Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. Today, he muses on the recent barrage of rock stars announcing their retirements.
Tom Brady’s getting older, even if it rarely shows on Sundays. That otherworldly arm now looks human at times, and Gisele publicly worries about the cumulative toll of thousands of hard shots across the years (her husband did support Trump, after all). But let’s stick to the gridiron. Despite his 40 years of age – ancient in football terms – the New England Patriots’ All-Everything franchise quarterback and master deflater will likely spend Sunday evening padding his already never-going-to-be-sniffed list of post-season accomplishments, including once again becoming the oldest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl. However, the NFL’s most experienced signal caller is also about to face a new type of coverage for the first time in ages: one in which, fair or not, intended or not, his age will begin to precede his feats, no matter how remarkable they may be.
But that’s on us, of course, not Brady. He’s gaining yards in territory in which we’ve never seen snaps taken before – a down and distance unknown to us. For all our society’s obsession with defying age, we rarely run into someone who actually seems to have achieved that feat. Or at least we understand that what Brady’s doing at his age defies explanation. Nobody should still be king of the hill when they’re so far over the hill. No, the playbook of life suggests that Brady’s skills and body should’ve begun deteriorating years ago and that we should be looking to enshrine him in Canton’s Pro Football Hall of Fame at 40 years old, not see him hoisting another Lombardi Trophy, plugging a trip to Disney World, and shortly setting out in preparation for yet another Super Bowl appearance next season.
A post-season run that has seen Brady baffle the laws of aging on the football field has also witnessed several equally marquee-worthy names in rock and roll announce their retirement plans. The rebellious genre that once declared, “I hope I die before I get old” didn’t get its wish, it seems, despite its destructive lifestyle and ancillaries having snuffed out so many of its luminaries — Lennon, Moon, Prince, Biggie and Tupac, Winehouse and the rest of the 27 Club – long before they became old men and women who had the chance to fade away or take up competitive bingo. Now, with names as illustrious as Elton John, Paul Simon, Ozzy Osbourne, Neil Diamond, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Slayer announcing farewell tours or goodbyes – and ones that seem far more permanent than a James Murphy adios – the pages of Rolling Stone really could get mistaken for an issue of AARP The Magazine.
A shift has gradually taken place but snuck up on us all the same. It’s our first full generation of rock and roll royalty to have reached ages where bumper sticker clichés like “every day’s a gift” actually ring true, no matter how clean they’re now living. In Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous, Jimmy Fallon got laughs when he suggested that Mick Jagger wouldn’t be strutting across a stage at 50. Of course, Jagger, Keith Richards, and the Stones already had 50 well in their rearview at the time. That was the joke, but could we have predicted then that they’d still be doing it – and pretty damn well – pushing 75? Paul McCartney, similarly scaled to Jesus, and Ringo Starr are still manning that clean fire engine and yellow submarine, respectively, for The Beatles. And you might ask a 72-year-old Neil Young, the man who sang, “Rock and roll can never die,” or a “forever young” Bob Dylan at 76 why they continue to trek along on Never Ending Tours, and you could easily imagine them answering, “Well, nobody ever told us we were supposed to stop.”
Fair point, especially when many of these artists can still put on a respectable rock show and fans are still eager to pony up. And though charts may suggest rock and roll is dying, that gene has been passed on. Picture Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and his Foo Fighters, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, or Annie Clark of St. Vincent on a stage in front of thousands. Now, try imagining them in old-folks’ homes clipping coupons and watching Family Feud instead of knocking out countless legs in the footsteps of their road-warrior predecessors. No, I didn’t think so. Retirement just doesn’t seem in the DNA of some. Then again, they have others out there proving that you can indeed still strut like Mick Jagger, or at least Roger Waters, right into senior citizenship and beyond.
There’s no blueprint, of course, for this type of calling it quits. That’s why Jay-Z and Eminem teased retirement for years. Who knew grown men could be rappers at 50? Ozzy already cried wolf back in 1992 at 44 with his No More Tours Tour. That lasted three years until his Retirement Sucks Tour, soon followed by Ozzfest and Sabbath reunion glory. After years of fighting to be labeled “rock and roll,” Billy Joel stopped writing rock songs in the early ‘90s. Roger Daltrey eventually had to admit that his vocal chords just couldn’t wrap themselves around Who songs anymore. Bowie simply seemed content to never tour again. Flip the coin, and you have a graying Cat Stevens back as Yusuf after his decades of spiritual searching, not to mention recently passed Daptone talents Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley who demonstrated that it’s never too late to become a soul icon. Bluesman Robert Finley has since taken up that call to remind us that age doesn’t mean a damn thing unless we grant it that authority.
But still, it’s strange. Rock stars getting old. Rock stars retiring. Rock stars acting so much like, well, us. After decades of performances and headlines, often scandalous, that suggested they were nothing like us, except for maybe a resonating verse here or there. That’s the whole idea of being a rock star, isn’t it? To be something else. Not ordinary, like us.
Maybe that’s what’s been so startling about this recent barrage of retirement announcements. (Apart from now losing the one time it’s actually appropriate and not entirely lame to holler out “Free Bird” at a rock show.) Sure, the names are landscape-shifters, but it’s a reminder that those onstage gifting us with the songs we’ve come to love and lean upon actually aren’t that different from the rest of us. Keith Richards excepted, they have unpredictable futures to plan for, arrangements to get in order, and life’s final stretches to navigate – hopefully with grace and in good health. Why should they be so different than us in that respect? Paul Simon has opted for the sound of silence in his golden years while Elton John finds his priorities shifting towards family as his circle of life continues. Log the miles that heavy acts like Osbourne, Slayer, and Skynyrd have across decades and see if you aren’t due a rest and a ticket back to your own sweet home, wherever that might be. And, of course, there’s Neil Diamond, whose 50th anniversary tour was cut short by doctor’s orders and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Despite Diamond’s graceful serenity, that one stings. He deserves so much better.
Some of us are still bummed out that there’ll never be another chance to see Leonard Cohen growl and prowl around a stage in his fedora, headbang as Lemmy and Motörhead pummel and thrash a room to slivers, groove to the complete Steely Dan in concert, or even hold out infinitesimal hope for a Bowie comeback tour. Hell, I can barely fathom a summer concert season without laying on an amphitheater lawn listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers run through their greatest hits, an evening that allows me to relive my own. That’s like a summer without baseball, and it’ll be a difficult change-up to face when we fully realize the upcoming season’s been cancelled.
However, in that light, I think we understand better. Our own concert bucket lists be damned. To see Diamond exit perhaps not knowing he had played his last show or how his health will be in the future, to think of Bowie working feverishly in his final days as the great unknown stalked him, or to imagine the recklessness that finally reined in Prince far too soon – that’s not what any of us would wish for for our own departures. Maybe dying old isn’t so bad after all, then, and maybe, just maybe, a well-planned farewell tour on one’s own terms is a pretty rock and roll way to call it a career before we’re all summoned to attend that great gig in the sky.