“Hope I die before I get old” has been a rallying cry for generations of lithe, nihilistic young rockers. Some – your Elvises, Hendrixes, Joplins and Whitehouses – have done just that, living fast, dying young, and leaving not a beautiful corpse but a body buckled and raddled by the pressures and temptations of extreme fame.
The man who sang the words in the first place did not get his wish, however. These days, The Who’s Roger Daltrey is a Brexit-supporting 76-year-old who lives in a 17th century manor house in Tory East Sussex and who could be seen last month chortling away on Celebrity Gogglebox. Then there’s Neil Young – “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” – who champions small farmers and is married to Darryl Hannah. Longevity has its consolations.
The hell-raisers of yore who made it through the excess-all-areas years and emerged on the other side, just about intact, are now knocking on a bit. The Rolling Stones, who danced with the reaper more than most, continue to tour relentlessly, despite the fact that Mick Jagger is 77 and keeps an oxygen mask backstage. Keith Richards is a coupon-busting 76. At 78, Paul McCartney is as cool and adored as he was in his Beatles’ heyday. Bob Dylan, 79, has just released his latest album to rave reviews. Paul Simon is also 79. The girls from Abba are in their 70s. Rod Stewart, at 75, is a regular on The One Show.
We watch, queasily captivated, as these begetters of popular culture, these quondam targets of the teen scream, these architects of the 20th century and its language and look, cope with age’s many humiliations – its creaks and aches and illnesses, its saggings and wrinkles, its physical and vocal limitations – the latter admittedly not such a problem for Dylan. Having reinvented youth, they must now do the same for the opposite end of life’s journey.
But they have, so far, been reticent on that front. A few years ago I heard the author Martin Amis, who had then just turned 65, lament the absence of a literature that interrogates the matter of ageing. His heroes, such as Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow, had charted the course from youth to late middle-age, he said, but on the psychological and moral trials of senescence – “time to stop saying hi and start saying bye”, as Amis puts it – had largely remained silent.
There are countless self-help books for, say, maintaining physical and mental health or wise financial husbandry. But Amis was digging for the deeper thought, truffling for the philosophical soul food that only art – and, for some, religion – provides. Where were the dramatists of dotage, the virtuosos of veteranhood, the lyricists of last things? Where, when rapidly ageing populations are reshaping society in myriad ways, is the magic lantern that lights the way?
In his new book Amis seeks to provide it. Inside Story is what he calls “life-writing”, a shape-shifting mix of fiction and non-fiction that examines the last years of people he has known and loved – Bellow, the poet Philip Larkin, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, his friend Christopher Hitchens and father Kingsley – as well as, at 71, his own alarming confrontation with mortality. In the process this waspish, wise-cracking author softens with gratitude, for family, for friendship and for all life has given him.
Amis reckons this will be his last large novel, that he has just a few short stories and a novella left in him. “Maybe towards the end I’ll just shut up and read,” he writes. “In which case, oh I’ll miss it, I’ll grieve for everything about it, even its pains, trifling and fleeting compared to its pleasures.”
Right on time comes the soundtrack. Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Letter to You, is an elegiac consideration of ageing and loss. In the opening song he sings of a “Big black train comin’ down the track/Blow your whistle long and long/One minute you’re here/Next minute you’re gone.” In the title track he reflects on “Things I found out through hard times and good/I wrote ‘em all out in ink and blood/Dug deep in my soul and signed my name true/And sent it in my letter to you.”
Staring down the barrel of infinity, what really matters? How do we say goodbye to others, even as we face our own return to stardust? How do we live well, at the end? It’s a necessary and welcome thing that great artists are, finally, producing great art about these ultimate questions.
Chris Deerin is a leading journalist and commentator who heads independent, non-party think tank Reform Scotland