In a Year of Death, Desert Trip Is a Celebration of Rock's Survivors

Will you still need him when he's 64? How about 74?
Will you still need him when he's 64? How about 74?
Timothy Norris

There has never been a mega-festival quite like Desert Trip. There are just six acts and only one stage. No art installations, no dance tent, no bands you never heard of serenading you in the distance while you stand in line at the beer garden. Just a half-dozen rock-and-roll legends — The Stones, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and The Who — doing what they've all been doing for over fifty years.

There is, of course, a morbid corollary to the "over fifty years" part of the Desert Trip equation. Not counting each act's small army of (relatively) younger backing musicians, the average age of the performers is 72. In ten years' time, or less, they will nearly all be retired. And more than a few, to indelicately state the obvious, will probably be dead.

If 2016 has taught us anything, it's that the generation that popularized rock and roll won't be around playing it much longer. In one bleak four-month span leading up to Desert Trip's May 3 lineup announcement, we lost David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Lemmy Kilmister, Paul Kantner, Keith Emerson, Maurice White, George Martin and Prince. No wonder there was such a feeding frenzy over Desert Trip tickets — against that macabre backdrop, it became the FOMO concert event of the century. See 'em one last time, while they're still here! Even Roger Daltrey jauntily called the lineup "the greatest remains of our era." Long live rock, be it dead or alive.

I'm a fan of all six artists to varying degrees, but at first, I didn't want to go. To me, the media and fan hype surrounding the whole thing felt weirdly ghoulish. How many of these people snatching up tickets were genuine Dylan fans, and how many just wanted to hear "Blowin' in the Wind" one last time before ol' Bob was gone with the man in the long black coat? And if I did decide to go, would that make me one of those people? All my favorite versions of Dylan songs were done by Jimi Hendrix and Richie Havens. Would I be just another vulture in the bleachers (yes, there will be bleachers — the fans ain't getting any younger, either), crossing one of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century off my bucket list?

Well, yeah, kind of. But I'm going anyway. Of course I'm going. The Who? The Stones? Sir Paul freakin' McCartney? Sign this vulture up!

In the end, of course, Desert Trip will not be a death watch, but a celebration — not just of these artists, but of the generation they represent. The songwriters who gave us "Like a Rolling Stone," "Wish You Were Here," "Baba O'Reilly," "Heart of Gold," "Gimme Shelter" and "Hey Jude" were all born between 1941 and 1945 — and they're all going to perform at the same event. How great is that? It's like the Kennedy Center Honors minus the part where Steven Tyler butchers the Abbey Road side two medley.

And that's just the tip of the talent iceberg. You know who else was born between 1941 and 1945? Brian Wilson. Joni Mitchell. Jimmy Page. Aretha Franklin. Carole King. Ray Davies. John Fogerty. Paul Simon. George Clinton. Diana Ross. If you expand the list to include the entire decade of the 1940s, you can throw in Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, Elton John, Robert Plant, Billy Joel, Dolly Parton, Ozzy Osbourne, Don Henley and Joe Walsh, Robby Krieger and John Densmore, Daryl Hall and John Oates. All still with us, most still performing. (Desert Trip 2017, anyone?) The greatest remains of their era.

There has never been a festival quite like Desert Trip — because there's never been another generation of artists worthy of one.

The prospect that there will be more 2016s ahead — that we will continue to lose more irreplaceable talents — is hard to face. But we may as well face it while singing along to "My Generation" at the top of our dust-caked lungs under a clear desert sky.


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