I Might Be Wrong: I hope I die before I get oldBy Colin St. John | June 1st, 2011 | 6 comments
Gil Scott-Heron died on Friday. It’s a terrible shame for reasons which are legion: for his influence which many have linked up to the genesis of hip-hop, for his well-documented struggles with drugs, for his lived-in voice and for his poetic words. But, from another perspective, there’s an even deeper loss. Scott-Heron was on a recent upswing, his music just as vital as it was forty years ago. In fact, his 2010 release, “I’m New Here,” was arguably the best work Scott-Heron furnished since the 1970s. From the pensive, spare and irony-laden title track to the choppy, jarring and seemingly prescient, “New York Is Killing Me,” it’s a striking effort. (The remixed “We’re New Here,” with Jamie Smith from the XX, was strong, too.) At the age of 62, Scott-Heron was part of an elite and dwindling club: the aging yet relevant rock star.
In 1965, the Who famously sang, “I hope I die before I get old” on “My Generation” — a truly rock ‘n’ roll sentiment before rock ‘n’ roll had even figured out what it was going to be. The statement rings just as true today. Rock and pop have always been the enterprise of youth and never of the haggard and grey. Despite memories of a fierce performance at the Pepsi Center back in 2000 (when John Entwistle was still alive), the Who should take its own advice. “Endless Wire,” from 2006, wasn’t anything new or interesting. Retire. Go away. Stop playing as the Who. (Or as Roger Daltrey performing “Tommy” — which he will do at the 1stBank Center in October — in one of those exasperating and ubiquitous full-album performances. Thanks for nothing, All Tomorrow’s Parties.) Moon is dead. Enwistle is dead. The Who is dead.
The worst offenders of legacy-tarnishing triteness are the Rolling Stones. Their last decent record was 1994’s “Voodoo Lounge,” and even that’s a stretch. (The last Stones album worthy of the band’s name was probably “Tattoo You.”) Yet, the band continues to tour and to play some version of its greatest hits. Why? They have enough money. Surely, the fans could find a better way to spend their money. The only explanation seems to be that it’s keeping Keith Richards alive.
The group’s monumental influence is being injected with contaminates on the level of the “Exile” heroin binges. As James Murphy said on “The Colbert Report” before he sent LCD Soundsystem to the retirement home, “I’m 41 and at a certain point it gets embarrassing.” And with geriatric concerts and sub-par albums, there might not be anything more embarrassing than the ghostly skeleton of Mick Jagger hobbling around a stadium stage.
A look at this week’s Billboard charts has Stevie Nicks, the Cars and Paul Simon (who, admittedly, has been aging better than some, capped by his 2008 Brooklyn Academy of Music residency) jostling for position in the Top 40. A cursory glance at the previously-harped-upon Red Rocks schedule reveals stale choices like Jethro Tull, Steve Miller Band and Styx. Baby boomers control the tides, here, buying the latest Pink Floyd box set (instead of illegally downloading it like their children) and forking over the big bucks for front row seats to Kiss.
But, there are signs of life over the proverbial hill, too. This week, a 55-year-old Sharon Jones brings her jubilant Dap-Kings to the Botanic Gardens on the heels of last year’s soulful “I Learned the Hard Way.” Robert Plant has switched gears and veered into folk territory, with fabulous results (that included a vibrant show at the Fillmore in April). Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young still write great songs. Bob Dylan does, too, even if his live performances are less intriguing than his facial hair choices. Change has been good to these older artists and if you aren’t cruising forward in music (as an art form or as a business), you’ve got to get off the road.
There’s a logical issue to be reckoned with, of course. How can we know for sure that, say, Eric Clapton won’t release another excellent album? (For the record, even “Unplugged” — Starbucks music before the coffee joint was on every block — is a saccharine bore, a monument to Murphy’s definition of embarrassing.) Well, he’s just not going to. Clapton, like many others, has shown no sign of reinvention or meaningfulness since the 1980s. He should stop playing his new crap and old stuff, for — at the very least — the sake of his reputation. Clapton, the Stones, the members of the Who, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, the Grateful Dead bros and many, many others should break-up or retire. It’s as simple as that.
Ultimately, it’s a consumer’s market. Stop paying for overpriced Eagles concerts. Don’t wade any deeper into the reissue sea. Cancel that subscription to Rolling Stone. Take your dad to a Sunday BBQ at the Larimer Lounge or buy your mom the new Antlers album. If the people demand something distinct and contemporary, the powers-that-be will have to comply or perish. To be sure, there’s no sense in anyone joining the 27 Club. We’d all have liked to hear more from Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix. But, many of the elder statesmen of rock should bow out from the spotlight before its focus shines a light on a wrinkly mess. To quote another inveterate musician, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Maybe, Gil Scott-Heron was a Neil Young fan.