Keith Richards - Hollywood, CA, 1969 (copyright Robert Altman)

I was once told at a party by an aged Mlle that I was too young to know anything about a certain jazz singer.  I wondered out loud whether this also meant that she was too young to know anything, say, about Bach.  I didn’t get into a huff about it then, and I remember it now just to point out that age, in the bigger scheme of things, is a bogus trump card.

“There’s one thing I know, though I’m younger than you.” (Bob Dylan)

On whichever side of the boundary line you may fall – and the boundary line is ever-moving, incidentally – age neither necessarily limits nor guarantees any further insight into music.  Experience doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom, which marks more than a mere tallying of days.

Yet age is a topic – a prejudice, however empty it may be – that continues to pepper opinion about music of all kinds.  And the views are pretty much conflicting and scattershot: or what the youth of today lamentably (insert winkey face emoticon) call “random.”  The Rolling Stones have been the go-to straw men on the popular music front.  I can remember reading a Mad Magazine spoof on Mick, Keith and company well back in the midst of their “Steel Wheelchair” tour.  The Stones toured that album, properly known as Steel Wheels, in 1989; I was ten.  That’s now twenty-some-odd years ago, and the Stones are still, if not going strong, then at least going on.  And I admire them for it, even if their greatest albums seem forever-destined to remain behind them.

It’s as though people no longer believe that a rolling stone gathers no moss.

Muddy Waters - "Mannish Boy"

I’m reminded of the great bluesmen that the Stones helped bring onto the stage of popular culture: chief among them, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.  Blessed with the “luxury” of short-term perspective, it was easy for people to get excited when the rebellious Stones urinated on gas station walls.  It took a little more time to appreciate the ways in which the boys helped to bridge the divide between the youth of their day and the deep tradition of music represented by the great aging bluesmen.  Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Bukka White: again, only a few of the deeply seasoned blues musicians who were welcomed with open arms in the 1960s – “rediscovered,” so it goes, by a youth that had never discovered them in the first place.  It was accepted that blues musicians should get old – partly because they simply were so (relatively speaking) when they came to the fore of the public imagination.

So why shouldn’t we accept that rock musicians will age?  If ours are the first generations to witness it, then we need to welcome the greying of rock and roll as one consequence of a music that should no longer be understood as bound to an isolated historical moment.  Instead, rock needs to be thought of as part of a rich music tradition that forever changes.  It’s highly unlikely that Pete Townshend still hopes to die before he gets old.  Talking about his generation: If Keith Richards – in my view the only remaining viable argument for personal immortality – ever dies, then let’s let him do so with a guitar on his back.

Nobody’s underwear knotted when it was announced that jazz greats Mose Allison and Dave Brubeck – octogenarian and nonagenarian, respectively – would be highlighting the 2011 Toronto Jazz Festival.  Jazz, aware of its long tradition, forgives its elders.

In some sense, you stop thinking about age when you come to appreciate the depth of music’s roots.  Rock is now as much about those roots as it was formerly – momentarily, but importantly – about rebellion.

Roots, rebellion and youth: they’re all part of the story of rock, that great mannish boy, a rock of ages that forever changes.

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