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Artillery Row

The oldest rockers in town

The original generation of rock ‘n’ rollers remain more interesting than modern stars

In 1972, the then-29 year old Mick Jagger was interviewed by chatshow host Dick Cavett about what he saw as the long-term potential for his and the Rolling Stones’ career. Ever since the Stones’ great rivals, the Beatles, had split-up a couple of years previously, there was a general belief that Jagger, Keith et al could not last forever, and so when Cavett asked, with incredulity, “can you picture yourself at the age of sixty doing what you do now?” it was with self-deprecation that Jagger replied, “yeah, easily, yeah.’ Cavett, joining in the joke, laughed, “going on stage with a cane and moving the way you do?” before Jagger, after initially finding the idea absurd, considered it a moment and said, “there’s a lot of people that do it at 60 and I think it’s a bit weird, you know, but they seem to still get their rocks off at it. Marlene Dietrich, she still does it, and she’s more than 60.”

Mick Jagger is now 76. Yet he and his band are still performing, most recently last weekend for the “One World: Together At Home” concert, when they performed an accomplished version of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want” from their separate mansions.

Observers could note that the four core members of the band each presented themselves in time-honoured style. Jagger, looking not a day older than 60, still has a powerful vocal range and impressive charisma and presence; no need for a walking cane, although he did have to have much-publicised heart surgery last year.

Ronnie Wood was an impressive, energetic figure, as if he still couldn’t quite believe that he was playing with the Stones, and Charlie Watts was every bit the dignified elder statesman in a vinyl-stacked study, even if it did strike viewers as strange that he was miming along to a backing track, rather than doing anything as energetic as drumming. And, of course, Keith Richards, the great survivor, seemed to be in his own world as he lovingly caressed his guitar. It was especially heartening to see that there was a glass of something liberally garnished with ice next to him on his sofa. Old habits, like old rockers, die hard.

The Stones, and an affecting Stevie Wonder, did considerably better than the other beloved veterans who appeared – Sirs Elton John and Paul McCartney. Elton, who has been enjoying an upsurge in public affection after the release of his excellent autobiography Me and the biographical film Rocketman, surprised many with a bizarre, bellowing performance of “I’m Still Standing,” which, as one wag noted on Twitter, sounded more like a Vic Reeves impersonation of a pub singer doing the song rather than the original artist. And McCartney’s decision to do the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” in a slowed-down version on electric piano, sung in a thin and quavery voice, led many who had been looking forward to seeing him at Glastonbury this summer overcome their disappointment in rapid fashion.

Yet their appearances in the charity concert, variable though they might have been, at least kept them in the public eye, performing songs that have given pleasure to millions for decades. At a time when the whole commercial basis of the music industry has shifted from sales of records to live performance, even the most accomplished of acts now faces a choice. Continue to trot out the hits around the world on what could be a punishing schedule well into old age, or retire, wholly or mostly, from live performance and hope that one’s back catalogue and royalties will be enough to maintain one’s hitherto lavish lifestyle.

Musicians who are in their late seventies, even eighties, are beginning to find the choice an unenviable one. The likes of the Stones and McCartney will at least be able to tour the world from the comfort of private jets and five-star hotel suites, with the logistics of their lives made as painless and easy as possible. Yet a lot of working artists who do not have the untold millions of their better-known peers will be regarding the current situation without equanimity.

Without wishing to embarrass much-loved rock stars by mentioning them by name, it is hard to buy into the mystique of a charismatic guitar-wielding deity on stage if you know for a fact that they are half-deaf, have severe sciatica and can barely see more than five yards in front of them. One has to admire Phil Collins, who performed his most recent gigs while seated and wearing the kind of outfit that suggested that he had been out trainspotting that morning: his gruff explanation to his audience was, “my legs are fucked and I’ve had a back operation,” before he explained that he thought that he’d retired “but I missed you.”

Most rock stars of a certain vintage are finding new angles for live performance, both to make it more interesting for themselves and to lure in audiences. Bruce Springsteen recently did a lengthy series of shows in New York, “Springsteen on Broadway,” which consisted of a mixture of him performing his best-known songs on solo piano and guitar in the Walter Kerr Theatre and reminiscing to the audience. The intimacy and chance to see Springsteen up close, over 236 shows, led to his making over $110 million; given the absence of a band or stage pyrotechnics, a very decent amount of that must have ended up being profit. On the other extreme, The Who’s 2019 tour, “Moving On,” included a full symphony orchestra performing the likes of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” with the band. If Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, both now in their mid-seventies, have ever found anything amusing about singing the “Hope I die before I get old” refrain in “My Generation,” the joke might have worn very thin by now.

And then, of course, there are those who simply retired from live performance, wholly or mainly. Elton John has promised that, after his current mammoth world tour ‘Farewell Yellow Brick Road’ concludes in 2021, or slightly later if the current pandemic causes him to postpone several months’ worth of dates, he will never travel the world away. Wags could joke that the costs of maintaining his lavish lifestyle has meant that this three-year undertaking represents both a tour de force and Elton being forced to tour. In a more low-key fashion, Paul Simon announced that he was giving up gigging, save for ‘the occasional performance in a (hopefully) acoustically pristine concert hall’, the proceeds of which he would donate to charity. His reasons for abandoning the arenas and stadiums of the world were that the time and effort of the whole circus had become too much for him.

Both David Bowie and Leonard Cohen released some of their finest work in 2016 at the end of their lives.

Simon described his decision as “a little unsettling, a touch exhilarating and something of a relief.” There have been those in the stratosphere of rock music who stepped away from performance entirely. David Bowie retired from live concerts, save a few brief guest appearances, in 2004, while still a relatively youthful 57, and Leonard Cohen initially left music in 1996 to be ordained as a Buddhist monk, a state of affairs that came to an end when it transpired that his former manager had embezzled his money and left him virtually penniless. Both men released some of their finest work in 2016 at the end of their lives, in the forms of the brooding Blackstar and the reflective You Want It Darker, and it is not overstating the case to suggest that both albums benefitted from the memento mori quality that their creators, who were both severely ill while they recorded the music, imbued them with.

There are many reasons why musicians continue to make music, both live and in the studio, right up until the end. In some cases it is out of financial necessity, and in other instances it is because of an addiction to the adrenaline rush of mass adulation, an experience rather harder to reproduce in the lavish surroundings of an exclusive retirement community. Even as we might good-naturedly mock and wince at what we see as the more absurd aspects of their careers, there is an enormous affection that exists between audience and act, especially if their fans have grown up with their favourites. It is extremely rare to go to a gig by a “heritage act” and not see hordes of septuagenarians wearing leather jackets and band T-shirts that would have been cutting-edge forty years ago, and which now represent a living form of social history before us.

Yet the final reason why we will never tire of the original rock ‘n’ rollers is that they remain infinitely more interesting figures than the anodyne and unmemorable vast majority of younger artists, never afraid to innovate when it suits them. Bob Dylan, of all people, has recently had a number one single with the 17-minute long “Murder Most Foul,” about the Kennedy assassination.

Whatever the song’s intrinsic merits, its success is at least partially down to the enormous affection that Dylan is held in by millions, engendered by a 60-year career. Thus, when he said in a message to his admirers to “stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you,” his words were treated with the reverence of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. This is unlikely to be the case for, say, Ed Sheeran.

The young pretenders may have vigour, social media savvy and energy on their side, but their forbears, like the devil, will always have the best tunes.

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