Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

The road goes ever on

Bop till you drop.

In the future, classic rock bands will melt into one another.

Actually, this is already happening. It’s like when people talk about global warming as a future threat to civilization when the polar ice caps have already largely disappeared. Classic rock bands have similarly lost members to retirement, personal differences, or, well, you know, permanent retirement. But because the brands are still strong, these bands have gone to extraordinary, sometimes deeply weird lengths to install new parts and keep on trucking.

Remember when the surviving members of the Grateful Dead hired John Mayer to replace Jerry Garcia and became Dead And Company? Or when AC/DC tapped Axl Rose to take over for Brian Johnson? This week, Lindsey Buckingham either quit or was fired from Fleetwood Mac on the eve of an upcoming tour. Taking his place will be Mike Campbell, formerly Tom Petty’s right-hand man in the Heartbreakers, and Neil Finn of the Australian pop-rock group Crowded House.

Does any of this make sense? Sure, I guess? You only live once, right?

What’s different now is that these classic rock bands are no longer in their primes. It doesn’t feel like Fleetwood Mac is recharging with new members before making another Rumours, just like nobody expects AC/DC to make another Back In Black with Axl Rose or John Mayer to become a new shaman for hippies everywhere from his perch in the Dead. These are marriages of convenience, ensuring that everyone can continue to live comfortably well into their senior years by catering to an insatiable market for nostalgia tours and $50 tour T-shirts.

Actually, it’s a lot more than just that. It’s a burning desire to get out there and play while they still can, however they can—to stand on that stage under the lights and bask in the crash of the drums, the thunder of the guitars, and the roar of the crowd.

And why the hell not? Over the years, lots of people have spoken to me in bemused wonder about “how much you must love it, to keep doing it for so long and all!” I always told ’em that, for a lot of us, it ain’t about loving it at all. You could even say that love has little if anything to do with it after a certain point, although it surely begins that way. But over time, it becomes much more than something you do; it’s who you are. You don’t love it, not exactly. You simply can’t not do it. If you aren’t doing it, you’re thinking about it.

You never feel more at home, more comfortable, more like your truest self, than when you’re on a stage making music for a crowd of folks who are enjoying it right along with you—dancing, shouting, swaying, screaming. Saying it’s like food or oxygen to you might be a bit of a stretch, but the hunger is real just the same, and you definitely do feel an emptiness in its absence. The assumption that you’ll be out there doing it again before too long goes way down deep into your bones, a given, sure as the sunrise. You take that next time out as read, without conscious thought, just like you expect to take your next breath.

Sooner or later, though, we all reach the stage where we start to break down physically and just can’t do it anymore, at least not on the level we’re accustomed to, wish to, and feel that the music deserves. I’m there already, sad to say, despite my having figured in my youth on being wheeled up onstage and propped up with a stick or something right til the very end. I’m weak and feeble now; the last few times I played I had to do so sitting down. Which is very damned demoralizing, let me tell ya—especially in light of the intensely kinetic, physically demanding shows the Playboys put on night after night for decades.

After a properly explosive Playboys show, I was completely exhausted, drained to the last dregs. My thigh muscles ached, my knees were trembly; often as not, my fingers were bloody and my throat raw enough to make me think it was too. My neck was stiff, as was the shoulder the guitar strap went over. I was soaked with sweat, so much so that I usually brought another shirt to put on afterwards.

It was SOOOO DAMNED GOOOOOD. Best feeling in the world, nothing remotely like it. I always said if it was a choice between giving up that or sex, it was a no-brainer. Sex didn’t even rate on the same scale.

Now I get that worn out just from carrying my amp into the venue.

My hands have become stiff, aching, arthritic claws, so painful they frequently wake me up at night. Especially the left one, which has made it necessary to re-learn and re-jigger how I play most songs and simply abandon others altogether. Certain of the most basic, fundamental chords are lost to me forever, I just can’t play them. Likewise with the singing; the power and the range just aren’t there like they used to be anymore. After thirty years of slap bass, my brother can’t lift his left arm above a right angle to his body, and his right hand is in even worse shape than mine. Our drummer used to bang those things so hard he’d just destroy heads, cymbals, and sticks with a quickness. He’s probably beat up worse than the rest of us, and in more spots too. Chipps, the rhythm guitarist, is the only one of us who still seems to be in good shape, a miracle considering how ferociously he went at it. Still has all his hair too, the bastard.

The damage done, the limitations that come inevitably with age, now make playing less satisfying and more an exercise in frustration and outright pain. It’s a bitter realization when infirmity has crept up and leeched all the joy out of what for so long was your entire raison d’etre, let me tell ya. You knew it was coming; you try to accept it with whatever grace and humility you can, which doesn’t mean you have to like it. That’s the way of the world; it comes to us all sooner or later, and no amount of argument, protest, pouting, or complaint is gonna change it. Not for me, not for you, not for anybody. Rage, rage against the dying of the light? For what? You make yourself look a fool, inflict unhappiness on yourself and others, and wind up in the exact same place anyhow. Better to retain a little dignity for yourself, seems to me.

What the hell, I had a good run. And I still got an incredible store of memories, at least until senility scrambles them all to hell and gone too. I really need to take another stab at writing a book about it all, if only just a straight, dry memoir (I tried once several years ago, as a novelization of sorts, and quickly gained a profound respect for novelists). I promise you, I could set out to write it just as bloodless and without passion or flair as possible and it would STILL be good. Trust me.

So yeah, more power to those old greybeard rockers out there who still burn with the old flame, and can still strike at least some sparks on a stage. I’ll never knock or second-guess ’em; I know for damned sure it ain’t about the money or some shallow, vain pursuit of departed glory, and is occasion for neither contempt nor pity. It’s about holding onto whatever pieces of your best self you still got, for as long as you can manage it—about making your aspirations take flight again, before you finally lose your wings for good. As long as those guys can crank it out credibly, at a level of artistic competence and panache they’re happy with, then keep on rockin’, I say. I saw most of the classic rock/hard rock bands back in the day, and there’s more than one I wouldn’t object to seeing again in their dotage.

Say, I wonder what my hero Ritchie Blackmore has been up to lately…?

(Via Ed)

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8 thoughts on “The road goes ever on

  1. There’s also the bond among players. It goes beyond mere friendship, though of course friendship is part of it. Souls are connected. For the moments you’re playing music with your bandmates, there is a bond like no other. My shoulder hurts too.

  2. I used to get onstage wearing a guitar and wasn’t worried about embarrassing myself. Those days are gone. Now I have all these nice guitars that I suck playing. Trying to teach my daughter Lila. She’s a lefty, too.

  3. You have nailed the quinitessential point:

    Why do aging rockers keep playing?
    Because they can.

    They will get my drumsticks when they pry them from my cold, dead hands.

    On my worst day now, and entirely self-taught, I could step in and take over for Stan Lynch or Steve Ferrone for the whole Tom Petty songbook; Keith Moon then and Kenney Jones now could turn the throne over to me for any set with The Who and almost no one in the audience would know it; I can go lick for lick with Mick Fleetwood. And as long as I didn’t have to drink with the band as well as play, I could do a full concert tour with AC/DC and play their whole catalog.

    But Neil Peart’s matchless chops continue to humble me, at whose Everest-like pinnacle I can only stare from sea level. But then, he has 30-40 years’ head start on me, so we’ll see how I’m doing at Tom Sawyer or Limelight in 2058.
    The only way I’m ever touching his solos is in my second or third life.

    I’ve been on stages a number of times (not drumming, but in other pursuits, more’s the pity), and I know what it’s like to have a full auditorium rock with laughter because *I* made them, with my written and spoken words, but even that small taste gives me enough understanding to know why no one, given the choice, would ever stop mainlining the feeling of being out there, doing it, because you can.

    And why the only thing that’ll stop most of them, is either their heart stopping, or the inability to walk or even crawl up the stage steps one more time.

    And let’s face it, as long as he can still do “Eruption” Eddie Van Halen could get on stage with a walker or a Hover-round and no one will care.

    When you’re just starting out, and you pick it up, you want to learn the instrument.
    But if you keep after it long enough, when your mind gets as wise as your fingers, you realize you are the instrument.

    A good night for me isn’t just about saving lives in the E.R.; sometimes, it’s plugging KLOS or KRTH into the amp, and playing along with every song for hours, until I can’t hold the sticks up any longer, and seeing how many songs I’ve got, or can learn, or haven’t forgotten.

    Now I just have to set aside some time for the electric piano and the Strat sitting in the corner, taunting me to really try them…”What’s a few hours…? You KNOW you wanna do it!

    Aging rockers? Rock on. Bless ’em all.
    Tom Petty isn’t dead. He was just singing “Don’t Do Me Like That” crisp as ever, and I was right there behind him on ever beat. Malcolm Young and I just did a flawless “Shoot To Thrill” the other night, and neither of us missed a lick.

    And we’ll do it again next week, too.

    Long live rock & roll!

  4. Its just rock ‘n roll or “rock”, classic or otherwise! Its not like its real music or something!

  5. The best live band that I ever saw- and I used to go to lots of concerts (eh? What did you say? Sorry, can’t hear you) including the Stones- was Canned Heat. Best by far, none even close.

    Saw that band in Frankfurt Germany, back in the late ’60s. They did a long & righteous gig, took a 20 min. break, then came back for another hour and a half. Don’t know how they were still standing. I was a limp dishrag; they might’ve gone on, but their plug got pulled & the lights went out. Unbelievable show!

    Many years later I was in Perth, Western Australia, when I heard that Canned Heat was playing at the Concert Hall there. Of course I got tickets!

    I sure wish now I’d never gone to that show. The only original Canned Heat member there was The Bear, Bob Hite. All the rest were dead, except for Larry Taylor “The Mole,” and he wasn’t there. The audience called out for some of their best songs, but Bear would just say sorry, Xxxx had passed on to the Great Band in the Sky, so they wouldn’t do that number. That performance was a musical funeral, not a show from the great Canned Heat; the fire had gone out on the sterno.

    Now I just try to remember them as they were, and enjoy their albums.

  6. I feel you. As I’ve gotten older, and my back has gotten worse, I’ve had to sit on my ass because having a bass hung around my shoulders hurt too bad.

    Drugs used to be for recreation, now, they’re just to get by from day to day.

  7. I had to keep wiping tears away whilst reading this, my dear friend. I know how much playing meant to you, and how much seeing The Belmont Playboys always meant to me. If memories are all that remain, I am grateful for every single moment spent watching you guys leave it all on stage. I treasure the memory of my “roadie” road trip oh-so-many years ago. So many great times, from the earliest incarnation, to the Air Show, to Bob Gilbertson’s wide-ass-open pit parties,to the great night in Wilmington (Jeffrey still owes me for that one), to the Hard Rock in Atlanta, to “One Night Of Sin”, and my eternal thanks for getting a mention on a CD jacket. I hope there are at least a couple of shows left in your weary bones, Mike.

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