If he was still alive, Elvis Presley would be 80-years old. I've often wondered what Elvis's career would have been like had he not died 38-years ago this month. Would he still be able to sing? Would he still be doing shows? Or would he have had the good sense to retire and just soak up honors at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and music industry awards shows every few years?
I got to thinking about that again this week after the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel review of Kenny Rogers' closing night show at the Wisconsin State Fair on Sunday. The headline read "Kenny Rogers Struggles at Wisconsin State Fair Show"--and further reading finds that "struggles" might be a generous description of the performance. "The Gambler" couldn't remember the words to a number of songs in the set. And the words he could remember, he couldn't hit the notes anymore with his 77-year old voice. It was the kind of performance that leads you to wonder "What is that guy doing still up on stage? Shouldn't he have enough money by now to be retired and putting out repackaged 'Greatest Hits' albums every year to rip people off?"
The answers to those questions are contained in the same article. The people attending that Kenny Rogers show really didn't seem to care. There was laughter and cheers when Rogers apologized for basically not being able to sing anymore. For those that spent the money for tickets, this was probably more about nostalgia than it was about some kind of new experience. In their heads, they could hear the songs the way they were meant to sound--and whatever warbling came from the singer's mouth wasn't that important. It's how countless cover bands make a living--play the chords in the right order and just let the listeners minds and memories take over from there.
We often mock athletes that hang on too long and get embarrassed on the fields of play. But there are coaches and general managers who can force those guys out by cutting them or not signing them. Performers just go on finding smaller and smaller gigs to squeeze those last few dollars out of the shrinking pool of die-hard fans. Maybe Elvis knew that his abilities were fading and that it was time to step away from the stage. Like Kenny Rogers, the last few years of Elvis shows were a series of forgotten lyrics (listen to his flubs of "Are You Lonesome Tonight" on Youtube) and once allegedly taking a half-hour bathroom break in the middle of the show in Baltimore.
I will sometimes get asked if I wish The Beatles were still all alive and peforming together and I honestly say "no". Based on Paul McCartney's performances that I've seen the past few years, he can't sing anymore--and I bet it would be the same for John and George as well. Instead, I have the eight year's worth of recordings that contain them at the height of their musical powers--and there would be no "Eternal Farewell Tour" to tarnish that.