The Aging Icon Game

I’m not going to pretend, even for a second, that I know one whit of a jot of an iota of a single goddamn thing about Wanda Jackson. I’ve heard the name before, and I know that, according to NPR anyway, she’s the Queen of Rockabilly. But that’s all I know and if you’re my age, that’s probably all you know too. But now, thanks to Jack White, you don’t have to know any more than that.

White has produced Jackson’s first album in eight years, The Party Ain’t Over, continuing an indie trend I call the Aging Icon Game. I think it all started when Jack White produced Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose a few years ago. Then, last year, Jeff Tweedy had to come along and produce You Are Not Alone for Mavis Staples. White was all set to parry with the Wanda Jackson album when Okkervil River’s Will Sheff jumped into the fray by producing Roky Erickson’s True Love Cast Out All Evil.

So if you’re a well-known indie-ish rocker, you need to get into this game now. The trouble with producing pseudo-comeback albums for aging musical icons is that whole “aging” thing. If your icon kicks off before the record is done, you’re gonna have to go find yourself another icon to produce but oh shit, your Plan-B Icon has already teamed up with Beck for an album of Sonic Youth covers. So what we need is some kind of Icon Draft so we can assign all the icons an indie producer who can get the youngsters interested in the good ol’ stuff again.

Here’s what I suggest: Jack White can have the country/rockabilly chicks since he’s already got Wanda Jackson and Loretta Lynn. When Dolly Parton is ready for a return to musical prominence, Jack White gets dibs. Tweedy is tougher to pin down – the Staples thing was good, but I think he could also handle the probably-not-gonna-happen Television reunion (you only think you wanna hear them play Marquee Moon in its entirety at Coachella but what you really want is to get stoned for free and listen to Marquee Moon on some quality headphones). It might be a bit too obvious for Tweedy to produce the next good Bob Dylan album. I’m kind of surprised that Michael Stipe hasn’t produced a Patti Smith album yet – this could happen, too, because they’re about the same age. Aren’t they? I’m way too lazy to Google this shit right now. I think Craig Finn could be persuaded to produce a Hüsker Dü reunion album. I was gonna assign some younger indie personality to produce a Tom Waits album but Waits isn’t in need of the sort of pseudo-comeback album that is always produce by the younger indie kids.

Here’s something that does bother me a bit about the Aging Icon Game: while I’m all for exposing a wider audience to the music of people like Roky Erickson and Mavis Staples, I can’t help but feel like these records smack more than a little of “last-hurrah”. It’s like the younger musicians are parading their heroes onto the stage for one last glorious moment in the spotlight and then sending them off to Valhalla. The music is usually pretty good, sure, but I find it a bit morbid in a way.

I’m actually not sure how I feel about The Party Ain’t Over as an album; Jackson’s voice can be a little grating at first listen, but now that I’ve been through the album a couple of times, I’m actually digging it quite a bit. The instrumentation is raucous and actually a bit playful, and you have to give props to any seventy-three year-old woman who can boogie the way Jackson does on songs like “Thunder On the Mountain” and “Shakin’ All Over.” Basically, Jackson sounds like an evil Muppet on a lot of these tracks and you can either get with that or you can’t. I’m starting to feel like I can, and I especially love her treatment of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know That I’m No Good” because she sings it in a way that makes Winehouse look like a true amateur in the trouble department.

The thing is, on The Party Ain’t Over, Wanda Jackson rocks harder than women half her age, even if she occasionally sounds like Butters from South Park (see “Nervous Breakdown”). She’s menacing, vicious, funny, and – yeah, I’ll say it – sexy. These are things we don’t commonly associate with women in their seventies, but that’s because rock ‘n’ roll is typically considered a young person’s (usually, sadly, a young man‘s) game and, let’s face it, the young are kind of assholes toward the old (and vice versa. Once, when I worked at Tower Records, I had a guy tell me I was “too young” to know who John Coltrane was. Fighting the urge to tell him to go fuck himself, I calmly explained that one could be young but still learn about music recorded before they were born. This was why, I pointed out, our foremost experts on the Beatles were all in their twenties). Jack White, to his credit, has never been one to hide his reverence for the music that made his music possible, and he’s shown impeccable taste in the albums he’s produced for others. The Party Ain’t Over, like Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose before it, is pretty awesome. See, that’s why I listen to albums while I’m writing about them – a couple of paragraphs ago, I wasn’t sure how I felt about The Party Ain’t Over, and as I type this sentence, I find myself willing to wholeheartedly endorse this record. A lot can happen in a few minutes.

Of course, if this trend goes on for too long, the Aging Icon Game will break free of its relatively intelligent indie fetters and get all kinds of terrible. Kid Rock will produce a Ted Nugent album (guaranteed to feature at least one ode to Sarah Palin) that will sell a million copies in Kansas alone, which will lead him to produce a Bob Seger album of Billy Joel covers. The moron from Nickelback will produce a Metallica album and duet with them on at least one track; Billy Ray Cyrus will produce an acoustic Bret Michaels album and, finally, as we beg for the sweet release of death, Miley Cyrus will produce a Madonna record and the universe will turn itself inside out.  So we must tread carefully. But for now, I think we can let The Party Ain’t Over stand.

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