In his fascinating book Baby Boomer Rock 'N' Roll Fans: The Music Never Ends, Joseph Kotarba takes the reader on a voyage across time, showing how the baby boomers –
the first generation raised on rock 'n' roll music – continue to use the rock 'n' roll idiom to make sense of their lives.
This scholarly volume is lively and thought-provoking. Kotarba is a professor in sociology at Texas State University. His book is based on two decades of sociological research and over half a century of fandom.
But this isn't just about music; it's the beat of a generation. Kotarba shows how boomers have used rock to give meaning to their lives – from the early years, becoming parents, through middle age and now as they enter old age.
When the Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, a staggering 73 million viewers tuned in. That Sunday evening, the Fab Four played All My Loving, She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand. Many of the baby boomers were still in grade school. They grew up with rock music as the soundtrack for everyday life.
A few years earlier, when Kotarba was in Grade 8 at St. Turibius School in Chicago, Dion Dimucci was his favourite singer, and Runaround Sue his favourite song. His friend Matt liked Bobby Darin. The girls in his class were in love with Frankie Avalon and Neil Sedaka.
In high school, kids danced to Chubby Checker's The Twist. Many chose the Beatles' Yesterday or Dion's Abraham, Martin and John for their class songs.
When the boomers married in the 1960s and 1970s, they introduced popular music into the formal wedding ceremony, ranging from Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven to the Sandpipers' Come Saturday Morning.
Not surprisingly, the children of the 1950s took the rhythms of the 1960s into the world of parenthood.
According to Kotarba, rock 'n' roll integrates families and serves as a bridge across generations by allowing children, adolescents and adults to communicate and share meanings.
Rock 'n' roll, for instance, helped create bonds between mothers and daughters. In the '60s, they shared Frankie Avalon and the Beatles, and Neil Diamond in the 1970s. Later, their interest shifted to female to rock 'n' roll performers such as Madonna, Carrie Underwood and Beyonce.
Dads, who learned to play the guitar as teenagers, taught their sons how to play. Fans of bands like the Grateful Dead brought their sons to festivals and sported their deadhead T-shirts.
Unlike many other musical genres, boomer rock 'n' roll attracts audiences that include two and even three generations. Concert tickets are a welcome gift for the teenagers in the family, and music is a great gift for birthdays and special occasions.
The rock 'n' roll idiom continued to help boomers make sense of their lives in middle age.
Take for instance when punk poet and singer Patti Smith performed a concert in Houston on March 28, 2003 at the beginning of the war in Iraq, her poetry and music hit a chord with the large number of middle-aged people in the audience. Growing up in a time of political change, they had learned their politics from Jim Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. Now, Smith gave them a way to channel their overwhelmingly negative feelings about the war.
In 2006, Kotarba attended his first Van Morrison concert at the Austin City Limits music festival with his wife, Polly. They arrived an hour early. Men and women in their 50s and 60s quickly filled the area in front of the main stage with their lawn chairs. That evening, Morrison led a fabulous band. He played more saxophone than usual, to the delight of fans who had listened to him for 30 odd years.
In midlife, fewer people had time to attend live concerts. Electronic companies marketed rock 'n' roll to boomers on their computers, smartphones, iPods and other devices. One 62-year-old manager said his iPod reminded him of his old-fashioned transistor radio: "I take my iPod with me everywhere I go, like a radio. . . . "
Into old age
Many rock and roll musicians who performed for baby boomers 40 or 50 year ago are still performing professionally like the Rolling Stones and Van Halen.
Bobby, a 65-year-old city worker, still views the Mitchell Pavilion in Woodlands, Texas, as sacred:
This is where I first saw the Rolling Stones play. It was in 1966, I believe. Man, what a trip! We sat up on the hill, no blankets, no nothing . . . The place was like magic. It was unusually cool and breezy. You could just lay back and watch the stars as Mick [Jagger] acted the fool. You know, you would always go to concerts back then to meet chicks. That night with the Stones – you just needed to be there.
Last October, Bob Dylan crooned mostly new songs from his recent albums to devoted fans at Royal Albert Hall in London. He first played there 50 years ago during his final solo acoustic tour.
Also, in October, Paul McCarthy and a stellar band delivered 41 songs – old and new – during a three-hour marathon at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. The estimated crowd of 18,000 joined in with Hey Jude.
As more boomers hit retirement, the rock 'n' roll cruise industry is flourishing. Some cruise lines report long wait lists.
In 2015, fans bade a sad farewell to great artists like Cory Wells of Three Dog Night, Lynn Anderson and the British legend Cilla Black, among others.
Meanwhile, the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards is hinting the band may be getting back together to work on a new album. It has been 10 years since the Stones released their last album.
Recently Richards, 71, told the Sunday Times Magazine: "It's my turn for growing old. I never thought I'd get to this far. Now, I have to think about this and wonder what to do with it. I don't know, man."