Older than sixty-four

>> Monday, March 02, 2009

Somehow it's become an inevitability, this business of reperforming your famous album. Lou Reed did it with Berlin, Brian Wilson did it with Pet Sounds, Roger Waters did it with Dark Side of the Moon, Arthur Lee (RIP) did it with Love's Forever Changes. Even Anthrax did it, with Among the Living. The years pass, a consensus is achieved, and then it's time: Assemble the band, hose off the magnum opus. There's a certain clinical rhythm to the thing, like getting a colonoscopy.

Still, let's not become inured to the oddness of it. Because it is odd. Totally un-rock 'n' roll, for starters, to be casting this fond retrospective gaze upon one's own work. (Would Iggy Pop do it, for God's sake? Oh—he already did.) And then rather risky too, by a paradox. Reperforming is a high-wire act. It's aesthetically fraught. What are you doing out there, exactly? You could be burnishing your masterpiece or flogging a dead horse. Or flogging your masterpiece. Or burnishing a dead horse.

-James Parker,
"Van Morrison's Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl,
Slate, February 24, 2009.

I find that interesting, actually. Not because I'm a Van Morrison fan (I'm not, really; Patti Smith's take on "Gloria" knocks the original Them version on its ass and into a submission hold and the Roger Waters/Van Morrison take on "Comfortably Numb" that everybody else seems to get moist over isn't even the best version half-performed by an Irishman). I find it interesting because you frequently run across the sentiment that old musicians doing "something or the other" "isn't very rock'n'roll" of them--maybe it's the revisiting of a classic like Mr. Parker is talking about, or maybe it's that extra reunion tour or that failure to retire gracefully or something else.

That line of thought is interesting to me, because it's not actually like anybody knows what a rock musician is supposed to do when they get old. We're looking at basically the first or second generation of rock'n'rollers to actually pull off the trick of getting old (technically rockers like Chuck Berry and Ike Turner and rockers like Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page fall into two separate generations; professionally, they're practically peers at this point). We all know, of course, that the general policy, at least as set forth by noted commentator Mr. Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend, is or was "Hope I die before I get old," and this seems to be the basis of assumptions like Mr. Parker's. Except, of course, if "Hope I die before I get old" is indeed a central credo of rock (and I can't imagine Mr. Berry agreeing to it), then living past the age of, say, twenty-seven isn't very rock'n'roll. Of course, it's not at all self-evident that choking on your own vomit during a drug overdose ought to be the apex and culmination of a musical career--most fans would have probably preferred a few more albums and the embarrassing best-of tour, truth be told.

We forget or don't realize, I think, that there really aren't any old role models for how to be an old musician or in an old group. The Beatles really only had a ten-year career (and their recording career was only eight years long); who's to say they did it right, or that the Rolling Stones are doing it wrong after forty-seven-and-counting? People ask if a band can go on without their original lead singer/frontman/creative guru, apparently forgetting that Genesis was far more successful without Peter Gabriel than with (I need to add that I own every Genesis studio album from Nursery Cryme to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway--yes, I'm missing Trespass and Live--and most of Gabriel's solo catalogue, and my attitude for everything from Trick Of The Tail through Calling All Stations runs chronologically from patient tolerance to a special loathing for that We Can't Dance shit). We're skeptical about reunion tours like those of Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles and The Police (and even The Sex Pistols), when in fact we don't know that The Beatles wouldn't have regrouped for a double-album and barnstorm world tour in 1985 if it hadn't been for that crazy little asshole murdering John Lennon practically on his own doorstep in 1980.

What I'm getting at, is that not only do we not really have any generalized cases to inform us as to how rockers get old, but the main cases we tend to look at tend to be special cases to start with. Our exemplars are people who killed themselves when they were still basically kids or bands whose short run was so creatively fecund and crucial that it belies the shortness of their career. (It's not just The Beatles; The Sex Pistols, who may have defined what it meant to be a punk band, weren't together long enough to get a car loan together.)

Maybe a long, drawn-out career that ends in technically-accomplished but relatively uninspired concerts, albums, and retrospectives is normal. Maybe the bands that burned out and the artists who crashed and burned before thirty were the outliers. Or maybe, I find myself thinking, bands themselves are arbitrary units--maybe a band that sticks together for four decades like the Stones basically have is weird and the real lifespan of a rock-and-roll band is two years, like the Pistols, or maybe a band is just a brand label like King Crimson or Nine Inch Nails, denoting not a membership but a kind of musical concept with flexible participation.

So maybe all these bands revisiting their prime material is totally rock-and-roll, and not odd in the least. After all, how the hell does anyone know? These guys have gotten old, and nobody kvetched about Miles Davis revisiting old musical friends because jazz never really embraced that silly notion of being "youth culture," it was just a form of music. Maybe "Hope I die before I get old" isn't rock's credo at all, and maybe Mr. Townshend was stuttering up the wrong tree. Maybe the central credo of rock isn't youth, but (to paraphrase another old Irish rocker who isn't Van Morrison) "three chords and the truth" (red guitar optional). And if the record you released forty years ago was true then....


John the Scientist Monday, March 2, 2009 at 7:59:00 AM EST  

"jazz never really embraced that silly notion of being "youth culture," "

That's because jazz did not come of age during the Baby Boom. A lot of this is roundabout kvetching by the Generation of '68 that time actually had the temerity to age them.

I know a lot of good Boomers, but as an overall generation? Fuck 'em.

Random Michelle K Monday, March 2, 2009 at 11:28:00 AM EST  

HA! My Dad's pre-Boomer!

Er... and he loves jazz. Is that back on topic?

Eric Monday, March 2, 2009 at 11:53:00 AM EST  

Both my parents are Boomers. Just saying.

Kathy Monday, March 2, 2009 at 12:17:00 PM EST  

I guess rockers who don't overdose early on finally get too old to rock and roll but too young to die. So they either retire gracefully or reunite to flog the masterpiece. I confess to perking up when I heard the Police were touring, and certainly if my favorite band (XTC) got the old lineup back together to tour, I'd be there (not gonna happen). So I guess we encourage the flogging even as we (sometimes) complain about it. In fact, we children of boomers are probably the most guilty because we are just a little too young to have seen the iconic bands in their heyday, so we try to pretend we've seen history by catching a reunion tour. Only I don't because I'm too damn cheap/poor to buy hundred dollar concert tickets. Unless it WERE the XTC reunion tour!

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