Before I came to this, the work I did consisted of looking at the world as pictures without words: the Beatles rushing down the stairs together at JFK, Neil Armstrong on the moon, Salvador Dali's 1943 painting of an American messiah climbing out of an egg and another messiah same year in a football helmet, Emanuel Gootlieb Leutze’s painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, Holbein’s full portrait of Henry VIII which signified the beginning of our age. Without words, they form patterns and tell the inner story of our passage. One such photo occurred this week at the Grammy Awards. A sensational iconic photograph taken by AP’s Matt Sayles of Lady Gaga standing alone in the audience, looking mournfully to the left. It has that same quality of James McNeill Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1” of an elderly woman who appears to be trying to remember something lost or forgotten. Lady Gaga has dressed herself in mourning and like Whistler’s mother, she appears to be mourning for an age passed. Mourning for herself.
Generational historians William Strauss and Neil Howe (Spengler for dummies) write how history can shift in a few hours and the Grammy Awards was one such evening. I'm usually the last to know about these things as I live in the woods and wait until my kids tell of the world's turnings, but as the Sayles picture dramatically suggested an age receding, there on the front page of the WSJ the next day was an image of the world beginning again: a video clip of Adele singing “Someone Like You.” I never listen to the radio and was fairly new to the song. My young daughter had been playing it gently all year on the piano, but I had never heard it by Adele.
Bob Dylan once said that everything changed when he first heard Odetta perform on one of those early-’60s folk music programs. I'm old enough to have had that experience as well. But back then it was also humanly possible to hear jazz/soul/blues singers like Ester Phillips in the quiet black clubs of Chicago, where the world began. They were gentle, holy, secret places where you could smoke through the night in bliss with only a handful of others.

There were, as I recall, no awards then, which is why the creation was pure and organic. With awards, thereafter the Mad Men would come looking for the “next” Ester Phillips or Odetta or Nina Simone; the next James Brown or Otis Redding; the next Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, and there is never a next. The creation begins in caves in the night in Chicago at 4 a.m. with only four people left. It ends in a football stadium in the middle of the afternoon with 100 million people watching. You get marketed covers and copies 60 years through the generations until it gets to Madonna and Janet Jackson and at the very end is a copy of a copy of a copy. And that which began as a song of liberation has become a shout of desperation. And at the end is Lady Gaga mournfully looking back at time through window upon window.
But when I heard Adele it was as if I was there again at the creation, inside the earth in Chicago when the world first began. There again at the beginning with Little Ester.