Are We Killing Our Rock Stars?

This past Saturday marked the 59th anniversary of “the day the music died.” It was on February 3rd, 1959 that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson (The Big Bopper) died when their small plane crashed near Mason City, Iowa. Now, touring musicians face a different, just as fatal, reality.

Back then, touring was a dangerous proposition with Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves and Otis Redding all perishing when their planes crashed during the 1960s. This continued through the 1970s with plane crashes claiming Jim Croce and members of Lynyrd Skynrd. But by then, it seemed that drugs and alcohol had taken over as the main scourge of the working musician with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all falling by the wayside along with later casualties such as Keith Moon and John Bonham.

Nowadays, air travel is much safer and artists have better support (and rehab) to help them with any addictions they may acquire along the way.

But they can’t beat father time.

Recently there has been a spate of classic musicians who have announced their imminent retirement…Elton John, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd…even Slayer!

But it seems that whenever one of these beloved artists tries to call it a day, a cry goes out, bemoaning the fact that they will no longer be criss-crossing the globe, performing in front of the masses. Some folks cynically seem to think that they deserve to be entertained by their favourite singer until they drop. And in some cases that’s exactly what’s happening.

Both Tom Petty (66) and Prince (57) died after complications from taking the prescription drug fentanyl. The reason they took the drug wasn’t because they wanted to get high, they wanted to perform at the same level that they did decades earlier.

Prince’s knees and hips were a mess after years of thrilling audiences with his funky dance moves, Tom Petty broke his hip halfway through his last tour…both artists refused to disappoint fans and so did what they had to do to numb the pain and keep the show going. That attitude eventually killed both of them.

To me, it seems that the problem is that artists are not allowed to be seen as aging human beings. We want our Paul McCartneys, our Neil Youngs, our Bruce Springsteens, our Mick Jaggers to perform as if they are 25 years old. Any crack in the facade…a croaky voice, a slower step, a bald spot, a wrinkle or two and “fans” can’t wait to take to the internet to point out how so-and-so has lost it, they’re washed up, they are no longer of value.

This attitude seems to be part of a wider culture in which “gotcha” journalism is the way to multiple clicks. Even previously “mainstream” media outlets can’t wait to post video clips showing newsreaders stumbling over a word, a model taking a fall on the runway or an athlete doing something awkward or humiliating while playing.

And so aging legends such as McCartney or Dylan or Clapton perform constantly at the peril of being publicly and permanently humiliated if they show their age.  Those Youtube clips never go away.

I love seeing veteran performers such as 74 year old Roger Waters playing like a man half his age as he did recently at Spark Arena and I’m looking forward to watching 69 year old Grace Jones twirl that hula hoop for what seems like an eternity.

But at what price are these folks still performing at this level? And if they no longer can, if they have to take it down a few notches and, dare I say it, act closer to their age, will we still pay good money to see them?

This issue is going to become even more severe as time goes on. Legends like McCartney, Dylan and Springsteen were able to make their fortunes when fans actually paid for music and they can live off of their royalties, but what are contemporary acts such as The National, The Killers or Kendrick Lamar going to do when the years start to pile up?

They will be forced to continue touring because they have nothing else to fall back on.

Let’s hope by then, audiences will be more forgiving, more understanding.

It was David Bowie who managed to go out with his dignity and his legacy intact. He knew he was ill when he retired from touring in 2004…fortunately he made his fortune from songwriting and record sales and wise investments. Now that he’s gone, we, as fans, have nothing but fond memories of him, he remains forever young.

So next time you are fortunate enough to see a performer who has been at it for over 40 years, who may be in their 60s or 70s, cut them some slack. You’re lucky that they still want to perform…maybe they have to for financial reasons (see Leonard Cohen). Remember these are human beings with bodies that will eventually fail.

And then allow them to retire with grace and respect rather than with insults and indignity.

Marty Duda