Pop's performing pensioners

Pop's performing pensioners

Jerry Lee Lewis, 74: Best known for Great Balls of Fire and marrying his 13-year-old cousin, this quiff-shaking, sexual volcano epitomised the devil’s music.

A decade on, the much-loved “Swarb” is still playing. In fact, he plays so many gigs that he reckons he clocks up more miles than a sales rep. At 68, Swarb is one of a growing number of musicians rocking, if a little more softly, right past retirement age. Chuck Berry, one of rock ‘n’roll’s pioneers, is still touring, aged 83. And 73-year-old ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman is about to lead his jazz-rocker Rhythm Kings on a 34-date tour, which, he says, “will show the whippersnappers how it’s done”.

So why keep on doing it when they could all just put their feet up? “I get a £34 state pension, so I can’t stop,” jokes the fabulously rich Wyman. More seriously, he says that playing music “is where my heart is”. Swarb, who before a double lung transplant was performing in a wheelchair with oxygen tanks on stage, used to work as a printer, but never thought of himself as one. A fiddler, he says, “is who I am. If I stopped, I might as well chop my head off.”

Historically, classical composers tend to go on and on (the Pianist Leo Ornstein completed his final piano sonata aged 97) – while orchestral players usually retire at the normal age, owing to the physical demands of performance. In other creative professions, very old age has never been an issue: romantic novelist Jean MacLeod is 101. Yet rock has always been seen as a “young person’s game” and, as the greats age, their ability to rock on is astonishing experts.

“Playing live is extremely demanding,” says Simon Warner, a musicologist at Leeds University. “It involves extreme physical and mental stamina. Cheryl Cole sang on X Factor but she mimed the chorus, because it was too ‘exhausting’ to do that and dance. And Cheryl Cole is 23! If she can’t do three minutes, how on earth can Bruce Springsteen do three hours?”

Warner regards Mick Jagger – in his 60s and still running about five miles on stage during every gig – as a “physical freak”. But they are all slouches compared with Mississippi bluesman T Model Ford, who’s still “chasing women” and performing for up to five hours at a time, despite being 89 and fitted with a pacemaker. He puts it down to working in a stone mill when he was 15, “taking jobs that grown men couldn’t handle”. That and Jack Daniel’s, five wives and “the Lord.”

But can a pensionable musician really be at the top of their game? Yes, says Emma Soames, editor-at-large at ‘Saga magazine’, arguing that age isn’t a barrier if a performer has something special. She cites Neil Young, 63, as the best act at Glastonbury this year. “I’m sure he’s having more fun than if he’d put on his slippers.” And people keep telling top mezzo-soprano Felicity Palmer that she’s singing better at 65.

So when should a musician stop? Paul McCartney and AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson, both in their 60s, are considering saying farewell to touring. Dave Brock, of festival veterans Hawkwind, says he can’t play outdoors long after 9pm any more because, at 68, “the damp gets in your bones.” This may be a case of the human body calling time, but Jet Black isn’t thinking of retiring and Mick Green would be happy to die on stage – again – doing what he loves.

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