Today is my 49th birthday… typically this would be considered “old”, especially for a rock musician. Strangely we don’t consider 49 old for blues or jazz musicians nor classical musicians or composers. But rock music came into being as a young person’s game, a rebellion against the old people’s ideas, and as such became sold to the public as “only for the young”. One result of that is of course the sad Hollywood adulation of youth idea, and that permeates the marketing of music still. Young is better. Even if the young have nothing of substance to say.
When rock started in the 50s, there wasn’t much to say but “fuck off, daddio” and “let’s have sex, baby”, which weren’t things very commonly said publicly. And indeed, much of rock music subsequently has said the same things. What’s weird is that as people grew up with these things, some people still were offended by sex and “newness” and hence, even as the rock musicians grew old, some people of all ages still had to say “fuck off, the man!” and “let’s have sex.” Personally I’m all for these sentiments, always have been. And I’ll probably be telling the man to fuck off and saying to my wife some form of “let’s do it” for the rest of my life. And offending some people, hopefully.
One thing that amazes me, though, is that the rock musicians that are even now still the icons were good when they were young. Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Peter Green, Jerry Garcia, Frank Zappa, Sid Barrett: these guys were all in their 20s in the 1960s, when they made significant statements and changed the vocabulary and sonic palette of the guitar. I’m as old as I am and I feel like I’m just starting to get good. (please allow me another decade at least before I can say I’m a violinist instead of a guitar player who plays violin.)
So how’d these guys get so good so young? Was it practicing? Better music education in school? Cheaper to live so more time to dedicate to playing? It’s hard to know. But there has rarely been a time subsequently when such a burst of change came to guitar playing. I know that the 80s we had the Van Halen into shredder action revolution, but besides the guys who were actually laden with ideas (perhaps Steve Vai and Joe Satriani?) not much of that survived as part of the current language of rock guitar playing. And after that, well, I wouldn’t say Sonic Youth are awesome guitar players so much as awesome composers who expanded the palette and vocabulary further.
When the good musicians expanded the genre, the genre expanded what it could say. It had more color and musical language, more types of poetic language to match. Rock grew a lot in the late 60s and 70s. And then overgrew, collapsed, was reborn into new ways of saying the old basic truths, but… then then the 80s didn’t say any more than that, most of the time. Nobody developed a poetic language that could match the shred, and punk pretty much stuck with “fuck off, daddio”. By the 90s the whole underground music that wasn’t punk or metal had become co-opted by the music business machine, and the lyrical language was growing, but for some reason there was still a stigma left over from punk and metal: no guitar solos if you’re punk, ‘cuz that’s what metal dudes do. What was underground in the world of “Alternative” rock was progressive rock!
We still value youth in rock music. Every year it’s about the new bands, and every year I’m disappointed in the new bands’ musical abilities. Occasionally something will jump out and work for a while, but a lot of these are looks backwards at the 60s or 70s music (which I like, and I admit I go retro quite a lot) so they don’t seem to last long enough to actually develop into a new thing.
Meanwhile, like me, the old rockers are getting better at playing. Culture as a whole isn’t interested much, but luckily for some of us, there are still fans, and now these fans are bringing their kids. I personally know quite a few amazing musicians who are around my age or (gasp!) older. And I don’t mean the aging rock stars, I mean the aging rock musicians.
Let’s hope we can keep going.