John Robb

John Robb

… on the Rolling Stones guide to ageing

Mick Jagger’s 80th birthday has been all over the news recently. Writer and musician John Robb examines how Sixties swingers and punk rockers are facing life in the old zone and asks: “Are you a Mick or a Keef?”

“What a drag it is getting old…” once sneered a younger, sprightlier Mick Jagger at the prescription pill-popping mothers, on the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper from early 1966. Of course, a bold and cynical statement like that was perfect for the youth-obsessed Sixties, which was about being forever young – a wonderland where no one got old.

There was a youthquake going on and old people were squares. Freeze-framed in that moment of eternal youth, the then 22-year-old singer was a Peter Pan with swinging hips, but maybe with a tragic misunderstanding of the complexity of life, where even sprightly pop icons will one day have to decay as well – if they are lucky. 

At that time, Mr Jagger was the bête noir of the older crowd. He would bait the “oldies” with his overt sexuality and carefree ways, despite being a well brought-up former finance and accounting student who was playing the part of a pouting, sneering teenage hoodlum to perfection.

Behind him, his band zig-zagged through their songs with the requisite sneers and bad-boy image cranked to the hilt. It was youth overload and the generation gap was born. 

It must have felt like it was all going to last forever, and shocking the strait-laced older crowd was a perfect blood sport in the decade that defied time. 

Yet that very same “time”, as author George Mann once wisely observed, is a cruel mistress, and we all creak towards our dotage, often kicking and screaming – or singing those same songs forever. Even the Stones 

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones performing live on stage.Credit: Shutterstock /Ben Houdijk

The band members, who were once the byword for youthful petulance, have dealt with the inevitable in different ways.

Long-lost guitarist and band resident genius, Brian Jones, baled out in 1969 to join the 27 Club. Charlie Watts – their metronomic, poker-faced, elegant drummer – shuffled off this mortal coil in 2021. Meanwhile, the seemingly eternal bassist Bill Wyman has lived into the second half of his eighties.

But what of the inner core, the Glimmer Twins? The singer and the guitar player whose imperfect marriage has been the crux of the Stones soap opera since the beginning of time?

Mick ‘n’ Keef both seem to be mapping out the two opposing routes for the boomer generation to deal with the inevitable.

There was a time, of course – which some of us older music heads remember – when the Stones themselves were knocked for touring into their late twenties. How audacious and how old. Now, with Mick 80 and Keith about to turn it, their attitude to ageing couldn’t not be more different.

The two rock gods are dealing with very contrasting visions of dotage that perhaps reflect many Saga readers’ attitudes to long life.

First, there is Mick Jagger, who skips around the stage delivering those dusty old hits like an eternal teenager. What was once an invigorating athletic performance has become quite freakish in its Olympian level of fitness.

There are those who say that Jagger is perhaps the fittest sex symbol in the world for his age, with the 80-year-old’s attitude to life defying the crumbles of time.

He has an intense training schedule that combines ballet, running, yoga and more to maintain his chiselled, skinny frame. Only his deeply lined yet youthful phizog, framed by his freakishly luxuriant mop of hair, points to a life well-lived.

A cartoon caricature of Mick JaggerCredit: Shutterstock / Doddis77

Of course, it’s Mick Jagger’s job to be Mick Jagger, and any sign of slowing down or decay would only taint things for Brand Stones. For many of the Saga generation approaching the same kind of age zone as Sir Mick, there is a similar sort of energy.

Gyms are now full of octogenarians and 90-year-olds, like my own mother, who also trots out on her brisk eight-mile walk like it’s normal.

The over-60s we recall from our own long-ago youth seemed to be content to trudge towards an early grave, but the Swinging Sixties generation is still swinging and still seeking the endless rave.

The boomers are unrelenting in their pursuit of the forever and are raging – or at least jogging – against the dying of the light. “Eighty is the new 40” is their new maxim, as they puff away on the crosstrainers.

A cartoon of an ageing rocker playing a guitarCredit: Shutterstock / doddis77

Keith, on the other hand…

Not that all the boomers and the punk generation, now in the oldie zone, are happy to work hard at this longevity thing. Keith has become the archetype for the opposite approach to ageing.

The pickled uberlord preserved into the forever spent years as the world’s most famous junkie, with a prematurely lined face and a gunslinger demeanour that has made him seem indestructible. “After the nuclear war, there will only be cockroaches and Keith Richards left,” the old joke used to go.

Somehow, against all the odds, Keith looks younger and healthier at near 80 than he did at 40. He still oozes a devilish cool and stares down death itself.

With that generation of rock pioneers now heading for the twilight, there seems to be no stopping the pair of them. They have somehow become eternals – age-defying, rule-breaking outlaws whose revolt against the twilight years has become their most fascinating rebellion of all.

In a way, both are inspirational and are dealing with the creaking ship of ageing with totally opposite and yet totally successful methods. Which of their two paths are you following?

John Robb

Written by John Robb

Updated:

John is a journalist, TV and radio presenter, author, mentor, musician (The Membranes), best-selling pop culture author (Stone Roses, Punk rock -an oral history, Manchester – the North Will Rise Again and  book ’The Art Of Darkness – the history of Goth) and public speaker. He’s also the head of Louder Than Words – the UK’s biggest music and books festival.