Graham: 40 years later, ’70s finally coming to an end

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Merle Haggard played the Fox Theatre in October, and if you slapped down money for a ticket because you figured it would be your last chance to see the country outlaw live, sadly, you were correct.

Haggard died this week at 79. And along with Glenn Frey, David Bowie and Keith Emerson, he’s one of several music legends to shuffle off this mortal coil already this year. Toss in Natalie Cole and Motörhead lead singer Lemmy Kilmister, who both died in December, and it’s not a great time to be a musician of a certain age.

Classic rock is teetering, and a major shift is under way. There are still some powerhouses left on the circuit: Two weeks before Mick Jagger’s 72nd birthday, the Rolling Stones lit up Comerica Park last summer, and 73-year-old Paul McCartney played well into the night at Joe Louis Arena in October.

At 68, Iggy Pop slithered all over the stage at the Fox Theatre this week, and 66-year-old Bruce Springsteen will likely put on a three-plus hour marathon show when he plays at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday.

But how much longer do they have left? Springsteen is superhuman, but he’s visibly slower than he was on stage even two years ago. Jagger is a force of nature, but will he still be tearing up stages at 75? What about at 80?

Promoters certainly hope so. The current live music touring model is still based on the system established in the 1970s, when bands packed up their vans and hit the road every summer. That is when many of the country’s massive outdoor amphitheaters — or “sheds,” as they’re known — were built to house concerts by those touring rock acts, many of whom are still on the road today.

Looking at DTE Energy Music Theatre’s upcoming summer schedule, bands or artists whose debut albums came out in the 1970s — including Journey, Hall and Oates, Black Sabbath, Boston, ZZ Top and Steely Dan — outweigh those whose debut efforts were released in any other decade. Acts who began their careers in the ’90s are close behind, but there’s only one headlining act on the summer schedule so far — Columbus, Ohio, duo Twenty One Pilots — whose debut album was released in our current decade.

It won’t happen next year or the year after, but five, 10 years from now, that summer concert schedule will look drastically different than it does now. When Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Steve Miller Band, Boston and Jimmy Buffett finally decide to hang it up — or when Father Time intervenes and decides to hang it up for them — who will fill their shoes? Will Nick Jonas step up to the plate?

This isn’t a knock on the current state of music or a love letter to the good old days. It’s an acknowledgment that the book is closing on the classic rock era and it will leave a sizable hole in not only summer touring schedules, but in pop culture as a whole.

Those giants of the ’60s and ’70s made lasting anthems whose influence still reverberates today, not only with fans who grew up with those sounds, but with the generations that followed. It’s not just Baby Boomers propping up those acts on tour every summer, it’s kids who grew up playing their songs on “Guitar Hero,” too.

There was a rugged authenticity to artists and their lifestyles in the pre-MTV era that has gone unmatched since, when image and polish took over. Duran Duran is playing DTE this summer, too, but the “Rio” hasn’t aged in quite the same way as, say, Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.”

But nothing lasts forever, and if the clock is ticking on our Rock Gods, it’s ticking for us, too.

The ’70s will never truly die, not as long as there are shows like HBO’s “Vinyl” to celebrate the freewheeling, drug-addled and bell-bottomed styles of the decade. And ’70s rock act Foreigner pulled a nifty trick last year when it hit the road with Kid Rock and played most nights without a single original member on stage. (Founder Mick Jones only made sporadic appearances on the tour.)

Maybe that’s the future of the ’70s: Keeping the spirit alive by playing pretend. That’s certainly one way to skirt the inevitable, which is creeping up faster and faster every day.