What do Old Men Do with Love Songs?

My older sister once observed that the Beach Boys made false promises about what growing up would look like, but I think you could say the same thing about symphonies and drunken hornpipes as well. Music serves up the sort of euphoria that can evaporate in the face of the bar tab or the girl who turns you down for the slow dance.

Love songs, in particular, can be cruel to the old and the getting there. I just Googled “Herb Alpert,” to see if he’s alive, and he is. He’s 82. Herb Alpert is eighty-two years old.

There is something wrong with that. Herb should always be young, and so should the beautiful woman sitting in the whipped cream on that one album you’re thinking about right now. My car radiated one of his rare vocals yesterday, “my hands are shakin’, don’t let my heart keep breakin’..”

There’s the thing itself — a man so completely in love with a woman he can’t imagine life without her, (“if not I’ll just die”), and there’s also the bittersweet uncertainty of just accomplishing love itself. Will the woman be there to keep his hands from shaking and his heart from breaking? At night, when the bars close down, will Brandy keep walking through a silent town? Will Renee just walk away? Are you really telling me he won’t follow her back home?

My older sister, long gone now, was unlucky in love, and although her Beach Boys observation was something she laughed about, her struggle was at the heart of what make love songs killer hits. We spend the first act of our lives in a luxurious, bittersweet tingle, worried about finding love. The second act, having found it, we spend buying little shoes for little feet and watching the river run. The third act, frankly, can be a little sad, even if, we’re happily in love.

So much of the power we assigned to physical, romantic love—even real love, the sort of love rooted in deep friendship—has a way of looking temporary and fragile the older our eyes get. Karen Carpenter is no longer sitting “on top of the world.” Davey Jones is no longer cheering up “Sleepy Jean.” Somewhere in the world, right now, as you’re reading this, I bet there’s an old man standing over a grave, looking for his handkerchief.

Those of you who have suffered through divorce, and those who never found the love of your life may know this pretty keenly, but you’re not the only ones. Even those of us who measure our marriages by the decade begin to feel the brittleness of old love songs. It’s not just that she’s not seventeen anymore, if you know what I mean; it’s that “she” represented false immortality. She looked like she could dance forever, didn’t she? Isn’t that what we thought when we were young, and isn’t that what makes us feel bittersweet now?

We don’t like seeing human love as a false investment.  After all, it’s certainly better than the love of money, but as powerful as it is, as good as it is, even that sweet girl who ties all the yellow ribbons on the old oak tree can’t make you live forever.  Only God can do that.

Sing a love song as loud as you can. It’s good for the soul, but you might consider leaning on the everlasting arms. That one never gets old.