July 7, 2023

From Springsteen to McCartney, ageing rockers are teaching us about something bigger than music

Johnathan Freeland
The Guardian
The Guardian
It’s a paper ticket, from before the age of the QR code, and it announces the Rolling Stones at Wembley Stadium on Saturday 26 June 1982. I was 15, but I still remember the buildup to that show – the papers full of jokes about the band needing Zimmer frames to reach the stage and, perhaps, more frequent bathroom breaks. They called them “the Strolling Bones”. On that day, Mick Jagger was 38 years old.
The joke turned on the notion that rock’n’roll was the music of the young. It had arrived in the mid-1950s in an eruption of hormones and rebellion, its themes teenage lust, longing and a future that stretched ahead, vast and mysterious. For men knocking 40 still to be singing of such things seemed ridiculous. And yet, the Stones were back last summer, Jagger approaching his 80th birthday, playing all the same songs.
All this struck me on Thursday night, when I stood in a summer crowd of 65,000 to see Bruce Springsteen, who is 73, play a three-hour set in London’s Hyde Park. A similar thought had crossed my mind when a record TV audience watched Elton John, 76, perform at Glastonbury, for what he said would be his last UK show. And, again, when I visited the National Portrait Gallery to see a new collection of photos depicting the earliest years of the Beatles, the pictures taken by Paul McCartney, who is 81. Rock’n’roll, an artform created by and for the young, has existed for the span of a human life. Its greatest practitioners were once the embodiments, and laureates, of youth – and now they are old.
The tension between those two facts is what the headline writers were poking at four decades ago. The generation that hoped to die before they got old, that vowed never to trust anyone over 30, passed both those landmarks long ago.
For some artists, the response has been to seek to defy the years, to run up the downward escalator, and somehow return, if not to the state of being young, to a simulation of it. Jagger is the exemplar, his 2022 performances “extraordinary in a zoological way” as the writer Sarfraz Manzoor told me, audiences marvelling at the mere fact that a human of his age can look and move like that.
But what I saw on Thursday was a very different response. Springsteen is also in remarkable shape: fit, toned and bursting with vitality. He can still toss a guitar in the air; he can still rip open his shirt to reveal a bare chest, though now the gesture comes with a wink of self-deprecation at the absurdity of it. But he does not look like a man desperate to recapture his glory days. He is not, as Manzoor – whose boyhood devotion to Springsteen was depicted in the movie Blinded By the Light – says of Jagger, “perpetually stuck in his 20s”.
On the contrary, this new show of Springsteen’s looks ageing and death in the eye. His bandmates are his contemporaries and don’t hide it: the giant monitors show closeups of gnarled, veined hands on guitar strings. His own performance is astonishing, but it never looks effortless. He speaks only once at any length, and that is to introduce a 2020 song about the band he played in with schoolmates when he was 15. He is, he tells the crowd, the only one left. “Death is like you’re standing on the railroad tracks with an oncoming train bearing down upon you,” he says. “But it brings a certain clarity of thought.” It pushes you to “seize the day”, to savour, with urgency, the time and the people you have left. And then he plays Last Man Standing, a song about the passions of youth, the time in your life when “it’s all hellos”, before they are outnumbered by “hard goodbyes”.
The result is that you hear the rest of the songs through fresh ears. Now it doesn’t sound absurd to hear a septuagenarian singing of childhood best friends running on the Backstreets, or of young sweethearts Born to Run, itching to break free of their small town. Now the joy and exuberance of those classic songs carries the extra poignancy of reminiscence and loss. And the two sets of emotions don’t fight each other. Instead, they make each other stronger – the Glory Days only more glorious because we know they are fleeting.
“It’s an amazing act of transubstantiation,” Eric Alterman, author of a study of Bruce Springsteen, tells me. On stage, the singer becomes the 26-year-old he once was, while fully remaining the 73-year-old he now is. And the magic works on the audience. Watching the show, says Alterman, “I’m inhabiting my 15-year-old self, and the 63-year-old man I am today – and all the years in between.”
This is what rock’n’roll, ageing in real time and before our eyes, can do. “Nostalgia” doesn’t quite capture it, with its hint of the doomed attempt to revive a vanished youth. Instead, standing in a crowd singing songs you’ve known for ever is an invitation to reflect on, and cherish, a whole life: the performer’s, but also your own.
That is what I hear in Joni Mitchell’s album of songs recorded in a voice several registers deeper than the one that first wowed millions. It’s also in Tom Jones (finally) letting his hair turn white and singing the words “when I’m dead”, urging that we remember that he had “One hell of a life”. It’s in McCartney recording an album called Memory Almost Full, with one track on it named The End of the End. It’s in that Glastonbury crowd singing Goodbye Yellow Brick Road to an Elton John who seems as constant a fixture in their – our – lives as Elizabeth II once was.
Of course, artists have always contemplated time and mortality. But they did not do so in a medium forged in the worship of youth. Yes, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen confronted death in their music, even before they grew old, but they were always in a slightly different business: as Alterman says, they weren’t writing songs to dance to.
Now a form that revered the first bloom is embracing the falling of autumn leaves, preparing even the youngest fans for a future that contains, yes, all kinds of unknown possibilities, but also an end point we know too well. After the encores, one banger after another, Springsteen closed his show with a song that promised that “When all our summers have come to an end / I’ll see you in my dreams”. The sun had set by then, and it felt like the sweetest goodbye.
The legends of a genre made by and for the young are getting old. Some embrace it – and it elevates their art | Photograph: Michal Augustini/Shutterstock
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