Older, wiser, but still on fire

By Julia Keller: Chicago Tribune

Female rockers blaze new trails on the route to creative freedom.

It works like this: When you’re young, you dream big dreams. Wild dreams. Outrageous dreams.

Then you grow up, get married, make a family. Along the way, you wad up the dream like a tie-dyed T-shirt – the kind of bold, crazy thing you’d never wear outside the house anymore – and you stash it in the attic.

But Patti Scialfa, Patti Smith and Annie Lennox didn’t get the memo. No one told them that people in their late 40s, 50s and 60s – especially women with children – are supposed to settle down, keeping that attic door closed and bolted.

Instead, in an extraordinary creative confluence that defies conventional ideas about age and gender and the shelf life of passionate imaginations, these female musicians are resuming careers that took a breather for child-rearing and home-making.

It’s as if each woman were determined to re-cut the path to her own golden creative center, a path sometimes obscured by the twisting foliage of everyday existence. Each woman is trying to answer T.S. Eliot’s quietly urgent question: “Where is the Life we have lost in living?”

Scialfa, 50, has three kids, ages 13, 12 and 10. She recently released the CD “23rd Street Lullaby”_ which reached No. 2 on Amazon.com’s sales rankings and has garnered mostly glowing reviews – 11 years after her first album “Rumble Doll.” In the past decade, her solo career had played second banana to family obligations – including husband Bruce Springsteen’s tours and albums, on which she sings backup.

Smith, 57, a fiery, long-limbed legend in the 1970s for her slashing music and vividly original poetry, slipped from the scene in the late 1980s and early ‘90s after marrying and bearing two children. Her latest CD, “Trampin’,” which sold some 9,000 copies in its first week and has been almost unanimously hailed by critics, is livid with rejuvenated energy and eclecticism.

Annie Lennox, 49, arrestingly androgynous half of the ‘80s pop duo the Eurythmics, ratcheted down her public persona in the 1990s to raise two children. This summer she’s touring with Sting, performing songs from the eerily melodic 2003 CD “Bare,” which sold more than 150,000 copies in its first week.

This renaissance of creativity from mature women with children also includes Loretta Lynn, 69-year-old mother of six. The country icon released “Van Lear Rose” a few months ago, her first album in four years – and the first in her career in which she wrote all the songs.

The re-emergence of these artists defies the common notion that women must choose between their children and their muses, that creative achievement is incompatible with domestic duty. And it shreds as well the tired idea that children are a kind of substitute for artistic creations – that women who are mothers shouldn’t continue to ache to express themselves. Or, conversely, that female artists who don’t have children are compensating for an unfulfilled maternal instinct. (Funny how male artists who aren’t fathers never seem to be similarly saddled. No one says, “His songs are his sons.”)

Musicians such as Scialfa, Smith, Lennox and Lynn are following a new kind of career trajectory: Early success, followed by a voluntary hiatus in favor of home and family, then a return to the fierce demands of art.

Like all cultural changes, this one is shaped by many factors. Audiences themselves are aging, and they want to see their experiences reflected in artists who have lived full and varied lives. A century’s worth of progress for women has gradually scratched away at the thick barrier that used to divide the world between “career gals” and wives and mothers.

“I believe we have two lives,” says a character in the 1984 film “The Natural,” based on Bernard Malamud’s novel. “The life we learn with and the life we live with.” Stocked with wisdom gleaned from their crucial roles as partners and parents, female musicians returning to the spotlight are crafting the next evolution of their art.