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Dave Roepke, Published January 11 2009

As AC/DC prepares to rock Fargodome: Money talks for aging rockers

Like old soldiers, rock stars don’t die as much as they fade away. Unlike the soldiers, the old rockers fade in public view – on stage, playing the music that made them famous in previous decades.

“It’s like going to the Louvre to see Mona Lisa. I don’t think these guys would appreciate being called artifacts, but that’s what they really are,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

Indeed, the best-selling concert tours of 2008 do smack of a living-history museum, and industry watchers expect the AC/DC tour coming to the Fargodome on Saturday to be one of the biggest draws in 2009.

Among the top 10 tours in 2008, according to the concert industry publication Pollstar, eight featured acts that have been at it for at least a quarter-century, including the top ticket of the year, the somehow-50-years-old Madonna.

And the former Mrs. Ritchie is an upstart whippersnapper compared to the rest of the list, which includes artists long eligible for AARP, such as Bruce Springsteen, Tina Tuner, the Eagles and Neil Diamond. Baby boomer musicians and their forever-young fans are the 600-pound elephant of the concert biz.

“Year in and year out, those are the acts that really fuel the business,” says Pollstar Editor-in-Chief Gary Bongiovanni. “The gravy train has lasted a lot longer than we thought it would.”

Not to rock the gravy boat, but where does this end? Will Mick Jagger someday figure out how to strut with the help of a cane? Will 60-somethings from the ’60s ever go away? Is there no cutoff point at which one is too old to rock?

“On the objective level there probably definitely is,” says Jacob McMurray, the senior curator at the Experience Music Project, a music culture museum in Seattle. “I couldn’t say the age is 36 or something like that. But once you’re getting into your 30s and 40s, it’s probably time to start transitioning out of rocking.”

That’s because of the importance of rebellion in rock, McMurray says. It is a cultural struggle – new versus old, the underground versus the mainstream – that provides the music’s vitality. When rock ceases to be adolescent, it ceases to be. “Rock is indelibly attached to that idea of youth,” McMurray says.

Don’t tell that to AC/DC, the legendary Australian rock band. Though lead singer Brian Johnson is 61 and founding brothers Malcolm and Angus Young are both in their mid-50s, they reportedly have no designs on retiring.

Susan Masino, the author of “The Story of AC/DC: Let There Be Rock,” says she asked Malcolm about that backstage after an October show in Chicago during the earlier leg of the band’s tour for its new record “Black Ice.”

“He just thought that was so funny,” Masino says of the rhythm guitarist. “I can’t see them hanging the guitars up and saying it’s done. It’s truly a love they’ve had since they were little kids.”

The band certainly still acts like kids. Angus Young dresses in short pants and bounces around stage throwing mock tantrums. The songs off “Black Ice” do not deviate a bit from the AC/DC’s brilliant/simple recipe – straight 4/4 beat, huge blues hooks and cheeky lyrics about dirty deeds and the merits of rock.

“They have a perfect formula that works,” Masino says. “They do it so flawlessly that they make it look like anybody could do it.”

It’s no surprise the band has done little in the way of evolution. The age of boomer artists may cut against the supposed thrust of rock ’n’ roll, but their continued presence introduces a somewhat new concept to what is a relatively young art form: nostalgia.

“It would be weird if you went and saw AC/DC now and they were acting all proper and nice. That’s the reason you love them – they’re totally ridiculous,” says McMurray. “It doesn’t matter that the Rolling Stones are kind of a joke now. They’re still the Rolling Stones, and they’re amazingly awesome.”

But the concert industry can’t survive forever on nostalgia, says Rob Sobolik, the Fargodome general manager. He often worries about who the arena-filling bands of the next generation are going to be because the big draws now are both getting older and charging more each time out.

“I’m not supposed to say that the acts are tired when I’m in the position I’m in,” Sobolik says. “But it doesn’t seem like they’re creating sustainable (bands).”

Trying to identify who will be the next generation of massively popular bands isn’t easy, Sobolik says. “If I had a crystal ball, I wouldn’t be in this job,” he says.

British behemoths Radiohead and U2 could be possibilities. But if pure nostalgia was the only reason an artist can continue to thrill decades after its peak, all you’d have to do is count up sales figures and extrapolate from there. Yet no one is predicting today’s big sellers to be the top draws of 2030.

“It’s hard for me to think that a lot of these pop groups are going to be performing to any large crowds in their 50s and 60s,” McMurray says.

So what is it about this crop of first- and second-generation rock stars? Why do the ones who made it past the 27-year-old curse put butts in seats year after year?

Bongiovanni says he thinks it’s simply an issue of demographics. The older artists appeal to older fans, the ones with the disposable income to drop on three-figure seats to bold-name arena shows. It will likely be the same in later generations, though probably on a smaller scale.

Thompson sees another reason why aging rockers still dominate. It is just another example – along with Viagra, plastic surgery and the ever-changing saying that the new 30 is 40, wait, make it 50, no, let’s say 60 – of the baby boomers’ Peter Pan insistence on never growing up.

“The generation is so defined by its youth,” Thompson says. “They kind of peaked when they were still students, protesting the war.”

It’s also, by Thompson’s estimate, the last throes of the American monoculture that existed before cable television and the Internet. In other words, bands such as the Who, the Stones, AC/DC and their ilk can still pack fans in because they were able to gain wide audiences in a way that is impossible in today’s far more individualized culture.

“We took the first eight decades of this country building up a consensus mass culture like nothing in human history,” Thompson says.

The result of more atomized entertainment is a more isolated public, Thompson says. He can see it on campus, where the stereos that once blasted from residence halls have been replaced by earphones. But it also means a loss of the shared experiences that helped drag the fringes of society toward the center.

That’s why he hopes AC/DC and the rest of rock’s rocking-chair crowd keeps it up. They represent a dying breed.

“I’m glad to have those guys out there. The only dark side I see is it keeps reminding me that they won’t be out there much longer,” Thompson says.

If you go

Money comes with age

Here are the top 10 tours of 2008 and the ages of those artists. For bands, the age is an average of its members.

1. Madonna, age 50 $105.3 million)

2. Celine Dion, age 40 ($94.0 million)

3. Eagles, age 61 ($73.4 million)

4. Kenny Chesney, age 40 ($72.2 million)

5. Bon Jovi, age 49 ($70.4 million)

6. Bruce Springsteen, age 59 ($69.3 million)

7. Neil Diamond, age 67 ($59.8 million)

8. Rascal Flatts, age 36 ($55.8 million)

9. The Police, age 60 ($48.0 million)

10. Tina Turner, age 69 ($47.7 million).

Source: Pollstar

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535