Rock’s survivors face a choice: Reinvent the music or risk becoming their own tribute band.
AT the rate things are going, Eminem will be strutting around the stage when he’s in his 60s, grabbing his crotch and rapping about Slim Shady’s latest run-in at the Social Security office.
Well, everyone once thought there was an age limit in rock too. Paul McCartney worried that 25 was too old, and Mick Jagger famously vowed not to still be singing "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” at 40.
Sure is funny what time -- and $2-million-a-night grosses -- can do. McCartney and Jagger -- in their 60s and grandfathers -- are part of the red-hot summer and fall concert schedule in Southern California for “over 40" rock acts -- a total of 30 arena and stadium dates, including 10 by the Eagles alone. Also on tour: U2 (yes, Bono is 45), Neil Diamond, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, James Taylor, John Fogerty and John Mellencamp.
The potential audience: more than a half-million.
And the tickets aren’t cheap: $259 for the best McCartney seats at Staples Center this fall and up to $454 for the Rolling Stones at the Hollywood Bowl. If you haven’t already got tickets, you’ll have to pay three to four times that amount to brokers. (Sorry, no senior discounts.)
What is all that money buying?
In most cases: an evening with a tribute band.
Scores of tribute acts over the years have filled clubs by playing hit music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, under the names Sticky Fingers, Fab Four and Hotel California. The advantage the Stones have, of course, is that the guys dressed up as Mick and Keith actually are Mick and Keith.
Only U2, of the acts on this list, doesn’t rely chiefly on vintage material. That puts the Irish band in the company of such other still vital touring artists as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young.
Think of it this way. Rock ‘n’ roll may once have been all about rebellion and youth. But for millions of fans, it has turned into a comfortable old overstuffed chair.
Mostly, the tribute-leaning bands invite you to sink into that chair for three hours. The best of the others try their best to pull it out from under you.
Soothing, not stirring
NOBODY, neither artists nor audiences, likes the term “nostalgia,” because it implies a hollow, empty experience, and there’s too much quality in the music of these veteran acts for their concerts to be that passive.
Still, time has done strange things to some of this classic music.
Once the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were polar opposites -- optimism and idealism versus sex, drugs and Satan.
Today, McCartney’s music and manner are as disarming as a puppy’s, and a Stones concert can literally be a picnic at the Hollywood Bowl. People go to feel young again.
And they probably don’t care that McCartney hasn’t written a truly memorable song in, what, 15 years?
His new tunes are invariably sweet and heartfelt, but they also tend to be plain and obvious. They can’t compete, for instance, with Coldplay in the tenderness category, much less with “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be” and his other landmark tunes.
This lack of stirring new material runs through most of these artists. The old songs may still sound great (and most of the musicians have improved with age), but few of them resonate in revealing new ways.
There are exceptions, including the best of John Fogerty’s commentaries. In 1970’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” Fogerty spoke eloquently about the helplessness millions in this country felt watching the body count mount in a Vietnam War that seemed to them misguided.
Long as I remember the rain been comin’ down
Clouds of myst’ry pourin’ confusion on the ground.
Good men through the ages, tryin’ to find the sun;
And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain.
Thirty-five years later, echoing through layers of history, the song strikes an even darker chord for those heartbroken by the nation’s involvement in another war.
The best of the Eagles’ hits too remain involving, whether they’re examining the complexities of romance (“Best of My Love”) or chronicling a generation trapped between the fading idealism of the ‘60s and the approaching greed of the ‘80s (“Hotel California”).
When I listen to the songs now, it’s easy to reflect on my own life and values -- did I hold on to the idealism or go for the greed?
Most of the other artists have a few songs that time has only deepened.
Still, without new songs, the concert experience of most of the “over 40" artists feels stunted. It seems to get harder to write great songs the older you get.
A gifted young writer is discovering the world and seems to have something to say about it all. Dylan once said things were happening so fast when he was in his 20s that he didn’t want to go to sleep at night because he didn’t want to miss anything. And you could feel that adrenaline rush in the songs he wrote then.
Depth and purpose
NOT everyone has lost the touch, as U2 showed in its captivating, emotion-filled “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” album last year. The CD was a deeply personal look at faith, family and rejuvenation with a depth and purpose that was far different from the group’s early songs about the innocence and aspirations of youth.
But U2 doesn’t just write new songs. On the band’s current tour, it mixes the new material with older songs in ways that provide illuminating context to the older work.
Springsteen is also a master at designing set lists that stir and provoke.
One of my favorite Springsteen songs is “The Promised Land” from 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album. It’s a powerful statement about overcoming obstacles, and I was so thrilled the first time I heard it in concert that I played a tape of it over and over in the car on the way home. I loved every minute of the loud, full-bodied E Street Band arrangement.
Yet I was even more moved at the opening of Springsteen’s solo tour four months ago in Detroit when he played the song at the close of the night.
There was no band by his side this time, so he had to supply all of the song’s fury with his voice and guitar, yet it was captivating when juxtaposed against his new songs about people, including immigrants from south of the border, who have sometimes died in their search for a better life.
In that context, the tune’s climactic lines -- “Blow away the dreams that break your heart, blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted” -- were no longer a young man’s triumphant statement of hope. They were suddenly a stark and desperate prayer.
No one underscores the difference between being a tribute act and a restless, uncompromising artist more than Bob Dylan.
At 64, he remains the ultimate trailblazer. He makes no concession to his audience and doesn’t care about filling an arena. Nothing matters to him onstage, it seems, except the pursuit of his own musical truth.
He has written some of pop’s most illuminating songs, but he doesn’t see them as finished statements. Night after night he searches for new insights, sometimes twisting them in almost grotesque ways.
He’s never been about technique as a musician. So what if his voice sounds like a growl or his phrasing seems arbitrary?
Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is a song so hauntingly beautiful that had anyone else written it he would surely sing it every time he stepped onstage, like McCartney and “Hey Jude” or the Eagles and “Desperado.”
But Dylan may go years without singing it. Then he might just turn to it one night when he feels it matches his mood.
I’ve noticed over the years that he rarely tampers with the song, pretty much doing it the way he recorded it in the ‘60s. But in Amsterdam two years ago, by adding a heavy steel guitar line, he changed the arrangement from a jangly, romantic, folkish style to a more mournful country approach.
The change was so jarring that it forced you to rethink the song, something many Dylan fans haven’t wanted to do over time.
It’s always more comfortable sitting in that overstuffed chair. But I hope audiences will ask for more, that on this year’s tour they’ll stay and listen instead of heading to buy a beer when the Stones play songs from their surprisingly strong new album.
It’ll be sad if they’d rather hear a tribute band.
Contact Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, at email@example.com.
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Where to listen to rock’s elders
Where to listen to rock’s elders If you love classic pop-rock, it’s not hard to find things to do in the coming months. Seven Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members (plus two prolific hit makers, Neil Diamond and John Mellencamp) are headed our way, playing stadiums, arenas and amphitheaters, often for multiple dates. If you wanted the best seats for all nine acts, it’d cost $1,511 -- assuming you were lucky enough to get them at face value. Enjoy.
The Rolling Stones
Average age: 61
Desert island album: “Exile on Main Street” (1972)
Last essential hit: “Start Me Up” (1981)
Top ticket price: $454
Where playing: Angel Stadium, Nov. 4; Hollywood Bowl, Nov. 6, 8; Petco Park, Nov. 11.
Desert island album: “Band on the Run” (1973)
Last essential hit: “Say Say Say” (1983)
Top ticket price: $259
Where playing: Arrowhead Pond, Nov. 11, 12; Staples Center, Nov. 29, 30.
Average age: 57
Desert island album: “Hotel California” (1976)
Last essential hit: “The Long Run” (1979)
Top ticket price: $175
Where playing: Arrowhead Pond, Sept. 14, 16, 17, Oct. 7, 21; Staples Center, Sept. 21, 23, 24, Oct. 8, 22.
Average age: 45
Desert island album: “The Joshua Tree” (1987)
Last essential hit: “Vertigo” (2004)
Top ticket price: $171
Where playing: Staples Center, Nov. 1, 2.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Average age: 54
Desert island album: “Damn the Torpedoes” (1979)
Last essential hit: “Free Fallin’ ” (1989)
Top ticket price: $68.50
Where playing: Hyundai Pavilion, today.
Desert island album: “Scarecrow” (1985)
Last essential hit: “Wild Night” (1994)
Top ticket price: $130
Where playing: Hollywood Bowl, Aug. 29 (with Fogerty).
Desert island album: “Green River” (1969)
Last essential hit: “Centerfield” (1985)
Top ticket price: $130
Where playing: Hollywood Bowl, Aug. 29 (with Mellencamp).
Desert island album: “Hot August Night” (1972)
Last essential hit: “America” (1981)
Top ticket price: $95
Where playing: Staples Center, Sept. 29, 30. Oct. 1, 2.
Desert island album: “Sweet Baby James” (1970)
Last essential hit: “Handy Man” (1977)
Top ticket price: $158.50
Where playing: Hollywood Bowl, Monday.