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Rage, rage against the dying of the laser light

Rock ’n’ roll as memento mori.

Steven Tyler on the big screens at Fenway Park during Aerosmith's performance earlier this month.Winslow Townson/Winslow Townson/Invision/AP

I’m listening to Paul McCartney’s “Red Rose Speedway,” a wonky but delightful album released in 1973 that spawned a No. 1 hit, “My Love.” On the cover, Paul’s got a bright red rose blooming out of his mouth, his eyes surprised — it’s a laugh, a great photo taken by his late wife, Linda. There he was, not quite 31, already a giant of 20th-century music. Now he’s 80, and he still treads the boards.

When these elderly rock ’n’ rollers appear in the news — perhaps playing a concert in town — I often wonder how they view their own lives. Some of them have been wealthy and beloved for decades. And yet here they are now: old. They’ve got a bad spot on the actuary tables. Did they sufficiently enjoy their wonderful lives of music, travel, adulation, and abundance? Could they have?


Of course not.

From left, Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, and Bruce Springsteen performed at the Glastonbury Festival in June. Joel C Ryan/Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

It’s hard for anyone to enjoy themself as much as their life actually warrants. That’s why rock ’n’ roll is there in the first place, to flip the switch for you so you have a good time. But even if these old rockers could do it, they would age just the same. According to Horace, pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas regumque turres. That is, “pale death with impartial foot knocks at the hut of the poor and the towers of kings.” A dead language sure evokes death’s long, shadowy hallway. And see how death knocks on doors with his feet — rude!

And there’s the controversy: Should the older bands still play live? Rockers from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s who are now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s regularly hit the road: Roger Waters, The Eagles, Queen, KISS, Journey, David Lee Roth, Blondie, Bon Jovi, Winger, Def Leppard, Whitesnake, Aerosmith, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and Mötley Crüe are some choice examples. Some have been praised for keeping their vocal cords loose and their stomachs tight. But many have been lambasted for being too unfit to carry the tunes that made them famous, repeatedly calling for the audience to sing along and do the heavy lifting. Using lower tunings, adding backup singers, and perhaps cheating with prerecorded vocals are other ways of spackling over the vocal cracking. Some in the crowd don’t care, but many feel cheated.


Roger Waters performed at Madison Square Garden in August.Theo Wargo/Getty

Part of rock ’n’ roll’s appeal is that it looks like people with no formal training can do it, something empirically proven by Messrs Ramone. But strutting around a giant stage is a workout even before you try to sing, and it turns out that some popular songs, such as those McCartney belted out so easily for decades, are difficult pieces of music to sing. Sure, Pat Benatar still sounds great and has a stage presence steeped in defiant poise — that is, cool. But for others it doesn’t always go that well — it feels disloyal to point to the numerous video clips of famous singers yowling it up in city after city. But what if these classic acts are showing us something new? Or perhaps something old? And I mean very old.

The artworks classified as memento mori — meaning “remember you will die” — are perhaps most familiar to us from the vanitas oil paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries featuring skulls, half-melted candles, hourglasses, coffins, and wilting flowers. The realism possible with oil painting tempted some to depict still-life scenes of tabletop abundance with waiting dishes of pork, fish, fowl, and fruit among glasses of wine, luxuriating in the sheer physicality of stuff. Memento mori turns the materialism of the genre on its head: Thingness is beautiful, thingness is temporary. “Still life” ticks easily over into “there’s still death.”


A 17th-century vanitas still life with musical instruments, sheet music, books, a skeleton, skulls, and armor by Carstian Luyckx.Wikimedia Commons

Rock ’n’ roll always had the carpe diem spirit of (Horace again) nunc est bibendum; that is, “now is the time to drink.” But with age nunc est bibendum clicks smoothly over to the idea of dying. Perhaps this can be done happily: Hang not your head, bang your head. Memento mori says, like Axl Rose, “you’re gonna die.” Rock has always said, “remember, you are alive.” Are they singing the same song?

What do we think as these oldsters take the stage, some with depleted voices both metaphorically and literally about to croak? What do we see when we look upon these seniors as they rage, rage against the dying of the laser light?

We could see a stark reminder of the strange slipping away of eras — those irregular chunks of time marked for us by popular songs — like bright coins flipped into a well shaft. Which is why we should live our days wildly in the first place. By growing old itself, rock ’n’ roll has returned to its original ethos and turned it inside out to tell you now not simply that it is great to be young but that, given how long you will be dead, to be alive at all is to be young.


Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe performed at Fenway Park in August with Def Leppard and special guests Poison and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Maybe that’s not cool in the traditional sense (cool has been around the block, too). Scythes aren’t cool, either, but tell that to death. When he knocks on your door with his foot.

Imagine you’re Paul McCartney. It’s the summer of 1973, you’re young and jet-haired and you’ve had another hit song. It’s a milestone in your life. Or is it a millstone? From that moment on, the song will stay the same while you age. Will the hit mark time for you like a past family celebration, the pictures of which you never take down? Does it haunt you a bit when coming on the car radio, 10 or 20 or 49 years after it was first released? Does it seem to make time pass faster? What can you do to slow it?

That’s the “Red Rose Speedway.” And that album will be followed a quick seven months later by “Band on the Run.”

Patrick Cole is a science writer and author of the novel “Gemini.” He lives in Barcelona. Follow him on Instagram @streetnoiseworldwide.