How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

Robert Plant, Leonard Cohen, and Loudon Wainwright III.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Neil Lupin/Redferns via Getty Images, Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images, and David Corio/Redferns via Getty Images.

What becomes an aging white hipster dude most? In every Mason-jar-stocked pseudo-saloon or fixie bike shop, anxious minds wander to the day when temp work stops being sufficient, when skinny jeans no longer can be tugged up over PBR-fueled love handles, and when so much snow flecks that bushy beard that it becomes indistinguishable from an Amish patriarch’s.

Each youth subculture regards its rite of spring as unique. But there’s no source to turn to other than the olds when it comes to facing the autumn, mortality, decay, and the irrevocable receding of cool. Of course the matter is much more deeply fraught for women and people on the social margins, but spare a scrap of pity for the pale straight boys: Too often, no one warned us it would end this way. I’m already much further down the line than the twentysomethings I caricatured above, and I’ve barely begun to suss it out.

Think of the inherited mythologies: For a long time rock ’n’ roll only made room for, among Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, the “whining schoolboy” (whether Justin Bieber or Johnny Rotten), the lover “sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow” (the lion’s share of singer-songwriters and frontmen), and the “soldier, full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard” (Lemmy). Shakespeare’s presiding “justice, in fair round belly” and, doddering after, the “lean and slippered pantaloon” could be glimpsed only in shameful reunion tours and Vegas revues, revered if at all for what they’d been, not what they came to be.

But as the boomers have slid toward retirement, we’ve all gotten more acquainted with the senior-citizen rock star. Last week, even The Boss became The Executive Consultant Emeritus, as Bruce Springsteen celebrated (not mourned, I hope) his 65th birthday. Often the fallout makes us wince, as when Rod Stewart, among many others, converts to a lounge-orchestra “standards” act, or when Neil Young Donald-Trumps his wife of 36 years by (apparently) running off with Daryl Hannah. (“A man needs a mermaid,” the world tweeted as one.)

That is not how it has to be. Some alternatives are audible on albums released in September by three veteran Dionysians turned granddads: Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III. Each demonstrates how a cohort of guys who prided themselves on helping remake social, political, and sexual mores—changes it often turned out they were ill-equipped to handle themselves—can keep their motors running as they ride out the fading light.

These aren’t just any boomers. These three were once the ultimate hipsters: notorious rogues and satyrs but also skeptics, seekers, and wits, none of them quite reducible to hippie stereotypes, a step ahead and a touch removed. So what does their work today convey about how to ease stylishly into those Shakespearean robes and fuzzy shoes?

Leonard Cohen: Defeat your desires

Cohen, who turned 80 on Sept. 21, isn’t technically a boomer: He was in his mid-30s, an elder statesman to the counterculture, when the award-winning Canadian poet and novelist reinvented himself as a lyrical Lothario and bard of the bleak. But that was certainly the generation that claimed him. He was in his mid-50s when he re-emerged and clinched his place in the pantheon starting with 1988’s I’m Your Man, on which he drawled, “My friends are gone and my hair is gray/ I ache in the places where I used to play.”

The younger Cohen fixated on escaping his misery via sensual and poetic ecstasies that precluded lasting personal ties. But for a long time now he’s been more preoccupied with the eternal, with humility and surrender—and by all signs he’s much happier for it.

Sylvie Simmons’ semi-authorized 2012 biography (one of many, many recent books about Cohen) explains that he finally felt liberated from a lifetime of anxiety and depression only in the late 1990s, while studying in India with the latest of his many gurus and masters. The prospect that seniority itself can bestow calm where decades of Zen have failed doesn’t work out for everyone. But for young bohemians today who may have been on mood-regulating meds since their teens, it’s hopeful to hear that even the self-proclaimed “patron saint of envy and grocer of despair” could find peace by persisting long enough.

That inner release underlies Cohen’s 2012 album Old Ideas and particularly the new Popular Problems, made with, of all people, longtime Madonna producer Patrick Leonard. In its tight, yet ambling, 35 minutes, the record ranges from the ribald tease of “Slow” (Cohen’s preferred pace for both songs and sex, “not because I’m old” but because “with me, it’s got to last”) to the Blakean visions of “Born in Chains” (“In the grip of sensual illusion/ A sweet unknowing unified the Name”).

Musically it incorporates the rinky-dink, cheap electric keyboard that’s been part of Cohen’s repertoire since the I’m Your Man period. Many critics hate it, but to me it’s always put across a perfect self-skeptical austerity—almost a Western junkshop equivalent of minimally stringed Asian instruments like the erhu or the saz. But Popular Problems often also opens up into full-band arrangements, bringing in gospel, some country, slinky jazz, and verging-on-funky R&B. A lot of freight is carried by the superb female backing singers, an element Cohen’s always relied upon to elevate his ever-more limited and Mojave-parched pipes (this time it becomes a stretch to call it singing), and to counterpoise an anima to his animus.

At one point in “Nevermind” (is Cohen returning the nod Kurt Cobain gave him on “Pennyroyal Tea”?), there’s even a woman’s voice that rises to incant Salaam, the Arabic salutation meaning peace. Coming in war-torn 2014, on a record by a man who was once determined to volunteer for the Israeli army, this is a striking gesture. The album also includes the protesting, post-Katrina allegory of “Samson in New Orleans” and “A Street,” which weaves 9/11 imagery into a story of lost companionship. So the state of the globe is on Cohen’s mind, along with death and the divine (in one spot he takes a subtle swipe at the New Atheists in the guise of “the great professor of all there is to know”), as well as the joys and regrets of romances past (“Did I Ever Love You,” “My Oh My”).

But rather than showing himself sardonically self-centered, mired in struggle, or macking on saints and strangers, as he used to, the Cohen of Popular Problems seems most of all outwardly directed, wryly reflective, and even generous. He’s arrived in the place spiritual traditions speak of: beyond the suffering of desire. Maybe it was the meditation and prayer. Maybe it was simple survival.

The closing song, “You Got Me Singing” could be for a lover but sounds more like it’s aimed at his audience, in thanks for their support on his many world tours since he was ripped off for millions by one of his own staff: “You’ve got me singing,” he nearly chirps (if a walrus could chirp), “even though it all looks grim.” And then he drops the title of his own best-known (and in his opinion overexposed) composition: “You’ve got me singing that ‘Hallelujah’ hymn”—as if to say, “anything for you.”

It’s this sort of graciousness that licenses, in turn, the chilled-out black humor of “Almost Like the Blues,” Cohen’s descriptor for the world’s horrors (rape, murder, and “all my bad reviews”) as well as its mercies. “Almost” here means both more and less than, higher and lower, and “the blues” not only depression and the monumental musical lineage but yet another name for an ineffable, spiritual plane. Young alt-comedians, you don’t know from irony—this is the kind of punch line only this silver fox could land.

Loudon Wainwright III: Take your place in line

A simpler variation on Cohen’s joke provides the title of Loudon Wainwright III’s new studio album, his 23rd, Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet). Not unlike Cohen, this indefatigable, 68-year-old New York folk singer is reckoning with his own depression and finding it, compared with the troubles of the classic bluesmen, not so bad: “When I wake up in the morning, life seems so unfair/ Although my woman hasn’t left me yet, and there’s a cleaning lady there.” The album cover depicts Emmett Kelly, the downcast midcentury stage clown, an apt get-up for a songwriter whose comic numbers never relieve the discomfort that continues to drive his work 45 years on.

Today, Wainwright is most recognized as the parent (with the late Kate McGarrigle of Montreal’s McGarrigle sisters) of musicians Rufus and Martha Wainwright, as well as of emerging, Robyn-covering talent Lucy Wainwright Roche (whose mother is Suzzy of the Roches). You might also know Loudon as a frequent guest actor and musician in Judd Apatow comedies such as Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and the Undeclared TV series.

But in his 20s, like Springsteen and a few other singer-songwriters, Wainwright was heralded as a “new Bob Dylan” for his observant, verbose, often sarcastic but sometimes raw and vulnerable acoustic tunes. He’s stayed prolific on the road and in the recording studio ever since. Aside from the wretched novelty hit “Dead Skunk” in 1972 (and a short-lived cameo role on M.A.S.H.), however, Wainwright as a solo artist never entirely made it out of the coffeehouse. The leading explanation is that he came across as kind of a dick: a callow, spoiled, resentful male chauvinist who was frequently hammered and multiply divorced.

Then again, how is that different from Cohen, Dylan, CSNY, and many other boomer folk-rock icons? Their strings of groupies, betrayed partners, addictions, abandoned kids, etc. seem equally extensive and piggish. The distinction is that the others camouflaged it behind smears of elegant lyricism while Wainwright laid the facts out all-too-straight. You could fault him for a lack of imagination or credit a journalistic instinct inherited from his father, Loudon Jr., a venerable Life magazine columnist. Notice, too, that—unfashionably in those grubby times—Loudon III never tried to hide his upper-class background, from the roman numeral behind his name to his early song “Westchester County,” which averred, “We were richer than most/ I don’t mean to boast/ But I swam in the country-club pool.”

If Wainwright’s compulsive frankness held his career back, artistically it turned out to be his savior. As the personal wreckage accumulated, and as his gifted offspring grew up to make their own music about what a (in Martha’s words) “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole” he had been, Wainwright kept churning through it all in song. The multigenerational dialogue—its dysfunctions well documented in a 2007 Vanity Fair family profile—sharpened his perception and deepened the texture for listeners, too. Wainwright may have been a dismal husband and father, but he’s not blithe about the consequences. He never let the bonds disintegrate utterly. Often it’s as if he’s taken the topical song genre of his youth and reversed it to writing protest music against himself.

The paradoxical result is that the avowed “One Man Guy” (his gay-married son Rufus covers that tune with a wink) has evolved into one of the best American songwriters on the subject of family. His peak so far may have come with his previous album, 2012’s Older Than My Old Man Now. It includes a moving duet with Rufus about father-son rivalry called “The Days That We Die,” and the meta-piano-ballad “In C,” perhaps my favorite Wainwright song, in which he recaps his biography against the stark backdrop of “the great unknown” before he sighs, “If families didn’t break apart/ Perhaps there’d be no need for art/ But you and I both know they do/ So I sit and sing in C for you.” (That record was also the seed of his upcoming one-man show in “posthumous collaboration” with his father.)

The new record is patchier, with tunes about aging, dog walking, parking in New York, gun control, and other miscellany. I’m not nearly so fond of his jokey-folkie tunes about modern manners, though it’s always been part of the LW3 deal.

But there are at least two worthy additions to the family songbook. In “Looking at the Calendar,” a couple who’s been around the block too many times tries to settle on a time of year they could split up without too much awfulness, but there isn’t one, so they’ll have to stick it out. And with “I Knew Your Mother,” Wainwright hits on a singular angle in songwriting history, a tune to remind a mourning Martha (who sings backup, of course) that while it may appear that Loudon and her late mom (who died in 2010) were always nemeses, in fact they had a life before kids, in which they were calm and in love, which counts mostly because of what it brought about: “Love was the means, and you were the end.”

This is the subtext and catechism of the Wainwright family faith, that no matter how much of life is tragic and stupid and all your fault, it adds up to a bigger history that can lend the future meaning. If Cohen’s counsel to adrift youth might be to yield to higher truths, Wainwright’s would be to forge lasting human ties even if you’re crappy at it. And, likely, to seek therapy.

Robert Plant: Never stop seeking

Of the three sages here, Robert Plant is the one who gave me the most grief in his glory days. Having grown up in the kind of rusting industrial city where classic rock and the 1970s never seemed to end, I found it difficult for years to separate the passion and complexity of Led Zeppelin’s music from the haze of Cro-Magnon machismo and cultural appropriation that surrounded them, not to mention the specter of the touring band as a kind of traveling sexual-assault circus.

But where Jimmy Page once seemed like the closest thing to an intellectual in that posse, with his esoteric interests in Aleister Crowley sex magick and advanced studio electronics (read Erik Davis’ excellent 33 book on Zeppelin IV for an examination of how the two coincide), it’s Plant who’s turned out to have the most compelling post-arena-rock path. The youngest of this trio—66, startlingly only a year older than Springsteen—Plant seems allergic to letting his laurels settle on his spiraling, blanching locks.

He continues working to expand his knowledge of global music, from Appalachia to Tunisia and Morocco. He’s been the holdout against any Led Zeppelin reunion (though he did collaborate with Page again for several years in the 1990s), a refusal that many critics and fans take bitterly. I think he just doesn’t want to repeat himself.

He was vindicated most recently by the popular and Grammy-enticing success of his albums with American roots musicians Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin, Raising Sand and Band of Joy. Now, rather than carry on down that bluegrassy path, he’s returned (in the wake of a breakup with Griffin, for one thing) to his Celtic wellsprings and his African enthusiasms with new band the Sensational Space Shifters and their album Lullaby and … the Ceaseless Roar. I found the Americana albums lovely but a little tame. I hear Plant shaking out his faded mane on this record, arousing my attention more than he has in years.

His larynx seems barely attenuated in power and luxury from its 1970s apex, but it’s more judiciously deployed; the band’s grooves lure but also weave and spar; and while he’s never been in the league of the two folkie geezers above as a lyricist, he has flashes of unfaux-profundity here and an overall introspective tone (perhaps a heartbroken one) that the Tolkien- and Muddy Waters–fetishizing Plant of 40 years ago could never approach: “I’m lost inside America, I’m turning inside out/ I’m turning into someone else I heard so much about,” he sings on “Turn It Up,” a couplet that Cohen might not mind having written.

There’s certainly something laddish about Plant, and there may still be when he’s 80, but on The Ceaseless Roar he lets me acknowledge the upside of that pacing boyish energy, when it’s not being wielded as a weapon—its curiosity, its hunger for experience, its resistance to settling down on the couch, its eagerness to join the fray. This is the record of a prodigal seeker who’s come home and keeps on digging for answers in his native soil, too. The wisdom of age should include remembering how much you still don’t know.

Between Plant, Wainwright, and Cohen, then, the musical evidence seems to say that if they make it through their own sorties of self-demolition, even the most egregious Peter Pan debauchees eventually, improbably, do grow up. For a guy in his 40s who still feels like a childish idiot most days, that’s a spur to go on trying, and to keep listening. Is there some artisanal cobbler in Williamsburg who’d like to get to work on my slippers?

Read more in Slate about Leonard Cohen.