The rock world has never seen a rash of retirements like this. In the past few weeks, some of rock & roll’s most legendary performers have declared they’re giving up the endless highway. Elton John announced his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, the final curtain for the ultimate showman. Paul Simon set a date for his last gig in London’s Hyde Park. Neil Diamond, already well into his 50th-anniversary tour, immediately cancelled the rest of his shows on doctors’ orders, after getting diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson revealed, “We have no plans to tour or record any more. We’re basically done. After 41 years, we felt it was enough.”
The concept of “enough” is always exotic in rock & roll – but it’s definitely a shock for so many legends to say goodnight at the same time. It’s a historic moment where we’re witnessing a sea change in how rock stars face their golden years. It’s not like these veterans have lost their mojo – anyone lucky enough to see Diamond last year can tell you he hasn’t lost a step. And some road warriors still keep peaking onstage as they push 80, from Paul McCartney to Smokey Robinson to Bob Dylan to Fleetwood Mac. But for others, as Simon admitted, quitting feels like “something of a relief.” So these elder statesmen are trying to invent something that’s never really existed until now – the rock & roll retirement.
It used to be that farewell gigs inspired mostly skeptical amusement. High-priced goodbyes are a classic show-biz trick; Cher’s farewell tour is old enough to vote. But this time it’s different. “I’m not Cher, even though I like wearing her clothes,” Elton John said at his press conference. “This is the end.” He’s not kidding. “My priorities in my life are now my children, my husband and my family. I want to be home.”
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It’s also the end of the line for Joan Baez, nearly 60 years after her 1959 debut. “Number one: It’s too hard to sing,” she told Rolling Stone‘s Jonathan Bernstein in January. “Nobody can really imagine the effort it takes to keep up with these vocal cords. … I can’t do shit in the upper range anymore.” Lynyrd Skynyrd just announced their “Last of the Street Survivors” tour – 40 years after the band got wiped out in a plane crash. (Guitarist Garry Rossington is the only crash survivor left in Skynyrd. Fly high, free bird.) At 87, Sonny Rollins’ pulmonary fibrosis has forced him to put down his mighty horn. Ozzy Osbourne, who quit with “No More Tours” in the 1990s, then surprised absolutely nobody by coming back for his Retirement Sucks Tour, will spend the next few years on his latest final trek – with the tongue-in-cheek title, “No More Tours 2.”
Why now? Of course, the music world has lost too many legends in the past couple of years. But two deaths really seem to loom over this moment. Prince and Tom Petty were younger than most of the new retirees, but both died from the same painkiller – Fentanyl – after years of touring harder than their aging bones could handle. For years we all saw Prince work magic onstage nobody else could do; it wasn’t until his tragic death that the world learned how he’d punished his body. Petty spent last summer on tour before finding out his hip was broken; the day he got the news, just a week after his final gig, he succumbed to an accidental overdose of Fentanyl, oxycodone, generic Xanax and other medications. Their deaths are a wake-up call for both musicians and fans. None of us want to see our heroes go out that way.
It’s no secret that the road takes a toll – as Robbie Robertson said in The Last Waltz, over 40 years ago, “It’s a goddamn impossible way of life.” But the touring business is increasingly fixated on how to keep the old guys on the road – in some cases, even after death. Elton John joked about asking his children, “When Daddy dies, promise me there won’t be a hologram of me going around the world doing concerts.” Yet even Elton – a trouper who understands the show must go on – realizes this might not be his call. “Who knows? They may go broke and put me back on the fucking stage.”
Randy Newman has summed it up perfectly: “Musicians keep going. There is nobody applauding at home.”
When the stars step back, it doesn’t take them long to discover how much they miss the bright lights and rowdy crowds. “My job is the greatest job in the world,” Neil Diamond told an L.A. crowd last summer. “I sing. You hear. You applaud. I sing louder. I go wherever the noise is.” Those of us who kept returning to see Diamond loved being part of that beautiful noise. We knew that if we showed up, he would too. (Just last summer, after years as a Neil-head, I finally got my first live “If You Know What I Mean.” It was worth the wait.) “I’m one of those people who would rather sit on the beach and do nothing, but I can’t,” he told Rolling Stone‘s Andy Greene in 2016. “I’m addicted to the packing and the unpacking.”
That’s why the vets rarely walk away from the life, no matter how miserable it gets. They go where the noise is.
The Who made the cover of the Rolling Stone in 1982 announcing their last tour – “before we become parodies of ourselves,” as Roger Daltrey explained. My copy of this issue is older than Nicki Minaj, but the Who will spend most of 2018 out there in Oakland and Dayton and Rochester, rolling through “See Me, Feel Me” one more time. Who can blame them? Only a prude holds it against rockers who keep on keeping on. What else would you want them to do? For players and hustlers, tonight’s the night.
David Bowie seemed to retire every few years in the 1970s, making cheerfully insincere statements like “I’ve rocked my last roll.” (As it turned out, he scored the final-curtain knockout of all time with Blackstar.) Eric Clapton did a solemn Rolling Stone interview in the summer of 2001, officially hanging up his keys to the highway. “This is definitely the last time,” he vowed. “I get indigestion. I get tired. … I can’t play long solos anymore without boring myself.” God wailing “Layla” with heartburn – who would wish that on anyone? So, crazy as it seems, most of us believed him, just as he surely believed himself. And needless to say, Clapton is playing European dates this summer after touring the U.S., Japan, Dubai and Thailand in recent years. The road goes on forever.
But what we’re seeing now is something new. Back before rock stars got serious about heath and fitness and sobriety, they weren’t living long enough to worry about how to stop. Now some of them – Elton for one – hope to keep making music, without pushing their banged-up bodies on tour. Others are breaking their wands for good. Simon remains open to “the occasional performance in a (hopefully) acoustically pristine hall.” Complaining about the sound guy at your comeback gigs when you haven’t even finished retiring – now that’s peak Simon.
In The Wild Bunch, grizzled outlaw William Holden wants to make one last score and then back off. Ernest Borgnine asks, “Back off to what?” That’s the question that has kept driving rockers on the road, even to the point where it breaks them. Almost every veteran in The Last Waltz got back out there eventually, some of them dying there; now that Diamond has retired, nobody knows who’ll end up the last one waltzing. (My money’s on the stubborn Irish bastard in the sequinned pants.) But a generation of elders is searching for new ways to ride into the sunset, with goodbyes that do justice to their musical legacy as well as their audience. There’s never been a template for how to abdicate – rock stars have a long history of failing to figure this out, which is one of the traits that makes them rock stars. So it’s a journey into the unknown. But for these performers, now’s the time. Goodbye, yellow brick road.