- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2001

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What was Peter Townshend thinking when he wrote the battle cry, "Hope I die before I get old," in "My Generation"?

The ignorance of youth must have shook him by his crushed velvet lapels. Flash forward 30-odd years, and he's still making a comfortable living as a rock star, despite his chrome dome and crinkled visage.

But the Who, as loud and cantankerous as ever on stage, hasn't recorded much new music in the past two decades. The group still can rock, but the rocks it rolls out are archaic nuggets from a musical stone age. With nothing new to say, the Who threatens to become Chicago, or worse, the Beach Boys, forever spinning yesterday's songs for today, a nostalgia routine for those fed up with Eminem and Kid Rock.

At least Peter hasn't attempted a comb over — yet.

The Who's kindred spirits, the Rolling Stones, haven't stopped rolling, touring or recording since their flower-power heyday. Now, name the Stones' last great song? Can you, without dipping your toe in the 1970s? "Mixed Emotions," their single from their 1989 Steel Wheels tour-album, sizzled, but their 1980s output otherwise fell short of their lofty standards. Their major releases in the 1990s, the underwhelming "Voodoo Lounge" and "Bridges to Babylon," continued a mediocre skein. What more do they have to sell, I mean, say?

Reading about Mick Jagger impregnating yet another young lovely a few years ago seemed pathetic, a dinosaur's last guttural roar, a mockery of a rock star in his prime.

Young rock 'n' rollers sing of rebellion, of that unscratchable itch that comes with not knowing everything but thinking you do. Older rockers cannot fake those emotions. They should speak to their current conditions — say something meaningful about life at 50, or — gasp — 60. This is rarely tilled ground, and it could provide enough angst to fuel countless rock anthems.

Such honesty, however, might alienate fans, themselves in denial about their own crow's-feet and expanding paunches. They might not want to hear their rock gods sing of such indignities.

I bet Mick and friends would sound more convincing singing about face lifts than gettin' no satisfaction at this point.

Watching Mr. Jagger strut his emaciated form across the stage harks back to Lucille Ball attempting slapstick while in her 60s. You winced rather than laughed. When Mr. Townshend played at Nissan Pavilion last summer, my thoughts went to his battle with tinnitus, a condition brought on by sound damage that causes ringing in the ears, and how profusely his fingers would bleed during his windmill guitar moves.

The Eagles, another band with little new material to speak of in decades, charges fans exorbitant fees for the privilege of lining members' retirement accounts.

Even Aerosmith continues unabated, pitching in weepy ballads for soundtracks of awful films such as "Armageddon." No rock band in its burly prime would touch such a stinker.

One aging rocker who knows better is Billy Joel. He followed the rock star playbook — marry a supermodel, sell millions of records and sing truculent odes against social mores. Then, he did the unthinkable. He grew up.

In a recent interview with Copley News Service, the 51-year-old "piano man" asked, "When does a rock star become a parody and laughable? When he becomes an imitation of his former self; when he becomes a Las Vegas lounge crooner, someone who doesn't believe in what he's doing anymore."

Today, Mr. Joel tours sparingly while concentrating on classical music. He might not even, perish the thought, marry a model next time around.

A few artists have taken a measured approach to the passage of time. David Bowie's propensity to reinvent himself, and his eternally youthful veneer, makes his recent recordings noteworthy — limp sales figures notwithstanding. Bob Dylan's last few albums also reflect some of the maturity a man staring down 60 must feel.

Sometimes, such as Michael Jordan walking away from the game he defined, leaving at the height of one's powers is the best way a rocker can deal with the aging process.

The Beatles, the best rock band ever, sustain their impenetrable persona in part because they haven't reunited for a quickie tour or CD. Even if John Lennon were still alive, the Fab Four seem unlikely to be sucking it up for a fat-cat corporate gig. For that reason alone, their legacy remains as fresh as when they disbanded three decades ago — witness the robust sales of "1," their latest collection of hits.

Our memory of their immortal gig at Shea Stadium in 1966 will never be tarnished by a pay-per-view concert with the three surviving Beatles trying to hit notes they haven't scraped in years.

Not that the band members have given up on rock. It just sounds that way.

The "cute" Beatle, Paul McCartney, warbles as blandly as a "Schoolhouse Rock" sermon these days. He pontificates about animal rights and environmental protection with all the subtlety of an Oliver Stone film. Only his recent pairings with ex-punk balladeer Elvis Costello have lent his tunes some teeth.

Ringo Starr is more pitchman than musician now, bringing out his All-Starr traveling band and diffusing the spotlight's glare upon his shaggy exterior. George Harrison releases an album every other leap year, it would seem, rendering his results inconclusive.

Rock 'n' roll still is new enough that we don't know how it should be played out. The cement Chuck Berry wrote the rules in is still wet to the touch. The Stones and the Who, among others, represent the first wave of great rockers having to deal with growing old. Credit them for a rugged work ethic, and for allowing themselves to be scrutinized by a youth-obsessed media.

But hearing Roger Daltrey sing about his g-g-generation without his tongue in his cheek strikes the wrong note.

Some upstart bands of today might change the rules forever in 30 years, showing us how aging gracefully should be done in the rock arena.

Or, like their musical forefathers, they might tighten up their girdles, dye their hair and rock like it's 2001 all over again.



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