Music, unlike a lot of other fields, finds use for its legends. They travel on tour buses and toil in recording studios well past the average retirement age. Our love for icons is particularly clear at the moment as we’re abruptly, painfully losing them. (“Protect ‘insert beloved older musician’ at all costs,” as they say on Twitter.) The sad reality is, protecting our favorite veteran musicians right now means they can’t practice or record with their bands, and they definitely can’t play live shows anytime soon. So what’s a restless working legend to do?
We reached out to an array of artists in their 70s who are experiencing late-career renaissances to see how they’re handling the current crisis and to get their perspectives. Most were mid-tour or on the brink of releasing new albums when the pandemic hit. The circumstances are personally devastating, but perhaps because experience breeds patience, every musician we spoke with is taking it in stride—so long as they can meditate all day, woodshed, make faces at their kids from afar, or smoke weed and sip champagne. Read on for their spiritual guidance, historical insight, and real talk.
Considered an outlaw even within the outlaw country movement, the 77-year-old musician and visual artist has been enjoying a resurgence in the past few years. His wily 1970s albums Juarez and Lubbock on Everything were reissued in 2016, and he continues to show singular new works. Allen’s 14th LP, Just Like Moby Dick, was released in January, and tour dates were keeping him and his band busy right up until the live music industry shuttered. While Allen’s studio and home are in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he and his wife Jo Harvey are quarantining in Austin to be closer to their grown children. “It’s been like that science fiction, end-of-the-world quiet here,” he says. “Whenever I see photographs of the empty streets in the news, it reminds me of On the Beach, the old nuclear war movie in Australia with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.”
Pitchfork: Where exactly are you?
Terry Allen: We got a place in Austin near our kids. We don’t see them, but we got a balcony and we can go outside and wave at them when they drive by, make faces at ’em. I have three grandkids—we’ve been howling at them, too.
We talked to a lot of friends, and for many it’s the only time they’ve had enough sleep in 40 years. A bunch of people seem acclimated to it and cheerful, actually. That’s probably not going to last. I don’t feel cheerful about it. I don’t like the idea of being cooped up. I got a lot to do. Just the idea of having hampered mobility wears on me.
Does this new way of life remind you of anything you’ve experienced in your lifetime?
For me, it’s been hard to get my concentration together to really focus on things. It reminds me of after 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination. The images of 9/11, the whole horror of it, just rolled over the whole country and put a pall on it. Same with the Kennedy assassination, it was this weird climate that laid on everything. You start trying to work on something, but your mind wanders into whatever that climate is. It’s more confusing this time because you don’t know what this thing is. There’s no image of it, other than that disco-ball microscopic view of the thing.
I don’t think “normal” is gonna be the same. It’s gonna be a totally different “normal,” if there is one. I don’t know how many clubs or theaters can survive. I don’t know what any kind of social behavior is gonna be like. Coffee shops and bars are just a basic necessity for life, but it’s gonna be a little spooky initially, with people trusting to go into places. This panic has been shoved down peoples’ throats heavy duty. It’s like being in some dystopian sci-fi fantasy just waking up every day. It takes you a few minutes to remember what’s happening and then bam! it’s right back in your face.
What if the new normal doesn’t necessarily include playing live?
I don’t worry about that. One thing I know about artists and musicians is that they always figure out a way. It’s such a necessity in your life. I don’t think that will be any different. The access might change, but that need doesn’t change, and people will figure out a way to do it.
In the late ’70s, Edward Larry Gordon, a student of Eastern mysticism, would busk with a zither in New York’s Washington Square Park. One passerby was Brian Eno, who invited Gordon into the studio; the end result was the new-age classic Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, credited to Gordon’s new moniker, Laraaji. Now in his late 70s, Laraaji has experienced an uptick in interest and live performances in recent years, as mindfulness has boomed as a bulwark against life’s frantic pace. His forthcoming album was temporarily delayed, but he’s recording two CDs’ worth of spontaneous material roughly five nights a week. “Right now, I feel that my guidance is to develop inspirational songs,” he says.
You mentioned that right now is like “heaven on earth” for you. Why?
Because I have a studio here that I can go in at any time of day or night, muck around and create music. Plus I have developed the ability to drop into meditation and that’s been important. My health is good. Although all of my gigs have been canceled indefinitely, I wasn’t put in an awful situation with my rent. I can still hold steady for another month or two. And the sun is shining here in Harlem. New York has never been so subdued. Every day is quieter than a Sunday.
Are you worried about rent beyond that?
Well, I get some royalties around this time of the year, so it should hold me for a few months. I’m not that concerned yet. Matter of fact, the last 30 years, I was living almost month to month, back when I was playing on the sidewalks of New York. I’m accustomed to not knowing where the next two months’ rent is coming from, but I just trust that it’ll be there. It’s getting a little better, though.
How much time would you say you spend in meditation on a daily basis?
I wake up in a quasi-meditation state and my intent is to keep meditation as my grounding place. So the question is, how often am I not in meditation? There’s so much quiet now that I can just grab a chair during the course of the day and do some alternate nostril breathing. That takes me into a very relaxed place where I can listen to this subtle sound without getting distracted.
Nothing takes the edge off like meditation. But I feel a little bit like the Fool on the Hill, that I’ve taken years to develop my own inner meditation. It’s not something I can give to somebody else in a case of emergency—it’s something that has to be developed. So, I feel for people who don’t have some kind of inner practice because they’re working, walking around at the mercy of the external drama world. Down beneath me there’s a liquor store. By 11 a.m. the line is snaking around the corner. Alcohol consumption seems to be one of the remedies when meditation doesn’t work.
What would you tell people who are feeling fear or isolation right now?
Well, that probably applies to most of the planet right now. With the fear aspect, my belief is that fear is based on the thought that we are the body, which is subject to perishing and which, of course, is very uncomfortable with the idea of a virus. But the Bible talks about it, spiritual teachers talk about it, yogas talk about it: We have a body but we’re not the body, and when the body goes, we don’t go; we are an eternal continuum of consciousness in the midst of the body. The idea of meditation practice is to contact that reality for ourselves so that we have integrated it into our nervous system and self identity, so that when the outer world presents a crisis narrative to us, it isn’t necessarily our total narrative.
The 74-year-old LaVette is a lifer in blues and soul music (with a disco detour), if in part because there isn’t a major label she didn’t languish on over the course of a half-century. Atlantic, Motown, Epic, and more never quite knew what to do with the smoky, powerhouse singer. Then a string of 21st-century albums on ANTI- led her to an appreciative new audience and cemented her legacy as a true soul legend, the kind who perseveres. Blackbirds, LaVette’s second album for Verve, was slated for release in early spring but has been pushed back to August. “I’m more pragmatic than spiritual,” she says of what comes next. “My spiritualism isn’t based on religion, it’s based on logic, so that always makes you pragmatic. I’m not an optimist, but I’m hoping for the best.”
How did the outbreak change your plans for the year?
We had to cancel the release of Blackbirds and keep setting the date back further and further. All promotion has been canceled. You can’t go anywhere. I’m almost 75 years old, so jumping on and off planes and running all around the country ain’t fun anymore. If it wasn’t for the loss of money and the absolute stillness, everything would be fine with me.
When I’m not on the road, I don’t even have my cell phone on—so it’s normally quiet, but it’s unusuuuually quiet. Everything has just stopped. I miss my grandchildren. It’s all pretty much surreal. I like to be at home anyway, it’s that I’ve got to be at home that bothers me. I knew I was old, but I didn’t know I was elderly. It’s two different things.
I got this husband and these two cats, so that’s theoretically three boys I have to clean up after. But there’s no coping. I posted something [on social media] about being hunkered down and holding on in West Orange, [New Jersey], “I got some champagne and I got a good smoke.” You talk about coping! If I didn’t have this champagne and this marijuana here, I’d have a story to tell you.
How many people do you know who have been affected by the virus?
You know, John Prine came backstage after one of my shows, and he sat there waiting for me. We talked about “Souvenirs,” which I recorded in 1972, soon after he wrote it—well before he was the John Prine. We were about the same age. Then we were at the Grammys together last year. They were honoring John, so I did “Souvenirs,” and it made him cry. I was very flattered.
And [jazz pianist] Ellis Marsalis died right before that. I lived in New Orleans for about three years in the mid-’80s. We arrived at the hotel at night, and I went downstairs in the morning and there was this big orchestra playing in the lobby. Ellis’ band played for brunch every Sunday. I got up and sang “Moon River” with them. And I worked every day that I was in New Orleans after that.
At 79, Gary Bartz has been one of jazz’s most vital and versatile saxophonists for decades. He first broke through as a member of Miles Davis’ Live-Evil band and from there wove together radical free jazz, socially conscious street soul, and breezy jazz funk, working with everyone from Max Roach to the Mizell Brothers. He recently collaborated with the new UK jazz group Maisha for Night Dreamer Direct-to-Disc Sessions, and they were set to tour the world together in support of the album when coronavirus spread. “We knew as far back as January about the outbreak, because our first leg of the tour was going to be China,” says the Oakland-based Bartz with a little chuckle. “When the Asia tour fell through, we just moved onto the Europe tour. But the snowball kept rolling.”
What are you doing with your free time?
I’m just practicing all day. I’m working on my clarinet chops. I teach at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, so I’m still working. I went kicking and screaming into academia—I still consider myself a working musician—but it’s funny because I learn so much from the students, which is why I have taught for so long. What I’m finding out is that teaching online can make lessons even clearer than when we were face to face. It’s really weird how things happen—you learn new things all the time. As long as you’re open to it, you should be able to find a way.
Does this new way of life remind you of anything you’ve experienced in your lifetime?
I was born during World War II, and at night, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and other cities on the East Coast would practice having blackouts. Everyone would turn off all the lights and just be quiet. As a kid, that was fun. Now I’m thinking, it wasn’t fun for my parents. I only saw the fun part. I see the kids now having fun again, they don’t have to go to school. They’re having a good time.
A pioneering star in his home country of Ethiopia, jazz and funk musician Hailu Mergia emigrated to the United States in the early ’80s, and his career turned fallow. He wound up driving taxis to and from the airports outside Washington, D.C. for decades, until a 2013 reissue of Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument revitalized his career and allowed him to tour once again. The 74-year-old’s new album, Yene Mircha, came out in April, and it was set to coincide with a world tour including festival appearances. Now Mergia finds himself at home in Fort Washington, Maryland. “I quit driving a taxi almost two years ago, but one guy who I used to drive taxis with passed away from Corona,” he says. “I know some other drivers who got the virus, but I think they are fine.”
How are you doing with all this?
Well, I’m hoping it’s going to be over soon. I have some kind of memory of the time around when my albums come out. That’s the only thing that’s going to be on the history stamp in my life. Everything is OK. I miss the shows because whenever I have a show I have fun. I like to travel a lot. I miss that part. The thing is, I cannot do anything about it so I have to wait and see like everybody else. That’s part of life anyway.
Most of the time I just practice piano. I try to create something, or do some housework. I get bored.
What would it take for you to feel comfortable playing shows again?
I’m not thinking anything is going to happen to me. If things are getting normal, I’ll be normal too by the time the shows are coming. I believe in one thing: If I have to die, I will die anyways. It doesn’t matter with COVID or not in my life.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork