Arise, Sir Michael!
Mick Jagger was knighted Friday, joining Sir Elton and Sir Paul. Some conservatives grumbled, including Keith Richards, seemingly under the impression his musical partner had been raised to the peerage: “I don’t want to step out on stage with someone wearing a coronet and sporting the old ermine.” Mick, as usual, had the last word: “I don’t really think the establishment as we knew it exists any more.” No, it doesn’t. But neither does rock and roll.
Sir Mick, of course, was once part of the anti-establishment. In 1967, incited by Britain’s gutter press, he and Keith were busted for drugs and sentenced to prison under circumstances so dubious that even the then-august Times of London objected. The convictions were later overturned, but the prosecution certainly manifested the public will. Mick and Keith, in their music, in their dress, in their “lifestyle” (as the new usage had it), had outraged a nation.
A decade later, however, when a heroin-addicted Keith was busted fair and square in Toronto, few sought to make an example of him or the Rolling Stones. Mores had changed, but it was not as if the British public was no longer capable of outrage. The Sex Pistols released “God Save the Queen” in 1977, and they were banned, beaten and blacklisted in response. When the song reached No. 1, that space was left vacant on the charts.
When Elvis Presley died that year, Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten sneered, “It should have been Mick Jagger.” From Devil Incarnate to Old Fart in ten years. Jagger was all of 34 years old in 1977. At 60, he is still the Little Red Rooster. Keith Richards lives quietly in the country, attends church and is still married to the same woman after 20 years, but Mick is still fornicating up a storm, dumping his wife of 18 years (after caddishly claiming they’d never married) and siring children with women younger than his own. Sir Michael Jagger, Knight Bachelor, has wealth, fame, honors, rude good health, hot and cold running chicks — satisfaction indeed. So why doesn’t Mick look satisfied?
In his book Rock ‘Til You Drop: The Decline From Rebellion to Nostalgia, John Strausbaugh declared:
Rock should simply not be played by fifty-five-year-old men with triple chins bearing bad wighats, pretending still to be excited about playing songs they wrote thirty or thirty-five years ago and have played some thousands of time since.
Why not? According to Strausbaugh:
Rock is youth music. It is best played by young people, for young people, in a setting that is specifically exclusionary of their parents and anyone their parents’ age.
Or, as Pete Townshend famously declared, “Hope I die before I get old.” Strausbaugh quotes the novelist Will Self, who avers that rock is a “teenage art form,” but this cannot be taken literally. After all, both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were already out of their teens when they recorded “Love Me Do” in 1962.
So how old is too old to rock? In his review of the Beatles songbook, Revolution in the Head, the late critic Ian MacDonald noted in passing that the quality of rock music declines precipitously after its creators turn 30. I thought this too harsh a judgment, until I crosschecked the rockers with their birthdates in the All Music Guide.
Mick and Keith turned 30 in 1973, the year, not coincidentally, of Goat’s Head Soup, the Stones last good album. Paul McCartney turned 30 in 1972, one year before his last decent album, Band on the Run. John Lennon turned 30 in 1970; last decent album, Plastic Ono Band, 1970. Bob Dylan, born 1941, last decent, New Morning, 1970. Lou Reed: born 1942, last good, Transformer, 1972. Rod Stewart, born 1945, last decent, A Night on the Town, 1976. Pete Townshend, born 1945, last good, Quadrophenia, 1973. Iggy Pop, born 1947, last good, Lust For Life, 1977. Elvis Costello, born 1955, last good, Blood & Chocolate, 1986. Prince, born 1958, last good, Sign ‘O’ The Times, 1987. Bono (U2), born 1960, last decent, Achtung Baby, 1991. Michael Stipe (REM), born 1960, last good, Automatic For the People, 1992.
Try any name you like; the 30-year rule is pretty much an iron law. The only escape is early death (Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain) or insanity (Sly Stone, Syd Barrett).
The Stones remain the largest concert draw in the world, and Mick, even at 60 still tapeworm thin, has the stamina — on stage and in the boudoir — of a teenager. But his millions of fans are not interested in hearing any but of handful of the songs that appear on the 20 records Mick Jagger has made in the last three decades. And that includes the millions of fans not yet born when Mick turned 30. Rock is youth music, and Mick Jagger has been kicking against the pricks for an awfully long time. No gong from Prince Charles can give him back his youth. And he knows it.