You think I’m over the hill/ Think I’m past my prime/ Let me see what you got/ We can have a whoppin’ good time
— Bob Dylan, “Spirit On the Water” (2006)
Bob Dylan was a comparatively young man of 65 when he recorded his gently swinging “Spirit On the Water” 15 years ago. Now, as his 80th birthday approaches on May 24, he is among a number of rock legends who this year will begin their ninth decade of life and are still going strong.
Some of the others turning 80 this year range from David Crosby and Martha Reeves to guitar great Steve Cropper, Art Garfunkel and Temptations singer Otis Williams, who is the sole surviving original member of that fabled Motown singing group.
“It seems quite plausible to be a musician in your 70s or 80s now,” said Jethro Tull founder Ian Anderson, 73. His 54-year-old band is now completing a new album, its first in 18 years. Jethro Tull’s ninth album, released in 1976, was titled “Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die.”
“We can continue to be productive and die with our boots on,” Anderson continued, “which is a lot better than being spoon-fed in an old-folks home.”
While Paul Simon (who turns 80 in October) and Bob Seger (who turns 76 on May 6) have officially retired in recent years, a significant number of pop music veterans are still recording. They are also poised to resume touring after the COVID-19 pandemic is sufficiently in check to make being on the road safe again. So is Elton John, 74, whose multiyear farewell tour is scheduled to resume in January in New Orleans.
Granted, 80 may not be the new 40 — at least not quite yet. But for a generation that once cautioned against trusting anyone over 30, old age has entered a new age and geriatric rock has become a reality for both performers and fans.
Dylan was 79 last year when he released his audacious album “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” The iconic singer-songwriter was forced to postpone his 2020 summer tour because of the coronavirus pandemic-fueled shutdown of live events.
Charlie Watts, the tireless drummer in the Rolling Stones, will turn 80 on June 2. The fabled English band’s four principal members — Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood — now have a combined age of just under 309. By comparison, the combined age of the four oldest U.S. Supreme Court Justices is only 291.
The Stones were set, pre-pandemic, to open their 2020 North American tour at SDCCU Stadium in Mission Valley, California. Built in 1967, the stadium has now been demolished and a new, smaller stadium is being built in its place. The Stones, whose first performance was in London in 1962, are at work on a new album. Rescheduled concert dates are pending.
“I spoke to Charlie (Watts) recently and he told me: ‘Keith has been calling me and the Stones are going to do the next tour’,” said Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood, 73.
“We are a generation, the baby boomers, that never accepted the idea of: ‘I’m 60 and I’m done.’ That’s why I think — as an aging group of juveniles — we enjoy living. We have rejected the notion of being given a gold watch and retiring. There are tens of millions of people of my age who feel like I do.”
Assuming the Stones’ rescheduled 2020 tour takes place next year, Jagger and Richards will both be hitting the road again at 79. The band’s most recent Southern California concert, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in August 2017, was a charged affair that drew 60,000 people.
Some audience members were young, some were middle-aged. A good number were senior citizens who grew up listening to the Stones, and other bands of that era, and who have maintained their devotion to the music ever since.
“There is a lot more excitement for oldies music and acts than there used to be,” said Grammy Award-winning producer Chris Goldsmith, who is the president of San Diego’s Belly Up Entertainment.
“And a lot of rock artists who are not legends, like Richard Thompson and Steve Earle, are putting out amazing new material and still doing great concerts. My dad is 80 now and still goes to shows. I don’t know that, in the 1980s, someone in their 80s would have done that.”
Such devotion explains why so many veteran classic rock artists continued to earn sizable concert paychecks up until the pandemic shutdown last year. And with record sales constantly declining and music streaming revenues paying almost nothing to many artists, performing on stage to enthusiastic ticket-buying audiences is as much a financial necessity as an emotional one.
This holds true not just for classic rock acts but also for myriad bands that followed in their wake, from Los Lobos, X and Agent Orange to The Cult, A Flock of Seagulls and Dinosaur Jr.
“There’s an offer on the table for Heart to tour in 2022,” said Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, 67, whose band rose to fame in the mid-1970s. “As long as I’m walking and talking, I’ll keep on playing. But I think a lot of the elders in the rock world may be ready to hang it up.”
That is surely true, although a notable number of elders have mounted “farewell” tours — including The Who, Eric Clapton, the Eagles, Kiss, Deep Purple, Cher, Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest — only to later change their minds and come out of retirement for more concert treks.
“I’ll bop till I drop, I guess!” said Foreigner guitarist and founder Mick Jones, 76. “It’s all I really want to do; that, and spend time with my family. I’m not being doom-and-gloom about the fact I am getting to a ripe old age. But I still have fun on stage and the band seems to think I’mdoing pretty good. So, I’m really living in the moment and trying to do that.”
For many musicians and fans, the Rolling Stones have long set the benchmark. The band set a new one with the June 2019 kickoff concert of its most recent tour, which came just three months after constantly-in-motion singer Jagger had undergone heart valve surgery.
“The Stones are still an amazing live band,” Jon Bon Jovi, a mere youngster of 59, told the Union-Tribune late last year. “For me, though, I wish they would retire for one reason: At least then I’d know where the end zone is!
“(Paul McCartney) is still touring all the time and had a new album out last year. … If you want to think of U2, who are our age, they are obviously a great touring rock band. The Eagles are another great example of a touring band that is still singing and playing great. So, yeah, I do think rock can grow old gracefully.”
Once considered music made for young people by young people — and if parents and authority figures were offended, so much the better — rock defiantly abides. Accordingly, veteran artists who became eligible for Social Security payments 15 or 20 years ago have continued to tour, at least until the COVID-19 shutdown began 13 months ago.
Lead singer Mike Love of the Beach Boys, which performed two sold-out drive-in concerts at the Del Mar Fairgrounds last fall, turned 80 on March 15, while twisting and shouting singer Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers will celebrate his 80th birthday on May 21.
Isley was featured earlier this month with Earth, Wind & Fire singer Philip Bailey on an episode of the popular music livestream series “Versuz.” Bailey will be 70 on May 8. The Isley Brothers’ engaging new single, “Friends & Family,” teams them with Snoop Dogg, who will turn 50 in October (which, in hip-hop years, is almost equal to 80).
Welsh singer Tom Jones, 80, has expressed a strong desire to resume touring (his new album features Jones’ version of Dylan’s1976 song “One More Cup of Coffee”). So has Irish-born music bard Van Morrison, 75, who on May 8 will perform the first livestream concert of his career to promote his new double-album, “Latest Record Project: Volume 1.”
“There’s this sort of reverse (discrimination) that if you play rock ‘n’ roll, you’re supposed to be, like, 18 to 25, and after that you can’t cut the mustard. But, hell, obviously that ain’t true — if you can stay the course,” Stones guitarist Richards told the Union-Tribune in back 1998, when he was just 55.
The road goes on forever
For a growing number of aging artists who never stopped performing prior to the pandemic, it appears as if — to paraphrase the lyrics from a 1970 Allman Brothers Band song — the road might go on forever, or at least a while longer. Certainly, the road now goes far beyond what any young musicians who rose to prominence in the 1960s ever imagined possible.
Or, as Billy Joel told Pollstar magazine in 2019: “You start out as a teenager, playing in rock ‘n’ roll bands, and you continue to do this, into your 70s and 80s? I’m seeing these geriatric rockers, they’re still going. They have no intention of quitting. … (So) who am I to stop in my 70s if they’re still doing it in their 80s?
“The concept of retiring is getting more and more obsolete. I see no reason why I shouldn’t keep going. I learned how to do this my whole life. I became an expert at it. I’ve got a great band. The audiences are better than they’ve ever been. There’s more people coming. I play these phenomenal venues, and I make a ton of money. Why should I stop doing that?”
Of course, few artists can still fill New York’s 20,000-capacity Madison Square Garden on a monthly basis as Joel did for six years through February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic shutdown of live events began. And fewer still can fill stadiums, as he did when he performed five years ago at San Diego’s Petco Park.
“I never wanted to be an oldies act, but I suppose I am,” Joel told the Union-Tribune in a 2016 interview. “I never wanted to be a nostalgia act, but I suppose I am. But I listen to Beethoven, and that’s really old stuff. Is that nostalgia? To me, that music is as alive as it ever was.”
Sadly, nearly all of the first generation of pioneering rock stars — including Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Bo Diddley — are deceased. But their longevity as performers inspired countless others. And many of the blues and jazz greats who helped lay the foundation for rock have routinely performed into their 80s or beyond, including San Diego-based jazz sax great Charles McPherson, 81, and fellow sax legend Charles Lloyd, who turned 83 on March 15.
“I only presume that this issue comes up because nobody in rock has taken it this far down the line,” Stones guitarist Richards told the Union-Tribune — in 1998.
“If we called it jazz, or if we called it rhythm-and-blues, or if we called it something else … nobody would say, ‘Why are you still doing this?’ They’d say, ‘Fantastic, man! Keep going’.”
Moreover, it has long been assumed and expected that blues and jazz artists would and should get better and better as they grew older. Rock, conversely, was regarded as the exclusive domain of the young. The mere notion of becoming an “oldies” act was regarded with a combination of alarm, disbelief and contempt.
That was largely because rock, at least when performed by young bands and solo artists, exuded an intense physicality that accounted for much of its initial appeal. Jagger aside, few aging rockers can still summon up that physicality on stage.
Dylan, who has performed with the Stones, never moved like Jagger and has never tried to. Even so, arthritis prompted Dylan’s decision nearly 20 years ago to almost always play a stand-up electric piano at his concerts, rather than a guitar. His movements on stage have become so minimal that even the slightest turning of his head or the flutter of his fingers during a song caries major theatrical impact.
“Look, you get older” Dylan told AARP magazine in 2015. “Passion is a young man’s game. Young people can be passionate. Older people gotta be more wise. I mean, you’re around awhile, you leave certain things to the young. Don’t try to act like you’re young. You could really hurt yourself.”
Jethro Tull’s Anderson agreed. He also noted that being a musician is far less taxing physically than other vocations.
“It’s good to be in my line of work, rather than be a Formula One racer or a tennis player, because their careers tend to be over at half my age,” Anderson told the Union-Tribune.
“I’m pretty pleased that my aspirations to continue with music were brought to fruition by good luck and hard work. In a sense, making music is like riding a bike. And if you fall off, there’s a danger you might not be able to continue. So, it’s good not to fall off.”
But not everyone is convinced rocking into old age is a good idea.
“Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones don’t need to go on the road again; they have lots of money,” said singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, 66. “And I don’t need to see them live, because I’ve seen them. They should retire now. They’re really old.”
The recent spate of graying rock and pop legends who have sold the publishing rights to their songs for enormous sums of money — including Dylan, Neil Young, Blondie, Barry Manilow and Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham — suggests a recognition on their parts that the road does not go on forever after all.
Yet, while it was surpassed years ago by hip-hop in terms of both mainstream popularity and cultural impact, rock can still instantly re-connect musicians and audiences with their youth and each other — including Pete Townshend, the leader of The Who.
His band’s classic 1965 song “My Generation” was defined by such defiant lyrics as: “Hope I die before I get old.” Continuing to perform that same song more than half a century later, as The Who did at its Viejas Arena concert barely two years ago, was unimaginable in the 1960s.
“I know all old people say this, but I still feel young,” Townshend, who turns 76 on May 19, told the Union-Tribune in 2019.
“Truth is, in some ways, I look better (now) than I sometimes did at 24. But I am certainly old. My health and my stamina are good. The word ‘old’ in the context of ‘My Generation’ was one that signified the Establishment of the day, not old people. I would never have said, for example, ‘I hope I die before I get like John Lee Hooker, Ella Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington.’ I didn’t want to get old — before my time — like people in government, leaders, the rich, the aristocracy. I didn’t despise those people, I just didn’t want to be like them.
“Now, at 74, I am accepted by the Establishment and many of its principals are much younger than me. So what I feel about all this today is standing on its head.”
But perspective — like age — can be relative, as Broadway musical pioneer and ragtime and jazz piano great Eubie Blake demonstrated when he was in his 90s.
It was then that Blake, who had come out of retirement at the age of 86, was informed by his booking agent of a lucrative offer to play a concert date in Germany. Blake pragmatically responded: “I don’t think that’s the best career move for me right now!”