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Too Wrinkly To Rock? Confessions Of An Aging Fan

Should we follow the musical heroes of our youth into that good night, or feel out of place at a Mumford & Sons concert instead? In this May 29, 2014 photo, Mick Jagger performs in Lisbon. (Francisco Seco/AP)
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Should we follow the musical heroes of our youth into that good night, or feel out of place at a Mumford & Sons concert instead? In this May 29, 2014 photo, Mick Jagger performs in Lisbon. (Francisco Seco/AP)

When my husband and I go to concerts and clubs — which we do frequently, generally to hear jazz — we routinely scan the crowd. We’re looking for people we know, of course, but we’re also assessing the average age, positioning ourselves on the unstated continuum from the young-and-effortlessly hip to … what? To the aging-and-hopelessly nostalgic? To the seasoned-and-tasteful? To the old-and-not-even-bothering-to-dye-our-hair-anymore?

Now, as the summer concert season approaches, I’ve been waging my usual internal battle about whether to go see the musicians who were slightly older than me when I was young and who are now, well, old. The live music that defined my youth is now shaping my loss of it. I dread seeing my own shortening life reflected in the stooped physiques and narrowing vocal range of the musicians who defined me and my tribe.

Some, like the Stones, I know to avoid. A strutting 71-year-old Mick Jagger in sequins is like a crocodile in a bikini, frightening and aesthetically wrong. But last year it took half the set for me to adjust to the sight of Jesse Colin Young, whose droopy mustache and furrowed brow filled me with a melancholy lust in 1968, now looking like an avuncular Irish expatriate smitten by Hawaiian shirts and ukuleles. And thankfully, I saw a picture of Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who now resembles a moonshiner dressed up for his 50th high school reunion, only after buying tickets to see him. (Lest you mock, it’s the early Lightfoot — the folk-rock guy who wrote “Early Morning Rain” and is Bob Dylan’s favorite songwriter — who we’re going to see. The Adult Contemporary troubadour who wrote “If you Could Read my Mind” and surrendered to strings on his albums — that guy was dead to me for a couple of decades before he quite literally rose from a coma and returned to his twangy, 12-string, wind-whistling-through-the Canadian-prairie roots.)

A strutting 71-year-old Mick Jagger in sequins is like a crocodile in a bikini, frightening and aesthetically wrong.

These are the concerts at which I look around and wonder what’s more depressing — to see a talented, committed, but decidedly unsexy old guy now sitting on a stool to play guitar, or for him to look out at his white-haired, loose-fleshed, chair-dancing audience and see me. (By the way, I use the male pronoun quite deliberately. Joni Mitchell, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and Bonnie Raitt were about the only female musicians who loomed large in my cohort’s musical pantheon, and even at age 18, I would have been happy to look as fine and exude as much fearless spirit as they do now in their 60s and 70s.)

But I hate capitulating to the cult of youth worship even more. After all, we may be aging, but my peers and I are not fuddy-duddies. We would sooner drink hemlock than tune in to an easy listening station. We don’t wear sandals with socks, and no polo ponies adorn our shirt pockets. We abhor Kenny G. and love The Decemberists, even if not enough to stand on our fallen arches and hammer toes for three hours in a general admission venue just to catch a glimpse of Colin Meloy’s black-rimmed hipster glasses. (Not that I’m bitter.)

I hate capitulating to the cult of youth worship even more. After all, we may be aging, but my peers and I are not fuddy-duddies.

Last night, though, this conflict was resolved. I spent the evening in the basement of a bar at my company’s annual jam session, listening to my millennial colleagues, clad in leather and flannel, perform the music from the 1990s, which were their formative years. They shouted and thrashed their way through the songs that shaped them (there was no crooning), and I found myself fist-pumping and chanting and stomping in my sensible, orthotic sneakers right along with them. Nirvana and The Cranberries and Eminem were not my cultural touchstones, but it didn’t matter. I recognized the inchoate longing that the music of anyone’s youth elicits, and shared the joyful release in singing it.

Though I was the oldest person in the room, in those happy hours, it didn’t matter. Live music can fuel exultation in any of us, performers and audience alike, uniting us on some ageless plane.

So don’t worry. You’ve still got game, Gordo. You still rock, Rickie Lee. Just don’t be miffed if I sneak in a little Carolina Chocolate Drops or Mumford & Sons while on a ticket-buying spree. I love you all.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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