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The last taboo in pop: fat old men

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go on about Glastonbury. I wasn’t there, I never have been and, unless forced at gunpoint, I never will be. It has been a source of great comfort to discover that rock critics far more professional than I detest festivals as much as I do. My friend Andrew Mueller tells the story of his appearance on Sky News as a token anti-Glastonbury grouch, doing a two-way with some idiot in a stupid hat standing in knee-deep mud (these are his words). The festival-goer went first, and talked of community and spirit and laughter in the face of adversity. The presenter turned to Andrew and said, ‘Well, Andrew, what do you say to that?’ Andrew said, ‘I’m indoors.’

Still, it felt important, or at least necessary, to catch sight of the Rolling Stones on television, if only because you fear that every viewing might be your last. Laughing about how old the Stones are is nearly as old as they are. While Mick Jagger remains whippet-thin, like Wilfred Brambell with a decent hairdresser, it was encouraging to see Mick Taylor, who, as one writer put it, reaching for the euphemism thesaurus, has ‘filled out a bit’. It must be quite dangerous having him on stage, and not just because he might fall through it, for his guitar-playing reminded us all that the band were only any good when he was a part of them. But while Jagger’s scrawniness, and the last-minute bickering over TV rights, suggest he is still as driven and uptight as ever, Keith Richards is visibly mellowing into old age. Not only has his hair been allowed to go as grey as nature intended, but for the first time I can remember he sported what can only be described as a paunch. Always useful to rest your guitar on between tunes, of course, but even so. Having eschewed the pharmaceuticals, he has embraced the pies. The Sixties are finally over. It really has been a long time coming.


For men in pop, though, fat has become the last taboo. We are surprised when David Bowie reappears after a ten-year absence, but what least surprises us is that he looks much the same as he did before. If he had burst back into public life with a huge gut and mighty love handles, his new music would surely have gone unnoticed. Staring down now at my own, slightly more rounded abdomen, I marvel at the work Jagger, Bowie and their contemporaries must put in to stay thin, when it takes only the very slightest effort to give in and accept that crucial third helping. A few years ago I was on Loose Ends, plugging a book, and on the other side of the table was Sting, whose lute album had just come out. Needless to say, all the women in the room (and one or two of the men) swooned over his unruined loveliness, but what struck me was that he was so thin he could wear a lightweight cashmere sweater and make it look like the most fashionable item of clothing in the world. That washboard stomach represented 35 years of grinding hard toil, from which his actual musical career must have felt like a pleasant distraction.

Even the rockers who start fat don’t necessarily end fat. Meat Loaf, for one, is a shadow of his former self, a low-fat yogurt of a man. I saw a picture of Boy George recently and he looks almost indecently trim. Elton John still carries an extra pound or two — or has someone to carry them for him — but he is sylph-like compared with the chubby cocaine days of the 1980s. Only a few hardcore fatties remain, but for how long? Will Frank Black of the Pixies announce that he has become a passionate adherent of the 5–2 diet? Will Van Morrison be pictured with his new juicer in a Sunday supplement?

Maybe they worry because the life expectancy for the fat rock star can be terrifyingly short. John Martyn has gone, having increasingly resembled Jabba the Hutt in his final years, while Luther Vandross has consumed his final ‘Luther burger’, which replaces the normal bun with two halves of a glazed doughnut. Maybe all the skinny old men are haunted by the most gruesome fat rock-star story of them all, of Elvis, bloated and senseless, expiring on the lavatory. Maybe that’s what gets you through your 200 sit-ups a day.

So Keith, not for the first time, is a pioneer. All he and Mick have to do now is write a half-decent song for the first time in 30 years, and the job is almost done.


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