Happy Birthday

Is Mick Jagger Too Old to Rock?

Now that he’s a septuagenarian, maybe it’s time the Stones’ lead singer started acting his age. By Andrew Romano.

Dave J Hogan/Getty

Today, July 26, 2013, is the 70th anniversary of the birth of Sir Michael Philip Jagger. You may know him as Mick.

I have composed a short message to mark this momentous occasion:

Dear Mick, Happy 70th Birthday! Welcome to your eighth decade on earth. Now please retire. Sincerely, Andrew

Before the Rolling Stones fan club strings me up for treason, let me be clear. I am a Stones fan, too. I love Keith. I adore Charlie. I think Mick is the finest frontman in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. And by “retire,” I don’t mean retire to London, or Poce-sur-Cisse, or Mustique—or wherever else Jagger’s private jet soars away to when he shimmies offstage—and stop making music altogether. What I mean is that Jagger should retire the Mick Jagger costume he has worn for the last 35 years or so—the hollow showbiz persona he has cultivated and merchandised since the late 1970s—and find a more sustainable version of himself to inhabit.

Because pretty soon he’s going to be too old for this shit.

The rock stars of the 1960s never gave a moment’s thought to the art of aging gracefully. They never thought they would have to. In 1963 an interviewer asked John Lennon and Paul McCartney how long the Beatles could possibly hope to last. Their estimates fell somewhat short.

“You can be big-headed and say, yeah, we’re gonna last 10 years,” Lennon said. “But as soon as you’ve said that you think, we’re lucky if we last three months.”

“Obviously we can’t keep playing the same sort of music until we’re about 40,” McCartney added. “When we’re old men playing ‘From Me to You’—nobody’s going to want to know about that sort of thing.”

Or as Pete Townshend of The Who famously put it two years later: “I hope I die before I get old.”

Many of Jagger’s peers and predecessors did just that. As a teenager in Dartford, Kent, young Mick watched his idols topple. Buddy Holly died in a plane crash. Elvis Presley joined the army. Chuck Berry went to prison. Jerry Lee Lewis married a 13-year-old. Later the Stones’ guitarist, Brian Jones, drowned in his own swimming pool. Stones pal Gram Parsons overdosed in the desert. Stones pianist Ian Stewart died in 1985; Stones producer Jimmy Miller died a decade later. Lennon himself, a friend and rival of Jagger’s since the early 1960s, was shot and killed shortly after his 40th birthday. Perhaps that’s why Jagger & Co. never bothered to plan for their twilight years—so few rockers seemed to survive middle age.

But Jagger is different. With the latest Rolling Stones tour—a 30-date transatlantic trek that concluded on July 13 in London’s Hyde Park—Mick marked his 50th anniversary as a full-fledged member of the same basic ensemble. No other rock band has remained intact for that long. The only musical group of any sort to rival the Stones’ half-century run, in fact, was Duke Ellington’s, which the jazz pianist led from 1924 to 1974. But there was no lasting core membership during those decades. The Stones have now boldly gone where no band has gone before.

And thus they—and more specifically Jagger, who calls the shots when it comes to these things—will be forced to answer a question that, until now, no one really had to reckon with: When is a rock star just too old to rock?

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It’s pretty clear at this point that Paul McCartney was wrong—by a few decades—when he put the outer limit of rock longevity at age 40. Macca himself is currently in the midst of a four-continent, 30-date stadium tour, and he’s still singing well, playing well, and performing lots of early Beatles songs. He turned 71 in June.

Jagger himself is even more of a marvel. At 70, he is 5’10”, 140 pounds. He still has a 28-inch waist. Before each tour he runs eight miles a day with Torje Eike, a Norwegian trainer whose previous clients include Olympic athletes. During a typical stadium show, he struts and sprints 12 miles back and forth across the stage.

“I’m not just singing,” Jagger recently told Rolling Stone. “I want to do a performance, as well, so that’s waving my arms around and running around, and I’m dancing. That takes 50 percent of your breath power, so my challenge is how to balance that with my vocals. You don’t want to be out of breath when you do the ballads… I have things that I can do at home for keeping my voice together. I do karaoke singing, and I write songs a lot, and I do demos and sing them. I’m very lucky, in a lot of ways, because—I’m not trying to sound bigheaded—I do all the Rolling Stones songs in all the same keys as they always were in, so my higher end is still there, maybe better than it was, because I don’t smoke anymore and I don’t drink as much.”

All of which is incredibly impressive. No one ever thought the Stones could be this good and this old at the same time. I applaud them. But there will come a time in the not-too-distant-future—75? 80?—when Mick Jagger simply won’t be able to point and wag and rooster-dance his way through “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” anymore. Seriously: who among us can imagine an emaciated 85-year-old English knight shouting “Brown sugar, how come you taste so good” as he prances around an arena? Who among us would even want to?

That’s why Jagger ought to retire the whole strutting, prancing, glittery-jacket-and-stretchy-pants-wearing “Mick Jagger” act before it’s too late. More than any of his surviving peers (McCartney, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and so on) he is locked into shtick with a very clear expiration date—a shtick that is premised on preserving his own youthful vitality and therefore embodying the youthful vitality of rock ‘n’ roll itself. To continue playing “Mick Jagger,” he will have to continue to simulate, against ever-increasing physical odds, his eternally 30-year-old former self. Time won’t be on his side.

So what should Jagger do instead? He’s too talented to retire from music for real. If I were Mick’s career counselor, I would advise him to look back—past “Start Me Up,” past Will.i.am, past Jerry Hall, past those dreadful solo albums—to what made him such a magnetic presence in the first place.

There’s a video on YouTube that I keep revisiting. It’s from October 29, 1964: the Stones’ set from The T.A.M.I. Show, a multi-act concert movie that was shot over two nights at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It’s not the best Stones show ever. It’s not even the best Stones show on film. But it’s the perfect demonstration of how transfixing Mick once was, night after night.

In the clip, Jagger is not the Jagger we know today. His dance moves are different—more spontaneous, more joyful (and more James Brown–esque). His singing is less adorned, and it is more powerful as a result. His bassy, back-of-the-throat syllables are straighter and sexier; his yowls are more pointed and pained. He remains inert for long periods, staring intensely into space. He does not feel the need to embroider every note with a facial expression or a flick of the wrist. He looks gorgeous: a striped shirt buttoned to his Adam’s apple, a simple sport coat, a pair of slim, dark pants. He is doing what came naturally to him, before all the calculations took over. He should do it again.

Jagger should also return to songwriting—preferably with Keith Richards. I agree with David Remnick that “the Stones have not written a song of consequence in thirty years”; their most recent singles, 2012’s “One More Shot” and “Doom and Gloom,” sounded a lot like everything else they have released since the early 1980s—that is, like cartoon imitations of actual Stones songs. But I suspect that Jagger still has more to say. People often forget that Mick is one of the sharpest lyricists in rock history—one of the few, along with Bob Dylan, who is curious about the world at large, past and present, and who is able to channel that curiosity into a layered, singable lyric. And Jagger is even better than Dylan at evoking the darker emotions: fear, confusion, paranoia, lust.

Listen to “Sympathy for the Devil” again: a first-person character study, told from Lucifer’s point of view, that never gets tangled up in the cleverness of its own conceit, despite name-checking Jesus, the Russian Revolution, and the Kennedy assassinations. It always feels like what it’s about. Who else could pull that off?

The Dylan comparison is apt. After a period of drift—the white makeup of the Rolling Thunder Revue, the Christian conversion, the long earrings and leather vests of the 1980s—Dylan returned to his roots, recorded a couple of albums full of the old, weird folk music that had originally inspired him, and sparked an unprecedented autumnal renaissance that’s still in full swing. On Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times, and Tempest, he rewound past the youth music of the 1960s, reclaimed the timeless country blues, Appalachian folk, and Victrola pop that had preceded it, and became timeless himself in the process. Dylan is 72. His voice is a tattered croak. He can barely play guitar on stage. But he could keep writing and singing the sorts of songs he’s writing and singing now until he’s 100 years old—and never seem ridiculous for a second.

Could Jagger and the Stones pull off a similar feat of reinvention and self-preservation? I hope so. Perhaps they could start with a few covers. The sort of the stuff they first played together in the dank basement rooms of London back in 1962 and 1963. Muddy Waters. Howlin’ Wolf. Little Walter. Ray Charles. See where that takes them.

As Mr. Waters himself sang in the song that gave the Stones their name,

Well, I feel, yes I feelFeel that I could lay down Oh, time ain’t long I’m gonna catch the first thing smokin’.

Time ain’t long, Mick, so you might as well look for some of that smoke. It’s usually where you find the fire.