Star-studded festival lineups are routine these days, but the lineup for this month’s Desert Trip festival in Indio, California, is in a league of its own. The festival is only hosting six acts, and they’re doozies: Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Who, Roger Waters (the golden-era leader of Pink Floyd), and Neil Young. If only it were possible to add McCartney’s late bandmate John Lennon to the roster, you’d have a group of performers that many baby boomers would curate as their own welcome-to-heaven dream lineup.
Unsurprisingly, tickets—pricey as they were—sold out quickly. What’s curious, though, is that while Rolling Stone magazine covered the announcement avidly, much of the music press greeted the show with a colossal shrug. Some younger music fans gave the event a snarky nickname: “Oldchella,” playing on the fact that it’s organized by the promoter behind Coachella. It’ll just be a few days in the park for old, rich rock fans looking to relive their glory days, many seem to think.
The buzz (or lack thereof) around Desert Trip is a reminder of just how advanced in years these musicians are. McCartney is 74, Dylan’s 75, and The Glimmer Twins are 73 (Jagger) and 72 (Richards). Aren’t younger generations of music fans excited that these living legends—the Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven of the most pivotal period in 20th century music—are still around, and playing shows?
The apathy surrounding Oldchella is an interesting contrast to the fervor that gripped the world twice this year: the deaths of David Bowie and Prince. A death always prompts reevaluation and celebration—but it’s also true that those younger musicians connected with a diverse, multi-generational audience more recently and, in some ways, more deeply.
It begs the question of whether an artist can truly be appreciated in his or her own lifetime. Do the Desert Trip artists need to die before they can be reappraised? Something like that happened with Michael Jackson, whose popularity soared once the complicated reality of Jackson’s life became a thing of the past. Of course, Jackson’s bizarre and controversial personal life was problematic in ways that, say, Neil Young’s is not.
Though the discussion of Desert Trip tends to lump the headliners in together as aging greats, the fact is that the artists have all followed their own paths into senior statesmanhood—all trying in different ways to stay relevant, or at least to stay viable and marketable as performers.
Among Oldchella’s three most legendary names, the Stones are closest to being a pure nostalgia act. They continue to rock reliably on the road, with Mick Jagger leaping lithely around (and even continuing to father children.) But for at least the last three decades, their new music has been uninspired, keeping safely in the arena-rock vein. The most interesting surprises at Stones shows these days tend to come when they pull out very old songs, not very new ones.
Though McCartney’s clout on the pop charts faded around the same time the Stones’ did—the late 1980s—he’s continued to explore varied avenues as a solo artist. He writes video game music. He writes oratorios. He collaborates with electronic musicians. A series of reissues is sparking the renewed appreciation of the albums McCartney put out in the wake of the Beatles’ dissolution, and those years yielded hits that are among the biggest crowd-pleasers in his set. He’s a more dynamic artist, even if his sing-song style isn’t for everyone.
Then there’s Dylan, who’s been more radical. He had only a narrow window of chart popularity, and in recent shows he’s been tending to jettison “the hits,” such as they are, almost completely. Instead, he now plays a mix of his own 21st century songs and covers of vocal standards from the pre-rock era—the songs he’s recorded for his two most recent studio albums. Iconoclasm has been the one constant in Dylan’s career, and he shows no signs of starting to play by anyone else’s rules any time soon.
The Oldchella artists didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll, but they were there for its birth. They were among the leading lights of the generation that proved rock wasn’t just a flash in the pan, but a total game-changer when it came to how music would function in the lives of people around the world. Having pushed the boundaries as young men, now they’re pushing up against a new boundary: they’re exploring what it means to rock as old men.
Advancing age presents both challenges and opportunities for artists in any genre—but particularly in rock, which has always been obsessed with youth and vitality. To rock into your 70s takes both stamina and creativity, and the Desert Trip acts are members of a generation that’s redefining old age.
Baby boomers are living much longer and pursuing hobbies and activities much later than their parents did, and it’s selling the Oldchella ticket-buyers short to suggest they simply want to be transported back to the ‘60s. Maybe they want to be transported in a different sense, transported in the way that great music can take us to heights of emotion and new frontiers of reflection.
It’s proving harder for aging rockers to do that with new work than it is for, say, aging classical composers or visual artists, who often reach their creative peaks in their late years. Still, as Bowie demonstrated, it is possible for rockers to remain relevant. “Blackstar,” Bowie’s final album, is now regarded as one of the great achievements of his career—because it was inspired by his life as it was, even though that life was ending. The challenge for all of us, including artists of the Desert Trip generation and their fans, is to trust in the journey and to keep moving forward.
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.