First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 2016
Crowded House’s farewell concert on the Sydney Opera House forecourt in 1996 has taken on a kind of Woodstock folklore: everyone in the country under 35 at the time was apparently there. The pictures and the reports of the concert, and the reminiscing in the years since by those who were there, have so effectively infiltrated the memories of those who didn’t make it’s easy to think one really was there.
It isn’t surprising then to hear it only took seconds on Monday morning for tickets to Crowded House’s November Opera House shows to sell out. In another two decades, at least 10,000 will legitimately be able to claim we were there the second time around. Others will reminisce about how they made upwards of $400 on-selling a coveted ticket – a kind of monetary calibration of how of-the-moment bands whose heyday was 20 or 30 years ago now are.
Gen X is finally taking power, culturally and politically, if not always economically (look, for example, at the 40-something men leading governments and oppositions across the country). And it’s as if the current festival of 1980s and ’90s musical legends touring Australia has arrived to offer a triumphal soundtrack. We’ve had Culture Club and the Cure tour. Bruce Springsteen will be here in early 2017. The Stone Roses will perform at the Opera House in December. I imagine today’s teens and twenty somethings must feel a bit the same way I did at their age, whenever another front page headline covered in great detail every development – a divorce, a baby or a drug-related arrest – in the life of a by then middle-aged Rolling Stone or Beatle.
It’s a funny kind of thing when the bands of your youth, even ones once considered edgy and indie, come to town, grey of hair and plump of belly, to play shows that can top $200 a seat at the country’s most prestigious venues. The bands understandably want to cash in on their final flickers of fame while international airfares still come without exorbitant senior travel insurance.
The audience, meanwhile, are generally more cashed up than they were in their 20s but are at a peak work-life juggle moment. We want a night out that comes with an insurance policy. A night that can remind us of who we were before our lives were full of cares and worries and complicated histories. A time of life when, as Meghan Daum writes in an essay on nostalgia, “we could walk around with an abiding feeling that, at any given time, anything could go in any direction”.
There is also a more sombre reason to see these bands now. The deaths of Prince and David Bowie makes us wonder if this will be the last chance to see an iconic figure live, to hear a treasured song from our youth (and yes, I know Bowie was a boomer who was dreaming of Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust before many of us Xers had even landed on earth; but we claimed him as ours).
For Gen X the time stretching out behind us now feels much longer than the time stretching out ahead of us. It is no coincidence to me that the march of these ageing bands through our venues is matched by my Facebook feed, which is full of old friends who played music or painted or wrote when they were young finding the muse again. “I just decided I had to do it now or I never would,” says one friend who is writing a novel.
Now that big ambitions are mostly achieved – children, travel, jobs, houses – we’re trying to catch the dreams of our youth. There is something exciting about this middle-aged burst of activity, both from the famous and not-so-famous. And while it’s great to see bands who can take us back to a familiar, youthful place, it’s even better when they find new tunes or create new art too.
On a weeknight earlier this year, I watched New Order’s lead singer Bernard Sumner bop around the Opera House stage for a couple of hours with his endearing dad dancing, running through all the band’s hits – Blue Monday, Bizarre Love Triangle, Temptation. At the end of the night the band – notorious for refusing encores in its early years – returned to the stage to perform Love Will Tear Us Apart, the song Sumner played with Ian Curtis in Joy Division. This was a rare moment where “rock concert” and “poignant moment” could briefly co-exist. But at the same time, there is also something that doesn’t sit quite right with a much older band and crowd singing such a brilliant but, let’s admit it, young person’s song.
That’s why, although I was tempted, I found it hard to buy tickets for the Stone Roses. Their slowly building, soft, soft then louder songs were the sound of a party about to begin, the sound of something about to happen. But I’m not sure about watching a band already into their 50s singing “I wanna be adored”. That was cute coming from someone in their 20s. But the Stone Roses are well into late middle age now. Their website currently says an upcoming concert was cancelled because one member fell and broke a bone, the injury sounding like the kind of thing that happens to an old person, not the self-afflicted wound of the young.
Gen X know which way we’re heading and we’re dreaming of our past. Perhaps that’s why we’re so keen to listen to Crowded House singing Don’t Dream it’s Over one more time.