Rock stars are more interesting after 40 than when they are young and menacingby David Owen / November 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
I think it was Paul Weller who said in some long ago interview how uncomfortable he would feel if he was still playing the Jam anthem When You’re Young once he was past a certain age. At the time, if I could have looked up from my New Musical Express for long enough, I would wholeheartedly have endorsed the sentiment. As I saw it, rock musicians should be subject to a compulsory retirement age, like first-class football referees or high court judges. How many rock stars could convincingly claim to have produced anything that was any good after the age of about 40? After watching the Rolling Stones play at the mighty Stade de France earlier this summer, I now realise I was wrong. Not that I think much of the venerable band’s new material; in my view (I suspect not particularly controversial), they have produced nothing of more than passing interest since Some Girls 20 years ago and are unlikely to ever again. None the less, I do think they perform a useful service on a number of different levels. Let us start with the utterly trivial: as he recently told the Financial Times, the prospect of playing with the Stones makes Jim Kerr, the 38-year-old lead singer of the band Simple Minds, feel “really young again.” That in itself should be enough to stave off any premature thoughts of disbanding. There is also the small matter of the sheer excitement the old gents are still capable of generating. I bet most of the 80,000 fans in the French stadium that night reckon they got their money’s worth. As long as this remains the case, and they do no harm, who is to say they should hang up their plectrums? My main point, though, is that the experience of watching a band like the Stones, whose act-expensive stage-sets aside-has actually changed remarkably little over the years, offers some instructive and reassuring lessons about the tricks time plays. In the halcyon days of the 1960s and early 1970s, there was an air of menace about nearly everything the Stones wrote or did. Whether in the lyrics of songs such as Sympathy for the Devil and Brown Sugar, or in Jagger’s gawkily sexy stage presence and Richards’s graveyard eyes, they seemed effortlessly to sow subversion, in famous contrast to the Beatles, at least pre-White Album. By and large, your mum and dad were not best pleased if you were a Stones worshipper. Today, they still play all those once unsettling standards-Jagger is as captivating as ever and Richards’s gaze seems to come from several steps beyond the grave. Yet the menace has utterly evaporated. The band has become so respectable that they are now grist to the corporate entertainment mill. Mothers and daughters twist away together at their concerts. Time has turned them into a family act-good clean fun-and there seems to have been nothing they could do to arrest this process. Time is not on the side of menace. The songs, too, have changed in different ways as the context has altered. Thirty-odd years ago, Time is on My Side exuded the self-confidence of youth. Today, performed by a 55-year-old man, it is infinitely more subtle, invested with, to say the least, an undercurrent of irony. When they played The Last Time, the song had a certain edge because you felt this might actually be the last time. Their long history gives them so much more to play with. In Paris, for example, they built themselves a telescopic “bridge” (the tour was called Bridges to Babylon) which transported them far out into the audience to a tiny stage, where they proceeded to hammer out four numbers, including Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, momentarily bereft of the trappings of megastardom. Just like the old days. Going back to Paul Weller, if I had paused to think all those years ago, I might have come to the conclusion that When You’re Young-a song, after all, about the disillusionment of youth (“I know you think you’re king, but you’re really a pawn” and all that)-might more appropriately be sung by a 40-something stadium rocker than a young pop star on the up and up. Rock on, gentlemen, rock on.