On careers – in music and academia

Simon Frith
Visiting professor, TIAS
Emeritus Professor of Music at University of Edinburgh


When an old cricketer leaves the crease
Well you never know whether he’s gone. (Roy Harper 1975)

Martin Cloonan sent me a link this morning to a clip on YouTube of the Liverpool band Scaffold performing their biggest hit, ‘Lily the Pink’, at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool at the end of October.[1]

‘Lily the Pink’ reached number 1 in the UK sale charts in 1968, the year it was originally released. The three members of Scaffold are now aged 86 (John Gorman), 85 (Roger McGough) and 78 (Mike McGear). Martin said he found their performance “rather heart-warming (if only for the fact that they are all still with us!)”.  I know what he meant but maybe because I’m somewhat older than him the question this clip raised for me was different: what kind of pleasure is involved in watching old men re-enacting (somewhat shakily) their youth?

A couple of months earlier Martin had told me about going to see one of the Rolling Stones’ Stockholm shows.  The Rolling Stones formed in 1962.  Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are now 78, Ronnie Wood is 75. The YouTube clip from this show shows Richards concentrating on his fingers much harder than he used to and while Jagger’s pitch control and physical energy are astounding for his age there’s also no doubt that these qualities are enhanced technologically, by how they are amplified and lit.[2]

I’ve long been fascinated by musicians’ careers and how they end: they don’t so much stop work as ease down, and ‘easing down’ works differently in different music worlds. A voice changing pitch and losing power is more problematic for an opera than a country or folk singer; fingers stiffening and concentration slipping is more of an issue for a concert than a pub pianist. And even the most technologically pampered rock stars can’t stop the ageing process, can’t avoid reaching a point (often quite early in their careers) when their performances mean looking back rather than looking forward, celebrating achievements rather than potential.  To grow old in rock is to repeat oneself; as musicians’ powers of invention decline well established routines become easier to manage.  The most interesting old performers in rock are those who fight obdurately against this—Bob Dylan, most obviously.  For the rest easing down, for performer and audience alike, involves virtuoso feats of nostalgia, making at the this moment the remembered past much more significant than the any imagined future.

How about academic careers?  How do they end?  How do scholars retire?  My working career started at the University of Warwick fifty years ago, in 1972. It finished at the University of Edinburgh in 2017. What finished?  Marking, administering, evaluating, meetings—duties that had long been chores.  When I gave in my notice I did feel liberated—not from an academic life but from having to worry about my department’s future.  My research career didn’t end there.  This very day, at the age of 76, I delivered to the publisher the final manuscript of Made in Scotland, a book I co-edited and wrote with Martin Cloonan and John Williamson.  I’m still thinking, I’m glad to say, and I still get bored by my old ideas. What I no longer do, week in and week out, is perform—in lecture theatres, classrooms, conferences and seminars.

Universities changed greatly during my working life; in essence they were professionalised—for better and worse.  But they didn’t define or confine my working environment. This was always a much broader community of scholars, past, present and future.  The only thing I miss about my job is the weekly postgraduate seminar that I started at Strathclyde University in the 1990s and took with me to first Stirling and then Edinburgh. The seminar was open to anyone—students, staff, from other departments, other universities, other countries even; the participants were ever changing.  We agreed on topics; I usually introduced them.  Discussions were essentially interdisciplinary, serendipitous, surprising and revealing.  Every meeting made me think about things I hadn’t thought about before, gave me the first inkling of the arguments in everything I wrote.

I was, then, very grateful to Martin Cloonan for inviting me to TIAS to run five seminars on the model of my old weekly sessions: a different topic each day for which I had to think through introductory comments; a multidisciplinary and subtly changing gathering of smart researchers; conversations flowing in odd directions.  There were moments when I wondered ‘can I still do this?’, ‘have I got anything to say’, ‘am I too old?’  But I quickly realised these were the wrong questions.  What I found (what I had missed) was not a cleverness competition but the ever-inspiring experience of scholarly community.  Every research topic every Fellow addressed was fascinating; every answer meant more questions.  The quality old scholars have is wisdom, which just means a lifetime of reading, talking, observing and listening as widely and idiosyncratically as possible.  Wisdom is the effect of scholarly sociability, of the kind of curiosity that drives all good research.

It was good to discover that I am still curious and even better to realise that there are so many new researchers who think differently and better than me.  In the final seminar one of the issues we discussed was progress.  Scholars, like musicians, start out with the determination to do something new, but that means, eventually, handing the future over to another generation.  I understand the rock concert pleasures of reliving a sense of the future, as it were, of being absorbed by memories that something new once happened.  But I prefer the sense of being past it.  A sense of the future necessarily belongs to younger people than me. Nostalgia for the way we used to do things, the way we used to think, is not a becoming academic emotion.  In the academy there’s no fun in continuing to be right; what one always wants is to be shown to be wrong.

November 30 2022


[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFlFWC0gFa0

[2] See https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=rollingstones+in+stoxkholm+2022#fpstate=ive&vld=cid:3d17c785,vid:x7sVd6IoE8I


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On careers – in music and academia

  1. macloo says:

    Simon’s workshop series was excellent. Many thanks to him and all who contributed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *