The music never dies

November 25, 2013

Forty-five years after I first heard Leonard Cohen’s song Suzanne, there I was on my feet in the Sydney Entertainment Centre giving the great man himself a standing ovation.

I must have been 17 when I first puzzled over the eroticism and mysticism of those lyrics. Cohen was already an old man by my standards back then. He was well into his 30s though I didn’t know it. And here he was at 79 beguiling us with charm, charisma and a catalogue of iconic songs that his gravelly voice carried still. He was dapper and dignified. But he was cheeky, too, in the way he skipped on and off the stage (show-off!) and kept dropping to his knees so that we worried if he’d manage to get up. We needn’t to have worried. He’s not the only musician super-hero from the 1960s who’s re-writing the rule book on ageing.

We thought they’d never grow old, and we’d stay young and rebellious with them. More than any genre of music, rock was an expression of blazing, beautiful youth. Jazz musicians could play till senescence set in; classical musicians improved with age. But it was obscene, unthinkable to imagine wrinkly rockers belting out My Generation or any song requiring three or four electric guitars and a drum kit. In their youth they penned condescending lyrics about the old. “Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?’” sang The Beatles in When I’m 64. And Mick Jagger sang back in 1965 in Mother’s Little Helper, “What a drag it is getting old.”

But now a lot of the stars of our youth are turning 70. Yes, some were not really baby boomers at all but born during World War 11. And some are still touring and recording, and belying their own predictions about ageing, and rock and the link between. The Who gave us My Generation’s famous line, “I hope I die before I get old,” when Roger Daltrey was just 21. Almost 50 years later the band is still singing it. The Who’s been touring the US and Europe for the past two years and recently announced a world tour for 2015. By then Daltrey will be 71 and Pete Townshend 70.

Fleetwood Mac, whose classic album Rumours was the soundtrack of 1977 in many a communal household, has just completed the European leg of its scheduled world tour. Most of the band, Stevie Nicks, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, are of pension age. But a health scare for 67-year-old McVie, who’s to undergo cancer treatment, led to the cancellation of the Australian leg.

Who would have believed the Rolling Stones could have survived the drugs and debauchery of their youth to stage this year’s 50th anniversary tour? (They’ll be in Australia in March). Mick Jagger turned 70 in July. Keith Richards will be 70 next month. When I saw Jagger in Perth in 1973 prancing and pouting his way through Brown Sugar it was inconceivable he’d still be prancing and pouting at three score and ten. Seventy was more or less the age of my dear grandfather at the time; he wouldn’t use a telephone or drive a car, and he wound the strands of his hair around his bald pate. Seventy was old in 1973.

Jagger and Richards were still relative youngsters when I saw one of the best ever concerts – the Stones play the Enmore Theatre, Sydney in 2003. A decade younger than our rock heroes on stage, we marvelled at their energy level. Look at what 60-year-olds can do! Now it’s look at the 70-year-olds! I’m glad these rock idols didn’t stay true to the rash words uttered in their youth. Jagger once said he’d “rather be dead than sing Satisfaction when I’m 45.” When he was 29 he said he’d never tour when he was 50.

As long as rock musicians are not making fools of themselves, as long as they still have it – the charisma, the talent, the energy – it’s a noble thing to make the most of their gifts for as long as they can. Whatever motivates them – the taxman, ego, money, relevance-deprivation syndrome, or sheer love of performing – they bring huge pleasure mixed with dollops of nostalgia to millions. Nothing wrong with that.

And maybe they also play a part in re-defining what it means to be “old”, to be in your 60s and 70s and working. If Leonard Cohen can perform for three hours, and garner deservedly glowing reviews, then maybe it helps shift, however slightly, prejudices about older workers more generally. OK Leonard’s got special talent but so do many retrenched IT workers, car workers and others regarded as on the scrap heap at 45 when for many the debilitating problems of old age won’t hit for another 30 or 35 years.

You just have to look at Bruce Springsteen to realise that 64 is the new…….No, that’s just too boring. Sixty-four is 64 and for most people around that vintage who’ve shed some kilos and kept fit, it’s a great age. Springsteen’s concerts I gather are still the “greatest rock and roll show on earth”. Even so, I won’t be going in February. You have to keep some memories pristine. And for me the Springsteen concert of 1985 is one of those perfect moments: he was sublime and I was, pre-children, pre-mortgage, still calling myself young.

Pathetic or great role models? What’s your view of old rockers who keep touring? Please leave a Comment.

Coming of Age is updated every Monday. Click on ‘Subscribe for free’ to get it emailed to you.