Monday, January 3, 2011

You Never Can Tell

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep...

~ William Butler Yeats, "When You Are Old"

The first Monday of the new year is a time for looking forward, but this morning I find myself looking back and forth. It started with a song, "Old Man," and a video of its composer, Neil Young, singing it forty years ago when he and I and so many others were young.

Mr. Young has been a favorite of mine from the moment I first heard his warbly voice in a Buffalo Springfield song in 1966. I know he's not for everyone, but give this video of "Old Man" a chance anyway.

In "Old Man," a young man believes that loneliness creates a common ground with an older one. He sings,

Look at how the time goes past 
But I'm all alone at last
Rolling home to you

In happy contrast, Neil Young's own life is notable not for loneliness but for a solid thirty-plus-year marriage to his talented wife Pegi. And that's my message for today. As the great Chuck Berry put it, "It goes to show you never can tell."

Old man pushing seventy,
In truth he acts like a little boy,
Whooping with delight when he spies some mountain fruits,
Laughing with joy, tagging after village mummers;
With the others having fun stacking tiles to make a pagoda,
Standing alone staring at his image in the jardinière pool.
Tucked under his arm, a battered book to read,
Just like the time he first set out to school.

~ Lu Yu, "Written in a Carefree Mood"


  1. I find it hard to listen to Neil Young's beautiful voice without getting a lump in my throat. I think your Berry/Young juxtaposition hilarious, however.
    A very happy new year to you.
    Miss W x

  2. I grew up hearing "Old Man" on the radio when I was in high school, a time when I couldn't imagine believing I was "a lot like" anyone older than 20. To see him singing it when he really was "24 and there's so much more," and when I'm now that old(er) woman, is a mind-bending experience. Beautiful and kind of heartbreaking. Thank you.

  3. Thank you, ladies. As much as I love "Old Man" — a lot — all I could think of today was how little we know about the future. Don't know if it's the same for you, but I find life's surprises are often better than what I planned or expected — ergo Chuck Berry!

  4. Looking forward, looking back. That's why Janus has two heads. Great post!

  5. Tom, you are so right. I hadn't thought of that. It's Janus's month; no wonder I don't know whether I'm coming or going.

  6. Once again, I am enjoying your musical divinipotence since I tend to think in silent words, and have to remember to add a soundtrack. New Year's Day I found myself listening to Frank Sinatra's September of My Years for which—I read on the CD case—he won a Best Album Grammy in 1966. An older male friend was here who remembers some of Sinatra's music as his early dating music. He was surprised to hear Sinatra so melancholy; examining old age and loss. Ironically, Sinatra was 51 in 1966. He lived 32 more years. In 1971 Neil Young sang Old Man and Sinatra retired for the first time. I am grateful for the people who thought to capture Young, Berry, Sinatra on audio and video so I can hear and see them now. At this time of year I think about age and change, not just because a new year begins, but because I was born four days into the new year. As Joni Mitchell said, "something's lost but something's gained in living every day." We will never be any younger than we are at this moment. We share more than what separates us. I want to remember these things in my new year. Thank you.

  7. "We will never be any younger than we are at this moment." I love that. Happy birthday one day in advance, Katherine!

    I remember that Frank Sinatra song well. It came out the year I graduated from high school. The British Invasion was in full-force. Dylan was the hottest songwriter on the planet. We were out in the streets protesting the war. Sinatra seemed so bitterly out of touch with it all. To think he was only 51 at the time. Let's make sure we never find ourselves in a place so melancholy.