An interesting question is how rock musicians grow old. These folks made their claims to fame when they are young men and women. Unlike athletes – who are told by their bodies or coaches when it is time to hang it up – musicians can tour endlessly. The only group qualified to tell performers to quit is the audience.
Within the broad range of musicians are those that continue to try to evolve and those that in essence become their own tribute bands. The cases of the late David Bowie and The Rolling Stones perhaps best illustrate the different ways in which rock stars grow old.
HBO released the trailer for the documentary “David Bowie: The Last Five Years” (a link and story are at Rolling Stone). The trailer shows a man still moving ahead creatively. If anything, the fatal diagnosis made him work even harder to say what he wanted to before the end came. He seems to have the same creative drive that he had as a young man. The only difference is that it is 40 years later. It’s simultaneously sad and inspiring.
It’s easy to pick on The Rolling Stones. There are many bands that more or less continued to mine their early success just as aggressively. The Stones are more obvious because their original stance as edgy bad boys and as the center of a fictional world had a shelf life that expired in 1980, give or take a half-decade. That didn’t keep the cash register from continue to crank along, perhaps because their audience has just as much invested in keeping the dream alive as they do.
Clearly, there is nothing wrong with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest carrying on as swaggering old men as long as fans are willing to buy the tickets. And, to be sure, they still do what they do terrifically. The point is, though, that as they grew older and the outside world changed, what they had to say meant less and less and how well they said it meant less and less. It became more of a time capsule than a contemporary commentary.
Bowie simply had more to say than the Stones. There is nothing wrong with that. He was a thinker and they were rockers. The Stones were emulating Chuck Berry and the African-American blues giants. They didn’t pretend to be as smart as Bowie was. Smart simply agres better.
Still, it is interesting to see bands continue to play the same old music, year after year. The Stones haven’t been around for a while and, indeed, it finally may be over. But there are plenty of bands playing plenty of gigs consisting primarily of songs written half a century ago.
Rock in the Age of Trump
That analysis needs some updating, however. Some of these older artists will get a second chance at relevance.
Barry Egan, a music critic for The Independent, calls U2’s “Songs of Experience” the best record of 2017. The theme of his description is that the band came out of what may best be called an intellectual hibernation. Indeed, Egan quotes a passage from a profile suggesting how bored the musicians had become playing their old hits – in 1995. It’s frightening to think how they felt about playing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” more than 20 years after that was written.
Egan calls the new record, which was released late in the year, as “something approaching their best, a late-career masterpiece by four ageing and overly self-aware rock stars…”
Perhaps the difference – and Egan mentions this – is the election of Donald Trump. The most creative music of the rock era was written in the shadow of the Vietnam War and the presidency of Richard Nixon. While America is not now involved in a war of similar dimensions, The White House is in ways even more insidious than in those years. It’s dumber but deeper and every bit as dangerous.
To a great extent, the fate of The Rolling Stones and bands of that era is sealed. They truly are aging out. That’s a problem that can’t be fixed. However, old but somewhat younger performers from the 1970s and 1980s, such as Neil Young, U2 and Bruce Springsteen, could be given a second change to be truly relevant because of our precarious political situation.
One interesting critique of “Seinfeld” – I forget who said it – is that the premise only works in a pre-911 world. The four characters are funny and endearing because of their complete and unconscious selfishness and narcissism. They have emotional maturity of infants. That premise wouldn’t work today.
Likewise, much of culture of the past couple of decades is extremely self-conscious and self-interested. Our Twitter and Facebook culture caters to milliosn of people who are clueless enough to think that people — many of whom they barely know — are interested in the minutia of their everyday life. Trump rode to power on this corrosive social media. Hopefully, his success will jolt us out of this mind-numbing emotional lethargy.
If so, artists can lead the way. A major element of what made rock and roll resonate was the rejection of the venal, dishonest and depraved nature of those running things. Sounds a bit like the current government, does it not? The scenario will be a bit different, since many old people will with the kids this time around. Regardless, there simply will be more relevant and newsworthy things about which to write rock and roll music.
Even if people are not writing directly about politics, the destabilizing realization that one of the cornerstones of our lives – that the United States has a stable government – is under attack could shake things up. Put another way: Hip hop has always been a vibrant artform because it comments on ongoing events in society, not things that happened 30 years ago.
Just as the Stones and their contemporaries updated old blues songs, a new generation may write its version of “Street Fighting Man” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” That’s one piece of good news that may come out of the Trump presidency.
Above, of course, is “Street Fighting Man.” “Blackstar” below, is a video from the David Bowie album of the same name. It was released on January 8, 2017. Bowie died two days later.