The fate of the aging rock star: “Hope I die before I get old”

Posted February 7th, 2008 by eric

Joe Queenan has an amusing piece in the Guardian today about what to do with over-the-hill rock stars. The impetus for his musings stems from the impending 50th birthdays of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince this year. Rock/pop music is the only genre where age becomes an irreversible stigma, whereas in, say, Blues age is an expected sign of weathered wisdom and respect. I’ve always felt that rock musicians should hang it up before it’s too late- before the inevitable decline sets in. And Queenan agrees:

“Ageing performers whose records are ignored and whose concerts no longer sell out often grumble that the music they are recording today is just as good as it ever was. This is not true: rock stars never do work in their 30s that approaches the quality and originality of the work of their teens and 20s. Fame brings too many distractions, even the mildest affluence is the implacable enemy of creativity, and, most important, musical styles change and musicians can rarely change with them.”

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13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 patrick // Feb 7, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Has Joe Queenan never heard of Neil Young? Of Stephen Malkmus? Of Richard Thompson?

  • 2 Eric Greenwood // Feb 7, 2008 at 11:05 am

    would you really argue that those artists are as good now as they once were?

  • 3 patrick // Feb 7, 2008 at 11:16 am

    I would argue that those artists haven’t suffered the “inevitable decline” that, say, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince have. Indeed, Neil’s still cranking out good records. To wit: Ragged came out in ’90, when Neil was 45; Havest Moon in ’92, when he was 47; and Silver and Gold in 2000, when Neil was 55. Malkmus is 42, and his solo and Jicks-related efforts have eclipsed most of the latter-day Pavement stuff.

  • 4 Eric Greenwood // Feb 7, 2008 at 11:23 am

    i’ll give you some latter neil young records, but i don’t think he’s done anything to match the genius of his early days. but it’s true that he hasn’t declined at the rate of most musicians. he’s also the long-accepted exception to the rule. same with tom waits. but, save a handful, the majority of rocks stars lose it completely, which is queenan’s point.

    and i wholeheartedly disagree about malkmus. i think his solo stuff is unlistenable, and i’d take pavement’s last day any day over it.

  • 5 patrick // Feb 7, 2008 at 11:58 am

    i agree that waits, young, etc., are exceptions to the rule. i’m simply saying that queenan’s statement — “rock stars never do work in their 30s that approaches the quality and originality of the work of their teens and 20s.” — is far too broad and generalized, and it paints him as ageist and, frankly, a little retarded.

    however, i think you’re on to something with the rock/pop-blues analogy; an artist like neil young is revered for his wisdom, perhaps because of his stature of influence. it works the same in folk circles (see: anyone with the last name of guthrie). it’s asinine to revere an artist simply for his/her longevity — and, yes, i know that’s not the issue at hand — you have to view the body of work. there’s no question that “holiday” is vastly superior to “ray of light” or whatever madge is crapping out these days.

    here’s another instance where i disagree with queenan: “most important, musical styles change and musicians can rarely change with them.” here, i present the example of neil young: his strength has been his adherence to either gritty, pre-grunge blues-rock or winsome folk. his stability — well, except for trans — his ability to be neil young, if you will, has been his greatest asset throughout the years, and it’s what has kept him viable.

  • 6 Eric Greenwood // Feb 7, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    eh, i think queenan is being cheeky. so to hold him to that “never” statement seems a bit stiff. and getting bogged down in neil young is tangential. i’m pretty sure queenan wrote it to incite a reaction, such as yours. ageism in rock is allowable, i think. i’m not sure rock music is supposed to get old, so neil young is probably a bad example, since he’s not exactly a rock star, which sort of disqualifies waits from discussion, too. neil young hasn’t followed the path of the rock star. he’s more of a changeling folkie with some rock leanings. i think queenan is speaking to the “rock star” proper, the robert plants, the pete townshends, the bonos, the paul mccartneys, the princes, you know? and all of them have swallowed a big bag of suck post-30.

  • 7 patrick // Feb 7, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    huh huh … you said “stiff.”

  • 8 Eric Greenwood // Feb 7, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    did it remind you of early elvis?

  • 9 Kevmo // Feb 7, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    I don’t know if age is as much as factor as is years of performing, writing, etc.

    Say some artist cuts their first record when they are 59. It doesn’t happen a lot, but that’s not to say it won’t ever or could never happen. There is a creative arc that artists have, a peak. It’s inevitable. So by the example, this proverbial musician might not hit his decline until he is in his late 60s or early 70s, right?

    Is it age, or is it experience? I say the longer you’re in this quote-unquote game, the fewer ideas you get. The harder it is to stay “relevant” or interesting. We just say it’s age, but I’m not so quick to agree.

    For all that we say about The Beatles, one huge advantage of theirs is that they broke up before the slump set in. Just listen to the songs that came from Lennon & McCartney in the years after The Beatles. People say they suffered from a lack of collaboration, but Lennon and McCartney had pretty much been writing their own stuff post-“Revolver” and much of it still sounded really good.

    It’s a matter of diminishing returns, methinks.

    And of course there are exceptions; there always are. But Neil Young bores the hell out of me.

  • 10 patrick // Feb 7, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    @Eric: I don’t know; did it remind you of bruises?

  • 11 Eric Greenwood // Feb 7, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    kevmo, if you’re speaking in terms of an “artist” that couldn’t be pinned down to just rock music, then i could see your point, but rock music is a youthful exploit just by nature of a general lack of responsibility at an age where musical experimentation coincides with a lack of life experience. so i think age is relevant. no rock star begins a career in his 50’s, so that example doesn’t make much sense to me. and i think rock music has an expiration date married exclusively to age. no one wants to see old dudes trying to act young.

  • 12 Kevmo // Feb 7, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    I guess the point I was trying to make is that age and artistic decline aren’t always mutually exclusive. That is, the “art” doesn’t always suffer because of the age.

    I most definitely agree “rock” is a young man’s game, but how many pop genre’s aren’t?

    Frankly, it’s kind of sad to watch The Beastie Boys these days. And as much as I love Johnny Cash, people only gravitated toward him again because he started covering other people’s songs.

    People don’t go to Rolling Stone’s concerts because their newest record was so good. The Rolling Stones haven’t made a decent record in my lifetime, yet they still sell out every damn tour.

    After a certain point, your age becomes a novelty of nostalgia.

    Again, there are exceptions. I know you say that blues musicians sort of gain credibility the older they get. But I hate the blues, so they don’t count.

    (And, um, ‘ric … this is KFL)

  • 13 pamela // Sep 29, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince are the greatest rock stars of the world.