In These Golden Years (wah wah wah)
"Run for the shadows, in these golden years." ~Bowie
"And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid." ~ Eliot
In John Keats' most perfect poem, Ode to a Nightingale, an elderly man hears the song of a nightingale in the woods and his heart yearns to depart: "That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, and with Thee fade into the forest dim."
That made me think.
Being about a decade away from the traditional age for retirement downright freaks me out. Once I stop hyperventilating, my mind considers the prospect of retirement and subsequent ramifications. Then, the really big questions come to mind:
Once I have reached the big 6-5, will I wear pants with the stretch waistline? Will black socks with loafers be ok for public outings? When will it be fine to wear gloriously ill-matched clothing? What about bow ties and plaid jackets? White belts with matching shoes: is that still cool? When will people not speak, but shout at me, believing me confused and hard of hearing?
And just exactly when should I start yelling, "You kids get off my lawn!"?
Start moving towards the exits, please!
I'm lucky in that I straddle two worlds: one of public broadcasting and one as a musician. Both of which are not "ageist:" that is, they won't kick me to the curb or boo me because I'm getting a little long in the olde tooth.
Perhaps a Spinal Tap quote would serve:
Marty Dibergi: Do you feel that playing rock 'n' roll music keeps you a child? That is, keeps you in a state of arrested development? Derek Smalls: No. No. No. I feel it's like, it's more like going, going to a, a national park or something. And there's, you know, they preserve the moose. And that's, that's my childhood up there on stage. That moose, you know. Marty Dibergi: So when you're playing you feel like a preserved moose on stage? Derek Smalls: Yeah.
Music: the proverbial Peter Pan of professions: we are not encouraged, nor do ever really grow up. This may not be true of all styles of music, but in popular music this is the unwavering reflection of true arrested development or at least, the appearance of such.
When drummer Bill Bruford (Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Earthworks) promptly retired at age 65, people questioned whether it was a publicity stunt or whether it was a case of his physical or mental health being in decline. Bruford talked about the Peter Pan Syndrome, with respect to performers of his generation who must carry on a concert career as if 'time and chance' has not happened. He referred to one family act, who shall remain nameless, as a "frightening example of performers acting like nothing had changed."
When questioned about his own retirement, Bruford replied bluntly: "I didn't want to be the guy who died in a hotel room."
Bruford is right, of course. We, the audience, want what we already know. We want our aged music icons to bring nostalgia back on stage, resuscitate it, prop it up and have us a party.
But it's not just the performers acting as if time hasn't past, the concertgoers are just as guilty.
A Jimmy Buffet concert is an example of how far desperate boomers will go to prove that, if nothing else, they are still young at heart. Dressing in all manner of bad prom, beach-themed regalia, these relics play out their careless, endless summer beach fantasy to the tunes of their faux Caribe rebel billionaire Buffet. It's as if these dull, stiff and class-conscious yuppies are painfully and awkwardly proclaiming: "See? We're cool too." No, you were never cool and your island chill doesn't apply to your driving style when you cut people off on the beltway or push your way to the front of the line at Starbucks.
But, as mean as I sound, I do the same thing. I still follow Peter Gabriel, King Crimson and other AARP card holders. I watch weathered Mick Jagger strut his elderly stuff and watch to see if Keef has any idea where he is, musically or otherwise.
High dollar tickets (The Police reunion tour) allow indulgence in faded glories, to hold the wrinkled and withered flag of rebellion high, to relive our youth with box sets of albums, of which we already own multiple copies, as if somehow the magic elixir of youth can be squeezed from a 180 gram vinyl special edition.
We cheer on our time-weathered heroes, ignoring the baldness, the weight gain or the facial crags all in the hope that, just for a moment, youth might again be retouched and known. The icons, that made the soundtrack of our youth, are still rockin' and laughing at old age.
But what if old age is laughing back?
Music, being a time machine miracle, makes us again feel young. "All the young dudes, carry the news," we might sing en masse and then add, "I'm a dude, man."
To this very day, whenever I hear The Beatles, I am young again and full of hope. Just for a moment, my hair is long, my waist is considerable smaller and my face is not a pudgy wrinkle. Music has that power of illusion.
But, alas, all the outward dudeness in me hath faded into the forest dim. The dude may abide, but he's rollin' with a walker. There is no rock t-shirt, nor faded jeans, or haircut that can disguise my five and a half decades. I am old: not quite feeble, but no spring in my step either.
But, despite the harsh passage of time, we musicians cannot let go of what we love. We are not fully alive unless we are playing, recording, composing, playing concerts, talking endlessly to friends about an infinite variety of musical topics.
There is no golden watch moment in music. There's only gigs until we can no longer play them. There's no retirement.
So, when will ye retire from radio?
When a sweet Caribbean seaside bungalow, complete with hammock, becomes available.
My answer: as long as the pipes are good and I get to keep a key, my plan is to hang out. I like being on the air and to inform, engage and perhaps amuse an audience. The value of getting older in broadcasting is that the pipes keep getting richer. There is a tipping point, of course, but the pipes do get richer; providing that you are not coloring them daily with tobacco or bourbon.
I want to avoid the Larry King syndrome. That is, being on the air long after you've past your ability to do the job. Larry's people let him remain on the air long after Larry could hold an actual conversation. Or remember who he was talking to. Questions came and went from nowhere to nothing. King once said, "I never had a written question." You should have, old buddy.
The height of King's final sputter was when, on live TV, he called Ringo Starr "George," and Sir Paul let him have it. Soon after, the Larrster was goneski. Now, he does "interviews," aka infomercials, with slick, shady-looking characters selling the latest snake-oil-elixer-of-life. A good paycheck probably, but should you end your career in late-night TV hell?
That's the way I see it. As long as you do not become a parody of your former self or when someone you respect says, "Dude, it's time."
That's the thing: keep the gig as long as you keep your dignity and integrity.
And start practicing: "Hey! You kids get off my lawn!"