Most Baby Boomers can’t wait to retire and see the world — turns out many of their classic rock heroes just want a bit of time at home. By Greg Fleming

For an increasing number of once-chart-topping musical artists it's not wrestling with melodies and lyrics that's occupying their thoughts, but how to leave the stage with grace.

In the last year, a raft of household names — Elton John, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond (not to mention Aretha Franklin, Ozzy Osbourne, Slayer, jazz great Sonny Rollins and folkie Joan Baez) — have announced their intention to call it quits; yes, they may still record and do the odd performance but all insist that sustained touring is off the agenda.

Folk legend Joan Baez has also announced her retirement from the stage. Pic Getty.
Folk legend Joan Baez has also announced her retirement from the stage. Pic Getty.

While most announcements were rich in platitudes, Baez's was more forthright: "You could either shoot yourself or you could get peaceful. I'm choosing the latter."

Sometimes it's because of health concerns — Diamond cancelled a tour here this year after a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease — while Rollins, at 87, just can't blow his horn any more.


Most just seem tired of the spotlight, the touring grind and the time it takes away from family.

While John and Diamond have become brands churning out their old hits — artists such as Paul Simon are retiring at a creative high point.

His 2016 album Stranger to Stranger was well received with fans and critics — even the millennial tastemaker Pitchfork called it "... a corrective to a career of smoothing things over: Stranger to Stranger is unpasteurised, mongrel music".

Family time

"This is the end," said Elton John at a press conference announcing his decision in February.

"My priorities in my life are now my children, my husband and my family. I want to be home."

But not for a while it seems; John then went on to announce a 300-date Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, which kicks off in September and will end in 2021.

Paul Simon, 76, whose 40-date farewell bash launched this month, also cited family reasons for his impending retirement.

"I feel the travel and time away from my wife and family takes a toll that detracts from the joy of playing ... it feels a little unsettling, a touch exhilarating, and something of a relief."

Other Boomers are scaling things back.

Springsteen's current Broadway stint (he plays a solo nightly show in a 960-seat theatre) is, by all accounts, a wonderful, if muted, night's entertainment, with his and the audience's mortality never far away, and not even the E-Street band know if Springsteen — still a vital live performer — is planning another band tour (the last full band show was here at Mt Smart in early 2017).

The trend comes at a time of generational change in the music industry.

Rock music — a genre that once ruled the charts — has little resonance for younger generations. Guitar-based rock is little heard save for classic rock stations and the groups that are popular — The Foo Fighters, The Killers — are doing little to move the music forward.

The truth is, when a classic rock artist plays a song from their latest record many fans take a bathroom break

Sure, certain Boomer acts fill stadiums but often the events, such as 2016's Oldchella, are little more than generational gatherings, a reliving of a once-rebellious youth, and an act of homage to artists on their last go-round.

Once huge rock bands now release albums to little critical fanfare or attention — come on, hum a tune from the last U2 record. Did you know Bob Seger released a new record last year?

If their records aren't always awful (see below for some great late-career albums) many lack the hunger and ambition that drove their best material.

The truth is, when a classic rock artist plays a song from their latest record many fans take a bathroom break.

The road goes on forever

Meanwhile, some artists of a certain age are touring more than ever.

Steve Earle (63) is a frequent visitor to New Zealand and typical of a lower-level star, still releasing quality records while adapting to the new musical environment.

While Simon, John and others can retire and live comfortably on their royalties, others don't have a choice but to pack the tour bus and hit the road.

With physical sales tanking and streaming payouts minimal, touring is where artists such as Earle make bank (he also acts, is writing a memoir and broadway show and hosts an annual songwriting camp).

Despite admitting that he makes "an embarrassing amount of money for a borderline Marxist", he's currently on a 33-date tour marking the 30th Anniversary of his 1988 album Copperhead Road. Like many of his ilk, his night doesn't end when he takes off his guitar. Earle's out at the merchandise table after most shows, happy to meet fans, sell T-shirts, autograph records and pose for photos.

Paul Simon says his impending retirement is
Paul Simon says his impending retirement is "something of a relief". Pic Getty

Others, such as surf guitar legend Dick Dale — who until recently was performing while wearing a colostomy bag — have to tour into their 80s to pay health bills.

And then there's Bob Dylan (76) — the guy who started it all — who remains as elusive and unpredictable as ever.

Dylan began what has come to be called "the never-ending tour" in 1988, and shows no signs of slowing down (he's playing Auckland again in August).

Despite being worth conservatively US$100 million (and suffering from arthritis, which means he can no longer play the guitar) — Dylan plays more than 100 shows a year.

Many in the audience can't recognise their favourite songs because of Dylan's penchant for radical rearrangements and his ruined voice, yet retirement doesn't seem likely anytime soon.

"Anybody with a trade can work as long as they want," he told Rolling Stone in 2009.

"A welder, a carpenter, an electrician. They don't necessarily need to retire."

Or consider New Orleans piano legend Dr John (whose Locked Down album (2012), completed when he was 71, can stand proudly alongside his classic 70s output).

His thoughts on retirement?

"I think it's only proper that I play until the last note of a set, then fall over and die. The band won't have to play an encore and they'll still get paid for a gig".

Age defying albums

Washington Square Serenade
Steve Earle (2007)

Earle's had such a great run of late-career records it's easy to take him for granted. This, released when Earle was 52, is one of the best and a departure for the hard-living country legend, incorporating hip hop beats and celebrating his then-new hometown, New York City. Produced by Dust Brother John King.
Key track: Down Here Below

Stranger to Stranger
Paul Simon (2016)

A wry, forward-thinking record that shows Simon's songwriting smarts are as sharp as ever. Influenced by avant-garde instrumentalist Harry Partch.
Key track: Wristband

Together Through Life
Bob Dylan (2009)

Dylan's last 20 years have given us some true gems (songs such as Ain't Talkin, Scarlet Town, Nettie Moore). Together Through Life is the most fun, and consistent album he's done in years — of course it sunk without a trace. Criminally underrated.
Key track: Forgetful Heart.

Blue and Lonesome
The Rolling Stones (2016)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that the Stones had this in them. Not an original song here, but this is a raw and heartfelt tribute to their blues heroes. And Jagger, at last, sings like he means it.

Key track: Blue and Lonesome

Greg Fleming is an Auckland based writer and musician.