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Rock of ages

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At a recent dinner with friends, the opinion came up again that aging rock bands should just give it up, already, by age 60. This is a pretty popular opinion, with a long history (starting with the rock stars themselves, who once viewed anyone over 30 with suspicion). I once thought that way myself.

But I’ve changed my mind. For one thing, it is a pretty obnoxious opinion: Just because you don’t want to see older performers, everyone else should also be denied the experience? Musicians can’t decide for themselves how best to handle their own legacy? But beyond manners (and ageism), my own concert experience tells me it’s wrong. I dispute the notion that younger rock performers are always better than older ones.

Musical ability doesn’t disappear on one’s 60th birthday.

Barring a physical condition that affects manual dexterity, it doesn’t necessarily even decline for guitarists, bass players, keyboardists, horn players, and drummers.

Case in point: Queen. On his current tour, Brian May (67) feels he is playing better than he ever has. Certainly he sounds great to me. And while I’m no guitar expert, Brian May is, so I’m going to trust his opinion on this. (He is very smart, after all, what with the PhD in astrophysics.)

Brian’s opinion of bandmate Roger Taylor.(65) is equally high. Can Roger’s playing stand up to that of a younger’s player’s? You judge for yourself as Roger faces off with Rufus (his son):

Taylor on Taylor drum battle

What’s that sputtering I hear? That Queen doesn’t count because they tour with amazing singer Adam Lambert, who is only 33?

So this argument isn’t about guitarists, bassists, keyboardists, horn players, and drummers? It’s just about singers. Singers need to retire at 60?

Well, I do grant that everyone’s voice changes as they get older. It lowers, range is reduced, along with ability to sustain notes. It might become more raspy. However…

For some singers, the changes of age are an improvement.

And here I give you, Leonard Cohen, who is 80! And to me — though I love his songs — his own original recordings of them, recorded when he was young, are completely unlistenable. To me, that voice is awful, whiny, nasal.

Yet it has matured into this amazing thing, this low rumble of pure… sex, frankly. I could listen to that man all day (and go home with him later).

Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man (Leonard is admittedly just a child of 75 here.)

Is that more sputtering? That Leonard Cohen doesn’t so much sing as chant, and that his music is not rock, anyway, so that doesn’t count?

For some rock singers, voice quality is irrelevant, because they never had any.

Like, say, Bob Geldof, who is most definitely a rock performer. He can hit the notes, but nobody in the history of the world has ever said he has a beautiful voice, because he doesn’t. It’s sort of nasal and whiny (and come to think of it, if he ever sang Leonard Cohen, I would probably hate it).

So his musical career (still going!) has never been based on vocal quality. He’s an incredible songwriter. He’s an unbelievably charismatic performer. I love his songs despite his lacking vocal tone, because the lyrics are amazing, they are musically well constructed, he works with talented musicians, and he always sings with passion and meaning.

And Bob Geldof gives the best concerts I’ve ever seen. And the one he gave in 2012, when he was 60, was every bit as good as the one I went to in 2002. And just as good as Boomtown Rats shows from the 80s I’ve seen on DVD.

Bob Geldof live in 2012, Ottawa (Mudslide)

Bob Geldof live in 2012, Ottawa (Mudslide)

Even great rock singers don’t necessarily and always give their best concerts at a younger age

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Who. Unlike Cohen, or Geldof, Roger Daltrey had a great voice as a young man: powerful and with huge range. He could sing high, beautiful, affecting emotional notes, then slide down the scale with the most macho growl. His vocal work on the 1973 Who album Quadrophenia could be used a lesson in “how to be a great rock singer.” And coming off the Tommy and Who’s Next tours, The Who were widely regarded as the very best live band in the world,

And yet, The Who Quadrophenia tour in 1973 was a disaster. In his biography, Pete Townshend calls those shows “the most shameful performances of our career.” Under-rehearsed, over-drugged (except Roger), and exhausted, they simply could not put the complex songs and stories of Quadrophenia across to the crowd. Audiences were bored and left unsatisfied.

In 2012, what remained of The Who toured Quadrophenia once again, performing the entire album. Roger was 70 (Pete 69). Some of the songs had to pitched down. He adjusted the phrasing to reduced ability to sustain. In terms of pure vocal technique, he wasn’t as good he was in 1973.

But nevertheless, by all accounts, those concerts were better than the 1973 ones (that I have seen footage of, and it is pretty painful). The band was large enough, sober enough, and well-rehearsed enough to convey the power and complexity of the album, now reconceived as a tribute to the past, and to The Who themselves. (And for me personally, I thought Roger sounded the best he had in years at the Quadrophenia show I saw. “Love Reign O’er Me” gave me chills.)

The Who: 5:15, 2012 tour

Rock is old (and middle-aged) people’s music.

This might be a painful realization, but rock is no longer the music of youth. It started in the 1950s and has had a great, long run. But who was the last big rock group–Foo Fighters? Founded in 1994? Look at the current charts;  it’s all pop, EDM, rap, funk, and R&B. Nobody young plays rock anymore!

If the old coots don’t get out there and play it, then rock really is dead, Are you sure that’s what you want?

5 thoughts on “Rock of ages

  1. Just as an FYI…that was not my opinion. I shouldn’t have remained silent but it was not my opinion.

    • That’s good to know! But don’t worry about not saying anything. The conversation was flowing pretty quickly, and it’s really not that big a deal. It’s just an opinion I’ve heard many times over the past few years (especially about The Who, of course), so the response has been building.

      I sent S. a link to this. It made her laugh – she been told! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the Leonard Cohen clip! A treat 🙂
    As for The Who, and the other (ahem) venerable rockers from the Golden Age, my thought is that they could be doing all sorts of other things with their money and time, yet they choose to perform because they love it. For me, that’s what counts.

    • That is very true! This morning I came across this quote by Roger Taylor (Queen) about why he continues touring: “It is everyone’s prerogative to retire. But it’s like giving up on life as far as I’m concerned. I worked it out years ago. This is who I am.”

      • Yes. And I think it’s up to us whether we can accept them as they are, imperfections and all. I saw Dave Brubeck perform when he was in his 80s and I consider it an honor. He was not able to play in the same style he used to. He changed what he was doing to accommodate his abilities, and it was fascinating to observe what he did with his still considerable gifts.

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