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The secret joys of geriatric rock


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Rock and roll is full of legends who should retire. But some bands know how to get back onstage without making fools of themselves—or of their fans.

First, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic:


Hello, Cleveland

Sometimes I write something that needs a wee bit of qualification. (Translation: I am going to rationalize breaking one of my own rules.) Last year, I applauded rock artists who choose to age gracefully, mostly by exiting the stage. I deplored the acts who were trying to recapture their younger days while cynically vacuuming their fans’ pockets.

In that discussion, I quoted the critic John Strausbaugh, whose 2001 book, Rock Til You Drop, is full of liquid-nitrogen zingers so precise and stinging  that I wish I’d written them. Strausbaugh rightly says that rock and roll should be music by the young, for the young, and he rails against the sham of what he calls “colostomy rock”—older people mugging their way through songs about sex and drugs and rebellion:

Rock simply should not be played by fifty-five-year-old men with triple chins wearing bad wighats. Its prime audience should not be middle-aged, balding, jelly-bellied dads who’ve brought along their wives and kids … Rock‘n’roll is not family entertainment.

That’s damn right, John, and I couldn’t agree more.

So what, exactly, was I doing earlier this month on a quaint little street in a seaside town in Rhode Island, getting patted down by security for a show by the Tubes, a band known for their decadent stage shows and whose biggest hits were from the 1970s and ’80s? I last saw the Tubes about 40 years ago, when the band was playing the Boston college circuit. What the hell was I doing here? More to the point, what the hell were they doing here?

If you’re not familiar with the Tubes, perhaps I can give you a sense of their, ah, aesthetic from some of their songs, including odes to loving relationships such as “Don’t Touch Me There” and “Mondo Bondage,” as well as their ever-popular investigation of youthful anxieties, “White Punks on Dope.” In the ’80s, their two biggest hits were “Talk to Ya Later,” about exasperation with a one-night stand who won’t leave the next day, and “She’s a Beauty,” a giant hit on the charts and on MTV in 1983, whose lyrics basically describe the rules for what were once called rap booths, cubicles in urban red-light districts that were the pre-internet equivalent of cam sites. (“You can say / Anything you like / But you can’t touch the merchandise.”)

This is the kind of music that made Soviet commissars think the West was doomed to fall.

But it’s also the kind of music that seems pretty strange when performed by men of a certain age. I mean, who wants to see a shirtless old coot come out onstage in leather pants and a bondage mask?

Well, as it turns out, I do. And so did my wife, who is not only my age but also saw the Tubes years ago and jumped at the chance to see them again.

The Tubes have the one quality that so many older bands lack: self-awareness. When the lead singer, Fee Waybill, took the stage at the Greenwich Odeum that night, he chuckled and noted that this was a return engagement, and that everyone was a year older now. “Which means,” he added, “I’m, like, fuckin’ 100 now.” (He’s actually 73; the original band members Roger Steen and Prairie Prince are 74 and 73, respectively.)

The rest of the evening was not a reenactment of the old days, but a kind of happy postcard from the early ’80s. This knowing but joyful wink makes all the difference when walking the fine line, as the rock mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap put it, “between clever and stupid.” The band gets it, and so does the audience: We’re all older now, and we’re not kidding anyone, but we can still sing along with songs that would likely shock our children.

The right venue is the key to enjoying this kind of music without feeling like an idiot. The Greenwich Odeum is a small theater in a town of roughly 13,000 people that seats just under 500—hardly the kind of arena that bands like the Tubes once filled. I wondered how we all came to be singing along to “Sushi Girl”—don’t ask—in a former vaudeville theater built in 1926, so I called the Odeum a few weeks after the show and chatted with Rachel Kinnevy-Fitzpatrick, who handles artist relations, and the general manager, Amanda Ronchi.

The Odeum, they told me, had fallen into disuse, but it reemerged in 2013 with the help of patrons and sponsors; it is now a music and comedy spot. But it’s hardly a dusty old dive: Its roster includes Amy Grant, Al Di Meola, an ABBA tribute band, and Al Stewart and his terrific young colleagues, the Empty Pockets, whom I’ve seen twice there. The house is also holding a Celtic Christmas celebration and hosting Lez Zeppelin, an all-female Zep tribute band (although not at the same time).

When bands are young and hungry, they play the big rooms and go where the bus takes them. When they get a bit older, they don’t want to be shoved onstage and forced to yell, “Hello, Cleveland!” (Likewise, many of their fans are too old to put up with sitting in the nosebleed seats at some decaying local civic arena.) The Odeum tries to create a more intimate environment for the artists, and it seems to work: I was surprised to be standing in the lobby—which has the comforting ambience of an old movie theater—when Waybill and Steen came out after the show, sat at a table, and signed autographs and chitchatted with fans, including me.

A smaller venue such as the Odeum (supported by both ticket sales and patrons and sponsors) also means that the band, and the fans, can forget about trying to re-create their days of fist-pumping arena glory. None of us, onstage or off, seemed up for that kind of creepy nostalgia. As Rachel said about the venue’s older acts, no one has to live in the past; the Odeum thinks it’s “okay to stay present.”

Speaking of age, I noted that the crowd at the nearly sold-out show was almost entirely over 40, an observation confirmed by the theater’s management. The show was not an intergenerational moment with the kids and grandkids, where the creaky Boomers introduced the youngs to their prehistoric rock idols. (That’s what Rolling Stones concerts are for.) Perhaps it sounds odd to call a rock concert a safe space, but I felt more comfortable shouting lyrics such as “Spent my cash on every high I could find” in a crowd of people close to my own age than I might have while getting the stink eye from someone’s appalled teenager.

Back in the day, the Tubes put on a dazzling show, with special effects, scantily clad dancing girls, and multiple costume changes. All of that is over. Now only Waybill changes clothes, and the only sultry lady onstage is dressed as a nurse—cue the Viagra jokes from the audience—instead of a kick-line dancer. (She’s also not a groupie or hired extra; she’s Waybill’s wife, Elizabeth.)

Some things, even in the middle of a rock concert, make more sense when you’re older. After Waybill transformed into one of his onstage alter egos, the dissolute glam rocker Quay Lewd—drug humor from the ’70s, kids—he looked over at the character’s trademark 18-inch-heel boots lying onstage nearby. Apparently, he’d worn them at a show in Philadelphia the night before, and they’d hurt like hell; there was even some concern about whether he’d be in shape for the show in Rhode Island. So this night, he just looked at them and shook his head: Nah.

The crowd laughed. We get it.

Tonight, stay present, and celebrate with the music that moves you. Happy New Year. See you in 2024.

Related:


Essay

A crying child surrounded by images from "Dumbo," "The Lion King," "Finding Nemo," and "Bambi"
Illustration by Dena Springer

The Bizarre Tragedy of Children’s Movies

By Kelly Conaboy

A few weeks ago, I came across a GIF from the 1994 film The Lion King that made me weep. It shows the lion cub Simba moments after he discovers the lifeless body of his father, Mufasa; he nuzzles under Mufasa’s limp arm and then lies down beside him. I was immediately distraught at that scene, and my memories of the ones that follow: Simba pawing at his dead father’s face, Simba pleading with him to “get up.”

That scene lives in my thoughts with a few similar ones: the baby elephant Dumbo cradled in his abused mom’s trunk as she’s trapped behind bars; Ellie, the beloved wife in Up, grieving a miscarriage and eventually passing away within the first five minutes of the film; Bambi, the young deer, wandering around the snowy forest looking for his mother, who has just been shot dead. When they pop up in my mind, I’m always left with the same thought: Why are so many kids’ movies so sad, and how does that sadness affect the kids they’re intended to entertain?

Read the full article.


Culture Break

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Dusty Deen for The Atlantic

Read. Check out one of The Atlantic’s 10 favorite books of 2023.

Listen. Don’t buy that new sweater until you’ve heard what Atlantic staff writer Amanda Mull has to say about the cratering quality of knitwear on this episode of Radio Atlantic.


Photo Album

A child plays with bubbles from a street performer at the Old Port in Marseille, France
A child plays with bubbles from a street performer at the Old Port in Marseille, France (Peter Cziborra / Reuters).

Families and friends at play, expressions of love and compassion, volunteers at work, and more in our editor’s selection of hopeful images from 2023.

Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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