- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

So it has come to this: rock stars going in for renovation.

We’ve seen harbingers of this brave old world in recent years — Bruce Springsteen sporting a permanent limp while strolling through his estate with Ted Koppel on “Nightline”; Keith Richards’ gnarly, misshapen fingers, courtesy of rheumatoid arthritis; even, more innocuously, the gleaming dome atop James Taylor’s head.

But now the realm of aging rock stardom is moving into a more, well, industrial phase.

Prince, that tiny coil of irrepressible gyration, has been told by doctors that the only thing that will alleviate the pain in his joints is a hip replacement. (The singer, 49, a Jehovah’s Witness, is said to be on the fence about the procedure because of a religious injunction against blood transfusions.)

Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, 57, this week underwent orthopedic surgery on his knee, which had been a source of chronic pain.

And Kiss singer-bassist Gene Simmons, 58, soon will reveal to the world the puffy-eyed particulars of his face-lift surgery as part of his “Family Jewels” reality series on A&E.;

It has become abundantly clear, if it weren’t already, what Pete Townshend meant to avoid when he wrote, “I hope I die before I get old.”

It’s not just rock stars’ feet that are made of clay; it’s their entire musculoskeletal chassis.

Before you take offense, reader, at the thought of laughing at the expense of celebrities’ health, let’s make an important distinction between the terrible and tragic — David Bowie’s serious heart troubles, say, or Melissa Etheridge’s and Sheryl Crow’s breast cancer — and the more prosaic debilities that inevitably occur as time has its way with the human body.

We mean the anatomical equivalents of the kind of wear-and-tear maintenance that automobile warranties don’t cover.

For all its pampered insulation from the real world, life as a rock ‘n’ roller is not one that typically permits graceful aging.

Mr. Springsteen has said his limp is not the result of any single injury but, rather, the byproduct of years of onstage antics.

In Prince’s case, we can add vanity to the physical toll of high-energy dance routines: Doctors have told the short-statured singer that his penchant for high-heeled footwear probably contributed to his chronic pain.

Celebrities’ health didn’t use to be fodder for entertainment gossip. As Barron H. Lerner, a doctor and public health scholar at Columbia University, observed in his 2006 book “When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine,” the physical suffering of such public figures as President Franklin D. Roosevelt once was a closely guarded secret.

Now celebrities routinely publicize their health-related trials, from Sally Field speaking openly about osteoporosis to, more recently, the shocking news of Patrick Swayze’s battle with pancreatic cancer. (The actor appeared on the cover of People magazine after his condition became public.)

Our chuckling at rock-star renovation is an outgrowth of what Dr. Lerner describes as a cultural sea change about private matters, wherein X-rays have taken on a metaphorical as well as literal public significance: We see all and know all, even — perhaps especially — when the news is devastating or merely unflattering.

There are times when celebrity health news can be as funny as it is sad, as when Mr. Richards developed a blood clot in his brain after falling from a tree while vacationing in Fiji.

Anyone, young or old, technically could have met the same fate, but the episode has become another amusing tale of Mr. Richards’ mythological indestructibility.

It was revealed last month that the New Zealand-based neurosurgeon who drilled a hole into Mr. Richards’ skull and relieved the pressure on his brain — “I might kill you today,” he warned the Rolling Stone before the procedure — ended up traveling with the band as an actuarial precaution.

Mr. Richards dubbed the surgeon, Andrew Law, “my head man,” and he has since become a fixture of Mr. Richards’ personal entourage.

By now, it has become pointless for celebrities to try to hide the details of the breakdown and repair of their bodies, even if they were so inclined.

In a way, we’ve all become like Dr. Law vis-a-vis the famous. We’ve become their body men.

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