Opinion

What rock fans don't want to admit

The recent death of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts at the age of 80 is just the latest rude reminder of what all of us know in our bones but nonetheless choose to ignore most days: The classic rock era is nearly dead and buried — and so are its greatest icons.

I wrote about this two years ago, and, inevitably, things are looking even bleaker now. Bob Dylan is 80. Paul McCartney and Paul Simon are 79. And not far behind them are a host of rock stars well into their 70s: Brian Wilson, Carole King, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Ray Davies, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Debbie Harry, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Bryan Ferry, Elton John, and Don Henley. James Taylor and Jackson Browne just completed a tour together; the former is 73, the latter 72. The baby of the bunch, Bruce Springsteen, currently wrapping up another residency on Broadway, turns 72 next month.

Over the next decade, most of these superstars are going to die, and the remaining holdouts soon after. On one level, this will be a terrible loss. These are people we care about deeply, who write and perform music that means the world to us.

But if we're honest, we also have to admit that the loss is largely a function of nostalgia, of feelings attached to sounds and sights from long ago. Yes, many of these legends still take to the road to play live. Some produce new music from time to time. But none of these artists — not one — is doing work to rival the quality of what they produced at their peak. And in every case, that high point was decades ago.

This isn't an observation rooted in cruelty, misanthropy, or what today gets labeled "ageism." Few of us are doing our best, most creative work in our 70s, and I don't mean to imply there's something shameful about rock stars shining less brightly as they enter and take up residence in old age.

But what about in their 60s, 50s, or even 40s? Think of classical or jazz composers, painters, novelists, playwrights, poets — those who work in these art forms don't typically peak in their 20s or 30s only to fade out over the remaining decades. Yet that is the nearly invariable pattern in rock music.  

In this respect, at least, rock 'n' roll has proven to be exactly what its critics said it was back in the early days of the rock era — music for young people — though in a sense somewhat different than they intended it. Back then, when people (usually parents of rock-obsessed teenagers) said that the new music was for kids, they meant that it was childish, that its highly amplified racket, throbbing rhythms, and disregard for established norms appealed only to young people, who would soon outgrow its excesses. That has obviously been disproven by time, as the teenagers of the 1960s have aged while remaining adoring fans of the Beatles, the Stones, and their many successors, and as the same process has repeated itself across subsequent generations of artists and fans.

Yet the epithet about rock being young-people music has been vindicated in another sense. Once the rock stars themselves age beyond their late teens, 20s, and 30s, their talents nearly always wane and recede in a way that appears to be unique to rock, indicating that its sources are deeply intertwined with the character of the art form itself. How could that be? What is it about rock music that links it so indelibly to youth?

Before venturing an answer, preliminary objections present themselves. Is it really true? Do the rock gods really reach an artistic pinnacle early and then decline? I frankly don't see how anyone could deny it, at least as a general rule with a small number of partial exceptions.

Let's start with the easiest cases and move toward the more challenging ones.

The Rolling Stones. What's your favorite record by the Stones? The early singles gathered together on the first half of the first Hot Rocks compilation? Or one of the albums from their artistic pinnacle: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St.? Those four albums were released between 1968 and 1972, when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were in their late 20s. Maybe a handful would point to Tattoo You, which came out in 1981, when they were both in their late 30s. But after that? Would anyone, anywhere try to make the case that Voodoo Lounge (1994) or A Bigger Bang (2005) or any other post-1981 Stones album is the band's best work? Of course not. Those records were the band spinning its wheels, putting out some utterly forgettable new songs to justify (sort of) the nostalgia-fueled stadium tours that followed. By that point, the fire of genuine creativity had long died out.

The Who: They began as a strong singles band in the latter half of the '60s and quickly built toward an astonishing artistic breakthrough with the double-album rock opera Tommy, which was released in 1969, when songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend was 24 years old and lead singer Roger Daltrey was 25. Over the next decade, The Who proved themselves to be one of the greatest and most ambitious bands in rock history. But after that? Face Dances, released in 1982, after the death of drummer Keith Moon, was a solid album, but hardly up to the standard of Who's Next or Quadrophenia, released roughly a decade earlier. And then? Townshend put out a few strong solo records, but each release was less musically accomplished than the one before. But even those stopped before he turned 50. Since then, there have been plenty of side projects mining and remining the work the band did in their 20s, and an endless succession of farewell and reunion tours, and even a couple of forgettable new albums. But nothing worth listening to twice, let alone comparing to the work the band did in their youth.

Elton John: He's one of the most successful pop-rock performers in history and co-author (with lyricist Bernie Taupin) of dozens of hit singles and first-rate album tracks stretching from the late 1960s through the mid-'70s, with a second, lesser surge in creativity stretching from the early 80s through the early 90s. That's a longer run than most, lasting through Elton's mid-40s. But he didn't stop there. Since 1995, John has released seven studio albums that no one would say compare to either of his prior periods of excellence.

The contrast with Billy Joel is revealing. Joel began his career in the early 1970s, hit a creative and commercial peak between 1976 and 1983, put out three comparatively second-rate records between 1986 and 1993 — and then he quit making new rock music altogether at the age of 44. Since then he's put out an album of classical compositions, toured extensively with fellow piano man Elton John, and more recently set up a residency at Madison Square Garden, where (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic) he played a monthly concert consisting entirely of music he wrote and released decades ago. (The residency is scheduled to resume in November.)

Down through the years, John and Joel have conducted a bitter feud in the press about whether Joel should be putting out new music or John putting out less. Observing the arcs of their two careers, it's hard not to feel greater respect for Joel for his intentional act of self-abnegation. Like R.E.M., another top-tier rock act that chose to retire (when its members were in their early 50s) rather than release an ever-lengthening list of ever-more creatively anemic material, Joel took a candid look at the songs he was writing and recording and decided his best work was behind him. And rather than contenting himself with coasting artistically for years or decades, he renounced the ambition to release new songs, despite the fact that doing so would have kept him in the spotlight and kept the money rolling in much longer. That was a courageous act of artistic honesty and integrity. If only it were more common.  

Paul McCartney: A few months short of his 28th birthday when The Beatles broke up in April 1970, McCartney went on to an immensely successful career during the '70s as a solo act and leader of the band Wings — though few would say that even the best of this work approaches the creative high points of his prior, epochal collaboration with John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. And after that? McCartney has had occasional hits and released some decent albums over the years that some critics described along the way as artistic comebacks. In retrospect, that's a highly debatable proposition. But especially when we're talking about the music he's released since the early 1990s, when he was in his late 40s, it's hard to imagine any of it gaining much notice or appreciation without the legend of the Beatles attached to it.

Bob Dylan: Dylan is a tough case, at least according to many of his biggest fans and admiring critics, who think he's been releasing top-notch work since Time out of Mind, the 1997 album he released when he was 56. That is indeed a strong record that includes at least one enduringly great song ("Not Dark Yet"). Releasing an artistically rich album at that stage of life is unusual for a rock musician, but Dylan is an unusual talent, so we shouldn't really be surprised. Though it would be surprising if he were able to sustain that quality. And he hasn't. There are interesting songs sprinkled across the half dozen or so albums he's released since then. But it's foolish to compare their quality to the string of enduring masterpieces he released from 1962 to 1966 or to 1974's Blood on the Tracks, Dylan's last truly great album, which appeared when he was 33 years old.

That leaves us with a couple of borderline cases.

Had David Bowie stopped putting out new music at the end of the last millennium, his career would have followed the classic trajectory of the early fade-out, with his final great album coming with Scary Monsters, which appeared in 1980, when Bowie was 33. The rest of what he released during the '80s, like most of his '90s output, was vastly inferior to his classic run of albums beginning with 1969's Space Oddity. But unlike most artists, Bowie underwent a genuine artistic renaissance with Heathen, the album he released in 2002 when he was 55, and that return to form continued through his last three studio albums, taking him all the way down to his death in 2016 at the age of 69. Were those last four albums as vital as his best work during the 70s? It's a debatable point. But the fact that we're forced to ponder the question points toward an unusual, genuine rebirth of creativity later in his life.

Bruce Springsteen's career has taken a similar shape, with an initial period of excellence followed by a decade of undeniable mediocrity (the 1990s), which is then succeeded by partial revitalization. The Rising (2002) and Magic (2007), released when The Boss was in his 50s, are very strong records that come close to the level of his best early work. His other releases over the past 20 years have been a mixed bag, with strong material mixing with mediocrity. But much of it outshines what he was doing during his lost decade, and that in itself shows that Springsteen's career partially defies the broader declinist trend among rock stars.

So, why does it happen? What can explain the pattern of youthful efflorescence of talent and creativity that burns itself out so quickly, leaving the artist comparatively empty of inspiration just a decade or two later?

A small part can perhaps be explained by physical exhaustion or unintentional self-mutilation. This is clearest in the case of singers. Most rock vocalists are untutored. They begin singing in garages or small clubs just by doing it — by pushing their vocal cords as far as they can go, often louder and higher than any vocal coach would advise. That's what you get with a demotic form of creativity: the spontaneous, impulsive, imperfect expression of intense emotion and its transformation into art.

After years of straining night after night on the road, with little proper rest and in many cases smoking, drinking, and drug abuse mixed in, damage is done. That's why rock singers often lose the capacity to sing their older songs as they were recorded and end up forced to play them in lower keys as they age. Their vocal range constricts. Their capacity to make large melodic leaps declines, leading many singers to embrace a form of talk-singing, in which a song's melody is merely gestured at and approximated. This damage can also limit an artist's capacity to produce new music as vibrant as what they once wrote and performed.

Which might just be another way of saying that the rock 'n' roll lifestyle leads to premature aging.

But that's at most a peripheral factor. It's often not just the performance that suffers as a rock star's career advances, but the songwriting itself. And explaining that requires plunging deeper into what might be called the rock psyche.

Rock 'n' roll tends to be angry, defiant music. It struggles and surges against constraint. It rises up against poverty, against invisibility, against parents, against the government, against God, against bullies and authorities of all kinds, against mainstream expectations. It seeks to push boundaries and appeals to popular tastes that aren't yet fully formed, anticipating what the masses will want to hear before members of the potential audience even know for themselves.

That makes rock music very much an art form of discontented youth. It's about rage and resentment at a world that seems structured to thwart the artist's ambitions. The musician responds with gestures of insolence — by turning up the volume, by increasing the distortion on the guitars, by mastering and honing the instrumental assault, by subverting expectations, by breaking into a shriek on the high notes, by penning ever-more artistically audacious and emotionally lacerating lyrics, by bombarding the audience with noise and light and sound. All in the hope of winning popular recognition for a gesture of impassioned insubordination.

Rock is the music of a raised fist.

It's hardly surprising that those who succeed in the game — who become superstars earning fortunes and grow accustomed to the screaming adulation of adoring fans — have trouble mustering the impulse and energy to keep up the fight. They no longer live in a world that seems organized to defy their ambitions and longing for recognition. They live in a world that offers them constant lavish rewards, a fulfillment of every desire that inspired their artistic quest in the first place.

They won.

What is there to write and sing about when your every desire has been and continues to be fulfilled? When you are a living legend? When people beg for your signature or a scrap of ripped clothing everywhere you go? When groupies present themselves to you by the dozens? When you've grown used to handlers and managers and spending time with the people who are now your peers at the peak of the popular entertainment machine in a mass democracy — your fellow icons, the other rock stars and movie stars and runway models, all of whom adore you, too, clamoring for your time and attention, constantly praising and flattering you?

Many try to keep it going. Songwriting and performing can be a job like any other. But where does the fire come from? Where is its fuel?

Other kinds of artists don't have quite the same struggle. Classical and jazz composers can and do keep striving to achieve beauty or enact improvisational feats throughout their entire lives. Painters can and do aim to keep representing and transmuting the world around them for as long as they maintain their vision and control of a paintbrush. The same goes for novelists, playwrights, and poets. Most fade in late middle age, as we all do in our own ways. But until then, most will continue the work of perfecting their craft, producing new literary artifacts that speak to intricate aspects of a multifaceted human condition. 

It obviously isn't impossible for rock musicians to do the same throughout their lives. They still love and endure loss. They age. They confront death. They live in a wider world of injustice. All of that and more present fitting subjects for powerful, compelling songs. But the drive, the bile, the essential, agonistic spirit that powers the greatest rock music and serves as the source of its creativity will almost certainly be lacking.

No wonder the greatness wanes. Rock musicians start out hoping to conquer a recalcitrant world. Once they've succeeded, what is left but inertia — forward motion carried on by mere momentum?

So by all means, keep listening to the fantastic old music, catch a last glimpse of the greats before they complete their final tours, and mourn their passing when they've gone.

But do so understanding why the fire couldn't help but die out long ago. 

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