The Plight of Aging Rock Stars

As our beloved rock stars grow old it becomes more and more difficult for them to maintain market relevance while avoiding becoming a novelty act or a caricature of their former glory. Some rock stars have managed to grow old with dignity while others have fallen victim to parasitic promoters and greedy heirs.

Over the past year there have been videos circulating of Chuck Berry performing in South America recently  and I wish I hadn’t seen them.  Berry, now 88, seems to be forced on stage by his daughter and son, who play in the band with him, and unclear on what it is he’s supposed to be doing.  If you’re a Berry fan, don’t watch these videos because it will break your heart to see the once vibrant and lively entertainer struggle through lyrics, play in the wrong key and seem genuinely confused on stage.  Why go to South America on tour at 88?  My guess is that it’s one last money grab by his future estate before he dies and since the lion’s share of his royalties come from US it’d be a huge mistake to do any touring stateside. 

It begs the question, how old is too old to rock and roll?  The Rolling Stones are still out there working the road and selling out arenas and Paul McCartney is one of the most successful touring acts of the last decade.  I saw Ray Davies (The Kinks) a couple years ago and it stood as one of the best concerts I’d ever been to (and, dare I say, his vocals are in way better shape than McCartney or Jagger).  On the flip, though, Billy Joel has severely cut back his live dates and stopped recording all together even though he’s younger than all of the aforementioned acts.  Is there a time when an artist knows they can’t bring the goods anymore but they choose to do it anyway or are these aging legends being forced into these gigs by ruthless management?

Little Richard made an appearance on a television show (I can’t remember if it was America’s Got Talent or Idol) a few years back that was dreadful.  Clearly unable to stand or walk on his own, he simply went through the motions of his music, unable to really sing or play the piano like he used to.  I’m sure this was the idea of a young management team that is trying to preserve his legacy by making him relevant to the younger generations but there’s nothing relevant about an 85 year old being propped up on stage and stumbling through the words of Tutti Fruiti; if anything it hurts their relevance.

Every new generation, at some point, will find old music.  The Beatles are still a top selling act and topped the video game charts a few years back and they haven’t done anything, together, since 1970 so there are other ways to successfully market the “Legend” catalogs.  Instead of making Chuck Berry stand on stage, why not have him do a duet album like Jerry Lee Lewis?  Was the album going to change the world?  No, of course not but it did put new material on the shelf at Target and Best Buy and, I’m sure, helped boost his catalog sales.

How about some box set retrospectives.  Comb the archives, remaster the classics and start releasing things that aren’t just rehashed greatest hits album.  There are dozens of Little Richard greatest hits albums and each one of them is virtually identical but a career spanning box set with b-sides, studio out takes and a nice ProTools facelift would be something I’d be very interested in.  For the collectors, you create a nice box with a bunch of goodies and for the youths, you throw it all on iTunes.

Of course these legacy acts need to be recognized but their legacy is not going to survive on stage, it survives on tape.  In 100 years, the antics of a young Berry, Lewis or Richard are going to seem silly (some of them already do) and nobody alive will have seen them in their heyday in person but their music will survive.  In the waning years of life, shouldn’t the focus be on preserving the songs in the best light possible and documenting everything you can while the artist is still here so that in 2075 when a young garage band hits it big with a cover of Johnny B Goode they found in their great great grandfather’s cd collection, people will actually know the roots and story behind that music?

When Ronald Reagan really began to decline in health, he stopped making public appearances and a big effort from his family was made to preserve the image of a vibrant, smart, well spoken leader.  They didn’t parade him around the news shows so that everyone could shower him with praises, they let him live out his life with dignity and took other avenues of legacy preservation.  We should do the same for our aging music heroes.  Chuck Berry is one of my biggest influences on guitar.  He directly influenced the band that made me start writing music and has informed the style of every guitar player I emulate.  I sing his songs at gigs and jam sessions, blast them in the car while I’m driving and teach them to every one of my guitar students.  Chuck Berry has had more direct impact on my life than any American president will ever have and for that he, and his fellow founders of rock, should be honored in every way that we honor Kennedy and Reagan and the legacy of these men and women should never be in question to the point of making a spectacle of themselves in public.

Hail, hail rock and roll!