The Rocker Accepts the Coming of Old Age
J. D. Buhl

Before the word became a genderless interjection or form of informal address—a mere vocal tic—being a “dude” meant something. At the very least, a dude was someone of slightly greater eminence than oneself, deserving of respect. In England, during the creative explosion of early 1970s rock ‘n’ roll, a dude was both one of the boys and the One, a face in the crowd and the Face, a dedicated follower of fashion and a stylish leader. Behind the facade of toughness and tranquility for which British working class youth strove, there operated a romantic, particularly Keatsean understanding of themselves and the admittedly brutish world in which they sought dude status. They were free to dream and imagine fairy-works around them while all the time keeping an eye on those larger blokes who might mean them harm. Affecting a fastidious attention to one’s appearance had already been put in place by the mod movement of the 1960s. With the rise of glam rock and its curious mixture of hooliganism and cross-dressing, there emerged a particular dude-stance that only certain young men could achieve. And while mod icons the Who have been razzed repeatedly for their “hope I die before I get old” boast, real rock ‘n’ rollers know that no band understood the hopes and fears of age-obsessed young men better than Mott the Hoople.

Yeah, it’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll
As your name gets hot so your heart grows cold
And you gotta stay a young man, you can never be old
                        — Mott the Hoople, 1973

The Who came out blasting with their live cover of Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues”: “you know in the old days, when a young man was strong man, the people’d step back when a young man walked by.” There was a sense of loss in post-World War II Britain that did not jive with the triumphalism of those who saw a new age of empire dawning. “Nowadays, it’s the old man who’s got all the money” the singer grumbled, followed by the rallying cry of “a young man ain’t got nothin’ in the world these days!” There was something to reclaim, some sense of manhood that was not covered by the available roles of worker or soldier, and throughout England rock music tended to this need.

A “lad’s band” from the beginning, Mott brought a heightened self-awareness, a willingness to make itself and its audience the focus of its endeavors. Its music over a riotous five years of recording (1969–1974) tried to get something for that disenfranchised young man. The volatile combination of violence, vanity, and vulnerability that produced both band and audience also allowed Mott’s primary songwriter Ian Hunter to dispense what hard-won wisdom he acquired along the way. With tenderness and a cynicism born of disappointment, not cruelty, Hunter reported on the life of the rock star and presented the band as a symbol for the lads through four shoddy albums until the David Bowie-penned single “All the Young Dudes” saved it from break-up in 1972.

The television man is crazy saying we’re juvenile delinquent wrecks
Oh man, I need TV when I got T. Rex?
Brother, you guessed: I’m a dude, man.
                        —Mott the Hoople, 1973

Bowie’s masterpiece made no dramatic statements other than the fact that all the young dudes carry the news. That was all you needed to know. Each verse presented with contextual details the plight of the dudes—not quite Woodstock Nation and too old to be bubblegummers—in a way that defined a generation. The songwriter had understood the news apocalyptically, his wicked messengers no end in themselves; but the dudes saw things differently: they finally had something for themselves these days, even if only a negation, and they weren’t about to let go. Hunter’s calls to involve and relate to each of his hearers, interjected between chorus lines, made this generational suicide note an anthem of platform-shoes proportions. With their self-referential tendencies already in place, Mott the Hoople found themselves the news-carriers of glam rock. They went on without their newfound mentor, producing their most successful album, Mott (1973), without him and, thanks to the new phenomenon of rock television shows, invited America’s youth to feel themselves included in this very British, very class-conscious reclamation project.

Soon the strong co-leadership of Hunter and guitarist Mick Ralphs broke down, and the latter left to form Bad Company. With his corkscrew long hair, enormous crosses around his neck, and ever-present shades, Hunter had become the archetypal rock star of the television man’s world. He could go no higher. He took Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson and left the rest of the band to carry on without him, starting a solo career in 1975 that brings us all the way to Man Overboard, one of the best albums of 2009.

I got an idea:
Go tell the superstar all his hairs are turning grey
Star-spangled fear as all the people disappear
The limelight fades away
Cos if you think you are a star
For so long they’ll come from near and far
But you’ll forget just who you are (yes you will)
You ain’t the nazz; you’re just a buzz
Some kinda temporary
            —Mott the Hoople, 1973

With such prophetic words come great responsibility, and Ian Hunter has spent the intervening thirty-seven years returning to, ruminating on, rejecting, and making jest of these words while proving himself more than some kind of temporary. This work follows the dude from that “gold-sinewed body that had the blood of all the earth in its veins” to an old rag; from a Keatsian love of indolence to Edith Sitwell’s hope that such folly would be the seed of Goodness and Wisdom. “But Goodness grew not with age,” Edith Sitwell wrote in “The Poet Laments the Coming of Old Age”:

although my heart must bear
The weight of all Time’s filth, and Wisdom is not a hare in the golden sack
Of the heart .... It can never be caught. 

Brainy British rockers, inspired by the noncommittal moral invective of Bob Dylan, were on a hunt for wisdom, if not goodness. Mott the Hoople and T. Rex were willing to bear the weight of all Time’s filth if that kept the gigs and the girls coming. None of them expected rock ‘n’ roll to become an old man’s game. But the emphasis in the music and culture for its original listeners has shifted from how to stay young to how to grow old, no longer attempting to snag wisdom in a sack. His self-awareness and sly humor intact (“I am what I hated when I was young,” he’s sung), Hunter, once a small-time journalist, covers this beat between innocence and experience.

They fill your heart with ancient mystery
And no one knows who to trust
It’s too late when you discover that
Sometimes flowers ain’t enough
                        —Ian Hunter, 2009


Dylan is the old man who gets most of the attention, but in 2009 the disciple surpassed the master. Hunter began his career singing deliberately Dylanesque covers of imitation Dylan (Sonny Bono’s “Laugh at Me,” Doug Sahm’s “At the Crossroads”), and he takes those inflections to new heights with material that is compassionate, funny, loving, and angry. While Dylan plays an embittered drifter walking the desolate landscape of an imaginary America, with a sound as brittle as the surrounding brush, Hunter displays an excitable interest in the world around him, sounding limber and full of life. Dylan’s complaints are vague, his heartbroken scoldings directed at mere types, not persons; Hunter focuses on the details of real people in real situations (Sitwell’s “great things mirrored in littleness”). Dylan’s most recent work is entitled “Together Through Life,” but you get no sense of his being together with anyone. Ian directs two songs to a woman with whom he has been together and intends to stay; “These Feelings” and “Way With Words” evoke images of affection, patience, humility, and grace that inspire.

There is not a single song on Man Overboard about old age. With less attention given to himself, Hunter convincingly portrays the homeless man in the title track, who refers to himself in each chorus as “drunk and disorderly”:

Out on the streets with all the other deadbeats
Wasting away with the years.
I’m losing my mind in the Great Left-behind
And I gotta get myself out of here.

“Man Overboard” did not appear on Rolling Stone’s list of the Fifty Best Songs of the 2000s, but it should have been included based on writing alone. So many first-person monologues in pop become cloying, overbearing, or overloaded; the songwriter is unable to leave him- or herself out. But Hunter’s character is fully present; from his description of his dwelling—“I got a newspaper floor and a towel for a door”—to his final growl—“I’ll never learn the twelve steps to heaven”—there is no clever message or veiled protest to compromise the performance. A face may appear to the concentrating listener, but it will more closely resemble Carroll O’Connor or Ernest Borgnine than Hunter’s rock-star features.

Another memorable character is the kind-hearted narrator of “The Girl From the Office.” Here Hunter portrays a dude still stuck in the workaday world who, like every other man in the factory, thinks “Oh what a hero I would be if The Girl from the Office went out with me.” And every chorus brings the questioning of those less fortunate: “What’s she like? What’s she like in bed?” After finding out where the The Girl spends her spare time (“She visits the Suprina Dancing Academy; I just got my membership card filled out”) he wins her heart. 

It is the song’s bridge that displays Hunter’s talents as a songwriter. There is just enough self-knowledge—in the writer and the character—to pull off a little reflection:

Everybody knows their lives are going nowhere
Everybody dreams, and she’s a breath of fresh air
Everybody’s eyes are gazing at the software
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Perhaps not since the Beatles’ “She Loves You” has so much knowing, excitement, and sadness been packed into a simple yeah-yeah-yeah. Hunter’s hero soon grows tired of everybody asking him about his girl’s sexual prowess, and feels bad “cos she’s so sweet.” As the singer’s attitude changes from predatory to protective, Goodness has indeed grown with age, and the couple find themselves in a realm beyond the factory walls, more complex and complete than mere dude status.

Love, Ambition, and Poesy were the white-robed figures that passed by Keats in his “Ode on Indolence” as he lay in flowery grass; he waved them away so as not to be aroused from his life of “stirring shades and baffled beams.” Once they vanish he panics, wishing to know them more closely, but soon the poet relaxes into his revery and bids them adieu. Ian Hunter has not. Realizing the “sentimental farce” that stardom could become, he has kept working, dealing with all three honestly and artfully. In a time when the young man’s primacy is no longer questioned, it is Sitwell’s fools, who once laughed at evil and good, that return, “like figures on a marble urn, when shifted round to see the other side,” to provide wisdom, goodness, and great rock ‘n’ roll.


J. D. Buhl is a dude, man.

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