout Communist and considered by many to be a traitor in the 1940s, made hit records with the Weavers and was blacklisted throughout the '50s, presided over the folk revival in the '60s and may or may not have furiously tried to cut off Dylan's electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
Best recent album: The fact the guy was able to make a Grammy-winning record titled 'At 89' (2008) is pretty impressive.
Still got it? He played Obama's inauguration. Yes.
DOB: Feb. 19, 1940 (age 71)
Most relevant period: In 1967, Dylan called him 'America's greatest living poet.' Well, exactly.
Best recent album: Let's just say it's been a while.
Still got it? His voice is still excellent and his live show is reportedly stellar. (Check out our writeups of his SXSW 2010 set and the recent Paramount Theater gala @austin360.com/music.)
DOB: Jan. 24, 1941 (age 70)
Most relevant period: The 1970s. Just look at the cover of 'Hot August Nights' for the proof you need.
Best recent album:Two of his last three non-Christmas records, '12 Songs' and 'Home Before Dark,' were produced by Rick Rubin, which makes them stripped down (good) and more than a little pretentious (bad). The former is better.
Still got it? His shows sell out, there are tribute acts, his fans are all ages — of course the Jewish Elvis still has it.
DOB: Sept. 7, 1930 (age 80)
Most relevant period: His career is a little like Dylan's, actually, with about eight extra years. He starts to get amazing in about 1956 and doesn't stop making excellent records for about a decade, retires from '66 to '72 and makes OK to stellar records for nearly 40 years. (Check out the awesome compilation 'Silver City' for a nice primer.) His live show remains excellent throughout.
Best recent album: Probably 'Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert' (2002).
Still got it? See also Ornette Coleman.
Getting close to 70 ...
Aretha Franklin (March 25, 1942, age 69)
Bert Jansch (Nov. 3, 1943, 67)
Everyone in the Rolling Stones
Randy Newman (Nov. 28, 1943, 67 – and playing ACL Fest in September)
Dolly Parton (Jan. 19, 1946, 65)
Lou Reed (March 2, 1942, 69)
Neil Young (Nov. 12, 1945, 65)