Too old to rock and roll: Too young to die


“People try to put us down
Just because we get around
Things they do look awful cold
I hope I die before I get old.”

-The Who, “My Generation” (1965)

The Who first recorded “My Generation” in 1965. At the age of 20, Roger Daltry, Pete Townshend, Keith Moon and John Entwistle came across the pond to the United States and embodied the rebellious youth of the mid-1960s.

Although The Who is still touring and recording new material (their newest album, “Endless Wire,” was released in October 2006), one of them did die before he got old – drummer Keith Moon passed from an overdose at the age of 32. Another one died before he got very old. Bassist John Entwistle died at the age of 57 in 2002 – of a heart attack likely caused by an overdose of cocaine.

The two living original members, lead vocalist Roger Daltry and guitarist Pete Townshend, are still touring. They have yet to “f-f-f-fade away,” as “My Generation” suggests the older generation should do. As The Who keeps touring the world and releasing new material, Entwistle and Moon have been replaced with Pino Palladino and Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr’s son), respectively.

The Who have gone back on their promise to die before they got old. But is there really anything wrong with that? Rock band Jethro Tull would say no.

In 1976, Jethro Tull released a concept album called “Too Old to Rock and Roll: Too Young to Die” which follows the exploits of Ray Lomas. Lomas is a fictional aging rock star who decides to take his own life by crashing his motorcycle. He is unsuccessful, however, and ends up in a coma. When he awakes after an undetermined length of time, Lomas’ style of music is popular again among the youth and he becomes an overnight sensation. In the title track, Lomas finally comes to the conclusion that “you’re never too old to rock and roll / if you’re too young to die.”

In Lomas’ mold, Jethro Tull is still touring with one original member. At the age of 60, Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson appears to be the only member of the band to live up to Lomas’ admonition to those who are considering giving up the rock and roll lifestyle in order to settle down. American culture attempts to embrace aging rock stars such as Jethro Tull, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. However, that embrace often comes with a sly, tongue-in-cheek warning: “You’re never too old to rock and roll if you’re too young to die. But, if you try to act like a rocker but look like my grandfather, I reserve the right to make fun of you.”

Unfortunately, some rock stars have done nothing to better themselves, reinvent their image or stimulate their creative muscles through the years. Instead, they are clutching to the remaining scraps of their former fame while helping young America poke fun at the antics of the aged.

. . .

“Screaming at the window
Watch me die another day
Hopeless situation endless price I have to pay
Sanity now it’s beyond me there’s no choice…
Dear diary I’m here to stay.”

-Ozzy Osbourne, “Diary of a Madman” (1981)

As a pioneering “shock rocker,” Ozzy Osbourne rose to fame in the 1970s for his work as the lead singer of heavy metal band Black Sabbath. After being kicked out of Black Sabbath for being unreliable (primarily due to his drug addiction), Osbourne began a largely successful solo career that saw him release seven multi-platinum albums in the 1980s and 1990s. Osbourne was feared by American media outlets in much the same way that Eminem, Marilyn Manson or others are treated today. His reign of terror from the 1970s until the mid-1990s included displaying Satanic imagery at his concerts, being sued twice under allegations that one of his songs incited two separate teenagers to commit suicide, and his acts of animal abuse.

Yes, Osbourne really did bite the head off of a dead bat during a concert in Des Moines, Iowa in 1982. Previously, he had bitten the head off of a live dove during a meeting with record executives in 1981.

Since 2002, however, Osbourne’s appalling aura has been nearly destroyed by his MTV reality show, “The Osbournes.”

On the show, Osbourne’s dysfunctional family (including wife Sharon, daughter Kelly and son Jack) curses at each other and fumbles their way through everyday life. Although the show won a 2002 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program, its primary function seemed to be exposing Osbourne as a relatively harmless codger in his mid-fifties, yammering unintelligibly at his wife and kids instead of destroying hotel rooms and performing pagan rituals. Before “The Osbournes” hit the airwaves, Osbourne was seen as a dangerous enigma. He would be among the last rock stars in fans’ minds to have a reality show about his family, much less be depended on to say “something immensely touching” on a consistent basis. But that’s what fans got. The show hasn’t entirely destroyed Osbourne’s reputation for rock, but his two albums since the show’s end (2005’s “Under Cover” and 2007’s “Black Rain”) were commercial disappointments.

. . .

“And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn,
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew,
Tangled up in blue.”

-Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue” (1974)

In stark contrast to Osbourne’s maladroit tomfoolery, Bob Dylan is perhaps the greatest example of an artist keeping himself culturally relevant through his twilight years. At age 66, Dylan truly is keepin’ on like “a bird that flew.” In fact, his 2006 album “Modern Times” was his first album to hit #1 on the Billboard chart since 1976, selling more than four million copies worldwide. This feat made Dylan “the oldest person ever to go straight in at Number One in the American album chart” (NME). “Modern Times” also won two Grammy awards: one for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album and one for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance for the song “Someday Baby.” He was also recently bestowed with a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, becoming only the sixth musician (excluding composers) to receive this prestigious honor.

In preliminary press notes about his pseudo-Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” writer and director Todd Haynes said,

The minute you try to grab hold of Dylan, he’s no longer where he was. He’s like a flame: If you try to hold him in your hand you’ll surely get burned. Dylan’s life of change and constant disappearances and constant transformations makes you yearn to hold him, and to nail him down. And that’s why his fan base is so obsessive, so desirous of finding the truth and the absolutes and the answers to him — things that Dylan will never provide and will only frustrate… Dylan is difficult and mysterious and evasive and frustrating, and it only makes you identify with him all the more as he skirts identity.

Perhaps this refusal to be defined aids Dylan in his quest to maintain relevance as he marches through middle age. Throughout the years, Dylan has gone by a plethora of pseudonyms: Elston Gunn, Blind Boy Grunt, Lycky Wilbury, Boo Wilbury, Elmer Johnson, Sergei Petrov, Jack Frost, Jack Fate, Willow Scarlet, Robert Milkwood Thomas, and of course, his real name, Robert Zimmerman. These many identities are perhaps indicative of his elusive nature and rebellion against definition.

In a way, that refusal keeps him relevant to each generation. Dylan has reinvented himself time and time again through his early folk albums, acoustic masterpieces, the switch to electric guitars, the conversion to Christianity, his period in hiding and renaissance in the late 1990s, Dylan has somehow remained a cultural icon to young and old, protesters and establishment alike. So many times, in fact, that in the liner notes for the 2007 greatest hits anthology “Dylan,” Bill Flanagan writes that when listening to the career retrospective, “you can follow whichever song here strikes your fancy back to the album it came from and find ten more just as good. Consider this a compass and a map.”

So what is it? What is that “it” quality that separates Bob Dylan from bumbling old rock stars such as Ozzy Osbourne?

. . .

“I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

-Bob Dylan, “Not Dark Yet” (1997)

Dylan’s career differs from Osbourne and other aging rockers primarily because of his focus on his current work. Dylan’s career is unabashedly about the craft of writing songs, making music and finding new adventures, whereas the Ozzy Osbournes of the world seem more concerned with clinging to the condition of being famous.

According to media theorist Arthur Asa Berger, Americans consume media for many different reasons, such as “to find models to imitate” or “to affirm moral, spiritual and cultural values.” However, these only work for a short period of time. Once a model has been imitated or a value affirmed, the public is ready to discard that person, to throw the baby boomer out with the bathwater.

A celebrity seemingly has three choices once they have been in the public eye long enough: They can reinvent their identity in order to stay relevant (Madonna and Bob Dylan have become experts at this). Some simply fade away. This leads their fans to find any way to relive the glory days, which often comes out in nostalgia-based websites such as and Finally, still others attempt to cling to their past fame like Ozzy Osbourne, former Poison frontman Bret Michaels and other reality show stars. These former A-list celebrities use reality shows or other gimmicks in the hopes that they will remain relevant to a new generation of listeners.

If the latter is the case, media users are wont to change their strategies. Instead of exalting the celebrity in question, they will try to tear that person down. Those media users who were originally looking to be empathic or find role models to emulate will then read, watch and listen to media texts in order “to see authority figures deflated,” as well as “to see others make mistakes.” However, publications can unintentionally deflate celebrities, even in the midst of their rebirth.

. . .

“Where is the ripcord, the trapdoor, the key?
Where is the cartoon escape-hatch for me?
No time to question the choices I make
I’ve got to follow another direction

-R.E.M., “Accelerate” (2008)

Despite the article’s attempted focus on their ‘resurrection,’ the April 2008 issue of Spin Magazine unfortunately paints R.E.M. as a band of brothers who are helplessly over the hill. In terms of cultural relevance, musicians over 40 years old are often seen as “too old.” While some still enjoy success, they are still often derided due to their age or represented mostly in terms of their past glory.

Even though their career arc parallels Dylan’s more than Michaels’ or Osbourne’s, the members of rock band R.E.M. are treated as if they have one foot in the grave. R.E.M., made up of lead singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills, released their newest album, “Accelerate,” to critical acclaim on March 31, 2008. It was a commercial success as well, hitting #2 on the Billboard chart by selling 115,000 copies in the first week.

A brief analysis of the photography in the issue suggests that the editors at Spin have depicted R.E.M. as past their prime, whether that depiction is intentional or not. Images signify ideas beyond their basic content, and Spin Magazine uses photography to signify how the band has aged. This brings their advancing age to the forefront in a time when R.E.M. is still culturally relevant.

In the feature about R.E.M., the three band members are dressed formally, as if attending a funeral. Most of the photos inside the magazine are in black and white as well, which add to the theme of death. There are photos that show them in more ‘rock star’-style clothing, but even then, the musicians are posed with their hands on their chins in order to look more contemplative and thoughtful rather than young and excitable. These poses signify that although they are in a youthful profession, their aged wisdom is the overriding aspect of their personality, no matter how energetic their new material may be.

While the band members may very well spend much of their time lost in thought, the article in question supposedly focuses on “Accelerate” and the band’s return to their more youthful sound. In this case, the photography should capture the general thrust of the article if at all possible.

In addition to the “funeral” and “contemplation” photos, there is also a “retrospective” section, comprised of photos showing R.E.M. in their younger days of performing. If the article is attempting to show how R.E.M.’s new album keeps them culturally viable, there is no reason for Spin Magazine to focus on the past. It would be more relevant to print photos from R.E.M.’s most recent tour, or from recording sessions.

In American culture, rock and roll musicians have reached a plane where they are seen as hedonistic champions of rebellious youth culture. Even R.E.M. had their wild days, which are alluded to in Spin’s retrospective photography. But their personalities have not been so radically altered over the years to deserve to be treated as elderly.

If Spin Magazine can fail so badly, is there hope for any publication to treat aging rock stars appropriately? Parade Magazine would answer with a definitive yes.

. . .

“Time can tear down a building or destroy a woman’s face
Hours are like diamonds, don’t let them waste
Time waits for no one, no favors has he
Time waits for no one, and he won’t wait for me”

-The Rolling Stones, “Time Waits for No One” (1974)

As badly as Spin Magazine fails in their coverage of R.E.M., Parade Magazine’s treatment of Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones succeeds. Author James Kaplan grills singer Mick Jagger in an interview about aging gracefully alongside the other members of his band, The Rolling Stones. The article is accompanied with a half-page photo of Jagger, looking as youthful as ever as he screams at the camera. In the photo, Jagger  wears a loose green shirt that exposes his midriff. The color green is frequently used to symbolize growth, harmony, freshness and fertility, and Jagger’s exposed belly conveys a sense of freedom. While the angle of Jagger’s seemingly-eternal youth may be a little bit over the top, the important piece is the emphasis on his freedom. Freedom not only to age gracefully, but to rejoice in his sexuality and passion for rock and roll.

The photo seems indicative of Kaplan’s hypothesis that “we should all age like Mick Jagger.” Kaplan doesn’t mean that we should all spend our sixties on the covers of magazines or touring the country with a rock and roll band; instead, he openly praises Jagger’s healthy perspective on growing old. Instead of counseling the youth of America (or England, for that matter) or trying to find a new role in some idealized niche as he ages, Jagger says that “my role is just to move forward.”

Kaplan focuses on The Rolling Stones’ past, but remains nonjudgmental of the fact that they are soldiering on in their old age. In fact, he points out that The Rolling Stones have a cross-generational appeal:

Some may see the [new tour film] and think: These guys should have hung it up so long ago. Jagger and [guitarist] Keith Richards both turn 65 this year. But to listen to the Stones’ music is to forget all about the idea that rock ‘n’ roll was meant only for young people.

As The Rolling Stones,  R.E.M., Bob Dylan and a growing number of others are proving, rock and roll is becoming a multi-generational phenomenon. If performers can keep their material fresh or reinvent their image, media outlets will smile upon them and at least attempt to show them the respect they have earned. Aging rock and roll stars do not lead ordinary lives, and they cannot be simplified to a single mold.

When looking at coverage of aging rock stars, the important perspective for media producers and consumers to have is one of humility and appreciation. As they age, rock stars themselves need to keep themselves creative while focusing on the future.

Perhaps Jagger said it best:

I’m not really much of a looking-back person. I mean, I don’t mind having a laugh talking about things, but I don’t really get into it. Otherwise you end up like one of these football players sitting in a bar, talking about how you made that play in the game in 1975. You don’t want to be there.


4 Responses to “Too old to rock and roll: Too young to die”

  1. Additional comment: This was an essay written for my appropriately-titled “Essay Writing” class in the spring of 2008. That’s what dates some of these references.

  2. 2 Patrick S

    I think this article is timely, even given it’s age. People live longer than ever, and artists are performing for longer than they used to, and you’ve shown very well that some artists and groups cope with that better than others. Also shows that some groups have grasped the ideas of “image control,” far more than others. Regardless, I’m curious to see how the artists I love now will age with me, and if I’ll love it, be disappointed, or even care?

    I wonder what Ben Gibbard will be doing at age 60?

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