We’ve come a long way since The Who’s Roger Daltry used to scream ‘hope I die before I get old.’ The Stones show no sign of ceasing their rolling, and Leonard Cohen’s shows are said to be his best ever. A life on the road, even with modern support, is gruelling to the young, but more musical pensioners are now touring. John Mayall, the ‘Godfather of British Blues’ is doing an 80th birthday tour, and Charles Aznavour is preparing for a concert at the Albert Hall for his 90th birthday.
I used to live with a drummer who always claimed that percussionists are always the fittest, though Ginger Baker at 75 and near crippled with arthritis and emphysema after a life fueled by enough drug and alcohol to have killed any normal person several times over, is planning to play again, and Jet Black also 75, of the Stranglers, is also suffering a wide range of ailments, is also forcing his worn out frame to play again. In a recent article in the i newspaper by Nick Hasted, he acknowledges: “People say I should retire, I have actually, with ill health, reached the situation where I can’t do everything I used to do, but I still want to come on and do what I can. And judging by the audience’s reactions, they seem to like it.” It takes more than a few aching joints to get an aging punk to give up touring. For Sinatra’s final tours his voice was failing, and he relied on an autocue to remember the lyrics, and 88 year old BB King did a farewell tour back in 2006 but recently apologised to audiences for his erratic performance.
On one level, I feel that the old guys should retire and make room for the next generation, but music is the ultimate free market. So if people are prepared to pay to see oldies, then who can complain?
Because a concert is not just about the music, the repetition of hits, it is about interpretation, and it is also about the reminiscences, some of which are used to spin out the concert, but they are also part of the performance, the reason why we don’t all stay home and listen to music in the comfort of our own homes. I saw Jimmy Webb live, and it was a joy to hear the songwriter’s sing the songs of my childhood, just him and his piano, with his wealth of stories. At the end, the audience went wild, he was given multiple encores, and he reached down to shake hands with the front row, a reminder both of the religious origins of pop music, and of his own father, a Baptist preacher. Roger McGuin is also a wonderful raconteur, and Ray Davies both do brilliant shows. Because infirmity is not inevitable, as artists are often incredibly long lived, as people who are doing what they love, so have higher than normal quality of life. Over to Hasted :
“Cohen and Aznavour have distilled a lifetime’s matchless experience into recent shows, adding to their emotional power. Their tours are a summation, not a sad coda. During Black’s brief contributions to the Stranglers’ Hammersmith Apollo show in March, his drumming’s jazzy swing betrayed pre-rock roots that will be irreplaceable.
Elderly musicians also carry precious treasures of personal and cultural history. David “Honeyboy’” Edwards didn’t lack for gigs till his death in 2011, aged 96, partly because he was a living link to the blues’ most legendary figure, his friend Robert Johnson. A week ago Allen Touissant, New Orleans’ most revered songwriter and arranger, played 2 nights at Ronnie Scott’s. Never primarily a performer anyway, the 75 year old punctuated his hit “Southern Nights” with a spellbinding evocation of Forties childhood visits to Cajun relatives.
Two years ago I watched the then 83-year old Detroit jazz singer Sheila Jordan in a pub back room in south London as she reminisced, between still artful singing, about how Charlie Parker walked into the alley where she was sulking, having been denied entry to see him because she was underage, and played just for her. “Do your thing!” she implored, passing on Parker’s encouragement to us.
Watching saxophonist Sonny Rollins at the Barbican in 2012, when he was 80, the truest value of carrying on became clear. Musicians, like actors, loathe leaving the stage. The last act is as much a part of a musical life as its often explosive start. Rollins, fighting his body to find his genius’s last reserves, remained great.”
But ultimately, musicians are human. As long as they are playing, they are still valued, they are still in touch with young musicians, and with audiences that love them. Conceding they have to give up their career is perhaps harder than for most, as they have been on the road so long, there is no one giving them a retirement party. It can be as final as the event that so many of us all dread – the move to a retirement home and the long empty days that separate them from the great silence.