Leonard Pitts Jr.
“Hope I die before I get old.”
The quote, of course, is from Pete Townshend of The Who. It’s a lyric from “My Generation,” a song that came out in 1965, the year Townshend turned 20. He was, at that age, a long-haired rock star famous for windmilling his arm and smashing his guitars.
Nearly 40 years later, the hair is mostly gone. The rock star has sad poet’s eyes, a trim gray beard and the settled-in look of an English professor. The song notwithstanding, one imagines that Townshend is not unhappy to find himself, a year and some months before his 60th birthday, among the not dead. One also imagines that while the young man he was and the older man he is probably still have a few things in common, they would also be strangers to one another in many ways.
I offer these observations as a reminder: The things we believe at 20 are seldom the things we believe at 60. What matters to us when we are older is rarely what mattered when we were young. Everything that grows changes.
You probably already knew all this. But if recent news reports are any indication, there are some folks who don’t.
One is Keith Richards, who was mortified last month by news that his Rolling Stones bandmate Mick Jagger was being knighted by the queen of England. The two aging sybarites have spent a lifetime mocking the establishment; now Jagger was accepting the ultimate establishment honor. Richards said he’d be ashamed to share a stage with the man.
Then there’s John Lydon, better known as Johnny Rotten, who came to fame with the Sex Pistols during Britain’s nihilistic and violently anti-social punk rock movement of the 1970s. Last week, it was revealed that he has agreed to appear on, of all things, a TV reality show, “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here.” Upon hearing the news, one British journalist pronounced himself “gobsmacked.” I think that’s Brit for “flabbergasted.”
I have no comment on Jagger and Lydon’s career moves, but I am amused by the responses to them. There is something faintly credulous in all that disappointment. Something that expects more from music than it ever had to give.
But then, music is never just music, is it? No, when you’re young, music is a way of framing the world, a brand of truth. The connection is deeper than the fact that a song has a good beat and you can dance to it. You get this sense that you have found something here that expresses you. And you want to stay in that moment of discovery forever.
“People have this obsession,” Jagger once said. “They want you to be like you were in 1969 … because otherwise their youth goes with you.”
There is, in other words, always this sense of loss when change comes to music or musicians. Not just loss of the moment of discovery but also, loss of who you were in that moment, loss of that which made you vital and impulsive and a threat to the status quo.
You look up and suddenly, you “are” the status quo, a soccer mom or hockey dad behind the wheel of a minivan. Suddenly, Johnny Rotten’s doing game shows and Mick Jagger has been knighted by the queen and nothing is the same as it was.
Change is not fun. But you consider a guy like Richards, still clinging to what he was at 19, and you realize that in the long run, refusing change is worse. Refusing change is refusing growth.
So, fine. Tunes that used to scare the old folks play in the elevator of the office building downtown. And the young people of a new generation speed past, vital, impulsive, a threat to the status quo, alive in the moment of discovery. Believing it will ever be so.
There is something in it both bitter and sweet. Something that makes you hope they enjoy their illusions while they can. Because if you remember what Townshend said before he went and got old, you understand the surprise that’s coming around for them.
Life is a wheel. And you know what they say.
Big wheel keeps on turning.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: