Rock Never Dies—But It Does Get Older and Wiser

Rock is for the young, but rockers can age gracefully.

Nick Lowe performs at the Poplar Creek Music Theater in 1984.
Nick Lowe performs at the Poplar Creek Music Theater in 1984. (Paul Natkin / Getty)

Updated at 9:22 a.m. ET on July 2, 2022.

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It’s been a week full of ghastly revelations and depressing events, so let’s step away from the stress of politics and think about music heading into this holiday weekend.

But first, here are three great stories from The Atlantic.

Like the Rest of Us

Even among my peers, my takes on popular music are widely considered terrible. I am not sure I can redeem myself here—I will always prefer Boston’s debut album to anything by Led Zeppelin—but maybe I can recommend something today that could bridge the musical tastes of a few generations.

I am technically a “late Boomer,” but I have nothing in common with the Boomers: I have never been interested in hearing the Rolling Stones squeeze a few more bucks out of a stadium crowd, or The Who swearing they’re retiring yet again. When I reached my 40s, however, I started to become fascinated by “unplugged,” or acoustic, remakes, in which a rock artist revisits an old hit, but without the spandex, blazing guitar solos, pyrotechnics.

There’s a kind of beauty in these remakes. Rock, by its nature, encourages the confidence of youth, even when singing about heartbreak or sadness. The worst day of your life, as Homer Simpson once said, is only the worst day of your life so far, and when you’re young, even the tragedies are part of a life you’re fairly certain will continue.

Middle-age, however, is when you know most of the road is behind you. It’s hard to sound as angry and rebellious at 50 as you were at 20. For one thing, you just know too much. You might still be furious about, say, war and injustice, but you’re not surprised by it anymore. And in any case, you can’t keep singing “I hope I die before I get old” if you’re … old.

Accepting the passage of time can change a song. Nick Lowe, for example, wrote “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” back in 1974 when he was 25. At the same age, Elvis Costello turned it into a thundering anthem in 1978. Those are great versions, but when Lowe sang the song again in his 70s, with very little accompaniment, it became a different experience—a placid, almost mournful reflection on the question, rather than a dare to disagree with it.

In 1982, the Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died from drug abuse at age 25. He and his bandmate Chrissie Hynde had been working on a song, “Back on the Chain Gang,” about the pressures of the world destroying a relationship. After Honeyman-Scott died, the band dedicated the driving, energetic track to their friend.

Now listen to this version, recorded more than a decade later when Hynde was 43, a time when she was still mourning her friend but was coming to terms with his passing. It’s still a remarkable song—but it’s not the same song. It’s the same singer, but maybe not quite the same singer, either.

I hesitate even to mention the ’80s supergroup Asia. They took some knocks—rightly—in their day for being a cynical profit-making project kludged together out of former members of ’70s prog-rock groups. They made radio-friendly power-pop, including a smash titled “Heat of the Moment,” a grandiose farewell to the innocence of youth and the dance culture of the 1970s, including this classic line: “And now you find yourself in ’82 / the disco hot spots hold no charm for you.”

Almost 15 years later, Steve Hackett and the Asia alum John Wetton didn’t even try to recapture the lip-gloss and eye-glitter bombast of 1982. This slower, sadder version recognizes that this time, the joke is on them. “And now you find yourself in ’96,” they sang. “End of the line for all your dirty tricks.” (Wetton passed away in 2017.)

The music writer John Strasbaugh once produced a majestic takedown of the cynical attempt to wring nostalgia out of youthful rebelliousness. “Rock simply should not be played by fifty-five-year-old men with triple chins wearing bad wighats,” he wrote in 2001. “Its prime audience should not be middle-aged, balding, jelly-bellied dads who’ve brought along their wives and kids.”

I agree. While I still love the music of my youth, I do try to keep the fist-pumping to a minimum. But it is interesting—maybe, for some of us of a certain age, even comforting—to hear rock stars revisit their songs in voices tempered by age and experience, and to know they have a sense of mortality no different from the rest of us.

Today’s News

  1. Russia targeted a residential building and recreation center near Odesa, Ukraine, with overnight missile strikes, killing at least 20 people.

  2. A group of educators responsible for advising the Texas Board of Education on social-studies curriculum suggested that slavery be referred to as “involuntary relocation.”

  3. Yair Lapid became the prime minister of Israel, and will oversee its caretaker government until a new ruling coalition is assembled.


Evening Read

illustration with an 1820 painting of outdoor feast with people in historical dress fleeing a giant flaming Facebook logo in a colonnaded courtyard
Illustration by Nicolás Ortega. Source: Belshazzar’s Feast, John Martin, 1820.

Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid

By Jonathan Haidt

What would it have been like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? In the Book of Genesis, we are told that the descendants of Noah built a great city in the land of Shinar. They built a tower “with its top in the heavens” to “make a name” for themselves.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Read. Two novels, Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah and Vox by Christina Dalcher, reflect the remarkable rise of the feminist dystopia.

Or, if you’re looking for an escape, try a recommendation from our summer reading guide

Watch. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (now in theaters), a mockumentary about a stop-motion animated shell, teaches us how to navigate obstacles with grace.

Believe it or not, the song “Hallelujah” was once virtually unknown. A new film, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song (showing in select theaters), documents the record’s long, strange trip to ubiquity.

A new HBO documentary, The Janes, tells the story of a women’s movement that organized safe abortions in Chicago during the 1970s.

Listen. Our executive editor, Adrienne LaFrance, discussed what comes next in a post-Roe America with the legal historian Mary Ziegler and the constitutional-law scholar David French. If you missed the live event, listen to it now on Radio Atlantic.

Or explore why it’s so difficult to make friends as an adult in the latest episode of our new podcast, How to Start Over.

The Daily will be on break for the Fourth of July. I hope you have a restful holiday weekend, and that you celebrate a great nation and a wise constitution that has survived, despite the long odds against it, for more than two centuries. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget what a miracle it is that we made it through a revolution, a civil war, two world wars, a cold war, and the arrival of the nuclear age. Now we have to remember Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 warning that foreign armies could never conquer America, but that danger, “if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us.” We’re not out of those woods yet, but this is the weekend to be both grateful and optimistic.


Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

This article originally misidentified Steve Hackett as an alumnus of the band Asia.