Suicide Right on Stage

How far should AARP artists push themselves?

Even if you're not an Aerosmith fan (I happen to like 'em), you have to feel for a band that's had such bad luck on their recent tour, or rather, they've fallen victim to a common condition for classic rockers now -- it's called age and it ain't always pretty, especially for a set of heroes who are supposed to be forever young (but can't be).

It started recently when singer Steve Tyler took an accidental fall off of a stage (not a stage dive, mind you). The poor guy had to go home to recuperate and the news that slowly dribbled out included show cancellations and the threat the rest of their recent tour could be scrapped.

And this wasn't even the start of the recent health problems that the band's had on this tour. Read the list of ailments from the last link above and you'll see a leg injury, knee infection and surgery, head injury and 'non-invasive surgery', not to mention throat cancer and hepatitis C bouts in the last few years. So far only drummer Joey Kramer has escaped maladies recently.

And it's not just Aerosmith that are feeling their age. There's also reports that Sir Paul may be ready to retire. A source told the Sun newspaper: "He realises that the older he gets, the less his body will be able to cope with the demands of extended periods on the road." Admittedly, stars sometimes float rumors about their 'last tour' to help juice up ticket sales (the Stones have done that before) but the quote isn't that unreasonable to at least take seriously. Also, recently singer David Gahan of Depeche Mode had to have shows canceled after undergoing tumor surgery and again recently for 'vocal rest' (he's 47). In 2007, I noted a similar ailment problem with classic rockers like Daltrey, Jagger and Richards that had also caused them to postpone shows.

This past February, I ran through some of Billboard's numbers about the top earning tour acts and found that the top five had an average age of over 50 and for the next 15 acts on the list, only five of them were under 30 (five more were in their 30s and the rest were over 40). For comparison's sake, everyone in Aerosmith is in their late 50s, except Tyler who's 61.

So consider for a minute an incomplete roll call of still-touring AARP-age performers. For the 60-year-old group, there's Jagger (66), McCartney (67), Dylan (68), Townshend (64), Paul Simon (67), Smokey Robinson (69), Greg Allman (61), the Dead (61, 63, 65, 69) and George Clinton (68), with Springsteen just missing the cut (59). Then, you have 70-year crowd where we'll throw in some country and jazz legends: George Jones (77), Little Richard (76), Jerry Lee Lewis (73), Ornette Coleman (79), Sonny Rollins (78), Willie Nelson (76), Merle Haggard (72) and... Pat Boone (75). The octogenarian group includes Chuck Berry (82), B.B. King (83) and Cecil Taylor (80) (also note that while Fats Domino is 81, he's rarely performed since the 1980's). Ah, but they're mere spring chickens compared to bluesmen Pinetop Perkins (96) and Honeyboy Edwards (94). All of which is to say that it ain't unusual to see the 50-plus crowd touring but some of them already have faced the limitations of their age, or they will soon. Even James Brown couldn't do leg splits towards the end of his life.

How far and how long should these performers push themselves? When do they figure that it's time to pack it in? Some have joked that they'll be glad to get wheeled out onto the stage when they can't walk anymore. The way that each of these artists answers these questions for themselves is some mix of ego, pride and artistic drive. At some level, they reason that they're performers so they should just keep performing, even if it means that they can't perform the way they used to anymore. Dylan's switch to keyboards was supposedly motivated by shoulder trouble after strapping on guitars for years and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon (56) supposedly gave up bass because of hand problems. B.B. King has to sit throughout his shows nowadays. Townshend has been suffering tinnitus for years (as has Mission of Burma's Roger Miller among others), at one point considering performing in a special Plexiglas area for Who shows. And as for Dylan's voice... You get the picture.

Part of the answer to the question of how long these artists should keep hitting the road has to do with fans too. It's reasoned that as long as the crowds keep showing up, why shouldn't they keep performing? It makes sense as long as the decision takes the artist's health into consideration, which we rarely hear about until there's a show cancellation. So why do we want to keep seeing these artists performing for decade after decade? Is it because many of their fans relate to their struggle of still being active in their later years? Maybe if we see these same stars still able to perform our favorite material after all their years, we think that we're ageless and immortal too. Of course, fans can't be blamed for making stars tour past their physical peak (not to mention sometimes their artistic peak) -- by nature, they're always boosters. But it does call into question the idea that performers should or must push themselves out onto the stage just because enough fans will be there.

I've seen most of the 60-80-year-old performers I mentioned above perform (not Boone though), usually in their later years, and just about all of them still put on impressive shows. I don't even care if they haven't put out a decent studio album in years -- I just want and hope for a good show from them. But even as a fan, I wouldn't want them to push themselves to the breaking point just to entertain me. A real fan wouldn't want that of their favorite artist and these artists should know that even they have their limits when it comes to performing. If it means retiring from the stage at some point, so be it: technology and medicine will only help you fight off the effects of age for so long.

LATE AUGUST UPDATE: Add Rod Stewart (age 64) to the list: he just had to cancel three shows because of a throat ailment.

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