Dying Young—or Not

Young Rod StewartSmart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory does not stay,

And early though the laurel grows

It withers quicker than the rose.

. . . .

Now you will not swell the rout

Of lads that wore their honours out,

Runners whom renown outran

And the name died before the man.

From “To an Athlete Dying Young,” A.E. Housman, 1896

When we think of musicians who died young, they are musicians who ever stay fresh and vibrant. Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, Moon, Cobain. These are people who had their time, whose luster is as bright now in our minds when we listen to them as it was when they had their brief—all too brief—time upon the stage.

But what becomes a performer as he or she ages? After all, there is that inevitability. Given the choice between buying it early or continuing on, most of us, I think, would certainly opt for the latter. And musicians are no different. They wish to continue. But continue doing what?

All too often, the performer goes on, either playing what they’ve always done or by trying to stay “relevant” in some way. Few are able to pull it off. In the case of the former, it is one of those embarrassing “greatest-hits” type arrangements, which is perhaps best exemplified by those gawd-awful agglomerations of musicians that Ringo pulls together so that he can have an excuse to sing his hoary-old soured chestnuts while the others, too, are forced to endure what must be a root canal-like exercise in order to pay their health insurance premiums. Or it is a flat-out reunion type tour. This happens in all genres; no one seems to be immune from the lure of the cash registers at the venues, which are more often than not county fairs or VFW-esque type halls. (There are the exceptions, of course, like, say, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, that are able to pull the premium stadia and megarooms.)

Then there are the performers who somehow think that they’ll simply morph into a style that may be more suitable for the times. Which is typically an abomination. This came to mind when listening not to his latest release, but to a collection: Reason To Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings by Rod Stewart. This is a three-disc set containing The Rod Stewart Album and Gasoline Alley (disc 1); Every Picture Tells a Story and Never a Dull Moment (disc 2); Smiler and miscellaneous works (disc 3). Listening to those discs anew, particularly the first one, I began to think about Stewart’s present state of affairs, and began to wonder what Roy Horn’s tiger is doing nowadays: I think I can come up with a place where it might be able to perform its act.

Listening to tunes like “An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down” and “Cindy’s Lament”—with, incidentally, Ron Wood on bass (yes, bass)—I came to the realization of just what an absolute horror it is to hear Stewart’s performance in a car commercial. Not for Lexus. Not for BMW or Mercedes. Not even for Cadillac. His voice backs a Suzuki commercial. Shilling for a shitbox. Way to go, Rod. It make Sting’s Jag commercial comparatively palatable. Perhaps he has too much alimony to pay. What other excuse is there for It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook, which is about to be followed by a second volume? The Stewart of Gasoline Alley would kick this guy’s ass up and down the paving stones. Yes, Tony Bennett is getting up there in years. No, Rod, you are not the heir apparent. Spend some time, feeling inferior.

We hear music serially. I don’t mean this just in the straightforward sense that a piece of music is linear (it starts at one point and ends at another). Rather, we listen to things in the context of that which has gone before. What we have heard at the start tends to have a significant effect on how we hear what follows. So if, for example, someone hears the Stewart of the current second-rate Jerry Vale lounge act, it is, I submit, much more difficult to actually listen to the early performances: there is a chasm vis-à-vis trying to reconcile that which has served as the basis with that which actually has some value. There is a saliva-like-induced reaction: “What I heard sucked; I have a difficult time believing that what I’m hearing now doesn’t suck.” So we hear what we want to hear based on what we have heard.

There is a notion in Zen—well, at least in the Westernized texts that I’ve read on the subject—of “beginner’s mind.” It fundamentally says that too often we think too much, or think too much in regard to the things we think we know. By coming at something as though we don’t know it, as though we are a beginner, we can actually learn things that we don’t know. So in the context of music, the issue could be described as having “fresh ears”: We hear things without preconceived notions of whomever it is that we are listening to. I’ll admit that I can’t do it. Still, it would be a laudable exercise, particularly for those who are truly interested in hearing things that they might otherwise tune out.

So they keep going out there. They keep playing. Trying. Scraping together what they can while they can. But maybe Housman’s fallen athlete had it right.

19 thoughts on “Dying Young—or Not”

  1. Mac says: “When we think of musicians who died young, they are musicians who ever stay fresh and vibrant.”

    Um, yeah, and then there’s Shannon Hoon, who ever stays hoary and laughable (no slight against the man; Blind Melon’s brand of hippie rock was forever destined to eventually collect mildew next to the Spin Doctors). Let’s not forget G. G. Allin, who may have done us a favor dying of a drug o.d. (meaning, he never got the chance to commit suicide onstage and take some of the audience with him, as he threatened to do). Finally in our hall o’ shame, we have Sid Vicious, who besides being horribly miscast as the bassist for the Pistols, can be argued was neither “fresh” nor “vibrant” even during his glory days. The point of this exercise is simply to point out that of course, the statement Mac puts forth above is not without its exceptions; that for every Keith Moon, Ian Curtis, and Mia Zapata, there’s three forgettables waiting in the wings.

    All resemblance to grave-dancing is purely unintentional; dead rock stars, rest in peace (even the forgettable ones).

  2. The Stewart of Gasoline Alley was just trying to entertain and make a hit record. And the fact that he is still trying (successfully) today to do the same is much to his credit.

  3. Good article. I totally agree on the Pavlov’s dog comment. I knew Stewart from lame 80s videos and worse 90s. Then a few years ago a buddy gave me a killer mix compilation consisting of late 60s to mid 70s tunes. And whaddya know — I hated all the stewart related songs from his early days. Sad really.

    I feel for the youth of today who will surely equate the who, zepplein, clapton, etc etc to car and beer comercials.

    I’d like to think if I was a musician I would have more respect for my catalogue and legacy — but I gues money talks.

    By the way — Modest Mouse car commercial?? Nice job Isaac.

  4. Rod doing a Suzuki or a “got milk” commercial seems very odd for the rock icon that some say helped pave the way. Same with Clapton and Sting. He could choose a better brand of car to lend his voice to. Who buys a new Suzuki, anyway? Musically, my Rod theory is this – he was relevant through the 80’s and in my opinion until the late 90’s (Spanner and New Boys, may not have had many self penned lyrics, but they were pure quintessential Rod, pouring his heart into a song and making it his own.) I happen to think he did the same with the Human CD – he attempted to evolve with the times and did a great job of it. However, none were huge sellers, many didn’t know these releases were even out there, (management, hello???) and thought he had retired. So, what am I saying? He probably realized he was no longer relevant to the vast music buying public – (past his expire by date) so what should he do? Go commercial!! Even though it is distasteful, what are the options? As Collin said, he DOES deserve credit for attempting rather successfully to entertain and have a hit. No one, to this day, is as good as Rod in concert. By the way, if I had not ever heard Rod Stewart before I listened to Songbook, I still wouldn’t care for Rod’s voice with that style music.

  5. Hi GloNo staff. Approximately how many people visit your site a day? I notice that not many folks post comments which is the best part of the site. Is the amount of users shrinking?

    Thanks – Michael

  6. To VS: As far as I’m concerned, Rod went from relevant to has-been/imitator in about 1976/77 when he released “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”. He saw that rock was losing ground (i.e., commercial sales) to disco and decided to join the party, much to the detriment of his reputation if not his wallet. To say he was relevant in the 80’s and early 90’s is downright laughable. All I have to say to that is 2 words….”Forever Young”. It was the theme song of my high school graduating class, YUCK! Couldn’t have picked a worse song and if I hear it again I might puke all over myself.

  7. While my piece does focus on Stewart, I don’t want it to be something of a star chamber with regard to his sins against eardrums everywhere. One of the other things that I’m wondering about in this context is whether, perhaps, musicians are like good wine: There is improvement as they age, but they get to the point at which, for whatever reason (e.g., a metaphoric cork goes bad), they begin to become transformed into something less palatable than cooking sherry.

    Is Dylan as good today as he was at an earlier point in time. Is–dare I ask?–Neil Young?

  8. Mac asks rhetorically: “Is Dylan as good today as he was at an earlier point in time. Is–dare I ask?–Neil Young?”

    I’d venture that the better question to ask isn’t whether or not they’re as good, but whether or not they’re still worth the journey. Is it worth our while to roll the dice on the new Dylan or Neil in the hopes that you get if not a masterpiece at least a worthy attempt at greatness, or an admirable left turn. With someone like Rod, you know it’s gonna suck the root.

  9. While on the subject of is new Dylan and Neil as worthy as old, can anyone heartily recommend Greendale? Neil is also in Sydney in a few weeks ($150 tickets!) and I am to-ing and fro-ing about whether to fork out the bucks like nobody’s business. Thanks.

  10. First of all, I’ve seen two reports online that Smith is dead. Still no real confirmation on that.

    Some gentle editing on the article. Mac, you state that people can either buy the farm early, or continue on and strive for relevance. You then say that most of us would choose the former, and continue on. Of the two, the way you wrote it, if we choose the former we shall surely die. You meant “the latter.” Also, Ron Wood played bass in the Jeff Beck Group when Rod sang for that band. In the Faces and on Rod’s solo work, he mostly played guitar. Bass, too, but mostly guitar.

  11. Jamie:

    Good catch on the error of former/latter, which is now latter. And remember that when Wood was working with Beck and Stewart, Stewart was also working on his first album, so that Wood would be playing bass on both is not surprising. What is surprising–at least for some people, methinks–is that Wood was a bass player pre-Stones.


  12. You know, it’s also funny that the article really focuses on Rod, but what of Woody and that Stones tribute band he’s in? Sad.

  13. (1) Archceologist jokes are too easy.

    (2) What the Stones seem to be doing is continuing to do what they’ve always done, though arguably not nearly as well. That is, when they had their proverbial Ya-Yas (and undoubtedly their own teeth), there was a whole lot more energy. What Rod–and others–are doing is perhaps somewhat more disturbing, at least with regard to their earlier selves.

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