“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,
“My my, hey hey.”
That line, from Neil Young’s “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” might be my least favorite in the history of music.
At least, that’s how I see it at 61. Like a lot of old guitar players, I had different views in my younger days.
Fortunately, I grew up before I burned out.
It’s quite a rock and roll notion when you’re 27, immune from the realities of life, with many people believing “die young and leave a beautiful corpse” is some kind of romantic legacy to be remembered by.
I don’t think it’s anything to admire, and that’s why Charlie Watts is my new musical hero.
Watts, the drummer for the Rolling Stones, died earlier this week. He was 80. He had been having some health issues which meant he was going to miss this fall’s tour, the first he would have missed since joining the band in 1963.
But he made it to 80. Not a lot of rock and rollers from the classic era of the 1960s and 1970s have.
John Bonham, drummer for Led Zeppelin, died at 32. He choked on his vomit after consuming more than 40 shots of alcohol. Keith Moon of The Who also died at 32. Too much alcohol and too many drugs. Both left behind young children who would have probably preferred to live their life with a father in the picture instead of a famous deceased one.
Better to burn out than to fade away …
Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan of the Grateful Dead, Amy Winehouse and Brian Jones — Watts’ old bandmate in the Stones — all died at 27. Drink and/or drugs, every time. (Jones drowned, but the coroner noted his liver and heart were enlarged by drug and alcohol abuse.) Some left behind children. All left behind devastated family and friends. And, they left behind millions of fans who usually completely missed the point.
I’ve known countless people who idolized each of the above, along with other singers who died from drink and drugs in later years, from Elvis (dead at 42) to Whitney Houston (48). “What a terrible, tragic loss of talent,” they’d say following another drug-related death.
Loss of talent? I’d say it was more like the waste of a life. When Houston died, I didn’t feel bad about not being able to hear her sing again; I felt bad because her 18-year-old daughter was going to face life without her mother. Three years later, that girl was dead too.
And when I hear things like “If only they hadn’t died that day … ” my response is always the same: “Given their lifestyle, they probably would have died the next day, or the next week or the next month.”
Anyway, all of this helps explain why Watts is my new hero.
It’s not like he didn’t have his battles with drink and drugs. He did, notably in the mid-1980s. It was Keith Richards, of all people, who helped set him straight. By all accounts, Watts was clean and sober the final 35 years of his life, which is probably the only reason he had another 35 years of life.
He married Shirley Ann Shepherd in 1964 and was still married to her the day he died. The couple had one daughter and one granddaughter, both of whom will be eternally grateful he didn’t, shall we say, “burn out.” Instead, he lived on to become one of the most dignified figures in the history of rock music, always casting a stoic, respectable figure from behind his tiny drum kit. He was, in effect, the Kindly Grandfather of Rock and Roll.
I’ve seen the Stones in concert five times. The first couple of times, I don’t remember even noticing Watts was there; but make no mistake — while everyone’s eyes were glued on Mick Jagger and Richards, it was Watts’ magnificent drumming that drove the machine.
One tour, when oversize video screens became the rage, I saw the band in San Francisco. At one point between songs they put up a live shot of Watts, sitting behind the drums. It led to perhaps the loudest ovation of the night. He seemed perplexed, uncomfortable and practically embarrassed; “What are these people cheering about?” He finally managed a shy grin while the front line of the band beamed. They knew.
From my insignificant little corner of the world, each of the deceased musicians I’ve mentioned in this column other than Watts had one thing in common: I outlived them all. That is stunning to me. These were people who seemed older and wiser and more other-worldly than me for decades, all based on the strength of their music. But because of stress and bad decisions and the awful, often-unbreakable thing that is addiction, they weren’t able to accomplish perhaps the most important task of their personal lives: staying alive. And enjoying it. And being there for your family and friends for decades to come.
Watts did it. Bob Dylan is 80 and still doing it. So are Willie Nelson (88), Paul McCartney (79), Jagger (78), Roger Daltrey (77), Pete Townshend (76), Eric Clapton (76), Robert Plant (73) and, by some stunning fluke of genetics, Richards (77).
They didn’t burn out, although a few came close in their earlier years. They wised up. They beat the odds by cleaning up their acts. And in most cases, be it personal drive or sheer musical brilliance or a combination thereof, they didn’t fade away either, remaining vital and popular artists for decades to come. And, most importantly, they didn’t leave it to their loved ones to bury a young, beautiful corpse. Instead, they survived, and set a better example for others to follow.
To me, that’s something really worth singing about.
My, my. Hey hey.
Mike Wolcott is editor of the Enterprise-Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.