For those of us who still start the magazine by scanning the contents for David Remnick’s name, this collection of New Yorker essays on the later years of the great popular musicians may seem a redundant addition to the nightstand. However, the time-distorting accelerations of one’s own later years mean that the New Yorker now seems to arrive three or four times a week, and I was delighted to discover that I’d missed a handful of these.
‘Another hatchet job by David Remnick’ is up there with ‘Johnson offers heartfelt apology’ as headlines unlikely to come up any time soon, though Lord knows a couple of these fragile vessels of petulance, paranoia, ego and eccentricity offer plenty of opportunity for satire. But Remnick’s purpose is really pedagogic, and he has therefore to start from a place of suspended cynicism: what can these broadly indisputable greats teach us about carrying the fire of youth into old age in their attempts to stay creative, relevant, dignified (up to a point) and still alive to the world?
Remnick occupies a kind of optimal social coordinate; he has the trust granted to the insider, but his job remains bringing the inside scoop to the wider world. If you want Obama’s hot take on Aretha Franklin, Remnick is probably the one guy he’ll get back to by return. Turns out Obama is a fan. But maintaining that position depends on not abusing it. This does leave him too professionally committed to the principle of kindness to make the jokes that the lives of the famous often seem to tee up. (Personally, I could not have let the anecdote about Leonard Cohen’s first guitar tutor killing himself, only six chords into Cohen’s studies, slip by without comment; but then ‘class’ is the difference between me and David Remnick.) The worst he will do is occasionally pay out his subject a little rope. Keith Richards’s octogenarian wideboy act clearly exhausts him, but we’re mostly left to infer this from some uncharacteristically narrow-eyed description.
While Remnick doesn’t present his subjects in a flattering light, exactly, he will find them the best natural light available. As an interviewer he has a hypnotist’s gift for dissolving neurotic defences. Even Pavarotti, hard to depict as anything but the impetuous, gluttonous, thin-skinned child he often was, when he