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'What A Drag It Is Getting Old' — Coming To Terms With Death In The Rock World

From left, Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones perform on July 15, 2019, in New Orleans. Watts' publicist, Bernard Doherty, said Watts passed away peacefully in a London hospital surrounded by his family on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. He was 80. (Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
From left, Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones perform on July 15, 2019, in New Orleans. Watts' publicist, Bernard Doherty, said Watts passed away peacefully in a London hospital surrounded by his family on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. He was 80. (Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

“What a drag it is getting old...”

That’s the opening line from the Rolling Stones’ "Mother’s Little Helper,” released back in 1966. Mick Jagger sang it with a slight sneer of youthful superiority — it was about a bored housewife depending on pills to get through her “busy dying day” — and we all smiled.

These days when we hear that song, we wince. Maybe we’re not quaffing pills — well, not those kinds of pills — but that part about it being “a drag” and “getting old,” resonates more and more as the decades pass.

With last month’s bang-bang-bang deaths of Don Everly (84), Charlie Watts (80) and Lee “Scratch” Perry (85) we wince again and we mourn — in person and on social media. For baby boomers — born from 1946 to 1966 (I’m in the middle) — it's about them and it's about us. It’s about coming to terms with death in the rock world, the musicians we grew up with, and how it keeps slamming us as it kills them.

It’s not about death by overdose or the misadventures of relative youth, such as those in the 27 club like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse and Brian Jones (the first Stone to die). We mourned and grieved them, but at some level, however callously, thought maybe that was sometimes the cost of doing business — the business of rock 'n' roll. And, in part, that was in part to live loud and play wild, give us some vicarious danger of life outside the lines.

Now — well, for some time, really — we're talking musicians who've been part of lives and, by proxy, part of our family. They’ve been with us since teendom and now as we hit our 60s and 70s, we're at an even more intense point of reckoning. It's musicians in our generation and/or one generation up who are dying by "natural causes." No one is unaware of the arc of life — we can all do the math — and we know they're not immortal rock gods. Just musicians who’ve entertained us and helped provide our lives’ soundtrack. Then, they’re gone. And we're left mourning them and inexorably pondering our own fate and passage into the void.

Some of these people I’ve known only through their music; others I got to know over the course of a long rock journalism career. I've written too many obituary-cum-appreciations for people I knew, among them David Bowie, Warren Zevon, Pete Shelley, Edgar Froese, Lou Reed, Nico and all four of the original Ramones. At some point in my 40s, I realized this was going to be part of my job as they, and I, aged. It hurt every damn time, another little piece of my heart chipped away.

David Bowie, who sometimes sang Jacques Brel’s “My Death” in concert, talked about aging to SOMA magazine’s Steffan Chirazi in 2000. "Age brings one of two things: either a feeling of complete and utter defeat, or understanding that it's about living the moment,” Bowie mused. “If you harness yourself to that energy of enjoying the day as it comes along and put yourself to bed at night knowing that you did everything to the best of your abilities, didn't hurt anybody, and continue to cement relationships between yourself, friends, and family, then you're all the better for it. And an accumulation of days like that gives you a real sense of fulfillment."

No one is unaware of the arc of life -- we can all do the math -- and we know they're not immortal rock gods. Just musicians who’ve entertained us and helped provide our lives’ soundtrack.

At the end of last month, I was talking with Richard Thompson, the esteemed English folk-rock singer-guitarist, after a gig at Lowell’s Boarding House Park. The subject turned to rock ‘n’ roll mortality.

Thompson, who is 72, said Watts’s death triggered that familiar sharp sense of loss that happened every time a peer died. Which was with increasing frequency. And yet, Thompson said, “You look at someone like Charlie, he was 80, and those were good innings. You see people dying in their early 70s and that’s crazy, really.”

In February, Thompson lost one of his best friends, 75-year-old Scottish singer-guitarist Marc Ellington, who released five albums and occasionally collaborated with Thompson. Ellington died from heart disease.

“I’d known him since 1967,” Thompson said. “I’d go and visit him twice a year up in Scotland, and I’d stay with him and his wife. He was a larger-than-life character. It was like a massive loss, I kind of knew he was going, but it’s a hole in my life. And I was recently talking to a friend who’s 90 and he said, ‘There’s nobody left, all my friends are gone.’ It gets lonely when you lose really great friends.”

Thompson said, fate willing, he could see himself still playing in two decades. He mentioned guitarist Andrés Segovia and pianist Vladimir Horowitz, both of whom performed into their 90s, “and were still playing well. Some composers still compose in their 90s. Painter David Hockney is in his [80s] and still going strong, still full of life and ideas.”

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Age, Thompson said, “is just a number. You live as best you can as long as you can. I think it’s good to think that you can go anytime — that this could be my last day on the planet. You never know. I think you have to be comfortable about that.”

Thompson has written a fair amount about death over the course of his lengthy career, and did so recently with “As I Hold You” on his 2021 EP “Serpent’s Tears.” He played it in Lowell and sang, “There’s always eternity here in your heart…Nothing will end if I hold you forever.”

“If you’re an atheist, eternity is other people’s memory,” Thompson said, later. “I’m not an atheist but that means a lot to me.”

Me, too. The line in Thompson’s song brought me back to Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart,” where the singer, facing certain death by a rare cancer, wrote the ultimate farewell song. Zevon, it’s worth noting, was a savvy songwriter who brokered no sentimentality or self-pity.

“Shadows are fallin' and I'm runnin' out of breath, keep me in your heart for a while,” he sang. “Sometimes when you're doin' simple things around the house, maybe you'll think of me and smile.”

As more of our musical friends pass on — and as we, too, are more cognizant of facing the final curtain — it’s what we hold on to. Live each day as if it’s the last, keep listening to the musicians who stirred us, and keep that music in your heart.

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Jim Sullivan Twitter Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.

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