Why ageing rockers shouldn’t quit while they’re ahead
It was dubbed the greatest line-up since Woodstock. Desert Trip, which finished yesterday after a two-weekend run, featured Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Neil Young, Roger Waters and Paul McCartney on one bill.
With an onstage average age of 72, the festival was quickly dubbed Oldstock by the media, and the artists themselves were in on the joke. “Welcome to Desert Trip two!” Mick Jagger announced on Friday to the audience. “They say that if you remember Desert Trip one, you weren’t really there.” This was at the beginning of an epic two-hour set by the Stones, followed by more wonderous music from the other acts, who all proved that the fire in their bellies still burns bright.
And that, folks, is half a century after most of them began. Fifty years! How have they done it? Luck, good genes, money and even better doctors aside, what propels them to keep going? Well, here's a study of one of those acts, the 74-years-young Paul McCartney, first published by Esquire when he was a mere 70-year-old...
Let It Be was the last truly classic album Paul McCartney made. There, I’ve said it. True, he’s had flashes of genius in the intervening decades. Band on the Run springs to mind; Ram for the lo-fi enthusiasts; Flaming Pie with its Beatlesque feel. Even Flowers in the Dirt, 1980s production slips aside, had some great pop songs. But albums that will influence bands in another 20, 30 or perhaps even 100 years? No chance.
This has led many to critics to conclude that McCartney should have quit while he was ahead. Done a J.D. Salinger on us. The same argument extends to all artists who continue past their best; they should stay away and preserve the myth.
It’s a nice romantic thought, but it’s also garbage. Look at it from a personal perspective. Why did McCartney pick up a guitar in the first place? Was it for money? A calculated career move? No, it was because he heard Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley on the radio and it knocked him sideways. So he joined a band with the intention of copying his heroes, except it didn’t work out that way. Somehow he made music that not only defined his own generation but created a body of work that will live on after all of us are gone. It’s no exaggeration to say that he is one of the Twentieth Century’s most important artists – of any genre.
And then in 1970 the dream was over. Fourteen years later, discussing the aftermath of that acrimonious split in a Playboy interview, he confessed: “For the first time in my life, I was on the scrap heap, in my own eyes… It was a barrelling, empty feeling that just rolled across my soul.” Even more candidly he admitted: “Eventually, bit by bit, we managed to put songs together. Those are the songs that some people thought were not as good as my earlier stuff, or too commercial. I know people from time to time used to say that, but my attitude was, Sorry, folks, it’s about the best I can do right now.”
Fair play to him because, honestly, what choice did he have? What choice does any artist have in a similar position? You’re 30 years old and your best work is behind you, but you have decades’ worth of time and energy still to use and you don’t know how to do anything else. So you carry on. You write more music and occasionally stumble on something as brilliant as “Live and Let Die” or “Let Me Roll It”. You play shows that make people happy for a few hours of an evening; use your wealth and fame to contribute to good causes; experiment with different genres by making acceptable forays into classical pieces (Ecce Cor Meum), ballet (Ocean’s Kingdom) and even the circus (Love). Your diary is full. Your life has meaning. You have something to get up for in the morning.
It’s as brutally simple as that. Artists are people, not myths. As John Lennon put it in another Playboy interview, conducted just months before he died: “Everyone always talks about a good thing coming to an end, as if life was over... but, God willing, there are another 40 years of productivity to go. I am doing it. I do. I don’t stand back and judge... I do.”
Tragically, Mark Chapman’s bullet bestowed upon Lennon two gifts that he never sought: immortality and infallibility. Had he lived, Lennon would still be working. Some of it would be good, some less so. None of it would have matched “A Day In the Life” but that’s not the point. Writing it once was good enough. Lennon would have been busy getting on with the rest of his life.
Why rock musicians almost always write their best stuff while young remains a mystery. To agonise over this peculiarity would be the road to madness. The artist must forge on, do what he can. For the fans, that means more music we can enjoy, if not love. And there are the shows, which are definitely worth seeing in McCartney’s case, because, even nudging 70, he still cuts it live, and looks like he still enjoys himself.
And why shouldn’t he? He was in The Beatles! He wrote “Hey Jude” and “Helter Skelter”! For that, and the mere fact of carrying that legacy with good grace ever since, he has earned the right to do the thing that has made him happy since he first picked up a guitar in 1956 – making music.
So here's to you, Macca, to the rest of the Desert Trip line-up, and may you all be forever young.