'It's one thing to get on stage and run through songs the audience recognizes and expects. But how long can performers continue to be artistically vital..."
Reading a N.Y. TImes column recently about Mick Jagger turning 70 got me thinking about aging rockers. I flashed back to an old Mad magazine article titled "The Rock 'N' Roll Senior Citizens Problem." Mad's 1962 view was that the Bobby's, Ricky's and Elvis would soon be over-the-hill as rock was dying and what could they do in their "old age?" Many people regard (incorrectly) the early '60s as a musical wasteland, merely setting the scene for the Beatles' & British invasion. Of course rock & roll survived and continued to flourish, bringing us to the point that early rockers are now in their 70s and 80s.
Little Richard is 80, Chuck Berry is 86, Jerry Lee Lewis is 77 and B.B. King is 87. Some of these guys actually still tour—at least occasionally. It begs the question: Are they simply playing the role of their younger selves? I do understand the concept of seeing a musical icon perform, even if it's in his or her twilight years. I certainly enjoyed seeing an elderly Cab Calloway belt it out in a college performance hall, far from the Cotton Club era.
So Mick Jagger is 70. The Rolling Stones played concerts this year and may tour again in 2014. Fortunately Mick is able to deliver an energetic show. In a recent interview, he revealed that he keeps fit by practicing ballet to help his balance, as well as yoga and pilates. He also admitted to being politically conservative, which might surprise anyone who equates '60s rock culture with liberalism.
It's one thing to get on stage and run through songs the audience recognizes and expects. But how long can performers continue to be artistically vital and record new material makes an impact? One problem that singers such as Van Morrison and Neil Young face, is they are competing with their pasts. "Brown Eyed Girl," "Domino," and "Moondance" for Van and "Cinnamon Girl," "Heart Of Gold," and "Old Man" for Neil will forever be their standards. Paul Simon, who has been recording since 1957—that's over 55 years!— seems to have endless creativity and enthusiasm. At 71, his tours showcase thoughtful musical arrangements and expanded accompaniment—far more than the perfunctory performances by some of Simon's peers. His albums also continue to explore new territory. The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, also 71, balances the old and new as well. And let's face it, all of us are astounded that he is capable, considering his physical and mental health issues.
Careers can be revived, particularly with those who weren't strictly rock & roll. Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and even Tony Bennett were able to appeal to a younger audience with contemporary recordings. Louis Armstrong had a 1964 number one hit ("Hello Dolly") at age 62, 38 years after his first charting record.
Leonard Cohen, 78, still tours and records, even if his latest album was titled Old Ideas! Likewise for Bob Dylan at 72, although no one would accuse him of being a rocker. 77-year-old Buddy Guy still issues recordings that garner notice, while continuing to tear it up on stage.
Real rock & roll has always been about rebellion, be it social or political. Who would have thought that being musically active in your 70s and beyond could be perceived as an act of rock & roll rebellion?