How Do You Know When To Quit?

Written by Bill Leebens

No, don’t worry—I’m not planning on retiring any time soon. It just ain’t an option. Besides which, I’m having fun— at least as much fun as a morose, depressive upper-Midwesterner is capable of  having.

Any performer or public figure is subject to the constant appraisal of the public. All of us have likely passed judgment upon the performance of athletes, actors, musicians, politicians, CEOs. Athletes are likely subjected to more continuous scrutiny than any group, with the added benefit/liability of having their performance daily measured against reams of data on all aspects of their historical performance. Add in the knowledge that at any moment someone younger and potentially better is standing in  the wings, waiting for a chance to replace them—and it’s amazing that they’re able to function at all.

Musicians, in the era of audio and video recording, are subjected to a similar level of scrutiny; imagine being, say, a member of the Grateful Dead, for whom thousands of live recordings exist. “Oh, you think that performance of “Not Fade Away” was definitive? No way! Listen to the one from April 28th, ’71, at the Fillmore East, dude!”

I think it takes a very secure individual to be able to shrug off such constant analysis and commentary. As I’ve discussed before, many performers can’t handle it. That’s not a criticism, simply an acknowledgment of sad fact. I seriously doubt I could handle the murderous murmurings, being a delicate flower bruised by a mere lack of praise, much less severe criticism or second-guessing.

One has to wonder—okay, at least I have to wonder— if some of those who can withstand the attention don’t sometimes become overly-resistant to criticism—to the point where they become a bit self-delusional. Are they deaf? Do they not care? Are they broke from their last divorce?

For the most part, the careers of professional athletes are self-limiting: their bodies just can’t withstand the continued stress and abuse. Yes, there are plenty who should’ve retired just a little sooner than they did—but we all know singers who should’ve just given it up decades ago.

I remember a sad and scathing review by the Tampa Herald-Tribune’s  Wade Tatangelo of a Bob Dylan concert in Tampa a few years ago. The reviewer had followed Dylan for decades as both fan and critic, and had seen him perform many times. Sounding more like a jilted lover than an impartial critic, Tatangelo wrote: “As much as it hurts me to say this, Bob Dylan needs to take a long hiatus from touring. His performance Thursday… proved borderline painful despite backing by five superb musicians including guitar great Duke Robillard. Dylan’s voice has deteriorated past the point of serviceable. As much as I admire the rock poet for updating songs that are decades old with interesting new arrangements, it was mostly impossible Thursday to get past the craggy, mumbled vocals that poured through the speakers like rubble and rubbish.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Tatangelo went on: “Sure, no one has ever admired Dylan for his vocal range or the sonorous quality of his singing. But for many phases of his career, the universally praised songwriter did an outstanding job of making up for his vocal limitations with clever phrasing and inflection. Those tools are no longer usable because his main instrument, his voice,
has been worn down to a thin, jagged, whimper. It sounded broken, in need of medical attention….So maybe if he just didn’t tour so often, or took a much-needed vacation, Dylan’s voice would have time to heal and concert attendees could actually enjoy a true musical presentation rather than, well a freak show. Watching Dylan stand center stage, lurching around like a confused member of the audience, was as distressing as his singing, pedestrian harmonica playing and barely audible keyboard contributions. People cheered just to be in the same vicinity of the legend and that’s not the way it should be. It’s not the way I ever imagined Dylan would want to be viewed, as an attraction people see just to say they saw. Isn’t that how tickets were sold to the bearded lady?”

Anyone who has suffered through some of Dylan’s late-period records can relate to those words, and must wonder if there isn’t some sort of cosmic joke to productions like this one:


I’ve never performed in front of thousands of fans, nor been paid accordingly—so it’s a little hard for me to understand how or why headliners keep going well past their prime. I can imagine that there is a rush from performing in big venues, a sense of power—and of course, being paid millions of dollars must be pleasant. For a number of performers, lengthy farewell tours provide one last chance at cashing in before giving up the grind of touring. Of course there have been performers who say farewell, and then return: Black Sabbath, Kiss, and LCD Soundsystem have all created legions of pissed-off fans by returning, following highly-publicized, high-dollar “farewell” tours. Oops. Neil Young has succinctly said of farewell tours, “What kind of bullshit is that? …When I retire, people will know, because I’ll be dead.”

The Rolling Stones have toured extensively over the last 25 years, each new tour being announced with “maybe the last time” waffle-words. What keeps them going? This piece from 2013 points out the staggering revenues of their tours, and in the last five years the revenues–and ticket prices—have escalated frighteningly. What was once often considered “the hardest-working band in show business” has largely degenerated into The Thing That Wouldn’t Die, while its members seem to be melting before our eyes (as seen in the pic of Keith Richards above).

As revenues from sales of recordings have diminished, most artists rely upon tour revenues to make a living. But—as the NYT points out, mega-tours have dozens if not hundreds of people reliant upon the health and well-being of one or just a few artists. If Keith Richards has an off-night, Ronnie or some backup guy will likely cover for him. But if Taylor Swift gets sick, or strains her voice, there is a serious problem. Cancelled tours not only lose the direct revenue from tickets, but the often-substantial supplemental income from merchandise including t-shirts, posters, programs, tchotchkes….

And so: what’s your point, Leebs? You jealous?

Maybe. Would I like to not have to worry about my elder years? You bet. Can I imagine inflicting myself upon audiences or some nubile 20-something, when I’m wasting away?

Oh, hell, no. That’s just creepy, and dishonest, and milking the past.

But oh, well. I don’t have that option. God bless those who do.

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