10 songs about aging in rock ‘n’ roll from legendary acts in the prime of their youth
Rock ‘n’ roll, of course, has always primarily been about youth – the lust and love, the travails and traumas, the frustration and the exhilaration.
Many of the musicians who hit us hard were in their early-mid 20s, so they were looking at the lives – and the lives of those they knew or created – as they were at present or just slightly in the rear-view mirror.
As fans, we all fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll as pre-teens even if we didn’t quite understand all the references. Then, we felt deeper in love when the mind-scrambling teenage years hit. The rock ‘n’ roll we loved helped articulate our inarticulateness (The Who’s “I Can’t Explain”) gave voice to our darkness (The Rolling Stones “Paint It, Black”) and helped us feel what love was like (The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night”).
The love affair continued into our 20s and beyond. The songs were made by artists our age – or one generation up or maybe one down – and they hit us where we lived, expressing the previously inexpressible.
How about now, as many of us have passed through the portal of youth into what might politely be called middle age? Can we look back to those rockers of our youth and hear what they had to say about where we – and they – were headed and may well be now? Here’s our top ten.
AUDIO: Neil Young “Old Man”
Neil Young, “Old Man”
The obvious top choice, released when Young was young (26) and old age was a projection. It was reportedly inspired the caretaker of the ranch Young bought in 1970 as a “rich hippie.” They refrain runs “Old man take a look at my life/I’m a lot like you were.” It’s simple, but effective. How often do we – when we’re young – forget or ignore the fact that our elders, their best years behind them, were once fresh and vital, too. They always seem old to us. Here, both the protagonist and the old man share the loneliness and they both “need someone to love them the whole day through.”
AUDIO: Pink Floyd “Free Four”
Pink Floyd “Free Four”
It sounds all jolly and jaunty, but begins with Roger Waters singing, “The memories of a man in his old age/Are the deeds of a man in his prime/You shuffle in the gloom of the sick room/And talk to yourself as you die” and he steps back to ruminate: “Life is a short, warm moment/And death is a long cold rest./You get your chance to try in a twinkling of an eye/Eighty years with luck or even less.” I confess this verse has run through my brain for a few decades and I’ve said, “Yeah, pretty much.”
AUDIO: The Beatles “When I’m Sixty Four”
The Beatles, “When I’m Sixty Four”
Well, of course this. Certainly, the most hopeful song on this list. I heard the song when I was 11 and 64 was a long way away. Ancient. But Paul McCartney made this transition seem comforting, wiling away time on the Isle of Wight and all. Sixty-four is now less than a year away for me. I did wonder if my life – as I’m sure you did – would turn out like Paul’s domestic bliss fantasy – grandchildren on your knee (you know their names) etc. Not exactly. But it’s turned out fine.
VIDEO: Elvis Costello “Veronica”
Elvis Costello, “Veronica”
Early Elvis packed a lot of cleverly twisted spite and revenge into his quick-hit rockers. They established EC as the Angry (but articulate) Young Man of his day. With “Veronica,” a decade or so down the line, a co-write with Macca, Elvis gave us a heartbreaker, a smooth pop song served up with a boatload of empathy. His protagonist was an old woman whose memory was fading – she may not even know her name – but still (possibly) able to glimpse herself as a young girl. Once, she had a “carefree mind” and that “delicate look in the eye.” These days, Costello wonders if her days drag by and if the favors she was once granted have waned. (We know they have.) Veronica, it seems, recalls that sailor suitor of hers who sailed off on the Empress of India, never to return.
AUDIO: The Rolling Stones “She’s So Cold”
Rolling Stones “She So Cold”
This one’s got a sexy swagger and a nasty-ass twist. Mick Jagger is young and palpably horny – nothing new there. “I’m so hot for her, I’m so hot for her, I’m so hot for her, but she’s so cold.” Hookup denied! The kicker comes in the final verse, as the Stones take the music down a notch but Mick skips ahead decades ramps up the vitriol : “Who would believe you were a beauty indeed?/When days get shorter and the night gets long/Lie awake when the rain comes/Nobody will know, when you old/When you’re old, nobody will know/That you was a beauty, a sweet sweet beauty, but stone, stone cold.”
AUDIO: The Kinks “Picture Book”
The Kinks “Picture Book”
“Picture yourself when you’re getting old,” sings Ray Davies to start it off and set the scene. Ok, we’re there. Like “Free Four” (which came four years later), there’s an upbeat bounciness as Ray and the family flip through that old photo album, spying on the people they used to be (and people who used to be with them). Why were those family pictures taken? “To prove they loved each other – a long time ago.” Ain’t that the truth now, then and forever? And those pictures of you “in your birthday suit.” Ouch. The kicker: “Those days when you were happy – a long time ago.” I like the “na na na na na na” interlude, which gives you a few moments to think of your own picture book – the aunts, the uncles, the offspring. I’m not sure I ever heard the Kinks do this live, but I did hear Dave Davies do a lovely version playing a club gig outside Boston in ’98 or ’99.
VIDEO: Pulp “Help The Aged”
Pulp, “Help the Aged”
It starts delicately and then lands with a massive Brit-pop bang, soaring and swooning. It’s resplendent, but wrenching. Where Elvis’s Veronica was in a nursing home, Jarvis Cocker has no particular focus, but rather makes a plea to keep the aged out of those places – “Try to help them unwind/Give them hope and give them comfort” and, naturally, “You may see where you are headed/And it’s such a lonely place.”
The song begins with some lad-like humor – “One time they were just like you/Drinking, smoking cigs and sniffing glue” – it’s possible these people weren’t glue-sniffers – but when Cocker repetitively sings, “Funny how it all falls away” at the end of the song it, of course, is not that funny at all.
AUDIO: The Magnetic Fields “When You’re Old and Lonely”
The Magnetic Fields “When You’re Old and Lonely”
A spare and haunting song, the Magnetic Fields forte. Here’s the set-up. Deep voiced singer Stephen Merritt addresses a lover who’s rejected him and that in the future – when the ex is indeed old and lonely – he/she is going to really regret it. Merritt could’ve given him or her everything, but, alas, he was spurned and the ex will suffer for it. And so, at the end, “When your golden loneliness is heavier than stone/You can call me up and say ‘My God, I’m all alone, all alone.’”
AUDIO: Rolling Stones “Time Waits For No One”
Rolling Stones “Time Waits for No One”
If “She’s So Cold” is Stones’ saucy one, here’s the band in stretched-out mid-tempo form and Mick in full-bore reflective mode. It’s not a third-person or “character” song – you have no doubt the “me” in the chorus: “Time waits for no one and it won’t wait for me” is Mick. It was recorded during the relatively brief Mick Taylor-era, and, indeed, Taylor takes the intricate, extended guitar solo. Jagger muses, “Hours are like diamonds/Don’t let them waste/Time waits for no one/No favors has he.” Wistful, dreamy, achingly melancholic.
AUDIO: Old & In The Way “Old & In The Way”
Old & In the Way, “Old & In the Way”
You want to capture everyone’s greatest fear of aging in one short bluegrass song? The group called Old & In the Way is a one-off Grateful Dead spinoff for Jerry Garcia. (Has any band had more spin-offs?) The song that doubles as the band’s name features a jaunty banjo-led melody – it’s Garcia on banjo, David Grisman on mandolin, Vassar Clements on fiddle – but Grisman sings a lyric that is anything but: “Old and in the way, that’s what I heard them say/They used to heed the words he said, but that was yesterday/Gold will turn to gray and youth will fade away/They’ll never care about you, call you old and in the way.”
It gets worse in the second verse. “Once I hear tell, he was happy/
He had his share of friends and good times/Now, those friends have all passed on/He don’t have a place called home/Looking back to a better day, feeling old and in the way.”