Music fans around the world held their breath earlier this month when Carlos Santana collapsed from heat stroke during a show in suburban Detroit.
Santana, who has postponed six concerts “as a precaution” while recovering, is a legendary guitarist whose distinctive blend of rock chords and Latin rhythms has earned him 10 Grammys.
He is also 74.
And of the rock icons touring this year, he’s one of the youngest.
Bob Dylan is 81 years old and has been touring almost non-stop since last fall. Paul McCartney turned 80 last month, shortly after completing the North American dates of his Got Back tour. Ex-beachboy Brian Wilson, 80, is touring through September. The Rolling Stones – hosted by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, both 78 – play stadiums across Europe. The Who are touring with Pete Townshend, 77, and Roger Daltrey, 78, into November.
Also on the road this summer are Eric Clapton, 77, Rod Stewart, 77, Elton John, 75, and 78-year-old Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters, who still fills arenas with his majestic songs and spirit. bending stage equipment. The list goes on.
We witness history in arenas and stadiums around the world. Never before has such a grizzled group of rock icons graced so many major stages simultaneously.
This moment is something to celebrate. But it’s also a bit bittersweet because it marks the twilight of an early generation of rock ‘n’ roll – the rockers who came right after pioneering artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.
We can still get thrills from hearing these artists live: the visceral punch of the opening guitar chords of “Start Me Up”, the lilting piano intro of “Tiny Dancer”, the shimmering sonic brilliance of “Good Vibrations”.
But let’s just put it this way – these rock stars are on almost every scale old. And it forces those of us who grew up listening to their music to acknowledge that we grow old, too.
As critic Steven Hyden wrote in his 2019 book Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock, “One cannot speak of classic rock now without also considering death.”
In 2019, Damon Linker wrote a widely circulated essay for The Week provocatively titled “The Impending Death of Pretty Much Every Rock Legend”.
In it, he predicted that most aging rock icons would likely die within the next decade or so.
“Behold the killing fields that lie ahead,” he wrote, before listing 28 rock stars in or near their 70s: Dylan, McCartney, Wilson, Jagger, Richards, Daltrey, Townshend, Waters, Clapton, Stewart, Elton John, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Ray Davies, David Gilmour, Debbie Harry, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Bryan Ferry, Don Henley, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen .
Three years later, all 28 are still alive. (So do Tina Turner, now 82, Ringo Starr, 81, Neil Diamond, 81, Sly Stone, 79, Bob Seger, 77, Stevie Nicks, 74, Ozzy Osbourne, 73, Bonnie Raitt, 71, and many others. )
When you consider how much the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle takes on musicians’ health, and the fact that we’ve since been hit by a global pandemic that’s ravaging the elderly and killing more than 6 million people, that seems straight forward astonishing.
The same goes for the fact that most of these artists are still touring.
Should are you still touring? That’s a whole different question.
“People always ask me, ‘How do you feel about writing, ‘I hope I die before I grow old?'” Townshend told the audience at an April show of The Who in Miami. “I feel really, really old.”
One of Neil Young’s songs from the 1970s is “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” an oft-repeated lyric about the creative lifespan of rock musicians. The line, famously quoted by Kurt Cobain in his suicide note, suggests that rock stars are better off flaring up in a brief burst of creative fame than slowly fading into obsolescence.
But John Lennon, asked about Young’s song in an interview three days before his death, said he hated the lyrics.
“It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than burn out,” Lennon said. I worship the people who survive.”
Linker isn’t so sure. In a follow-up article for The Week last year, he argued that the quality of rock stars’ musical output inevitably declines as they get older, get richer, and lose the creative fire that ignited their earlier songs.
And live, many of them seem physically weak.
Linker says he and his wife recently watched Genesis’ reunion tour and were dismayed to watch 71-year-old Phil Collins, who was so limited by health conditions that he couldn’t play the drums and sing while seated.
“It was a good show – great lights and great sound and Phil Collins’ son Nic did a fabulous job on the drums. But Phil clearly wasn’t up to it,” Linker told CNN. “That really knocked us down at the end of the evening. It can’t help but constantly remind us that we’ve gotten so much older too.”
Linker feels similarly about other 70-year-old rock bands that carry on despite the deaths of key members.
“I don’t mean to sound mean, but The Who’s Roger Daltrey hasn’t been able to hit the high notes in decades. Who songs are really hard to sing! And he is now 78 years old. Still, they keep going out. There’s something very sad — very needy — about that,” Linker said. “I feel the same way about the Rolling Stones: come on guys, you’ve had a great run – maybe the best run in rock history! Time to rest.”
But Scott Russell, music editor of Paste magazine, disagrees.
For him, there’s something special about watching someone take a song you’ve loved for decades and bring it to life before your eyes.
“These are living legends with catalogs to match, giants of music history who, despite decades in a grueling industry, still walk the earth. You can probably hear the years in Bob Dylan’s voice, but that never made his music special,” he told CNN.
“Touring is a huge drain on the body and mind, so any artist who is still on the road of advanced age does it for more than just financial security,” added Russell, noting that the vast majority of professional musicians scratch themselves and scratching has to make a living from touring.
“Any artist who makes it to the top of that mountain has earned the right to hang out there as long as they want.”
These rock ‘n’ roll icons are all survivors. But time, one might say, is no longer on their side.
And their specific genre of music is also doomed.
“Classic rock” was coined by radio programmers to describe guitar-driven music of a specific time – from roughly the mid-’60s through the grunge era, Linker and Russell point out.
“By definition, that’s a thing of the past,” Linker said.
Sure, you’re still listening to classic rock on mainstream radio, on your uncle’s Spotify playlists, and from cover bands in bars around the world. His best songs remain timeless.
But as a contemporary cultural force, its importance is waning. In an increasingly diverse global music scene, it’s a genre dominated by older white guys.
“Is classic rock, even today, a problematic relic from a time when white male musicians drew disproportionate attention?” Hyden asked in his 2018 book. “Does it Deserve to Fade?”
Rock has long since ceased to be the dominant popular music genre in the United States, overtaken by hip-hop, country, rap and dance-oriented pop. Outside of some college and community stations, it’s difficult to find new rock music on the radio.
As more and more rock legends die in the years to come, the last remnants of an era will die with them.
Will a new generation of disciples take up the flag?
There are plenty of candidates — Dave Grohl, Eddie Vedder, Thom Yorke, Trent Reznor, and members of U2 and Metallica, to name a few — but they’re all over 50. It’s hard to imagine many young rock artists who can fill stadiums like McCartney and Elton John.
And that’s okay. There’s no shortage of talented young musicians pushing the boundaries of rock to enthusiastic audiences in theaters and clubs. Good music always finds an audience.
“Rock may never regain its place at the top of the pop music pecking order, but it will never go away either. As a generation of rock musicians ages, there’s always a new one on the rise,” said Russell of Paste, citing emerging artists like Bartees Strange, Turnstile and Wet Leg. “What is old can always be made new.”
Rock ‘n’ roll “is a great formula for young people looking for a creative outlet, so I don’t think it’s going to die out,” Linker agreed. “I mean, all the great old stuff is still there on our Spotify and Apple Music accounts to listen to and inspire new generations of disaffected youngsters that rock music came from.”
In the meantime, let’s cherish these touring rock music legends while they’re still around.
Yes, maybe Pete Townshend’s signature windmills creak a little. Maybe Brian Wilson is outsourcing his high notes to younger singers. And many of these artist concerts are overpriced.
But they’re still out there night after night, doing what they love. You gave us so much. We’re lucky to have had them for so long.