I bought my first album back in 1980: The Who’s Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy. The record was packed with classics like “Pinball Wizard,” “The Seeker” and “My Generation” in which Roger Daltrey sings that immortal line, “I hope I die before I get old.”
The line may be immortal, but alas, Daltrey isn’t. Nor (thankfully) did he get his youthful wish. He is now a sprightly 71. The band is touring again this year and one can bet that “My Generation” is on the song list. Which leaves me to wonder: can Daltrey get through that lyric with a straight face? Or perhaps he is just glad not to be a centenarian: after all, “young” is a relative concept, isn’t it?
Perhaps it is. But as the number of people relative to which you are young begins to dwindle, you are forced to face the fact that everybody gets old. Needless to say, not all of us accept our mortality with the same grace. As with the aging Hollywood starlet (whatever happened to Meg Ryan?!) there is something especially tragicomic in the image of the aging rock star. These are people who have adopted social roles that demand perpetual youth. And yet, unless they discover that as yet elusive fountain of eternal youth, they are doomed to grow out of their role.
The rock star who continues to ignore his own decline eventually becomes a parody of himself. What else can be said of a man in his sixties who is still wearing spandex, attempting scissor kicks, and singing about “girls”? (I’m looking at you David Lee Roth.) Call him “young at heart” if you wish, but I’m more inclined to see it as creepy and infantilized.
The sad result was memorably captured twenty years ago by Northwest radio personality Bob Rivers with one of his novelty “Twisted tunes”. This particular twisted tune, a parody of Kiss’ 1975 hit “Rock and Roll All Nite,” was aptly titled “I used to Rock and Roll All Nite”:
Ouch! I’d say Rivers nails it here. The aging rock star has inadvertently become that thing which he fears most: the poseur.
Lest we think this is just about rock stars and Hollywood starlets, the fact is that this is a fate which can affect anybody. Indeed, the denial of age is becoming endemic to our culture, and with it a perverse attempt to deny our own mortality and the lessons of every age.
In chapter 6 of my book What on Earth Do We Know About Heaven? I discuss the question “How Old Will We Be–and Will We Get Older?” And I make the following point:
“aging adds a dimension of richness to an individual’s life experience. Each stage of life has its own beauty and value, and that includes old age. As W. Somerset Maugham poignantly observed, ‘Old age has its pleasures, which, though different, are not less than the pleasures of youth.'” (57)
They may not be less than the pleasures of youth, but they definitely require a subtler palate to be enjoyed. It’s a good thing God placed old age at the end of life, for in that way we can spend a lifetime developing the palate to appreciate that richness on its own terms. From that perspective, the infantilization of the aging rock star is especially tragic, for he has squandered that opportunity to develop the subtler palate, and is instead left pining for that which is now forever gone.
Let that be a salutary warning for us all: do not squander the years of your youth. Instead, use them wisely to develop the emotional and intellectual sophistication to embrace the pleasures of your soon-to-arrive golden years, lest you too end up on the same tragicomic stage as the aging rock star.