"Is It Better To Burn Out Than To Fade Away?" And Other Impossible Questions

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"Is It Better To Burn Out Than To Fade Away?" And Other Impossible Questions

“Rob, top five musical crimes perpetrated by Stevie Wonder in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter-day sins, is it better to burn out or fade away?”-Barry, High Fidelity

“If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age 50, then you are sadly, sadly mistaken.”-Dennis Hope, Almost Famous

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My feet have been sore lately.

A few months ago, after years of grinning and bearing it, pretending I can still spend as much time walking from set to set and standing in impractical shoes as I could when I was 22, I finally swallowed my pride and bought a pair of Dr. Scholl’s inserts for my festival boots.

At Shaky Knees this May, I felt like a new woman. What a strange, beautiful thing it was to not feel like I was walking on bloody stumps by the end of each night. But by Bonnaroo last month—because I am vain and irrational and don’t like the squeaking sound they make when I walk—I decided to ditch the inserts.

That first morning of Bonnaroo, I emerged from my tent to find a gray-haired guy—probably in his late sixties or early seventies—sitting in a lawn chair outside a solar-powered RV. He waved. “You must be Bonnie.”

He gestured to the other people I was camping with. “Yeah, those guys said there’d be a girl named Bonnie camping next to me. Nice to meet you. I’m Mad Dog.”

Of course you are, I thought. No “My name is John, but my friends call me Mad Dog.” Just Mad Dog. Undoubtedly there to catch Dead and Co.’s headlining set. Meeting him instantly lifted my spirits and made me feel like I was in for a great weekend. He was friendly—after meeting me, he immediately took it upon himself to point out all the spots with poison ivy to avoid within walking distance of my tent and started calling me Bon as if we’d been pals for years—but he was also familiar. I’ve met a bunch of Mad Dogs going to shows and festivals over the years; they’re the old-school fans, the lifers, the diehards whose decades of dedication to the music they love is nothing short of admirable.

My feet will be fine, I told myself. Mad Dog is in sandals.

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Longevity is a complicated thing in music, perhaps more so than in any other art form, and 2016 has been a particularly cruel but perfect example of that thus far. We’ve lost legends like David Bowie, Prince and Merle Haggard. Paul Simon recently announced he’s considering retirement. The Desert Trip festival—with a bill that features The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Who, Paul McCartney, Neil Young and Roger Waters and an average age of 72—was announced and promptly dubbed “Oldchella” by hip kids on the internet.

In many cases, when a band or artist reaches a certain level, a long and fruitful career is rewarded. Greatest hits compilations, reissues and box sets, lifetime achievement awards, the kind of touring revenue that comes from playing stadiums and having fans old enough to possess the disposable income for VIP passes and $50 t-shirts—all for the taking. But in so many more, longevity is mocked, looked down on as an artist overstaying their welcome or clinging to something they’re supposed to age out of. In an industry so closely tied to youth culture, there’s a heavy premium placed on the new; there’s nothing sadder to watch than a desperate grasp at relevance or, on the opposite side of the same coin, an artist frozen in time, refusing to acknowledge that the world has changed and their heyday is over.

Neil Young once wrote, “Rock and roll is here to stay/it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Kurt Cobain quoted that line in his suicide note in 1994. Over 20 years later, Young is playing Desert Trip and singing “Old Man” dressed up as his younger self for laughs on Fallon.

That’s not a knock on Young at all. His music remains as essential as ever, and he’s arguably kept up with the times more than his peers with the launch of Pono, his high-resolution digital music service. (And it’s worth noting that Young was deeply affected by Cobain’s death, writing in his autobiography that “when he died and left that note, it struck a deep chord inside of me. It fucked with me…I, coincidentally, had been trying to reach him. I wanted to talk to him. Tell him only to play when he felt like it.”) But the question of whether it’s better to burn out than fade away remains an eternal one.

The case can be made for both sides. Is a short, successful career better than a long one with a steep drop-off or patches of questionable quality? There’s something to be said for knowing when to pack it in, exiting at the top of your game, always leaving them wanting more. Athletes do it all the time—they bow out before their legs start to give out so we don’t have to watch that sad, inevitable dip in performance. Musicians do the same thing when they can no longer hit the high notes they used to, or when the creative juices simply stop flowing and the passion’s no longer there. They spare us all the embarrassment.

But walking away is hard if you love what you do, and those who manage to keep the fire burning for long stretches of time are to be commended—whether or not every experimentation was a success and regardless of how many younger bands speak more directly to the times. Do the late-career failures even really tarnish the greatness of past accomplishments? Nobody dwelled on how much Lulu sucked when Lou Reed died.

We smirk at the absurdity of Paul McCartney singing “will you still feed me when I’m 64?” now that he’s 74 with enough money to guarantee that no descendant of his will ever have to worry about being fed. (Not that this has happened—McCartney’s kept this one off his setlist on recent tours.) We chuckle to ourselves when a 72-year-old Roger Daltrey sneers “I hope I die before I get old.” But we still pay to see it. That’s because legends don’t ever fade away. Their music gets passed on, discovered by new generations who weren’t around to see them in their prime.

No, fading away is for the bands who haven’t yet achieved that goal of immortality, the ones who have to watch as their crowds dwindle and their name starts to show up lower and lower on bills until it’s not there at all. It’s those dying breaths that are so distasteful to us.

And sometimes they should be. Some tours are obvious cash-grabs to fund a lifestyle that’s no longer feasible. Some things go out of style for a reason, and bands whose misogyny or racism was tolerated decades ago get left behind as society evolves.

Perhaps there are too many variables to come up with anything close to a definitive answer. But if it’s done for the right reasons, isn’t doing what you love—whether it’s performing music, or going to see it, or even dressing a certain way—for as long as you possibly can the ultimate goal? Does it matter if you’re singing the same songs you were 50 years ago if you’re being true to yourself and they still make you happy? When you realize that “your old road is rapidly agin’”, is it better to “get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand” or is it enough to “have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift”?

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I am, admittedly, way too young to be thinking about burning out; minor aches and pains are annoying, but I’m a long ways away from giving any sort of serious consideration to letting them stop me from going to shows or writing about music. But it’s wild how early sobering thoughts like “I am older than Kurt Cobain was when he died”—or Amy Winehouse, or Brian Jones, or Jimi Hendrix, or Janis Joplin, or so many other musicians who burned out far quicker than we could have ever wanted thanks to mental illness, substance abuse, a tragic accident or some combination of the three—start creeping in.

So if you’re lucky enough to make it to old age, maybe it’s not so much about burning out or fading away as it is about just continuing to trudge ahead in pursuit of your passions and hope for the best. I don’t have an answer for you yet; the best I can do right now is go out of my way to chat with you every morning at Bonnaroo about what bands you’re excited to see.

Turns out Mad Dog hates the Dead. He was there to see Tame Impala.

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