Mott leader’s tribute to Bowie revealed an artist heading loudly into that good night
Rockers have always held strong opinions about mandatory retirement age.
Pete Townshend wrote the most famous declaration: “I hope I die before I get old.” He didn’t specify what he meant by “old,” but The Who recorded that just as Pete turned 20, so it’s safe to assume 40 was the outer edge. (Townshend gave an interview at 43 in which he said that “before I get old” really referred to people who were “Rich. Someone that had achieved everything and looked to anybody that was on the ladder up with an eye to kicking them off. So I guess we’re old now.”)
Luckily for the tens of millions who have enjoyed The Who and Pete’s continued excellent songwriting well into his 70s, old is in the eye of the beholder. I caught them last week at the Garden, and while nobody would have mistaken it for Leeds in 1970, real joy and craftsmanship and even little flashes of chemistry elevated it beyond an old timers’ game.
I somehow got lured to a Styx/Foreigner concert a couple years ago, many decades after they were tearing up the charts. Foreigner was everything that’s wrong with old guy rock. The only original member, lead visionary Mick Jones, almost literally had to be wheeled out to play the few songs he sat in on. While they of course filled the stage with competent musicians slogging through Cold as Ice and Urgent, the whole thing was just … sad. Styx, on the other hand, even without drummer John Panozzo and my favorite guy Dennis DeYoung, were pretty darn good.
My buddies saw Paul McCartney on Thursday night, and were thrilled to witness Macca, who turns 80 today, play his heart out for three hours, spurred on by youngsters Bruce Springsteen (72) and Jon Bon Jovi (60).
But to me, it’s not really about a guy sticking around to perform his hits from 50 years ago. I don’t discriminate against rockers at any age. But I do hold it against an artist if he stops being an artist. If he’s just going to be basically a cover band who plays his catalog, there are probably way better and more energetic musicians who I could see in a tribute band.
That’s one of the reasons I admire Ian Hunter more than just about any other performer from his era.
First of all, Mott the Hoople is just the greatest fucking band ever. I don’t have to make an argument, they just are. But what draws me to them more than simply their incredible look and sound — and let’s face it, that’s enough — is that I share their sense of epic proportion. Most of Mott the Hoople’s best songs are stories about Mott the Hoople. I’m thinking of Saturday’s Gigs and the Ballad of Mott the Hoople. Heartbreaking mini memoirs of what it feels like to be in a fading rock band.
But Ian Hunter, the band’s singer and primary songwriter (although you could certainly make a case on the latter claim for Mick Ralphs, who took many of his hits to Bad Company and found a singer with a slightly broader range) declined to fade away. His solo career was peppered with great songs and near-hits, including Once Bitten, Twice Shy (covered by Shaun Cassidy and later went Top 5 for Great White), England Rocks (a hit as Cleveland Rocks for Presidents of the USA), All of the Good Ones Are Taken, and American Music.
When David Bowie died in January 2016, Ian Hunter, then 76, and his Rant Band darted into the studio. I remained interested in what he had to say because he remained interested in having things to say.
That song, Dandy, is a miracle. It’s a perfect song.
Written as homage to David Bowie, the song is heartbreaking ode to Mott’s most prominent benefactor. And like the best Mott songs, it’s a story tribute. Just like “Ballad” mentions Mott bandmates Buffin, Mick, Verden and Overend, Dandy namechecks legendary Bowie sidemen Trevor Bolder and Mick “Woody” Woodmansey.
Legend has it that Bowie, at the peak of his Ziggy Stardust powers in 1972, was devastated to discover that Mott the Hoople, his favorite band, was throwing in the towel because they never had that big hit a band needs to sustain itself economically. He gave them All the Young Dudes, and of course sang on it. The idea that a songwriter could be so formidable that he has one of the greatest songs in rock history just laying around available for someone else, is mind-boggling.
Bowie himself of course produced music at an almost inexplicably high level literally until he died. His final album Blackstar contains two of his greatest songs, the title track and Lazarus.
But we’re talking about Ian Hunter, and he’s talking about Bowie.
You had it all
The voice, the look
The songs that shook
The gift of the gab and the gall
From Saturday night to Sunday morning
When all we had to look forward to was the weekend
You made our lives worth living
You’re still the prettiest star
There ain’t no life on Mars but we always thought there might be
I was crushed to learn from an interview Hunter gave to Mojo that he hadn’t seen Bowie since the Station to Station recording sessions in 1975. I had pictured them hanging out and doing remember when as they reflected on rock lives well lived. Still, the love, admiration and gratitude expressed on Dandy make this one of the most poignant songs I’ve ever heard. But even beyond its sentiment about Bowie, which of course I share totally, the song itself is such a thrilling reminder that there’s no reason to throw in the towel at a specific birthday. As a matter of fact, all the songs on Fingers Crossed are worth a listen, and it’s unbelievable to me that some of them have fewer than 50,000 plays on Spotify. Ironically, one of those excellent songs is You Can’t Live in the Past—which has an early 80s Police verse and a mid 70s Kinks chorus and of course living in the past is the whole point of Ian Hunter’s songs.
If you’re Foreigner, phoning it in for people who haven’t heard Jukebox Hero enough, it’s time to call it a day on an honorable career in pop music. But if you’ve still got something to say, and can say it in a way that moves others, get out there and say it.
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