1988 Countdown #68: Rod Stewart, “Forever Young”

(New to the countdown? Catch up here.)

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Coming back from the commercial, we see a short clip of Stewart singing “Forever Young” at the MTV Video Music Awards. His drummer has some hexagonal drum pads in the kit; Stewart is wearing a glitzed-up leather jacket and gesturing wildly on the line “be courageous and be brave” (a bit redundant lyrically, isn’t it?).

Kevin Seal, not entirely sincerely, praises Stewart’s valor in performing at the VMAs with a head cold. “He’s maturing as a performer,” he says. “He’s been around long enough–it should be second nature to him.” Seal goes on to say that Stewart is donating all his profits from “Forever Young” to a charity for homeless children, which he praises, almost meaning it. “It’s a very nice thing for him to do and we all agree, quite adult. Rod is shedding that sex-symbol image and out there just trying to be a guy about things.”

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Seal doesn’t address the question of whether that charity donation was part of Stewart’s settlement with Bob Dylan for liberally borrowing from Dylan’s own “Forever Young.” It’s one of the more blatant pop-chart ripoffs ever, right up there with Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” rewriting the Emotions’ “Best of My Love.” I believe Stewart fell back on the George Harrison defense of subconscious plagiarism–but it was his second major single that employed wholesale lifting (the first being “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”–which swiped the keys to “Taj Mahal” by Jorge Ben Jor and returned it with cigarette burns on the upholstery).

My reaction in 1988 every time I heard “Forever Young” was “Doesn’t anybody remember the Bob Dylan song that is a very obvious rewrite of? Why didn’t he just cover it?” Twenty years later, knowing that there was a negotiated settlement, I can concentrate on the Artistry of Rod.

The most famous line about Rod Stewart’s career belongs to Greil Marcus: “Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely.” (Marcus continued his essay in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll for quite a while in this vein; the next line was “Once the most compassionate presence in music, he has become a bilious self-parody–and sells more records than ever.”) By the time I became aware of Stewart in the late ’70s, though, “Maggie May” was a long way in the rear-view mirror: Stewart was just an omnipresent hack entertainer whose output over the next decade was roughly split between good cheese (“Hot Legs,” “Infatuation,” “Passion”) and bad cheese (“Love Touch,” “Some Guys Have All the Luck,” “My Heart Can’t Tell You No”). This track is firmly in the latter category. I suspect MTV didn’t give Stewart more than one slot in this countdown; I would have preferred his other #12 hit from 1988, “Lost in You”–the video cast him as an aging bartender in a strip club, a role where he seemed completely plausible.

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This video is simple–basically, Stewart sings to a child as they drive down a road in the heartland of America–but the record company spared no expense. The film stock is expensive; the light is exquisite; the amber fields are aglow with the smell of money. After a few establishing shots of the (expensive) roadside scenery, we see International Rock Star Rod Stewart. He is sitting on the back of a slow-moving truck. The wind wafts through his rooster haircut, giving it even more volume than it usually has. He is wearing a black jacket and a white t-shirt, and cradling a young redheaded boy.

The kid doesn’t look like he came straight from the central-casting office that supplies moppets for cereal commercials; his hair is a ginger mop and he resembles a chubby homonoculus. That made me wonder whether it’s one of Stewart’s seven children (Sean Stewart, later to star on the reality show Sons of Hollywood, would have been eight in 1988, which is about right, but this boy doesn’t appear to be him–I think Rod actually is emoting to an actor child. In that context, a wish for a child to remain forever young is also known as “The Curse of Gary Coleman.”)

A vintage pickup truck (1940s, probably) slowly comes up behind Stewart on the road before passing him. The driver is a stern-looking man, seemingly not pleased to have rock videos clogging up his local traffic patterns. In the bed of the truck are two people in their Sunday best: a woman in a long patterned dress and a little girl wearing a straw hat. The girl waves happily to the camera. There’s plenty of room for them both in the cab of the truck, and I’m not sure why they’re riding in the back. Is this some weird Mennonite thing, where the womenfolk can’t sit up front?

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More scenery, more gauzy close-ups of Stewart, and then another car comes up behind him. This one’s a baby-blue convertible, 1950s vintage, with four young women in it: three blowzy blondes in sundresses and one tough-girl brunette in a leather jacket and jeans. The tough girl (let’s call her Jo) is wearing a Kangol and perched up on the trunk, letting her feet dangle onto the backseat.

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Stewart drives by three farmers walking through a field; they seem to have been dressed by Ralph Lauren. Two of them are carrying large shovels. The redheaded kid is now clutching Stewart’s lapel and gazing up into Stewart’s nostrils, clearly not having as much fun as he had hoped for.

Next traffic to pass: five bad-ass guys on motorcycles. They don’t give Stewart a second look. As they roll by, we reach the song’s guitar solo, which I only mention because improbably enough, it’s played by Andy Taylor of Duran Duran (who also produced this track). Who knew Taylor had any sort of post-“Reflex” career?

The bikers are followed by the three farmers, now standing in the back of another 1940s orange pickup truck with a few bales of hay. The metaphor of “follow the passage of time by the age of the vehicles” has fallen apart; this truck should really be from the ’70s. I suppose they didn’t want to put the farmers in a VW micro-bus.

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New setting: hazy blue background, Stewart down one knee, singing to the ginger boy–who is attempting to beat out a rhythm on his leg, without much success. Cut to Stewart sitting on a bale of hay, cradling the kid. Cut to Stewart standing up with the kid: he’s back on the road now, and we can see that his vehicle is a modern steel-blue pickup truck. As the camera pans by, the kid tweaks Stewart’s nose, which is actually very cute. When the camera reaches the truck’s cab, we see that nobody’s driving. Oooh, spooky.

We end with Stewart standing in a field, doing Bono’s patented “reach for the sky” gesture–and slow-motion shots of many of the people we met in the last few minutes. Farmers, bikers, Mennonites–but no Jo. Poor, doomed Jo. She should have worn her seatbelt.

“Forever Young” hit #12 on the Billboard pop charts. You can watch it here.

posted 18 June 2009 in 1988 and tagged . 2 comments

2 Comments on 1988 Countdown #68: Rod Stewart, “Forever Young”

  1. Chris M. Says:

    improbably enough, it’s played by Andy Taylor of Duran Duran (who also produced this track). Who knew Taylor had any sort of post-“Reflex” career?

    Well, there was the Power Station, and a good deal of subsequent work with Robert Palmer. He had a lousy solo single, “Take It Easy,” which is burned into my brain thanks to incessant 1986 MTV play. Yeah…I know a little too much about former Durannies’ careers.

    All I’ll add here is a reiteration of something I already said in your Traveling Wilburys post: After 1990, this artist/song tempo/etc. would’ve been unthinkable on MTV. Demographic narrowcasting would shunt this sort of A/C pap off to VH1, pronto.

  2. Bob Dylan’s One-sided Folk Process | elmergantry Says:

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