Music fans around the world held their breath earlier this month when Carlos Santana collapsed from heat stroke during a show in suburban Detroit.
Santana, who postponed six concerts “out of an abundance of caution” while he recovers, is a legendary guitarist whose distinctive blend of rock chords and Latin rhythms have won him 10 Grammys.
He also is 74.
And of the rock icons out on tour this year, he is one of the youngest.
Bob Dylan is 81 and has been touring almost nonstop since last fall. Paul McCartney turned 80 last month shortly after wrapping up North American dates on his “Got Back” tour. Former Beach Boy Brian Wilson, 80, is touring through September. The Rolling Stones – anchored by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, both 78 – are playing stadiums across Europe. The Who, with Pete Townshend, 77, and Roger Daltrey, 78, are touring into November.
Also on the road this summer are Eric Clapton, 77, Rod Stewart, 77, Elton John, 75, and 78-year-old Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd, who is still packing arenas with his majestic songs and mind-bending stagecraft. The list goes on.
At arenas and stadiums across the world, we are witnessing history. Never before has such a grizzled group of rock icons graced so many major stages at the same time.
This moment is something to celebrate. But it’s also a little bittersweet, because it marks the twilight of an early generation of rock ‘n’ roll – the rockers who came right after seminal artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.
We can still get a thrill from hearing these performers live: the visceral punch of the opening guitar chords to “Start Me Up,” the lilting piano intro to “Tiny Dancer,” the shimmering sonic brilliance of “Good Vibrations.”
But let’s just say it – by almost any standard, these rock stars are old. And it forces those of us who grew up with their music to acknowledge that we’re getting old, too.
As critic Steven Hyden wrote in his 2019 book, “Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock,” “You can’t talk about classic rock now without also thinking about death.”
‘It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out’
In 2019, Damon Linker wrote a widely shared essay for The Week, provocatively titled, “The coming death of just about every rock legend.”
In it he predicted that most aging rock icons were likely going to die in the next decade or so.
“Behold the killing fields that lie before us,” he wrote, before listing 28 rock stars in or on the verge of their seventies: Dylan, McCartney, Wilson, Jagger, Richards, Daltrey, Townshend, Waters, Clapton, Stewart, Elton John, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Ray Davies, David Gilmour, Debbie Harry, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Bryan Ferry, Don Henley, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.
Three years later, all 28 of them are still alive. (So are Tina Turner, now 82, Ringo Starr, 81, Neil Diamond, 81, Sly Stone, 79, Bob Seger, 77, Stevie Nicks, 74, Ozzy Osbourne, 73, Bonnie Raitt, 71, and many others.)
Considering the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle’s toll on musicians’ health, and the fact that we’ve since been hammered by a global pandemic that preys on the elderly and has killed more than 6 million people, that seems nothing short of amazing.
So is the fact that most of these artists are still touring.
Should they still be touring? That is another question entirely.
“People always ask me, ‘How do you feel about writing, ‘I hope I die before I get old?’” Townshend told the audience at an April show by The Who in Miami. “I feel really, really old.”
One of Neil Young’s songs from the 1970s goes, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” a much-repeated lyric about the creative lifespan of rock musicians. The line, famously quoted by Kurt Cobain in his suicide note, suggests rock stars are better off flaming out in a brief blaze of creative glory than fading slowly into obsolescence.
But John Lennon, asked about Young’s song in an interview three days before he died, said he hated the lyric.
“It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out,” Lennon said. I worship the people who survive.”
‘These are giants of music history still walking the earth’
Linker isn’t so sure. In a follow-up piece for The Week last year, he argued that the quality of rock stars’ musical output invariably declines as they age, become rich and lose the creative fire that sparked their earlier songs.
And live, many of them appear physically diminished as well.
Linker says he and his wife recently caught Genesis’ reunion tour and were dismayed watching the 71-year-old Phil Collins, so limited by health problems that he couldn’t play the drums and sang sitting down.
“It was a good show — great lights and sound, and Phil Collins’ son Nic did a fabulous job with the drums. But Phil clearly wasn’t up to it,” Linker told CNN. “That left us kind of down by the end of the evening. It can’t help but be a constant reminder that we’ve gotten so much older, too.”
Linker feels similarly about other septuagenarian rock bands who keep soldiering on despite the deaths of key members.
“I don’t want to sound mean, but Roger Daltrey of The Who hasn’t been able to hit high notes in decades. Who songs are really hard to sing! And he’s now 78 years old. Yet they keep going out there. There’s something very sad — very needy — about that,” Linker said. “I feel the same way about the Rolling Stones: Come on, guys, you had a great run — maybe the best run in rock history! Time to give it a rest.”
But Scott Russell, music editor of Paste magazine, disagrees.
To him, there’s something special about watching someone take a song you’ve loved for decades and bring it to life before your eyes.
“These are living legends with catalogs to match, giants of music history still walking the earth despite decades in a grueling industry. You may be able to hear the years in Bob Dylan’s voice, but that’s never what made his music special to begin with,” he told CNN.
“Touring is a major strain on the body and mind, so any artist still on the road at an advanced age is doing it for more than just financial security,” Russell added, noting that the vast majority of professional musicians must scrape and claw to make a living touring.
“Any artist who makes it to that mountaintop has earned the right to hang out there as long as they like.”
A farewell tour for classic rock
These rock ‘n’ roll icons are all survivors. But time, you might say, is no longer on their side.
And their specific genre of music is doomed as well.
“Classic rock” was coined by radio programmers to describe guitar-driven music of a distinct time — roughly from the mid-’60s through the grunge era, Linker and Russell point out.
“By definition, that’s a thing from the past,” Linker said.
Sure, you still hear classic rock on mainstream radio, in your uncle’s Spotify playlists and bashed out by cover bands in bars around the world. Its best songs remain timeless.
But as a contemporary cultural force, its relevance is fading. In an increasingly diverse global music scene, it’s a genre dominated by older White dudes.
“Is classic rock itself now a problematic relic from a time when white male musicians commanded a disproportionate amount of attention?” Hyden wondered in his 2018 book. “Does it deserve to fade away?”
Rock has long ceased being the dominant popular music genre in the US, overtaken by hip-hop, country, rap and dance-oriented pop. Outside of some college and community stations, it’s difficult to find new rock music on the radio.
As more rock legends die in the coming years, the last vestiges of an era will die with them.
Will a new generation of disciples take up the flag?
There are plenty of candidates – Dave Grohl, Eddie Vedder, Thom Yorke, Trent Reznor and members of U2 and Metallica, just to name a few – but they’re all over 50. It’s hard to think of many young rock artists who can fill stadiums like McCartney and Elton John.
And that’s ok. There’s no shortage of talented young musicians expanding the boundaries of rock before enthusiastic crowds in theaters and clubs. Good music will always find an audience.
“Rock may never regain its place atop the pop music pecking order, but it’s never going to go away, either. As one generation of rock musicians ages out, there’s always another on their way up,” said Paste’s Russell, citing such emerging artists as Bartees Strange, Turnstile and Wet Leg. “What’s old can always be made new again.”
Rock ‘n’ roll “is a great formula for young people seeking a creative outlet, so I don’t think it will die out,” agreed Linker. “I mean, all the great old stuff is still there in our Spotify and Apple Music accounts to listen to and inspire new generations of discontented youth, which is where rock music comes from.”
In the meantime, let’s appreciate these touring rock music legends while they are still around.
Yes, maybe Pete Townshend’s signature windmills are getting a little creaky. Maybe Brian Wilson outsources his high notes to younger singers. And many of these artists’ concerts are overpriced.
But they are still out there night after night, doing what they love. They have given us so much. We are lucky to have had them this long.