Rock Against Ageism

by Howell J. Malham Jr.


The media have not always been kind to The Rolling Stones.

Early in the band's career, they took a great deal of flak from reporters for their long, unkempt hair; their open challenges to the “petty morals” of the establishment; and for not being as telegenically adorable as The Fab Four.

After some well-publicized drug busts, most famously at Redlands, Keith Richards' home in Sussex, the band was officially branded as rock's original bad boys, something that worked in their favor from a PR standpoint.

Bad boys sold as many albums if not more as the not-so-bad boys.

As the years wore on, they seemed to go out of their way to shock the bourgeoisie with increasingly scandalous lyrics, lurid album promos and outré stage antics. But, aside from those inconvenient and unscripted drug busts which continued into the 1970s, including one in Toronto that almost landed Keith in jail for the rest of his life, those bad boys were making all sorts of conventional business moves behind the scenes to achieve culturally approved ends: financial success.

They have long been a part of the establishment they once railed against. They are men of wealth. They are men of taste.

The only thing that seems to offend critics these days is the Stones' aggressive refusal to comply with the social norms of growing up and growing old.

"I’d rather be dead than sing 'Satisfaction' when I’m 45.” It's one of Sir Mick Jagger's most famous quotes, one that has haunted him ever since he made the quip to a reporter when he was in his early 30s.

It has been weaponized by his critics; giving them permission to call into question not only his ability but his right to prance from one side of the stage to another, shimmying, scampering and skipping about for adoring, multi-generational fans when he and the rest of the band should be at home, a retirement home, fulfilling some outmoded caricature of senior living.

Sir Mick is now 75 years old. He has just recovered from major heart surgery, and scheduled to hit the stage with his mates— the 75-year-old Keith Richards, the 78-year-old Charlie Watts, and the 72-year-old Ron Wood — to resume the No Filter Tour in Chicago, where he will sing ("I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and many other songs from the band's musical canon.

Since the record-breaking 1981 tour of America, every Rolling Stones tour, including this one, has been billed unofficially as “the last tour.” In 1986, Spin magazine pronounced the band all but dead for they had simply "run out of reasons to stay together" overlooking a rather obvious one: money.

Each successive, multi-million-dollar-earning tour not only proved the Stones' resilience as businessmen and performers, it laid bare a particularly nasty strain of ageism still infecting modern culture. The band's Steel Wheels tour in 1989 was mocked as the Steel Wheelchairs Tour. The No Security Tour was parodied as the No [Social] Security Tour.

As there seems to be no natural end to the Stones, there is no end to the cracks about their age:

"Is there anything more painful than aging rockers on stage?" the Los Angeles Times' Paul Whitefield scribbled about the Stones in 2013. Last year, Patrick Freyne in the Irish Times wrote, "They've been cosplaying as teenagers...attempting to reclaim their lost humanity while craving the sweet release of death, or at least a bit of a nap, for over five decades now."

While the Stones are masters of shrugging off the slings and arrows from the critic's section, it is disconcerting that this kind of prejudicial attitude toward anyone based solely on age is still tolerated; that pundits can, with impunity, churn out "condescending generalizations that assume vulnerability and dependence instead of resilience and independence," as Caroline Baum wrote in The Guardian in 2018.

Public policy is failing retirement age members of our population due in large part to these stereotypes, Baum argues, and the language that perpetuates them.

You know who isn't failing that population?

The Rolling Stones.

Strange as it may seem, The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World has over the last few decades probably done more to fight ageism, to strike at its very root, than any elected official, than any policymaker on either side of the Atlantic.

They've done it by doing the only thing they know how to do together: Be The Rolling Stones. 

It doesn't matter that their last number 1 hit was in 1978. Or that they long ago stopped bothering to venture into new, creatively challenging environs as artists. They are succeeding at this very late or very early stage of their career in ways that no one expected, and in an equally unexpected role: not as musical innovators but as social innovators, subverting norms and shifting expectations related to aging; actions that, if properly contextualized, can have a powerful, positive influence on public policy, and the people who make it.

With every financially successful tour, they put lie to the notion that “seniors” are irrelevant, a drain on the economy; that they are a dependent part of our society, not a generative or productive one. 

Whereas Hollywood and Madison Avenue routinely convince us that there is nothing worse than being old, the Stones deliver a rather compelling counter-message through their live experiences: that growing old is a “privilege,” as Sir George Martin put it. And a lot of fun. 

They're not growing old, at least not in ways that are socially acceptable. They didn’t come of age in ways that were socially acceptable either.

They're teaching us by example, tour after tour after tour, that aging is not something to be dreaded or feared, but something to be welcomed, relished, and explored to the fullest.

Mick, as the irrepressibly frenetic front man, continues to amaze crowds with the athleticism of someone 1/3 of his age, preening and vamping onstage for a solid 90 minutes. By inviting us to see and experience the performer not the age, he makes it too easy to forget that he’s a great-grandfather, four years and a month shy of his 80th birthday.

He is not our father’s great-grandfather, clearly.

At a time when botox and blepharoplasty are mandatory for women and men in the public eye, the Stones perform in full view and under the scrutiny of the lights unapologetically face-lift free. 

Some people believe “seniors” are to be marginalized, tolerated or shunned in social circles; when the Stones are on tour, “seniors” are to be seen and heard for $1,300 a ticket…if you’d like to be in one of the first five rows.

When you stop and think about it, nothing at all has changed about the band’s rebel image. In the 1960s, they were pegged as social deviants: raunchy, decadent, drug-addled, countercultural minstrels who, simply put, loved to play the blues, leading teenagers astray, and making parents sick to their stomachs. 

They're still deviants, but deviants from the norms of old age, who are helping to engineer new social expectations about how we think about and engage with those labeled as “seniors”, fittingly like many of the blues icons they admired, who performed well past retirement age out of financial necessity.

If they haven’t helped us scrap words like “senior” and “elder” and “aged” altogether, they are encouraging us to reconsider the connotations, the uses and the limits of such labels.

The Stones are not growing old gracefully, as Pete Townshend advised them at their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, that much is certain. They're not growing old period, at least not in ways that are socially acceptable. They didn’t come of age in ways that were socially acceptable either.

In 1966, when they sang "what a drag it is getting old", the epigraph to “Mother’s Little Helper”, they meant every word of it.

If they sang that song now, it would be pure irony. :: :: ::