"Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll":
The Rolling Stones as Aging Rockers
by Philip Auslander
The Rolling Stones are about to go out on tour. Tickets are $100 a piece.
But the good news is Medicare will kick in half.
- Jay Leno
The Rolling Stones aren't as young as they used to be.
Rumor has it that they're working on a new album called "Steel Wheelchairs."
Hey! You! Get Offa My Barcalounger!
Let’s Take A Nap Together
I Can’t Get No Circulation
It’s Only Dulcolax but I Like It
Help Me Up!
Gimmie a Tax Shelter
19th Hip Replacement
Limpin' Jack Flash
You Can't Always Chew What You Want
She’s So Old and
Nursing Home Women
- from www.amiright.com. Submitted by: Douglas A Woolley
"I don't want to see old people doing rap or rock and roll. It makes me cringe."
- Grace Slick, former singer for Jefferson Airplane, on the occasion of her 70th birthday. CNN, August 17, 2009
"No, you're never too old to Rock'n'Roll if you're too young to die."
- Jethro Tull, "Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll"
The occasion for the musings that follow was my being invited to help moderate a discussion following a showing of Martin Scorsese's Rolling Stones concert film Shine A Light for the Gerontological Society of America's meeting in Atlanta in late November 2009. To prepare for this event, I contacted a number of friends and asked them their thoughts on the constant ribbing the Stones get for being "so old"and the idea of aging in rock, and put out a query that generated a lively discussion on an email discussion list devoted to cultural studies. I want to thank all those who participated, shared their thoughts with me, and thus helped me to formulate my own. --PA
Why have the Rolling Stones become the poster boys representing rock stars who insist on performing past their prime? If the 2006 performance captured in Martin Scorsese's concert documentary Shine A Light (2008) provides any evidence, the accusation is unjust to the point of absurdity. Now in their 60s, the three original members of the group remaining--Mick Jagger (66), Keith Richards (66), and Charlie Watts (68)--are in great shape (it is almost obligatory to say that I wish I could look forward to having Mick Jagger's energy and agility or Charlie Watts's strength when I'm his age, though I'm pretty sure that ship has already sailed for me) and put on a hell of a show. It's not as if the Stones are the only ones of their generation rocking past 60, either. And yet, I never hear anyone suggest that Paul McCartney (67), Lou Reed (67), Steve Miller (66), Neil Young (64), or Stevie Nicks (61) is "too old" to be doing what they do. Ringo Starr, who just turned 70, is out on tour! So, why have the Stones been singled out as rock's codgers? This is not a question amenable to a single answer, but it does open interesting avenues of discussion, beginning with the youthful orientation of rock.
The whole idea that one can be "too old" to perform a particular kind of music is specific to rock. I can't think of another kind of popular music in which this is the case: one can legitimately perform folk, blues, jazz, bluegrass, and country for the entire course of one's life. In these genres, age often signifies experience, or just hardship, and the insight it brings, and older performers, far from becoming objects of ridicule, may assume the mantle of tribal elders. One reason for this is that none of these genres is defined as "youth music" in the way rock is. Even when performed by young people, there is nothing "youthful" about blues, country, or any of the others. In fact, when a young artist such as Taylor Swift, a pure product of Nashville, uses country music to articulate a young person's perspective, music critics reflexively emphasize that she is not a true country artist but straddles the line between country and pop--it remains to be seen whether this evaluation will remain habitual now that Swift is no longer a teen-ager. On the other side of the ledger, some older rock artists benefit from their association with other genres. Bob Dylan (68) is not chastised for his age, but that may be partly because of his long-term association with folk and country. And it was not for nothing that Neil Young filmed his 2006 concert documentary Heart of Gold on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and surrounded himself with country musicians for the occasion.
By contrast, the rock of the 1960s was understood from the outset to be music made by young people, for young people. In this respect it differed from its immediate predecessor, the rock 'n' roll of the 1950s. Rock 'n' roll was youth music in the dual sense that it expressed teen-aged restlessness and gave young people something to dance to. It was music for young people, but there was no expectation that it be produced by young people. Bill Haley was right around 30 years old when his "Rock Around the Clock" became a hit in1955. The sociologist Philip Ennis, in his book The Seventh Stream, notes "the incongruity of Haley's chubby adult persona" with his standing as a pioneer of rock 'n' roll who "emblazoned its new banner with the musical expression of teenage assertiveness." The early figures of rock 'n' roll generally were significantly older than their teenaged audiences (and, often, the subjects of their songs). Chuck Berry was 29 when he moved to Chicago and began recording for Chess records; Bo Diddley was 27 when he recorded his eponymous hit; at 23, Jerry Lee Lewis was well beyond his high school years when he recorded "High School Confidential" in 1958, and hardly a teen when he recorded "Teenage Letter" five years later. Little Richard actually began recording as a teen-ager but had his first rock 'n' roll hits in his early 20s.
Fats Domino's 1957 release "The Big Beat" even suggests that rock 'n' roll, in its formative years, did not necessarily assume a young audience. The two protagonists of the song are "old grandpa [who] just made 80 years old" and is "crazy 'bout the rock 'n' roll," and Peg Leg Joe, who throws his crutches away upon hearing the big beat. The song's repeated first line, "The big beat keeps you rockin' in your seat," suggests a way of experiencing the music more in keeping with an older audience than the presumption that rock 'n' roll is dance music for teen-agers. In light of what happened to rock in the 1960s, "The Big Beat" may be taken to represent a road less traveled: rock 'n' roll imagined as rejuvenating and curative for the aged and infirm (I assume the imagery of Peg Leg Joe's rejection of his crutch derives from faith healing rituals at gospel tent shows) rather than inciting of youthful passions.
It was in the 1960s that rock music developed as youth music that had to be made by young people, not just for a young audience. The cultural politics of the time, and rock's eventual alignment with the counterculture and the anti-war movement, necessitated that rock be understood as the voice in which a generation talked to itself. It is also crucial that, in the 1960s, "young" did not mean "teen-aged" in the 1950s sense. The assumption, rather, was that young people were politically and socially aware and progressive, with a utopian bent, and musicians needed to address young people in those terms and as peers. The age disparity noticeable in the 1950s actually persisted: many of the musicians most closely associated with "the Sixties" were past college age by the Summer of Love, while large segments of their audiences were either in college or still in high school. Nevertheless, the association of rock music with the youth counterculture was cemented then and persists into the present in ever more acute forms. A recent New York Times review of a concert by Sonic Youth, whose members are in their 50s, referred to them as "old rockers," while another review in the same publication of a show by the Jesus Lizard notes that one observer muttered, in reference to the lead singer, "Dude's almost forty!"
In this context, any aging rocker could be fodder for ridicule, so why the Stones? One reason, perhaps, is that they are the only major group from rock's heyday in the 1960s still to be active in a form that closely resembles who they were back then. There are any number of '60s bands still performing, of course. In the summer of 2009, the Heroes of Woodstock Tour, hosted by Country Joe McDonald, brought versions of Jefferson Starship, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Canned Heat, and Ten Years After to venues throughout the US (versions that, in most cases, were missing key personnel). This summer, 2010, you can enjoy a collection of musicians representing a different side of 60s rock gathered as the Happy Together Tour: the Turtles, the Grass Roots, Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees, Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Buckinghams. While it is remarkable that a group like Canned Heat has a continuous history of performing and recording that spans about 45 years at this point, these tours frame the groups as nostalgia acts through which aging baby boomers can hearken back to earlier times rather than as going concerns.
Even substantially more prominent figures present themselves in this way. Although Paul McCartney, for example, certainly continues to write, record, and perform new music, his concert appearances have become museum showcases of his career with himself playing the role of curator. He has also engaged in such exercises in nostalgia as appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (the Letterman show is taped in the same theatre in New York as Sullivan used). McCartney also performed with his band atop the marquee outside the Ed Sullivan Theatre, an event that inevitably brought to mind the Beatles' famously unexpected 1969 performance on the roof of Apple Studios in London's Savile Row for the film Let It Be.
Although the Stones have not released a new album since 2005, and it is unlikely that many people are all that interested in whatever new music they may come up with, they do not engage in such self-consciously nostalgic acts. While they generally do not perform brand new material in concerts, they also do not present themselves as an oldies act or a conduit to the past, but insist that they are still a working rock 'n' roll band. In addition, they continue to perform the same personae as they always have. Whereas figures like McCartney, Eric Clapton, and even David Bowie have taken on the role of rock's elder statesmen and are noticeably "grown up" in their public demeanor, the Stones refuse to relinquish the "bad boy" image they cultivated so assiduously in their youth. "Don't tell them to to grow up and out of it," as Bowie sang in "Changes," a song that reflects on the prospects of aging rock 'n' rollers, among other things. Jagger still leers, sneers, prances, shakes his booty. Keith Richards may now seem as if years of substance abuse have (literally) tanned his hide, but the party boy gleam remains in his eye and crooked smile. Most impressive of all, Charlie Watts is still the powerful, impassive drummer he's always been. It is not just because the Stones are still around and insist on performing that they are singled out periodically as figures of fun--it is because they refuse to acknowledge the passing of time by presenting themselves either as relics or tribal elders.
Of course, much of the humor at the expense of the aging Stones is benign, quite possibly affectionate, and probably reflects a grudging admiration of their longevity and stamina as performers. But you don't have to read Freud to know that humor is also inherently aggressive and often masks hostility. It is possible, therefore, that the humor at the Stones' expense reflects a kind of cultural resentment that they, rather than, say, the Beatles, are the the last 60s band standing. After all, even if the Stones cannot be blamed for bringing the Age of Aquarius to a close, it is widely held that their appearance at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in December of 1969 was the beginning of the end for the counterculture. As is well known, the Stones, who shared the bill with a number of American bands, primarily from San Francisco, had arranged for local Hell's Angels to provide "security" (though there is some debate as to exactly what this meant) in exchange for beer, a decision that resulted in a disastrous melee and the death of a concert-goer at the hands of the Angels. In fairness to the Stones, it should be noted that the crowd was already in a violent mood by the time they came onstage, and that one of the Hell's Angels stabbed a spectator to death only after the spectator had been repelled during an attempt to storm the stage and had responded by pulling out a gun. The spectator was found on autopsy to have been high on methamphetamine; a jury judged the Angel to have acted in self-defense.
Paul McCartney 1970s and present
Whatever the facts, the image of mayhem and real violence accompanying the Stones' performance of "Sympathy for the Devil" at Altamont was instantly mythologized and has become a cultural meme standing for the end of the 60s. The British poet Ruth Padel reflects this interpretation in a strongly-worded indictment of the Stones, particularly of Mick Jagger, in her book I'm a Man: Sex, Gods and Rock 'n' Roll: "The violence bluff had been called, and shown to be vacant. Jagger did not cut a heroic figure. Sexuality and theatricality is not all there is to a hero. Imitating black energy, acting the devil, singing about beating women, does not mean you can control a violent situation. The pose collapsed with the California hippie dream. San Francisco bands blamed the Stones' arrogance, but to more objective American commentators the whole psychedelia experiment was politically naive, based on 'derivative romantic themes like the return to innocence the invocation of primal authority, the mysteries of blood.' As in Nazi rhetoric, the mythic themes lugged with them romantic links between violence and authoritarianism which the stoned, armed Angels exemplified." In this light, it would not be surprising to discover covert resentment of the fact that the Stones, whose performance at Altamont came to represent everything that went wrong with the counterculture, have survived, more or less intact, to represent "the Sixties" in rock. This resentment, as much as their longevity, may underpin the choice of the Stones as the butt of jokes about being "too old to rock 'n' roll."
There is one last thread at which I shall tug. In September of 2009, an article on Mick Taylor, who played guitar for the Rolling Stones from 1969 till 1974, when he left the group, appeared in the London Daily Mail. The article made Taylor out to be a sad case. He is described as "a shambling figure in a dark grey duffle coat," "jowly and far heavier than in his prime," who lives in very modest circumstances in a small house in Suffolk that is "in serious need of repair." The author also mentions an "unopened stack of bills and threats to cut off the water, electricity and gas," "uncut grass," and "an ancient car parked in the driveway with weeds growing through its wheels. . . ." The article is partly about Taylor's potential claim for back royalties he never received for his work with the Stones, but it also emphasizes his history of drug abuse and currently destitute condition. He "scrapes a hand-to-mouth existence by playing pub gigs"; when he needs money, "he phones his friends and suggests they play a few gigs in local pubs and clubs, living out of the back of a Transit van."
This article piqued my curiosity, and a bit of research on the Internet revealed a somewhat different picture. Probably, Taylor does live modestly in Suffolk, but I was led to wonder how often he's actually there, since lists of his gigs reveal that he tours almost constantly, playing at clubs, theaters, and festivals on the Continent, in the UK, and sometimes in the US or Japan. The "friends" with whom he plays, supposedly at local pubs (who are mentioned in the Daily Mail article) are, in fact, the members of his touring band--high-level musicians with distinguished careers: "former Jeff Beck keyboard player Max Middleton, ex-Manfred Mann guitarist Denny Newman and ex-Snowy White drummer Jeff Allen."
It is not my purpose to discredit the Daily Mail article. Rather, I want to ask what underlies the way Taylor is depicted there when it apparently would have been just as possible to represent him as a successful, steadily-working, respected professional musician who doesn't play the huge venues the Stones play and doesn't make anything like the money they make, but who is far from down and out. Padel notes, "As set up in the sixties, your archetypal rock star leaves a stage littered with smashed guitars, a life littered with discarded women" and, she might have added, discarded bandmates. Taylor's predecessor, Brian Jones, was found floating in his swimming pool right at the moment the other Stones were ready to cashier him. Taylor left the group of his own accord but, as Padel suggests, the archetype of the rock star includes the clause that his success is purchased at others' expense. In mythic terms, Taylor's destitution is in some way the price of the other Stones' success and his decrepitude is the price of their longevity. The Daily Mail story resonates with this mythology: They owe him! it seems to scream, though it's a debt the Stones are unlikely to pay willingly.
A different analogy may be even more apt. Like The Picture of Dorian Gray that reflects the protagonist's aging and corruption, of which he shows no outward signs, in Oscar Wilde's novella, Mick Taylor, according to the Daily Mail, has grown old, fat, and has squandered his money on drugs even as the remaining Stones prosper, stay youthful and energetic, and have (supposedly) cleaned up their acts. Their continued success depends metaphorically on his representing what might have happened to them. While this version of Taylor's story may not be entirely true in that he seems not to be nearly as hard up as his sacrificial role would require, it is a necessary counterweight to the current story of the Stones. Their longevity and seemingly eternal youthfulness are assuming the proportions of cultural mythology; the decline and fall of Mick Taylor is the necessary counter-myth.
Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.