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Archive for Monday, May 20, 2002

Over the hill but still around

May 20, 2002

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Now that the Rolling Stones have announced a new tour, they're getting a lot of advice. The advice comes down to this:

Don't.

Many commentators have made a good case for this. At their best, they say, the Stones symbolized youthful defiance. Mick Jagger would ruin that by prancing onstage near age 60. In short, great performers should know when to retire.

They may have a point.

But I'd like to offer a different view.

Personally, I'm against graceful retirement.

If you still have the ability, and the guts, I say rage on.

I especially like the idea of the Stones going for another round. Pop music's an arena where most superstars are in their 20s, or younger. It's nice, for a change, to see an older act dominate the field.

Those who want the Stones to retire would insist they don't feel this way about all 60-year-old rock stars. Few have questioned Paul McCartney, who recently launched a big tour. The Stones, though, are said to be different because they have a defiant, energized act that supposedly doesn't work when you're 60ish.

I'd argue that touring at that age is itself an act of defiance that will give the Stones a compelling edge.

And even if it doesn't, what law says you have to step aside after you pass your peak? If a great group can still put on a decent show that tens of thousands want to see, why not bring it on?

I'm not sure what it is about American culture, but people seem to have a personal stake in seeing stars end their careers "gracefully." Part of it, I think, is that we like to idealize the eras of our lives. Since heroes largely define those eras, we prefer to remember them at their best.

That's why many folks focus on sports notables retiring at their peak. We want to idealize them only as superstars, rather than semi-stars who have begun to slow down.

Sandy Koufax is said to have done it just right, leaving baseball at age 30 while perhaps the best pitcher in the game. Same with Jim Brown, who left football at 29.

I have no problem with those who choose that path. If it's right for them, fine.

But I happen to think it can add to the greatness of athletes and others if, against age and time, they have the drive to stay in the game.

Take Muhammad Ali. Well past his peak, as he approached 40, he tried to reclaim the title. George Foreman did the same thing at the ancient boxing age of 45. Then there was Gordie Howe. At age 51, he played a full season of hockey in the NHL. Many criticized them for it, saying they would tarnish themselves.

It's true that they weren't at their peaks at the end. But I think they enhanced their images by showing they were tough old lions determined to fight on.

Perhaps no one got as much advice as Michael Jordan. He left basketball at age 35, and when he began to hint at a return three years later, many were against it. He could never be as good as when he led the Chicago Bulls.

That was true. But so what? Just because you were once the best does that mean, in America, you're no longer allowed to merely be very good?

I'm not a big follower of the NBA, but was drawn back to it this year while Jordan was playing. Yes, part of it is that this was Michael Jordan. But a lot of it was that I liked seeing an aging star prove he could still stay in the game.

That's why I'm glad the Rolling Stones are touring, in defiance of critics.

Years from now, if the Stones need walkers to dance across stage, perhaps even I'll admit it's time. But if you can still play the game, there's room in this culture for those who choose not to retire gracefully.

Rage on, Mick.




Mark Patinkin's e-mail address is mpatinkin@projo.com.

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