When are you too old to “rock”? THIS IS NOT A TEST #45 (transcript)

Published October 31, 2015

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Yep. You’re in store for yet another THIS IS NOT A TEST. If that doesn’t frighten or annoy you, you’re in the right place. I am Michael Phillips, same as I was last week, and you are still you, I’m glad to see that. Don’t ever change. I don’t understand Halloween. I don’t mean that I don’t understand why adults do it – though I don’t – but I don’t understand it as a thing that we do. I don’t think anyone does. It’s one of those things like the New Year’s day Rose Parade and electing presidents that we may have had good reason to do 100 or 200 years ago, but that are just empty exercises now. Halloween has to go back to some fear of demons or pagans that the puritans had. I don’t know and I’ve resisted the temptation to look up the history of Halloween. I don’t want to know it, and the history of it isn’t the point.

I’m not sure why we do things that we don’t really understand the reasons for, or why adults walk around the grocery store and post office for a week before Halloween in costumes. I don’t understand why an adult walks around on Halloween in a costume. They don’t either, except that it’s “just what we do,” and they like it, it’s fun, it’s cute. Okay. Well if you like it, do it every day. How bizarre is it that we have a day set aside for everyone to wear a costume. If you look at it as if you’d never heard of the concept of Halloween, you’d think we were all crazy. “Bro, why is there a six foot rat in the beer aisle?” Before you call me a party-pooper or a killjoy or a fucking communist asshole, understand that I don’t care if you want to wear a Raggedy Ann costume to work. Dude. Wear it every day. It wouldn’t bother me. We’re all in costumes anyway.

I guess it’s the crowd again, getting up my nose. The going along with the crowd. Just because. Just because that’s what we’ve always done, or just because that’s what everyone does. Just because. For no reason. I’m all for mindlessness. Anyone who drinks is a proponent of mindlessness. But followers are dangerous. Followers send people to electric chairs and ovens and churches. If we really stopped to think about everything we’re doing for one whole day, I think society would fall apart. Because only about 5% of us would go to work, first of all, but really because so much of what we do is just tradition, history, habit. What’s expected. What we have to do to get along. You can’t wear the Raggedy Ann dress to work in June because people would think you’d lost your mind. Wear a Michael Myers mask and they’ll call the police, or just shoot you themselves. But do either one of those in the last week of October and it’s adorable, or hilarious. Think about that.

You know what else I don’t understand? Old, grizzled, gray haired ROCKERS. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen ’em. Even if they cover up the gray, they can’t mask the sound of the joints creaking and the moans from the aching muscles and the rattling of the prostate prescription bottles. There’s something unseemly about an old rocker. They just seem out of place, like a 50 year old man who never had any kids handing out cake at a children’s birthday party. Bless Keith Richards’ heart, but why is my grandfather talking about rock and roll in that unintelligible voice? I mean, by all means, talk about it, you were there, man, you lived it as big as it can be lived. Just don’t play it. Get off the fucking stage, you old queens. Make way for some kids. It’s their turn. You’re holding them back, taking up their spaces.

Oh, do I really believe that? Yes and no. It’s not really a simple cut and dried thing. First of all, you have to separate successful from unsuccessful musicians to really talk about this. But then to do that you have to define success, and that’s not cut and dried either. When you think of rock and roll you probably thing about success being something on a large scale, involving a lot of money and fame and paternity suits. In and out of drug rehab, breaking up the band, getting the band back together, making records no one listens to because only your first three were any good. That kind of thing. That is one kind of success. That was really the only kind of success for a long time as far as rock and roll is concerned. There was a pretty clear diving line, you know, Led Zeppelin and their fiends, and everyone else. It was a time of excess and indulgence and gods walked the earth. Sure.

Then along came punk rock and turned the idea of success kind of inside out. As someone who was in punk rock bands a million years ago, I can tell you that none of us harbored any dreams or notions of success on the 70s rock star scale. We knew damn well that that was not in the cards for any of us, and until the 90s it wasn’t. So we created a different kind of success. A just-getting-by success, that served most of us well. We created our own music venues and new tour routes that didn’t look like the tour routes the famous bands traveled. We discovered that you didn’t actually need a record company to put out a record for you, you could do it yourself. And you could book your own tour, make your own t-shirts and basically be the captain of your very own god damned pirate ship, and no one was going to stop you.

In fact, they would even encourage you and throw a little bit of money your way. Not enough to make your life easy or luxurious, but enough to make you think you weren’t wasting your time. Someone else out there liked you. Someone else out there thought you were a star. Maybe there were only 40 or 50 of them in every city, but hey, there were a lot of cities out there, man. You know, before the Internet made cities obsolete. Now with that kind of success-of-lowered-expectations, a lot of things change. A lot of people will continue on past the point where maybe they aren’t really relevant and maybe they should, you know, give up. Past the point where maybe they are embarrassing themselves.

And there’s no doubt about it, this is something that only applies to rock and roll. No one is ever going to say, “Jesus Christ, look how old that Jazz Quartet is!” or “How can someone that old play the blues?!” No, in most forms of music, age is your ally. Age is your friend, because age brings experience. And experience makes most kinds of music better, unquestionably. But rock and roll – rock and roll is juvenile. Rock and roll isn’t about how much experience you have, it’s about how reckless and thoughtless you are. About how much you rock, dude, and to rock you can’t necessarily be someone with too much of a conscience, or kids at home or inconvenient stuff like that. Because rock and roll is supposed to be ugly and smell bad and break the law and be all about what’s between your legs and not at all about what’s between your ears. And before you say “Pink Floyd” or “Yes” or any other prog rock band name, I say fuck you, that is not rock and roll. You can call it rock and roll, but that just makes you look foolish, like a crazy old lady walking a cat on a leash.

Now if what you seek is rock stardom, like Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones kind rock stardom, you have a very short shelf life, a very narrow window of time when you can “make it.” Let’s be blunt, you have to be in your 20s. Preferably your early 20s, but you can squeak by if one or two of the people in your group are 31, 32. But that’s it! If you are 35 years old and still struggling to get gigs on Sunset boulevard or “get signed,” you are too old. Retire. Whatever it is you do now part time, go do it full time. It’s your profession now. You don’t have to sell your guitar, but it would be best if you learned how to play something else. A weekend garage kind of music. Try the blues, that’s all rock and roll was anyway. Same chords, just turn down that fucking amp and put on an interesting hat. You heard me. No one wants to see you rocking out and hitting the inhaler between songs.

So according to my rules of the universe, who should still be out there rocking when they are 70 years old? Because yes, I do think that everything I just said doesn’t apply at all to one rare and wonderful creature. One type of person who can’t be dissuaded, can’t be killed. And that is the true believer. Yes brothers and sisters, unlike the god of metal or Christianity, the true believer does walk among us. They are not hard to identify because they are rare and they don’t look like normal humans or behave like normal humans. I’m talking about people who are made up of some human molecules but mostly rock and roll molecules. People who, if rock and roll had never been invented, would all be in prison now, or dead or in space capsules trying to get to Venus. Now why do the true believers get a pass? What makes it okay for a true believer to get up on stage and ROCK OUT in their 60s when it’s just obscene and crass for the big rock bands to do it?

Well it’s because when a true believer performs for you, they are spreading the truth. They are operating on an elevated plane of love and passion you and I can’t visualize, because we are not like them. They are not playing rock and roll, they are rock and roll. Who am I talking about? You are probably already thinking about some of them. Joan Jett? Yes. Lemmy from Motorhead? Yes. See, you know who they are. But who I really think of when I think of true believers is a friend of mine, Sonny Vincent. Sonny is a punk rock musician that you’ve never heard of. I played with him and traveled the country with him starting in 1980, when I was 20 years old. Sonny was 28 then, which makes him 63 now. He just finished a tour. A punk rock tour. Why would anyone go see a 63 year old man front a punk band? Well obviously, they know a true believer when they see one.

He started out in 76, 77 in the middle of that New York scene that would become punk rock and he’s never wavered too far from what he did then. Like Joan Jett, Like the Ramones, people who don’t need to waver or “progress” into something else because they are already perfect. Sonny started out aggressive and loud and irritating and pretty much stayed that course for the next few decades. If you think that’s easy, think again. By the time Sonny came to Minneapolis to live and we started the band, punk rock was changing. The hard core element was crawling out of the diseased carcass they were birthed in and starting to make noise. In Minneapolis, people like Sonny stood out. Tall, skinny, in black from head to toe. The other bands wore flannel shirts. You might think that whole grunge thing was a conscious fashion statement, it wasn’t. That’s just what everyone wore every day in those climates.

Pretty soon I started dressing like Sonny, we all did. Well, if we hadn’t he would have made us. He was pretty specific about what he wanted, and that was a New York band, style-wise, but with the energy we brought from just being young and not from New York, not jaded and still believing in rock and roll. He needed people like that around him, to support him. All true believers do. But aside from the style of clothes that we wore, the music was also – “of a time,” shall we say. I mentioned hardcore coming up, and come up it did, which made some of what we were doing sound old-fashioned. Don’t get me wrong, we played fast. Ridiculously fucking fast a lot of the time. But then we’d bust out something slower, or a Roy Orbison song or something and people would just look around uncomfortably not knowing what to do. So Sonny was never really current, which is kind of a built-in shield against obsolescence. You can’t be out of fashion if you were never in fashion. You are your own fashion.

Maybe that’s what it is. You have to be so much your own thing that time doesn’t affect you, and it’s not uncomfortable to watch you doing things that only 20 year olds should be doing. Or maybe it’s just the power of belief, that purity of focus and desire. I remember Sonny called me one night, he was angry about something, something I was supposed to be doing, and he said, “You’re probably just sitting there eating a sandwich!” To him, doing something like stopping in the middle of the day to eat a sandwich was really unthinkable when there was work to be done, a mission to carry out. It was really an informative moment for me though, because that was when I realized that I would never be like him, and consequently never be able to please him or keep up with him. I worked hard, but it wouldn’t have mattered how hard I worked. It’s pointless to try to keep up with or stop a true believer, you will never successfully stand in their way. You aren’t fast enough to get in front of them. And if by chance you do, they’ll work right through you, by sheer force of will. I know because I spent those two and half years with Sonny, then a few years with another true believer, Trevy Felix, and I live with a true believer now. Though Carol believes in art the way Sonny believes in rock and roll or the way Trevy believed in the power of reggae music.

And that’s what it takes, for me. That’s the kind of person I will always go see and always be in awe of, and who will always be relevant whether they are in style or not. Relevance has nothing to do with style, and style doesn’t make you cool. Which is why I’d sooner piss on Mick Jagger’s leg than pay money to see them play, or to see them play for free in my own back yard. Because cool though they may be, and they are cool, they are not relevant. They haven’t been for many many moons. Name a song off any Rolling Stones album released after Some Girls. No fair Googling an answer. Now imagine a band that’s cool, like the Stones, and that actually swings, and can still play, but they are still embarrassing. Which they are. I don’t have an answer to why that is except they are not true believers. Not all of them anyway. One of them is, the rest are posh, wet turds sealed up in tin cans, and that doesn’t work. One true believer can lead a group into the fire, but they can’t be part of larger group full of lesser souls. That group will just die in the fire. Which is one of the reasons Sonny never had a steady band again after our band ceased to be. He couldn’t risk having anyone too close who wasn’t on his level. So he picked up who he needed when he needed them and hit the stage that way.

Because he had to. He couldn’t not. And there’s another, probably more telling difference between next year’s Aerosmith tour and Sonny’s tour through 20 bars on the East coast. Sonny had to do that. Aerosmith does it because there is money on the table with their name on it, and they have to show up to collect it. They do not care about you or the show they are going to play in your city. They won’t even know they’re in your city, they’ll be too busy talking to lawyers and checking their stocks on line. Or getting a young assistant to check their stocks on line. Aerosmith doesn’t care, the Rolling Stones don’t care, U2 doesn’t care – who else is big? It doesn’t matter, they don’t care. Nothing comes burning out of them like fire anymore except the salsa they ate yesterday.

Me, personally, I had my own ideas of success, even on a small scale, and they didn’t involve sleeping on anyone’s floor after I was 30, so that’s about when I stopped playing in a band. Actually it was less than a month before I turned 30, now that I think of it. I didn’t plan that, it just worked out that way. because that shit is fun, really fun, that pirate gig. But it’s hard to maintain any dignity when you spend the night of your 40th birthday sleeping on the stage in a bar in Pittsburgh with a dirty tablecloth as a blanket. Unless, you know, you believe.

The other day someone said to me – this was after the show last week where I talked about jobs – “So you’ve only worked as a printer and on the Internet?” and I thought, oh man! I didn’t talk at all about the other things I’ve done to keep from starving. There are some good stories there. Anyway, not that anyone cares, but I don’t want to have that incomplete thought dangling out there, as it were, so here are the jobs I’ve had in my lifetime: Internet dink, printer, bindery worker, house painter, roofer (hot tar, not shingles), construction demolition, aging and decorating movie costumes, selling candles door to door for what was probably a cult, delivery boy (by car and on foot), sound mixer guy, guitar player, front counter of an office supply and copy joint, grip and general laborer on commercial shoots and gun dealer. Okay, I made the last one up to make my life sound exciting.

You know, I was so bad at the front counter job, so surly and unpleasant that they ordered a name tag for me as a joke that said “customer service.” I thought that was really funny so I wore it every day. But most of the reason for my attitude was the clientele. The shop was in Pacific Palisades, which is a wealthy area on the coast in Los Angeles. The customers were 90% horrible cunts that shouldn’t have been allowed to roam freely among normal humans. Catering to them every day would wear anyone down. And anyone who’s worked on commercial shoots of for movie companies can tell you a thousand stories, most of them cringe-worthy and awful. Though I had a good scam going there for a while where I’d paint on movie costumes. Like leather jackets and “punk rock” clothes. I just made a bunch of stencils and spray painted that shit. Took about 15 minutes and I’d make $1200, $1500 bucks. In the movie Point Break, all the stenciled shit you see with the Indian skulls and daggers, that’s my handiwork. And the dirty t-shirts and pants and broken in shoes in half a dozen other movies. Exciting shit, I tell ya.

Almost as exciting as putting hot tar on the roofs of commercial buildings in Los Angeles in the summer. A friend of mine – some friend – but this guy, he comes around one day and says, “Brah, I can get you on the crew, it’s $12 an hour,” which at the time was good money for manual labor. What I learned when I got there was they needed anyone with a pulse and a death wish, because the really skilled guys, and anyone with any common sense, they all took the summer off. So I was up on the rooftops in July and August with a bunch of drunks and idiots, sticking a bucket into a 400 degree tar kettle and mopping that molten lava on to roofs that were already 120 degrees before we showed up. One thing I will say about that work is you could really get into a hallucinatory state doing that shit. I don’t know if it was the heat or the toxic melted asphalt, but on some days I almost thought I was mopping molten lava onto surfboards or coffee tables. That’s probably pretty dangerous, but I never got burned, and despite the generally low level of skill on the crews I worked with, I never saw anyone else get burned either.

But that’s enough about work. One of these days I’m just going to stand here and recite nonsense lines for half an hour. Stuff that’s so bad – like a really bad stand up comic. I have to do that one day. Stand here and say shit like, “Have you ever seen a bald person? Like, just walking down the street as if everything is normal. What’s up with that? And where are they going?” It seems like if you could keep up a constant barrage of really unfunny things long enough it would become funny, by some strange form of transmutation. No? Yeah, maybe not. I used to Tweet things like that, but I stopped. Things like, here let me look…this is all just podcast spam I’ve sent out here…no wonder no one follows me on Twitter…okay, things like:

– I wonder what the first guy to ever rock a mullet is doing right now…
– Anyone else #bingewatching the C.P.O. Sharkey box set?
– Just saw an ad for Pink Floyd’s The Wall “Immersion edition.” Wasn’t that kind of torture outlawed by the Geneva Convention?
– Gene Rayburn on mescaline: “My _____ feel like trombones…I think my _____ is lined with raccoon fur…”
– Another ad you’ll never see: Ted FahrvergNügent for Volkswagen.
– Guy says to me, “Hemp can be used to make everything, even toilet seats!” I said, “Same for sea lion meat!”
– Should the part of your underwear that goes around the top of your leg smell like swimming pool chlorine?
– Want a good laugh? Hand out foil wrapped chocolate coins at an AA meeting, call them “million year chips.”
– Looking for a leather biker jacket with a white satin Peter Pan collar. Let me know if you have one for sale.
– Three bands at #Echoplex tonight; Pappy Geodesic Dynamite, Pacific Doorstop Violation and That Broken Caviar Headcheese. $45 cover.
– Next time I order fries I’m gong to ask for a side of Spahn Ranch Dressing.
– I get it, they’re endangered, but if a Snow Leopard makes the first move, it’s legal for me to kill it, right? NEED TO KNOW ASAP!
– I love this time of year. When the sun sets earlier in the day I don’t look as lazy as I usually do when I leave work at 4 p.m.
– This just in: Green Day frontman rushed to hospital to have fake British singing accent removed.
– Previously suppressed text from Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” manuscript gives a whole new meaning to “steampunk.” Ahoy, bitches!
– Biceps and triceps are muscles, but forceps are a tool. Fuck you, English!
– I want to get a bumper sticker that says “I don’t care about your cancer,” but I’m afraid people would take it the wrong way.
– Peeking under a bandage: never a good idea. Especially a stranger’s bandage. Turns out people are “funny” about that kind of thing.
– Saw a guy at a freeway on-ramp today holding a bowl and a sign that said, “SOUP, PLEASE, GOD BLESS!” But get this: I’d left my soup at home!
– I’d like to teach the world to sing, then send them all out on tour so I don’t have to look at them every day.

Oh man, hilarity, eh? If you want more of that homespun wisdom you can find me on Twitter @mjpinla. That’ easy to remember. Just like it’s easy to remember to come back next week for more hilarity and talking and stuff. Adios.