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…?