The Woodstock Festival turned 50 on August 15 2019, an opportuniy for cartoonists from around the world to make jokes about elderly hippies playing guitar in nursing homes. I also completed my own 50 laps around the Sun last year, but I’ve been thinking about this relationship between rock and the coming of age for some time, now.
In 1963, a twenty-two years-old Pete Townshend wrote on the title track of The Who’s first album that he hoped to die before getting old. Fifty-six years after releasing My Generation, Townshend is still alive and playing guitar at concerts. He also released with The Who their first album of new material in 13 years in 2019. Like Townshend, famous septuagenarians like Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Keith Richards often declare that they will keep playing as long as they can.
You don’t have to be one of those mega rock stars, people who always play for packed stadiums around the globe, to stay on the road. Many lesser-known artists and bands still attract a good audience on their tours, even though venues are smaller these days. The constant presence of the fans, in fact, is linked to the strongest reason for these artists to keep performing live.
No, I’m not talking about money.
Nobody complains about being paid to play live, but this seems to be a minor detail for most of these well established and wealthy artists. A live performance brings many physical and emotional stimuli to the audience and to those on the stage. The huge doses of dopamine and other neurotransmitters produced during a concert probably are way more important than cash, even if the musician needs the money.
Artists seldom want to retire. Nobody questions actors, painters and sculptors who continue to work at old age as long as health isn’t an issue. Music, however, is an art form that seems to hold different expectations depending on the genre the artist is associated with. Classical and jazz musicians spend decades on stage and no one says they should stop playing because they are too old. Rock musicians, however, often hear that they are still playing “despite their age”.
That kind of expectation, of course, comes from the strong connection that rock has always had with youth. Energy, aggressiveness and non-conformity have always been responsible for defining the genre’s main characteristics, even more than its strictly musical features. These traits fit perfectly to this hormones-driven stage of life, when youngsters basically want to be different from their parents and their values. In this intense and short numbered years it seems that rock is more an attitude than music.
Thinking in these terms, is it possible to carry these attributes when the hair is gray, rare or non-existent?
Questioning social rules, the so-called attitude, is not an exclusive prerogative of those below thirty. The stereotype of the young rebel is nothing more than a convenient label for consumer goods production and, ultimately, it interests the system itself: it implies the suggestion that it is necessary to adapt to the world when people reach more mature stages in life.
There’s no need neither to burn out nor fade away. Throughout the ages, art has always been a fundamental vehicle for maintaining defiant behavior and energy when youth ceases to be a biological trait but remains part of other instances of the self. It couldn’t be different with rock music.
Artists that refuse to retire, like Brazilian hardcore band Ratos de Porão, help to maintain this perspective over the years. The consistency of their stance against fascism and all forms of oppression is one of the factors that make the band existence a necessity, especially in these times of apathy and social conformity. At one of their concerts, in 2017, between a loud assault and another, Jão, the guitar player, told the audience a story about the time when punks accused them of “betraying the movement” and concluded poignantly:
Today many of those guys have become born again Christians or even joined the police. We’re still here.
In difficult times like these, it’s vital to resist the stupidity machine that’s running over the world. Reacting to the spread of far-right ideas and criticizing the sheepishness of governments on this issue is the order of the day. Aging doesn’t mean we have to accommodate to a wicked system, and those bands maintaining a defiant behavior remind us that we can keep swimming against the tide.
This behavioral factor, however, isn’t always present in the set list of a rock band. Some artists just want to bring fun to their audience and that’s fine. Rock is attitude and it’s also music.
Yes, music. The thing that tells that no one is playing safe on stage or looking at the clock waiting for the time to go home. The thing that makes the artists enjoy each note or beat. The thing that makes them give it all to the audience and get from it the energy that only seems to happen in this type of congregation of equals around the same muse.
It’s the music that makes me to spend hours in line, and then many others standing, squeezed in a sea of people. There is nothing like watching great songs performed live by human beings without the aid of programmed tracks. Listening to sounds extracted from tube amps, expertly tamed by musicians who are not afraid to make guitar solos, that cheesy and outdated thing, is such an amazing experience. The arrangements, that musical conversation between voices and instruments in which mistakes cannot be fixed, also have a very special dimension amid the chaos of a live performance.
I can’t complain about these long-lasting bands that keep ignoring the death certificates that rock has been receiving since the 1960s. Were it not for these people’s dopamine needs, I wouldn’t have seen great concerts with artists that I’ve always admired in inspired performances, which owed little or nothing to their younger versions. I’m not just talking about big arena concerts by well-known bands that usually have great stage structure and publicity. It’s also great to see that artists who have never been extremely popular, like the many independent Brazilian rock bands I love, are still touring just because it feels good to play live.
It’s true that good old rock and roll has lost the relevance it had in the past as music for the masses. After all, nowadays the hit songs and the most popular artists on the charts belong to other musical styles. But rock music is still around for those who want to listen, bringing intense emotions to the audiences and challenging the expiration date that was attributed to it when it was still considered music for young people.
This story was first published (on paper and in Portuguese) on my photozine Aparelho Produtor de Imagens #1, in January 2020, with the same text but many more pictures. There’s an essay on my website with those extra pictures that you can see by clicking here.