Old Farts With Axes to Grind: Richards Chugs, Others Unplug

Combine Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” with young Tom Cruise playing air guitar in his underpants in Risky Business and you’ve nutshelled the sublimity of the electric guitar. Hendrix’s plugged-in national anthem is a perfect example of the instrument’s power to howl, sputter and bend notes while Mr. Cruise’s prancing epitomizes the unspoken assumption that the guitar is played solely with cocky body language. These truisms are mentioned because they’re inducing a number of elder guitarists to cast down their axes.

Take Bob Mould. At the tender age of 38, he released his fifth solo album, The Last Dog and Pony Show (Rykodisc), last spring and announced that it would be his final electric go-around. “I can’t do what the Rolling Stones do. I can’t do what Aerosmith does,” he lamented. “Each time out, I feel a little less sprightly. I just can’t keep up an aggressive performance. Not only that, I start to wonder if I should. Who wants to be a 50-year-old guy acting like he was in a punk band?”

Lou Reed, a decade farther down the road than Mr. Mould, has taken up the acoustic guitar. Maybe temporarily. Maybe forever. Day and night, he raves about a new toy called a Feedbucker, featured on his last album, Perfect Night (Reprise). This thing stops the pickups in an acoustic from producing feedback. “A terrible sound,” Lou mutters with a scowl. “Just a terrible sound.”

‘Scuse me? The guitarist who ground up and spit out “Sister Ray” is worried about a little feedback? Just as pathetic, after cult guitarist Chris Whitley recorded the decade’s two most magnificent albums of electric wailing (Din of Ecstasy and Terra Incognita both on Sony’s Work label), he now gripes about amps and fuzz boxes–and he’s still in his 30′s! The not-so-over-the-hill Robyn Hitchcock–revered for his neo-psychedelic songwriting, not his guitar work–confesses that when he turned 40 a few years back he thought, “Oh God. I have to stop playing electric guitar. I’m too old.” Now Mr. Hitchcock has been reduced to noodling only occasionally. “Rather like I smoke cigarettes,” he said. “I don’t believe in Marlboros or the electric guitar. They’re just something I occasionally do.”

But not every old guitarist has put his Stratocaster in mothballs. Three seminal rock groups known for their noisy strummers–Aerosmith (Joe Perry, 48), Black Sabbath (Tony Iommi, 50) and the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards, 55)–have recently released live albums. It’s a little late to question whether they should still be up on stage at all. But can these old farts still play? Before my evaluations, let me clarify our common experience and prejudices. In high school, jocks listened to Aerosmith while the kids who took shop dug Black Sabbath. Right? As for the Stones, they were radio fodder with hits like “Angie” or “Some Girls” or “Start Me Up.” We only recognized their holiness after we spun our older sisters’ copies of Let It Bleed and Exile on Main Street.

This ranking may sound elitist, but it’s more or less accurate. Let me emphasize that the Stones’ historic superiority doesn’t mean that Joe Perry or Tony Iommi can’t suddenly play like some old master samurai wild with wisdom. Allow that this conceit is, at the very least, possible before spinning Aerosmith’s Little South of Sanity (Geffen) and Black Sabbath’s Reunion (Epic). That way, each record will just disappoint you, rather then confirm limited expectations.

Aerosmith remains the rock of choice for mall rats. The only reason over-the-hill Joe Perry, along with over-the-same-hill second guitarist Brad Whitford, can’t be faulted for noodling clichés is that it was the pair’s limited musical ideas that became clichés to begin with. As for Black Sabbath’s new album, Mr. Iommi had the chance to put those Sonic Youth kids in their place by adding guitar shrieks and caterwauls to such classic Sabbath odes to psychosis like “Iron Man.” But No. Instead, he goose-steps predictably through the power chords. If a note even begins to burble with feedback, he pulls back. I bet he even cringes. (What, produce noise? Be tasteless?) For all his group’s black mass bellowing, they remain musical cowards. As for the audience, after frontman Ozzy Osbourne leads the masses through several sing-alongs, you think, “Nuremberg rally. Nuremberg rally.”

Thank God, then, for Keith Richards and the Stones. Even after two decades of disposable studio albums (when was the last time you played Steel Wheels or Emotional Rescue ?), Mr. Richards is still capable of reviving the Stones’ mythic status when playing live. The latest live album, No Security (Virgin), recorded on stages around the world, is a delight. Mr. Richards sounds relaxed. Lazy, even. But not like some old duffer. He’s just a poisonous snake sunning himself on a rock. Ron Wood contributes greasy-geezer second fiddle. Together, the two make 90′s songs that sound juiceless on record, such as “Flip the Switch,” become as eternally energized as “Tumbling Dice.”

The stage presence of these old goats–Messrs. Perry, Whitford and Iommi included–is a different story. On video, each senior citizen displays depressing equality. Each leads with his chin, Mr. Perry and Mr. Whitford then moving like they’re wagging big penises while Mr. Iommi grinds his pelvis into his guitar. Keith and Ron pace the stage in a crouch looking like their guitars are guilty of child abuse. Where was Bob Mould to give these older guys the hook?

To be fair, arena rock demands kabuki-like exaggeration. From a seat in the 300th-row mezzanine, no one wants to see an old guitarist hunched immobile, doing something irrelevant like concentrating on his playing. That would be as exciting as going to the park to watch some gray gummer contemplate a move in checkers.

But then the video of the Stones’ Bridges to Babylon tour gives us a sparkling image of our era’s first perfectly aged rocker. (Bluesmen and women have been aging perfectly for years, of course.) Before this man makes his appearance, you have to sit through the opening shots of Mr. Richards creeping on stage in seedy shades and a fake leopard-skin overcoat, chugging into the opening chords of “Satisfaction” too slow. Got that? Keith Richards drags the tempo. Drags his ass.

Then, Charlie Watts appears.

Look at him. That silver hair. That dignified enthusiasm. There isn’t a rocker alive who has aged as cool. The drummer looked like a troll when he was a kid, but his age has rolled that former ugliness into beauty. No old guy has looked this sturdy since Nelson Rockefeller. If you recall, Nelson died in the saddle–he didn’t need any damn Viagra. Mr. Watts hits the high-hat as if he doesn’t, either. Not that I’m encouraging the drummer to kick. No, first he should take up the guitar. Charlie Watts could show Keith Richards how an older gent chugs his guitar on stage with majesty. He could also inspire Lou Reed to cast down that pussy Feedbucker and hoist up an honest electric guitar, plugged in and watted up to heaven. Mr. Watt might even be powerful enough to inspire the aged to strip to their skivvies and chug across the rug hoisting their air guitars.

On second thought, stick to the drums, Charlie.