Iíve never been one to hope I die before I get old. In these sky-falling days, I merely hope I get old before I die. But there was a time when I chanted the Whoís bratty little mantra like every other kid clinging to rock and roll, as if the musicís noisy present could save me from any circumstances but its own. When I was young, I believed that Pete Townshendís statement was what it seemed: a sneer of rebellion. Now, like the phrase itself, I am edging into middle age, and I can feel the trepidation beneath its cheek.
Rockers hope they die before they get old because theyíre not sure how to keep being themselves once theyíve lost their grip on immaturity. This isnít a new problem any more. Weird old coots have become a category in rock, as dependable as preening peacocks and king snakes. Bob Dylan twirls his pencil moustache at death and keeps winning slathering devotion; Lucinda Williams hits menopause, and we still admire her leopard-skin leather jeans. Members of my indie generation have taken to making kidsí records to keep up their Subaru Outback payments. This is a good thing, right? We want rock to help us through our whole long lives. Lately, though, Iím wondering if growing older makes all of us whoíve given our lives to rock, artists and fans alike, go through a strangely healthy kind of death.
So many heroes are doing it so badly. Face lifts, paternity suits, endless reunion tours--from Jagger on down, itís a shame. Ian Anderson wrote "Too Old To Rock and Roll, Too Young To Die" a quarter-century ago, and heís still out flogging the Aqualung. Even Spinal Tap, a band created solely to satirize decrepit rockers, has been around for nearly 20 years. Graceful retirement isnít an option when you make as little dough as do most musicians, even fairly famous ones. The occasional lucky one gets into soundtracks or production, but most keep hitting the road and hoping for an impossible second act.
In the four years I spent in the trenches reviewing shows, comebacks took up a growing chunk of my schedule. I couldnít figure out how to feel about them, especially when they involved personal faves. I loved moshing to X at Randallís Island in 1998, half my lifetime after my first time seeing the band, but afterwards I sheepishly derided myself for it. Reading the concert calendar, Iíd spy engagements for heartthrobs of my pubescence like the Psychedelic Furs and pray for a scheduling conflict, as if reviewing those former dream dates would be as uncomfortable as running into a regretted old beau. I donít deny the validity of my adolescent taste--"Talk Talk Talk" still sends the blood rushing to my ears--but the emotions these artists first stimulated in me are at once so foreign and so fixed in my memory that I can hardly bear to summon them up. In youth, your favorite musicís hunger is your hunger. Later, it becomes an excess, fondly remembered, but to be avoided.
In narcissistic rockcrit fashion, Iíve lately become obsessed with the weirdness of rock nostalgia and the related issue of how a rocker might become truly adult. Is that even the goal? In the past Iíve dwelled upon notions of perpetual adolescence as a healthy state, one in which the sad and socially conservative idea of accepting oneís fate is rejected in favor of constant questioning and love of change. But my body has recently taught me that some things must be accepted, and that change doesnít always feel good. Iím starting to realize how that teen rock dream can become a source of conservatism: the endless replay of the perfect Friday night, which in beer-commercial America is as powerful a source of denial as the retreat into a pious Sunday morning.
I want to rock and roll to help me get old, and I believe it can, but first I think weíre all going to have to face how freaked out rockís aging process makes us feel. I now work at a museum, the Experience Music Project, in Seattle, and part of my job is taking rock VIPs on tours. The boomers love it--theyíve already witnessed their youth embalmed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not to mention on the soundtracks to sporting events and Lexus ads. The Man did buy their music, and theyíve made peace with it. But the punks get seriously rattled. "I donít think Iím ready for this," said one friend, a key player in the rise of Seattle alt-rock, after gazing at cases holding Kurt Cobainís clothing and Soundgardenís gear. He came up with some worthy ideological reasons for his distress, good arguments about the problems of institutionalizing protest, mixing marginality and money. But what struck me was the way his skin turned a little pink, and his usual loquaciousness was replaced by a lurch for words. My palís life was solidifying around him, and he didnít know which way to move.
I donít want to make any cosmic pronouncements about rockís failures or (stay optimistic now!) its unrealized potential. At this point, I need to get personal, to try to communicate what itís like to be uncertain at a juncture I always expected. I knew growing up as a rocker would be hard, because people have been telling me I wouldnít be able to do it since the life first seduced me. I think I was 20 when editors first started telling me Iíd soon want to turn my talent toward a real subject like feminism or religion or postmodern theory. Of course I believed them, of course they were right: I did want to write about that stuff, only I kept finding all of it, still do, in the defiant wails of Polly Harvey or the fleshy hymns of Al Green or the hyperballads of Bjork. Still, I turned away, then back, so many times, taking jobs that werenít about music, cheating on them by writing reviews on the side, finally giving in to my rockcrit identity and then repeating the cycle. This screwball comedy of a struggle has always ended happily, with me back in the front row, notebook in hand, or driving into the sunset cranking, say, the new Imperial Teen CD, and loudly singing along.
But the roller coasterís different now. For one thing, that phase everyone warned me about is not pending, itís here. I abandoned duty in the trenches for mostly physical reasons: my ears ring, my allergy to smoke keeps worsening, and my cycles are all unbalanced, perhaps because of my tawdry lifestyle, perhaps not. I may never know. I can have a bitter laugh about the fact that the precancerous hyperplasia I fought off last year was apparently caused by raging hormones, the very condition rock and roll stimulates in teens. Is there some correlation between my thinking unclean thoughts about the children in the Strokes and my system going wild? Maybe self-prescribing some Diana Krall would help me out: her jazz narcolepsy was the only thing I could stand to listen to when I was in the hospital. Still, I put on the new N.E.R.D. record, the one with all those songs about getting high and fucking, and turn it up.
"Youíre stuck in a moment and you canít get out of it," my all-time favorite rock star whispered to me around the time all my trouble started. Iím so grateful for Bono, ridiculous dreamy world-saver that he is, and for his mates, even if their touted loyalty is more a matter of professionalism than passion. U2 has taken me through the stages, and this band is great to the exact extent that it makes hipsters squirm--Bono strives, he shoots his mouth off, he enters into cliche and stays there until it breaks apart into higher reality. The bastards played the Superbowl, and that was hard to take. But right now, I love them for one overwhelming reason. In their forties, they got louder, dumber in a way, less overtly sophisticated. Bono wrote a bunch of lyrics about death and the music turned them into celebrations of life. Thatís what I need these days, a full-body immersion in paradox. The good thing about an old rocker is that he is an embarrassment, a proud disrupter of not only mainstream assumptions but of codes of cool.
What Iím realizing now is how deep that discomfort needs to run. The sort of rock nostalgia that provides filthy lucre for the aging rock population (those comeback tours, and the endless print and television recaps of every pop subculture that produced its own hairstyle) offers shallow succor, undeniably pleasant but mind numbing. Nor do I think adopting a willfully mature, low-volume stance is the answer; I love a lot of folkies, but the common progression of indie rockers toward Americana music has always struck me as a form of stylistic self-preservation instead of radical growth, a logical regression from thrift-store trash to antiques. And as much as I adore ripe weirdoes like Dylan, David Thomas, and Yoko Ono, eccentricity is a risky path to emulate, since its quirks often become ways of avoiding the entanglements of relationships and daily life.
The healthy death I mentioned earlier is, for me, the demise of the assumptions Iíve nurtured so fiercely for so long: that rock and roll would always make me feel strong and vital and sure. I keep loving the whole big picture of rock and roll because I still believe itís where we Americans face all the great dark stuff about sex, race, anger, power, identity. The music I really care about is still never just music to me--I buy all that mystical shit about the soul being freed and transformed by shared sweat and sound vibrations. I still say proudly that my life was saved by rock and roll. But now Iím almost ready to stop being saved, and instead to confront the awkwardness of getting older as a person who was never supposed to, to give up on cool and anti-cool both, and to just try to listen to the moment Iím stuck in, painfully unresolved and possibly magical as it is.
Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough, 2002
Ann Powers was the music editor of the Village Voice and a pop music critic for the New York Times. She is currently a Senior Curator at the Experience Music Project in Seattle.