Rock On, Geezer!

In defense of 50-year-old pop stars.

At 50, you can be a novelist or a plumber, a painter or an orthodontist. But you cannot be a rock musician. This is the verdict of John Strausbaugh, whose new book, Rock ‘Til You Drop, offers Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney only two options: “dead or retired.”

Note that Strausbaugh lists “dead” first. It’s clearly what he prefers—for others. Fiftyish himself, the writer hasn’t yet volunteered for oblivion, but he recommends it for Sting, Springsteen, and the Stones. Rock ‘Til You Drop deplores rock’s “decline from rebellion to nostalgia,” yet one of its most striking characteristics is its own nostalgia for ‘60s extremism. Apparently Strausbaugh really had hoped his generation would die before it got old.

Ironically, Strausbaugh is essentially assailing boomers for not coming to accept the ancient wisdom of their parents: that rock is just a passing fad. And for someone who attacks boomer rock for getting musty, Strausbaugh makes a lot of timeworn arguments. Rock is “youth music,” he asserts, and rockers who insist on emulating their lithe ‘60s selves—the Rolling Stones are Exhibit A—just look silly. Yet Strausbaugh also dismisses rock musicians who have made a credible transition to adulthood, like Lou Reed and Patti Smith—unless he knows them personally (like David Johansen). And while he extols ‘60s bands that kept their distance from the star-making machinery, notably the Fugs, he disparages contemporary ones that have done much the same thing, especially Fugazi.

The politics of Strausbaugh’s critique are muddled. He attacks the “ultra-left dogmatism” of Washington, D.C.’s punk scene (that would be Fugazi again) and approvingly cites a Wall Street Journal broadside against leftist rock critics (including me). Yet he censures the early-’70s Stones for not really supporting The Revolution (as if “Street Fighting Man” hadn’t already announced their ambivalence) and characterizes the Baader-Meinhof group and the Symbionese Liberation Army as “authentic revolutionary groups.” (As a designated representative of leftist rock criticdom, let me assure you that support for the SLA is not on our agenda.) For Strausbaugh, apparently, youthful violence equals authenticity. One of his few remarks about today’s adolescent rock audience is that it was “right to ‘riot’ ” at Woodstock ‘99.

Even as he condemns his generation, Strausbaugh insists on its distinctiveness. He supposes, for example, that boomer idols are unique in trying to retain their sex appeal beyond its time. But as Jagger shakes his over-50 hips, such pre-boomers as Woody Allen and Robert Redford still insist on casting themselves against actresses half their age. Nor are ‘60s rockers the first artists to ever run short on inspiration. Faulkner and Hemingway were reduced to self-parody in their later work, and even the creakiest Rolling Stones album has more in common with the band’s best work than Francis Coppola’s Jack has with Apocalypse Now.

Most residents of the industrialized world live past adolescence, an actuarial fact that boomers accepted long ago. The punks who once dismissed ‘60s rockers as dinosaurs are now in their 40s, and many of them are still making music. Rock has become a permanent feature of the pop-culture landscape, and if it has lost some of its insurgent appeal, that’s inevitable. Igor Stravinsky and Jackson Pollock aren’t as controversial as they used to be, either.

Rock has become a sort of classical music, sustained not only by high-profile reissues like the Beatles’ multi-platinum 1 but also by the pop-scholarly compilations of such labels as Rhino, which unearth obscure older rock that can still sound fresh. Rock’s shock of the new is largely gone, and rules like “don’t trust anyone over 30” have been suspended. That doesn’t mean, however, that rock’s only remaining appeal is to nostalgia.

Anti-nostalgists assume that only boomers buy albums like 1, but the evidence suggests otherwise. The music of ‘60s and ‘70s rock stars appeals to listeners who weren’t even born at the time it was recorded: A Knight’s Tale recently delighted under-25 audiences by setting the Middle Ages to songs by Queen and Thin Lizzy. Boomer rock also motivates twentysomething pop-rock bands like Smartbomb, whose members cite The Beatles 1962-1966 and The Beatles 1967-1970 as major inspirations. The songs remain the same, but new fans keep arriving.

It’s impossible to entirely separate nostalgia from the musical appeal of ‘60s rock, but surely one reason that today’s Paul McCartney fans would rather hear his earlier material is that it’s better than the later stuff. Many ‘60s and ‘70s rockers are guilty of the misdemeanor of no longer writing good songs, and some of them no longer write songs at all. This is in violation of the principle—introduced by Bob Dylan and enshrined by the Beatles—that vital young performers must write their own material. But the boomers made their mark by breaking their parents’ rules, so why can’t they break their own?

Some of the biggest concert draws of recent years are vintage rockers who’ve essentially abandoned the recording studio. This supposedly reduces them to the status of “nostalgia acts,” yet for musicians of any other genre, performing an established repertoire is entirely respectable. If it’s OK for Tony Bennett and Yo-Yo Ma, why not for Bob Seger and Elton John? (After all, Keith Richards has long complained that no one would criticize the Stones’ longevity if he and Jagger were black bluesmen from Chicago.) I’m a longtime Springsteen non-fan, but when I saw him in 1999, I was impressed. And while I haven’t seen the Stones in decades, a friend who caught them the last time they came through town says they put on a good show.

Admittedly, my perspective is skewed. As someone who gets paid to listen to new music—and who almost never goes to stadium rock shows—I hear less boomer rock than many of my fortysomething peers. When I saw the 2000 reissue of A Hard Day’s Night, I hadn’t heard songs like “I Should Have Known Better” and “Anytime at All” in years. (Hey, they’re good!) But aside from a few notorious tunes that have been reiterated into banality by classic-rock radio, there’s plenty of life in ‘60s rock. That someone might accuse you of being nostalgic is no reason to stop listening to it.

In fact, though, boomers don’t just listen to the rock of their adolescence. Many of them are still adventurous and are driving the growth of world music, electronica, “neomystical” contemporary compositions, and other categories that have little to do with the Beatles and the Stones. According to the Recording Industry Association of America’s latest statistics, in 1999 over-45 consumers increased their share of the recorded-music market from 18.1 percent to 24.7 percent. They weren’t all buying 1. While their detractors attack them for wallowing in nostalgia, the boomers who still care strongly about music have moved on.