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Saluting the old masters of rock'n'roll

They didn't die before they got to this age, but neither did they fade away. Andy Gill salutes the stars who have managed to stay creative

While hopeful young wannabes of all shapes and styles industriously traverse the termite-mound of fanciful ambitions and bogus alliances that is the MySpace/Facebook world of virtual music for virtual people, precious few of them, it seems, manage to make it onto an actual stage to play in front of actual people. Increasingly, that has become the domain of older, tried and trusted acts, many of them squeezing back into stage gear they haven't worn in decades, in order to strut once more in front of an ever-thinning crowd of ever-thinning heads of old fans lured by that free album they've just downloaded from the artist's website.

It's the new business model for rockers of a certain age: using giveaway recordings as loss-leaders to promote paying gigs. It only works if you already have a certain profile, of course, and is thus of no help to up-and-coming acts. And frankly, in many cases, particularly those involved in reunions undertaken following a lengthy fallow period, sudden exposure to the artist's time-ravaged presence may put the cap on their career once and for all, as traumatised former devotees go scurrying for refuge back to the virtual world where their old heroes – and by extension, themselves – remain forever young.

Revivals, reunions – and the Rolling Stones – are one thing, but it's a different matter for those few precious souls who have managed to remain creatively potent throughout a long and illustrious career, without ever completely losing their credibility. The current climate is surely commercial heaven for the Dylans, Springsteens and Paul Wellers of this world, while even lower down that longevity ladder, the likes of Kate Bush, Nick Cave and The Fall's Mark E Smith can find their recent albums and shows acclaimed with unprecedented fervour.

In part, this situation is explicable in simple demographic terms, according to the changing leisure requirements of different generations. In the Sixties, the young had little besides pop music to call their own, whereas the range of activities and cultural components competing for the attention (and money) of today's equivalent youth seems to expand daily, with videogames, computers and mobile phones dealing taking a huge toll on music's potential audience. At the same time, the spread of illegal downloading and file-sharing has devalued music catastrophically: once upon a time, hippies fought for the principle that music should be free; but the inevitable corollary, now that it actually is free to all intents and purposes, is that a generation considers it all but worthless.

The only demographic groups that still place a serious value – both intrinsic and actual – on music are those for whom it served as the bush-telegraph and barometer of their cultural development, ie those who grew up in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. Hence the continuing popularity of artists from those eras, while younger acts blossom and wither with alarming speed, their careers collapsing within weeks as their audience's gnat-like attention spans alight upon some more colourful diversion.

But this doesn't explain why some acts from those eras should sustain, while others disappear. For the most prominent superannuated stars, such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young, sheer persistence is certainly a factor: Dylan's relentless touring schedule has ironically helped disprove the adage that a rolling stone gathers no moss, as his shows have continued to attract fresh legions of younger fans searching for something with a little more substance. But mere industry alone does not explain the continuing creative energy responsible for his brilliant trilogy of recent albums, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times, the last of which secured Dylan the unique distinction of being the oldest performer ever to have an album enter the American charts at No1, and deservedly so.

Watch the video for the Bob Dylan track 'Cold Iron Bounds'

That a 65-year-old – and furthermore, the sole recipient of both an Academy Award, a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize – should wield such commercial power through prolonged artistic potency speaks volumes about Dylan's unique status as the most towering pillar of American popular culture. His creative energies remain a constant source of surprise, not to mention mystery. Through the years, there have been rumours and reports of his "borrowing" from various sources – lines apparently lifted from The Maltese Falcon, from a Japanese Yakuza memoir, and most recently from a little-known American Civil War poet, Henry Timrod – but such magpie tendencies are probably just (admittedly brazen) extensions of the way he would adapt traditional folk tunes for his earliest compositions; and if he needs such tangential devices to refresh his own muse, few would argue that they aren't put to good use.

Young's popularity and creative vitality is a more unusual case. Most artists' longevity relies upon their fidelity to a format tacitly agreed upon with their audience: Van Morrison has effectively made the same album for several decades, recycling his trademark blend of R&B mysticism and memories with varying degrees of success; and Brian Wilson's fans would be heartbroken if new material didn't conform to the exacting standards of Pet Sounds and Smile.

But, for years through the Seventies and Eighties, Young appeared to be in headlong flight from his own career, torturing his audience through a succession of stylistic volte-faces that swung haphazardly from rock to country, R&B to bluegrass, folk to techno, in such a typically cavalier manner that his own record company once tried to sue him for not delivering an album that was recognisably "Neil Young", as they understood it. His profile and fortunes ebbed and flowed accordingly, until his album Freedom – and particularly the sardonic anthem "Rockin' in the Free World" – saw him, effectively, regain his artistic compass. Luckily for Young, this coincided with his adoption as the check-shirted grandfather of grunge, since when his reputation has been secure.

Other artists, such as Leonard Cohen and Steely Dan, have profited from the high value their audiences place on the intelligence and sophistication of their work: the well-turned lyrical conceit, and the cleverly wrought melody, offer more lasting pleasures than the thin gratification of immediate sensation. Weaned on sources apart from the familiar rock'n'roll influences – respectively the Canadian poetry scene, and late-Fifties hipster jazz – has enabled both acts to treat pop with a certain disdain, which has effectively inoculated them against the vagaries of musical fashion, a common source of the rust that corrodes so many creative spirits.

Intelligence seems a crucial factor in accounting for the resilience of many rock'n'roll careers. It would be absurd, for instance, for punters blessed with a certain hard-won wisdom to regard the poltroon posturing of most heavy-metal bands with more than amused contempt; an interview with Brian Eno, a narrative by Nick Cave or a lyric by Leonard Cohen or Richard Thompson, on the other hand, can be relied upon to prompt mature reflection, without patronising its audience with infantile fantasies.

Watch the video for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' track Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!'

Ironically, while many British and Americans eagerly immerse themselves in the diversity of black African music, black American music has consistently suffered from a lack of equivalent interest in its home market. It's hard to explain why, but many black Americans seem to have a strangely dismissive attitude towards their own cultural achievements, overturning previous modes so swiftly and thoroughly that they become extinct almost overnight. When European blues fans sought out their heroes in the Sixties, they discovered giants like Muddy Waters playing to mere handfuls of fans, while legends like Son House had long since given up music to become shop assistants and janitors. For some black Americans, that old blues music was simply an embarrassing reminder of their former subjugation, summarily abandoned in favour of successive strains of showier musical styles whose bling-laden gaudiness was mistaken as evidence of their emancipation.

For the time being, tragically, creative longevity seems to be the sole property of white folks, a damning indictment of an industry largely built on black genius.