When you reach your 50s, you start to experience the cruelties that life visits upon you if you hang around long enough, such as losing people you love or a job that puts bread on the table. The 50s are also a time of reflection, whether you’re patting yourself on the back for building a marriage or regretting that you never moved to the desert when you had the chance. My spiritualty keeps me balanced during this chapter in my life, but God also gets a major assist from music. Case in point: Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, recorded 45 years ago. Improbably enough, a 26-year-old rock star on the rise created music that connects with my 53-year-old self in a way that few albums do.
When I was in high school during the late 1970s, Rod Stewart was something of a joke. I knew him as the campy singer of cringe-worthy songs whose titles, such as “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and “Hot Legs,” betrayed their juvenile nature. But after high school, probably because of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, I listened to Every Picture Tells a Story. The album revealed a more sensitive, nuanced side of Rod Stewart’s music, such as the gentle mandolin that introduces “Maggie May.” The album sat on my shelf for years, periodically played and enjoyed as a 40-minute song cycle, usually after Stewart’s name came up in conversation, or one of the album’s songs was used in a movie such as Almost Famous.
And yet, Every Picture Tells a Story never connected with me personally until now. I got immersed in the album this summer after reading David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971 — the Year that Rock Exploded, an engaging book that contains an insightful appreciation of the album and Rod Stewart’s early career. As the saying goes, when the student is ready, the master appears. I discovered that the passage of time has prepared me to uncover a deeper bond with the themes that reveal themselves on the album. Two songs in particular, “Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Mandolin Wind,” say everything there is to know about being at this stage of your life.
“Every Picture Tells a Story” is a sprawling track about a young man’s coming of age as he leaves home and sees the world. Although Stewart was in his 20s when he wrote the song, he belts the lyrics with the gusto of an older man happily looking back and allowing himself to indulge in some joyful nostalgia. I see myself all over the song. When Stewart sings, “Spent time feelin’ inferior standin’ in front of my mirror/Combed my hair in a thousand ways, but I came out lookin’ just the same,” he sums up my high school years in two lines. I well remember the awkward teen dressed in jeans and a T shirt, trying to screw up the courage to ask a girl out on a date, and then experiencing the crushing rejection of getting turned down. But I always had my studies, and my grades, to buoy my spirits, even if getting A’s meant creating expectations and pressures to succeed.
Even awkward boys leave home and start to find their way, as I inevitably did when I spent a summer in Germany and France after my senior year in high school, a time of unfettered freedom from expectations and the limitations of how I was defined at home. I moved on to four years of college, where self-discovery continued, sometimes painfully, sometimes happily. Stewart captures this time with lyrics like “Paris was a place you could hide away if you felt you didn’t fit in.” This was a period of creative growth and exploration, which I would not experience again for many years until I embarked on an unexpected but rewarding second life as an actor at the Bristol Renaissance Faire on summer weekends.
Even the absurd lyric, “My body stunk but I kept my funk” has meaning, for I remember the period of living alone in my own bungalow during my senior year of college, when having no money was a badge of honor. I supported myself washing dishes and pumping gas at places where I was in over my head, covered in grime and oil.
But the part of the song that resonates the most is this:
I firmly believed that I didn’t need anyone but me
I sincerely thought I was so complete
Look how wrong you can be
This passage speaks to the experiences that make us grow, especially after you think you’ve settled into a groove after college and you’re forging your own successes. You think you’ve discovered the formula for personal prosperity and growth until you meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, as I did when I met Jan. You realize that needing someone means changing your thinking and assumptions about how the world works, although the realization doesn’t always happen right away. How well I remember our early years of living in an apartment in Chicago, when cleaning the house together meant playing Paul McCartney songs very loud and turning work into fun. Cleaning the bathroom no longer became a detested chore as we navigated the new. Those little ordinary moments are the times when you understand that the assumptions you formed the first 25 years of your life will not carry you through the rest of your years. You start to figure out how to stop tackling problems (even little ones, like the apartment needing a thorough cleaning) in terms of “What am I going to do about this?” to “What are we going to do about this?
The most famous song on the album is “Maggie May,” with its Graduate-like narrative of a young man falling into an aimless slide as he recovers from a romance with an older woman. The song imparts a sense of life passing by (“It’s late September and I ought to be back in school”) and time being wasted, which is surely a theme anyone sliding into middle age can understand. But it’s the song that follows “Maggie Mae” that stands out for its quiet power. “Mandolin Wind” is a folksy number that sounds like it came from another era. The song is an ode from an aging farmer to his wife, who stays at his side through a harsh time. Stewart delivers the lines with an understated grace that feels almost like a poetry reading set to music:
Oh the snow fell without a break
Buffalo died in the frozen fields you know
Through the coldest winter in almost fourteen years
I couldn’t believe you kept a smile
Now I can rest assured knowing that we’ve seen the worst
And I know I love you
I recall the night we knelt and prayed
Noticing your face was thin and pale
I found it hard to hide my tears
I felt ashamed I felt I’d let you down
“Mandolin Wind” is a song about that part of growing older where life visits cruelties upon you, such as job loss. I can easily remember the experience of having my job eliminated in 2010. That day, I had been asked into a 5:00 p.m. meeting for a vaguely defined reason. Something didn’t feel right, and I had the entire day to worry. It didn’t help matters that I was working in an unstable industry, and layoffs were common. When I walked into the sterile office where the meeting was to be held and saw a member of HR sitting with one other company executive, a large white envelope sitting on the desk in front of them, I already knew I no longer had a job. The meeting itself followed a script that I knew well, as I had laid off members of my own team recently. I could have said all the words and saved them the trouble.
They say you should never take getting laid off personally, but it’s your job and your livelihood disappearing. Inevitably, you ask what you could have done differently, although it’s sort of like asking what you could have done differently to cheat death. When your time is up, your time is up. But when you lose your job, you still have to call your wife to explain what happened, and you feel like a total loser, just like the farmer in “Mandolin Wind” who says, “I felt ashamed/I felt I’d let you down.”
But with Jan, there was no doubt we were going to endure together and support each other. We moved on, and kept moving on, leading up to the place we are now, working hard to create a future for ourselves and our daughter. Our life of self-employment affords many joys such as being able to take a break in the middle of the day and go on a hike in the woods. There are also some frustrations, such as paying for our own health insurance and taxes, and trying to save enough for tomorrow. We have cold winters. We’ve lost loved ones. We’ve experienced other rejections beyond job loss. But we handle them together.
I don’t know if we’ve seen the worst yet, but I know we love each other, which brings me back to “Mandolin Wind.” It’s the right song for right now in my life.