Dalton Delan | The Unspin Room: Ageism of the muse
The Unspin Room
WESTPORT, Conn. — With Bernie Sanders' heart attack last week, perhaps precipitated by the stress of campaigning with unabated revolutionary fervor, coupled with head-snapping contradictory pronouncements from no-maps-on-my-taps spinmeister Rudy Giuliani, some found themselves wondering if millennial ageism is warranted. Could Sanders be a canary in a coal mine warning that, at least in the high-stakes game of politics, Biden, Warren, Trump and other 70-plus aspirants and perspirants are egging us on past their sell-by date? Similarly, in media and arts circles in which I traffic, with age may come wisdom, but as for creativity not so much.
The double-edged sword of the artistic muse is that she abandons us just when we think we start to know a little something about life. For those of us weaned on rock-and-roll and the titans of terrestrial radio, the collapse of songwriting and singing in the satellite age is an earache. Yet performers hate to leave the stage. One wants to think that at least Bob Dylan, arguably the master songsmith of the post-Gershwin era, would manage a dogged hold on the tail of the muse. Wrong. Presenting as evidence Dylan croaking Sinatra, cribbing lines for a cringe-worthy Nobel speech from Cliff's Notes, hawking folk-art watercolors traced from photographs. The times they are a-changin' indeed.
Pick another: Neil Young. Pray that his album dropping in a few weeks will break the grip of the tedious agitprop he has been churning out. Bruce Springsteen: last month's CD of retro orchestral rock celebrates a Western ethos and sound so far removed from Asbury Park that I have converted it to a drink coaster. Works nicely. Even if The Boss never set foot in a factory, he had previously managed to ape the angst of those of us who have punched a clock.
And presenting in this corner, armed with a license to quill, yours truly, trusty writing implement traded for a virtual keyboard, fingers skating on glass, endeavoring not to bore and sharing factoids to elucidate or amuse, despite the deluge of solicitations targeting me by AARP. But my Lilliputian muse appears in the guise of an 800-word sprite where once I penned whole chapters for Time-Life.
Maybe a similar salvation for aging writers with shrunken musettes will be bite-sized narratives streamed on the internet in fragments over time. In Japan they already have a mobile-phone artform built around books consumed a page at a time, perfect for the Tokyo subway. These cellphone novels, transliterated from Japanese as "keitai shousetsu," comprise half the bestsellers in the land of the rising sun. That appetite is what moviemaker Jeffrey Katzenberg, who turns 70 next year, is banking on with Quibi, a streaming service launching in 2020. Quibi, short for "quick bites," promises videos sliced, diced and dribbled out serially for handy viewing. Don't hang up on his commuter-friendly mobile movies.
In the fame game, it's better to live fast and die young, muse still in residence. A proven career move. John Keats was just 26, Emily Bronte hit 30 and sister Charlotte only clocked 39, while Percy Bysshe Shelley never reached Emily's age and Sylvia Plath made 31. Lord Byron left at 36, and the Raven came for Edgar Allan Poe at the 40-mark. In rock-and-roll lore, fans cite the rule of 27, with Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix only making it that far. Had they lived, would they have Vegas residencies turning the pages of the Great American Songbook?
I'd like to believe that there are exceptions to the rule. The townspeople of Princeton, New Jersey used to regale me with stories of Albert Einstein pedaling down Nassau Street, crazed locks streaming in the wind in his still-vibrant eighth decade. Yet Einstein never found his later-life universal theorem, and his theory of relativity was developed in his late 20s and early 30s. Bonus points: the hair stayed cool to the end. Stephen Hawking was blowing our minds into his 70s when he could only speak through a computer that interpreted his tiniest facial gestures. Still, his predictions on black holes were published when he was 28.
Maybe in Hawking's slowing and reversal of time, theoretically possible inside a black hole, lies an antidote to entropy. If, as the sands of life pass through our hourglass, we could find youth again on the other side of aging, Dorian Gray and Peter Pan would be proven right, and there might be hope for us yet. Since the plastic surgeons of Park Avenue and Beverly Hills can turn back the epidermal clock, and geneticists now apply their CRISPR cutting tools to our fraying DNA, one day the muse may hang around a little longer. As Bob Dylan sang long before he lost it, "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." You go, Bernie!
Dalton Delan, a regular Eagle contributor, has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.
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