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Top 11 Songs About Growing Old
For our latest Top 11 list, writer Frank Mastropolo selects some of the most notable songs about that inevitability of life: growing old.
Older people shouldn’t eat health food, they need all the preservatives they can get.”
— Robert Orben
- “Cherry Bomb” by John Mellencamp
John Mellencamp reflects on his teenage days in “Cherry Bomb,” a Top 10 hit from 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee. “‘Cherry Bomb’ is just a name of a club that I made up,” Mellencamp told BBC Radio in 1989. “The real name of the club was The Last Exit — The Last Exit Teen Club actually was the name of the place. It was a place that we went as kids. The whole world seemed to exist there. Everything that was important happened down in the basement of this church is what it was.”
The video of “Cherry Bomb” featured a black man dancing with a white woman as Mellencamp danced by himself. That prompted a threatening letter to MTV. “I went to my friends at MTV, said you’ve gotta play this thing more,” Mellencamp said in Ohio magazine. “You’ve got to break this race barrier. That was really the accomplishment of ‘Cherry Bomb.'”
- “Hey Grandma” by Moby Grape
Moby Grape was one of the best of the San Francisco bands during the Summer of Love. Their self-titled debut album, called a “psychedelic masterpiece,” included “Hey Grandma.” Drummer Don Stevenson and guitarist Jerry Miller, who co-wrote the tune, revealed its inspiration to Rock Cellar in an archival chat. “It was the fad of granny dresses so we kind of went, ‘Hey Grandma, you’re so young,’ said Stevenson. “That was the inspiration, all these great lookin’ women in these unflattering dresses.”
“My grandma, she was pretty sure it was written just for her,” added Miller. “I didn’t tell her otherwise either.” We asked Miller about the line, “Robitussin makes me feel so fine.”
“When I was playing at a place called the Seaport in Tacoma, some of the folks were getting into a little bit of the cough syrup from time to time. The good stuff, you know, like Tussar, that stuff would knock you on your butt. I remember I had a cold and a fever playing at this club. This guy went down to the local drug store and came back with Robitussin. And I drank some of it, almost passed out. It’s funny, 16 Magazine had us in the magazine all the time. They would have the lyrics and they couldn’t say ‘Robitussin’ so they said, ‘a good mussin’ — A good mussin’ make me feel so fine.’ They didn’t want to corrupt the kids. Whatever.”
And of the line “S.F. freak scene was on my mind / Fillmore Slim just a-wastin’ time,” Miller explained, “Fillmore Slim was a real guy! He was in Seattle at first, he was a pimp. When we were down in San Francisco they had a documentary on pimps and here he comes cruisin’ through the Fillmore district in a big lime green Cadillac with a lime green suit and a lime green fedora. The news people are talkin’ to him and I looked at Don and said, ‘Look, it’s Fillmore Slim there!’ So there he was, Fillmore Slim, just a-wastin’ time.”
- “Those Were the Days” by Mary Hopkin
If “Those Were the Days” sounds like a song from the past, that’s because it began as a Russian folk tune in the 1920s. Folk singer Gene Raskin wrote English lyrics to the song in the early 1960s. Paul McCartney heard Raskin and his wife Francesca perform the song at a London club and later decided to have someone record it for the newly formed Apple Records.
Enter Mary Hopkin, a British folk singer who was invited to audition for McCartney. “We went to the Dick James Music studio,” Hopkin recalled in Record Collector. “Paul was in the control room and I did a couple of demos for him — Joan Baez and Donovan songs — broke a guitar string and muttered some swear words into the mike. We had lunch — he took us to the Angus Steak House, which we were really impressed by — and I sailed through the day in a haze, painfully shy and totally in awe of Paul. I went back home and about two days later somebody rang and said, ‘Yes, we’d like to sign you.’
“So I made another trip to London and Paul said, ‘I’ve got a song that might suit you. I found it years ago and gave it to Donovan and it didn’t work out, I gave it to the Moody Blues, they loved it but it didn’t happen, and I’ve been looking for the right sound for it.’ Then he strummed this song called ‘Those Were The Days.’ I loved it immediately, but I must say that I’d probably have liked anything he would have played me at the time!”
“Those Were the Days” reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968, behind the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”
- “Grandma’s Hands” by Bill Withers
Bill Withers recorded “Grandma’s Hands” for his 1971 debut album Just as I Am. The song describes how his maternal grandmother, Lula Galloway, used her hands to protect Withers as a boy. Galloway would clap hands as she sang hymns in church. “It was spontaneous singing, there was nothing programmed,” Withers recalled in The Telegraph. “People got up and sang and everybody would join in. It was my favorite kind of singing.”
The song convinced Clarence Avant of Sussex Records to sign Withers to his first contract in the early 1970s. “If anybody remembers me, they’re gonna remember me for this,” Withers told Rock Cellar. “And now when people come up to me, they usually sing ‘Grandma’s Hands.’ Johnny Cash came to see me once in Hawaii and I was surprised Johnny Cash knew who I was. He said, ‘I’d like to meet your grandmother.'”
“Grandma’s Hands” was the song Withers was most proud of writing. “I probably would have written the same song when I was five years old and I would have written the same song now had I not written it already.”
- “The Little Old Lady (from Pasadena)” by Jan & Dean
In the early 1960s, the cool, clean sound of surf music spread from California across the US. Like the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean seemed to effortlessly produce catchy, chart-topping singles extolling the pleasures of surf, sand and street rods. But Jan Berry and Dean Torrence were not dedicated musicians; the two were college students who juggled classes with recording dates and public appearances. Torrence studied advertising design while Berry pursued a degree in medicine.
One spring evening in 1964, Berry’s roommate Don Altfeld was cruising in his Corvette down LA’s Colorado Boulevard towards Pasadena. Though he studied medicine with Berry at UCLA, Altfeld was also an aspiring songwriter who had a vision that night of an elderly grandmother tooling down the strip in a yellow 1932 Ford coupe.
Altfeld came up with the title and some lyrics and collaborated with DJ Roger Christian to polish the song. Jan & Dean, backed by Wrecking Crew musicians Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Leon Russell and Tommy Tedesco, recorded “The Little Old Lady” in two takes during the last 10 minutes of a session. The song reached No. 3 in 1964.
- “Against the Wind” by Bob Seger
“Against the Wind” is the title song of Bob Seger‘s 1980 album. The single reached No. 5 that year. The “Janey” mentioned in the song is Jan Dinsdale, Seger’s girlfriend from 1972 to 1983. “Jan says to me all the time, ‘You allow more people to walk on you than anybody I’ve ever known,'” Seger told Rolling Stone. “And I always say it’s human nature that people are gonna love you sometimes and they’re gonna use you sometimes. Knowing the difference between when people are using you and when people truly care about you, that’s what ‘Against the Wind’ is all about. The people in that song have weathered the storm, and it’s made them much better that they’ve been able to do it and maintain whatever relationship. To get through is a real victory.”
The song’s most famous line is “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then,” which Seger almost cut. “The only thing that bothered me about that phrase was the grammar,” said Seger in American Digest. “It sounded grammatically funny to me. I kept asking myself, ‘Is that correct grammar?’ I liked the line, and everybody I played it for — like Glenn [Frey] and Don [Henley] — were saying, ‘That’s the best line in the song,’ but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t right. But I slowly came around. You have to understand that songwriters can’t punctuate anything they write. I work in such a narrow medium that I tend to second-guess things like that. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen that line in a few other songs since I came up with it, so I guess it was okay after all.”
- “4 + 20” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Stephen Stills recorded “4 + 20” on solo acoustic guitar and intended to use the song on his upcoming solo album until the band convinced him to include it on CSNY’s 1970 LP Déjà Vu. In the CSN box set, Stills explained, “It’s about an 84-year-old poverty stricken man who started and finished with nothing.”
In his book Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, David Browne writes, “Alone with just his guitar, Stills had sat down in an LA studio and played ‘4 + 20,’ about an imaginary old man looking back on his tattered life. He sang it in the same solemn timbre from start to finish, lending the song a repressed undercurrent. The take felt so right, so perfect, down to a telling pause between ‘I’ and ’embrace,’ that Crosby and Nash decided to keep it that way and not add their voices to it. ‘Crosby and I were watching when he was recording, and Stephen really felt it,’ says Nash. ‘When he came to that line and took that gulp, he wanted to cut it again — which he did, without the gulp. But Crosby and I loved it. It was so human, and on such a human song. We convinced Stephen to use the first take.'”
- “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” by Tom Waits and the Ramones
Tom Waits recorded “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” for his 1992 album Bone Machine. After its release, Waits said in Mix, “That’s a song that you can sing in the car. Those are the best ones. They come fast. You hear it and you think to yourself, ‘Yeah, I could write something like that. Does this guy make money? Anybody can write a song like that.’ But those are the hardest ones to write. I was going to throw it out. I said, ‘This is just silly.’ Then Kathleen, my wife, said, ‘No, keep it. Let’s finish that.'”
During the shooting of its video, Waits and director Jim Jarmusch clashed over a scene Jarmusch wanted to include. “We had a big fight in which I dropped him in an enclosed parking lot behind a metal door in LA in the middle of the night,” Jarmusch told Uncut. “He was pounding on the door. I vividly remember the insult, which no one has ever said to me again. He yelled through the door, ‘Goddamn it, Jim, I’m going to glue your hair to the wall.’ At which point I let him back in. It was a fight between friends. We reconciled.”
The Ramones gave “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” the full punk treatment on their final album, 1998’s ¡Adiós Amigos!
“I Don’t Want to Grow Up” by Tom Waits (directed by Jim Jarmush)
“I Don’t Want to Grow Up” by the Ramones
- “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd
The members of Pink Floyd fired founding member Syd Barrett from the band in 1968 because of his drug abuse and mental health issues. As a way to deal with the guilt they felt, David Gilmour, Roger Waters and Richard Wright wrote a song that looked back on Barrett’s life. It began: “Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun / Shine on you crazy diamond.”
“Shine On” was split and used at the beginning and end of 1975’s Wish You Were Here. Wright recalled on “The Source” radio show a surprising incident that occurred as the song was recorded. “Roger was there, and he was sitting at the desk, and I came in and I saw this guy sitting behind him — huge, bald, fat guy. I thought, ‘He looks a bit … strange … ‘ Anyway, so I sat down with Roger at the desk and we worked for about ten minutes, and this guy kept on getting up and brushing his teeth and then sitting — doing really weird things, but keeping quiet.
“And I said to Roger, ‘Who is he?’ and Roger said, ‘I don’t know.’ And I said, ‘Well, I assumed he was a friend of yours’ and he said, ‘No, I don’t know who he is.’ Anyway, it took me a long time, and then suddenly I realized it was Syd, after maybe 45 minutes. He came in as we were doing the vocals for ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond,’ which was basically about Syd. He just for some incredible reason he picked the very day that we were doing a song which was about him.”
- “A Hazy Shade of Winter” by Simon & Garfunkel and the Bangles
“A Hazy Shade of Winter” was written by Paul Simon while living in the UK in 1965. Simon & Garfunkel released the song as a single in 1966; it later appeared on 1968’s Bookends. Simon uses lyrics like “Look around, leaves are brown, there’s a patch of snow on the ground” to illustrate the transition of time from fall to winter. “There’s a bitterness there,” Art Garfunkel told Forbes magazine. “These are wintery images. Much of how I sing is about rhythm-making and melody, not so much about lyrics. Patch – of – snow – on – the – ground – look – around — that is about spitting out words, being very percussive while finding harmony with Paul. It’s about vowels and consonants. There’s a patch of snow on the ground — that word ‘patch’ is the hook.”
The Bangles recorded the song, retitled “Hazy Shade of Winter,” for the 1987 film Less Than Zero. Their version reached No. 2 in 1987. “We did not have a lot of time: We were in-between tours, just about to go out again,” Vicki Peterson said in Songfacts. “I think we were actually at a meeting to discuss another video or something else and we got the offer to submit a song for this film. We were thinking, ‘What can we get done in four days?’ It was really a tight window.
“We didn’t know enough about the movie to know if it was going to make any sense in the film, but ultimately, I think it fits beautifully. But we had performed ‘A Hazy Shade Of Winter’ in our early club sets, in like 1981–’82. We played with it and edited it and actually ended up asking Paul Simon. It’s the sort of thing, you don’t ask for permission, you ask for forgiveness. So, I asked his forgiveness for cutting the bridge in half. He was like, ‘It’s fine. I’m good.’ He was very gracious.”
“A Hazy Shade of Winter” by Simon & Garfunkel
“Hazy Shade of Winter” by the Bangles
- “Grow Old With Me” by John Lennon (1980) and Ringo Starr (2019)
John Lennon was first inspired to write “Grow Old With Me” in 1980 as an answer to Yoko Ono’s “Let Me Count the Ways.” Lennon, in Bermuda, finished the song after he heard the Robert Browning poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra.” Lennon would record a series of demos on cassette but was murdered in December 1980 before it could be recorded in a studio. A version taped in the couple’s bedroom was released on 1984’s Milk and Honey album.
Ono gave Paul McCartney cassettes of four demos of Lennon’s unfinished songs that included “Grow Old With Me.” The remaining Beatles re-recorded three of the songs but felt Lennon’s vocals on “Grow Old With Me” would require too much work to bring up to recording standards. Years later, Lennon’s producer Jack Douglas sent the song to Ringo Starr, who recorded it for his 2019 LP What’s My Name.
“‘Grow Old With Me’ — I did the best I could,” Starr explained in Billboard. “And then I brought a few people in. I called Paul and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this song. It’s a John song, you know, I’m going to put it on the album. You coming in, you could play bass for me please?’ He said, ‘Sure, I’m coming over.’ And that’s what it was. And what is really exciting, I’m on it, Paul’s on it, and Jack Douglas, unbeknownst to me, I go down to the studio where he’s putting the string section on and I listen to this music. He uses a George [Harrison] riff that everybody knows. So we’re all there now.”
“Grow Old With Me” by John Lennon
“Grow Old With Me” by Ringo Starr
November 19, 2020
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