I truly believed that rock and roll would keep me forever young. And it has. At heart.
Of course, the myth of rock immortality didn’t fare so well. That perception went down in flames after the far-too-early passing of Buddy, Jimi, Janis, Jim, Duane, and others.
But I’ll wager few musicians of a certain age are comfortable considering the effects of aging on their ability to deliver the very thing they love—music.
And yet, this week, Mick Jagger—a 75-year-old demon of sexual energy and arena-shattering charisma who took care of his body, exercised, ate well, and, in effect, was doing a stellar job at combating the wages of time—had to postpone the Stones tour due to undisclosed medical issues. It seems even Jagger can’t prance away from the clock.
Obviously, young superstars can develop issues that necessitate cancelling or postponing tour dates, but the odds go up when a superstar is in his or her 60s, 70s, and even 80s. And there are a lot of classic rockers out there on the road these days. I’d like to think that if a mature musician LOVES making music so much that it’s as critical as breathing, and they can still stand on stage and excite an audience—then isn’t it wonderful that they’re up there spreading joy to themselves and the fans? But there are also aging musicians who would rather sit their butts in a comfy chair at home, but business and personal realities lashed to a significant decrease in royalties compels them to drag their battered bodies out on the road to pay bills.
Of course, Time casts the same shadows over enthusiasm and best intentions, as it does over desperation and the paying of late-life dues.
This “new normal” is increasingly something that all musicians of a certain age—whether they’re legends, pros, weekend warriors, or hobbyists playing with buddies—have to deal with. It doesn’t go away with a new shirt, a new guitar, or a battery of vitamins.
Thankfully, I have been relatively lucky. I can still do what I love to do with no significant “side effects,” except feeling pretty fatigued the day after a show. I give all credit to my gene pool for that, because my exercise and diet regimen is probably far less stringent than Jagger’s. (Much appreciation here goes out to mom, dad, and all the grandparents and aunts and uncles.) But insidious little moments play themselves out in rehearsals and performances—things I never would have worried about (or experienced) in bands populated with 20-, 30-, 40-, and even 50-somethings.
The Wages of Memory. I’d forget a few lyrics or chords here and there, even when I was 15. But get a band of older musicians together, and you might spend more than a few moments looking at a singer rocking a blank stare who has completely forgotten an entire verse. Other players might bobble how to negotiate verses, choruses, bridges, and/or solos, or wail away on chords that have nothing to do with the song at hand. My new-normal favorite is, “Do we have rehearsal today?” Or “When is our next gig?” Google calendars and to-do lists should be essential components of your rig once you cross that line into AARP membership.
The Body Can’t Abide. Arthritis, carpal tunnel, muscle issues, nerve problems, and other gremlins seek to trip us up. A lot of older musicians I know play with pain, or adjust their technique slightly downward, or simply stop playing.
The Passion Wanes. It’s not easy rehearsing, loading your rig into a car probably not designed for rock tours, dragging it all to crap clubs with difficult (or zero) parking options, humping the gear onstage, playing the show, getting everything off stage (don’t forget anything), tossing it all back in the car (don’t tear the seats), driving home, deciding whether you have the oomph to unload the car now or hope your street is safe enough to leave everything where it is until morning, take a shower (unless you live alone, gig sweat is never a nice thing to defile the covers with as you slide next to your significant other), and, in the morning, count the relatively insignificant bucks you earned for all of this trouble. I recently had someone ask me, “Why do you still play rock clubs at your age?” Well, I do it because I ADORE doing it. But I wouldn’t judge anyone who makes the decision to stop gigging at some point, and, amongst my musical acquaintances, that decision is being made more and more these days. Sigh.
Responsibilities Weigh Heavy. Jobs may get tougher to retain (which often ups the work hours in the hopes of “bulletproofing” your employment status), grandparents sometimes have to take over watching their grandchildren, finances ebb and flow, and so many other priorities can become much more important than going to rehearsals, writing songs, recording tracks, and performing.
Audience Engagement. For club musicians, being able to ensure you’ll bring enough of an audience to a venue to make the night profitable for all is often Job One. And here is where younger bands have a huge advantage over older acts. Their friends actually like hanging out and supporting the shows. Tell your mature cohorts that they’ll have to drive somewhere not awesome, stay up until midnight, and be jostled by volume and other bodies, and you’ll get a ton of polite regrets. Of course, even younger acts can’t depend on friends to keep the band in demand. At some point, every musician needs to seduce strangers into being fans and grow the legions of their supporters. That’s Band Marketing 101. Where I see most of the fallout with artists around my age is that they tend to seriously dislike doing all the branding, promotion, marketing, and social networking required to build and maintain audience bases these days. In other words, they don’t do it. Or they do it half-heartedly, or inconsistently. This stuff is a lot to have on your plate if you’re 21. Gaze at that promotional to-do list at 55, and you may just turn to dust.
So, to quote a phrase attributed to Bette Davis, “Old age ain’t for sissies.”
That said, every bummer of body, brain, soul, and energy I’ve had to contend with as I continue to rock has been thoroughly over-matched and beaten down by the incredible bliss that accompanies holding a guitar, playing a guitar, and performing for people—even if those “people” are a bartender and ten paying customers.
The same may not be true for you, and that’s fine. We all do what we can, or we cease doing the things we can’t. No judgment there.
But if you’d like to share YOUR experiences around being a mature player, or some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome performing with mature bands, please leave me a comment. I love hearing about how others deal with aging issues, and I’m sure the Guardian of Guitar community will be interested in reading your thoughts, as well.
Now, I’ll leave you with one final, hopefully inspirational comment. Whenever I feel a bit frayed around the edges, I think of Link Wray being a total badass at 76 years old—almost right to the day he died in 2005. Or perhaps Jerry Lee Lewis still booking gigs in 2019 at 83 years old. Or Dick Dale, shredding with massive health problems. Or Les Paul, playing a New York club residency into his 90s.
Hey, it just occurred to me that I might actually be a youngster compared to those legends. Rock on!
Link Wray Playing Loud & Proud at 76 Years Old!