In which I resist, resist! please don’t do it, quoting the Who line about dying “before I get old,” but there it is anyway god damn it! Still such a bold and ballsy statement. I mean I knew Roger Daltrey wasn’t serious back when he said it, but jeeze, I didn’t know how far off the mark he’d be! He got old. Didn’t die, and continues to sing the line!
So maybe “old” isn’t old. Like he meant it back then, like it means when you’re a kid. Or as it pertains to rock and roll music.
Comes up more these days when, I don’t know, due to medical advances, the
Internet, etc., rock stars, and performers from the more golden ages of various rock genres, surface, or resurface as older versions of their former selves, to play the rock and (now) punk rock songs we all loved so much. There’s always a bit of cringe (stolen from my kid, who actually says “cringe” out loud when confronted with something awkward. Or used to six months ago. Now its probably old and passé) factor when I hear that so-and-so, old rock hero, inconoclast of my youth has resurfaced out of the ether, ghostlike, after living only on my LP collection or occasional CD, to suddenly appear live and in person all these years later, in an impossibly smaller, intimate and less disgusting venue then I would’ve ever seen them in before.
Its funny cause I was just wondering what ever became of Echo and the Bunnymen, or Gang of Four, or Jonathan Richmond or the Who, Rolling Stones, Blue Oyster Cult Television Stranglers Wire X Buzzcocks, etc, etc, where are they now? It turns out they are here. Everywhere. If there isn’t some kind of nostalgic book they’ve written, or filmed documentary about them, then chances are they are on tour. And I cringe. But just as quickly I un-cringe, cause what the hell, right? Who am I to cringe at a guy my age (or older!) playing music? I could certainly do the same. I could certainly get up there and strap on the ol’ bass and pound out a few tunes. Right? That is if I didn’t have the fucked up knees. Or hands. Or arthritis, high blood pressure, tendonitis, depression, gout, migraines, blurred vision, muscle atrophy, kidney stones and allergies. Not to mention kids! But otherwise, yes, I could do it, I still have things to say, music to write, songs to sing. So why all the cringing?
On the surface you wonder and worry that your ol’ faves are just plain going to suck. You loved the Who or Whomever so much and they were so good, that to hear them miss the high notes, forget the words or the guitar part, or watch them sweat like pigs and miss time is more than disappointing. Its shattering. It rewrites history. It goes back through time and contaminates your memories, landing on the many occasions you heard and loved that song, and swats it like a landed fly, zaps it to shit. You stand there hearing the wrong note and the strained, cracked voice, and your own history becomes altered like a time travel movie, and you disintegrate.
I have to admit I’ve been wrong more times than I’ve been right. I’ve gone to see more and more reunion shows and “oldies” acts, since more and more are around, and been genuinely pleased at how good most of them are. But the one or two times things were wrong, they were very, very wrong, and I did the whole disintegrating thing which is very unnerving and raises the blood pressure and never good when you’re old and finally out of the house for once in a rare, bad moon.
Yet we allow our other artists to get old, sometimes the older the better, and even venerate them and gather at their feet to learn from their experience and wisdom, instead of making fun of how old they are up there strutting around that stage. Most genres of music allow this: Classical, Jazz, Blues, Country are replete with old masters, wizened and wise figures who have ripened and matured. Yet Mick Jagger chicken struttin’ around at age 70 or 80? Yuck. Because rock music is different isn’t it? Born of youthful revolt and being a kid. It said fuck you to adults and rules whenever it could and should still do that. What? Now you’re the cool adult, the hip parent who runs with the kids? You still says fuck you with your financial planning (smart!), estate holdings and mouths to feed? Get outta here.
I always marvel, my listening stuck in the late ‘70s as it often is, that all my favorite stuff was created by musicians who were kids at the time, youngsters, 20-year olds who thought they knew everything and sounded so convincing about it. They still do! I still want to take advice from a young Pete Shelly of the Buzzcocks, who knew all about love and life at age 20. But its easy to forget how much time as passed. Shouldn’t I be listening to my contemporaries? Aren’t I lucky Frank Black and Bob Mould and Mike Watt are still hanging in there, banging it out, singing about recovering from drugs and alcohol, heart attacks and parenting?
Yes. I guess. I like those guys a lot. But is it rock?
As music alone, without the label, perhaps not. But as music alone it has to have improved, become better as the artist ages, keeps learning, practicing and mastering his craft. Mike Watt as a teenager was already a virtuoso on his instrument; 30 years later should he not be the Zen master of the bass? The Ravi Shankar, the BB King? Yes, he’s great; but no, because he was a punk in the Minutemen and he channeled youth and traded on everything that youth trades on: living fast and loud and to your own beat. Smashing it all up and being immortal. You can’t live by that particular sword then go ahead and suddenly play the part of the seasoned, traveling bluesman mentoring the young now can you?
Yes, it appears in certain cases, like Mike Watt, Frank Black, or Mission of Burma, Paul Weller you can. And for the many others (not Billy Idol) from the day who all keep playing and aging and getting better, who still write new songs, tour, and kick ass, and joyously illustrate that there’s no reason to quit, to die before the “old” age. Which is what age anyway? 30 (don’t trust anyone over), 40? 50? 52? We define it. Or Roger Daltry redefines it every year.
Its backwards really. In other musical genres you are nothing as a kid. A learner only. Far from having the gravitas of the seasoned jazzman, the traveling bluesman. That is only earned after a lifetime of paying your dues, apprenticing. Yes there are prodigies out there, but that’s a parlor trick. What life experiences does a prodigy have to sing about? When did they earn the gravel in their voice, the tone of their instrument? You need the depth and battle scars of age to be taken seriously right? Unless you’re in rock. In rock you can only be a kid! The less life experiences and chops the better! More DYI! Bravado, dumb energy and youthful intuition! “Pick up your guitar and play, just like yesterday!” Daltrey says,
but it can never be like yesterday. When you’re old you’ve thought too hard about it, you’ve played that hit song a million fucking times. How many more times can you play that song? Hundreds? Thousands? It plays and plays and never stops, in your head forever, a nightmare, a skipping record. Deep breaths one more time as its demanded at the “rib fest” circuit, the weird casino show, the roadhouse populated by balding, greying fans in double-x and frayed tie dyed Ramones t-shirts who have stagnated right along with you.
How to reconcile these opposing forces? How to rock and age?
Just as there can no longer be new “punk” there is can no longer be new any “rock” really. Not that kids aren’t playing “in the style of …” but its homage, post modern, something else entirely. It is “Classic Rock,” “Post-Punk,” music from a specific time period now firmly ensconced in a Cleveland museum. Dead. Kids may still play it but it is largely irrelevant. Music, Rap, Pop, Dance became its own ghost, ephemeral, existing as “information” in computers and clouds to miraculously float down a song or two when skies are blue. All the while my record collection weighs down its poor shelves, sagging the floorboards with my heavy, waxen Cringe Rock.
Its not necessarily a bad thing, this “dad-rock” or “Cringe Rock as I now call it,” just a necessary process to redefine things every 30 years or so, while our stones, still rolling, are now allowed to gather some moss.