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16 July 2015

As I tried to get to my seat at the Who concert, I felt bad about making all the old people stand up

It occurred to me that the only possible summation would be a paraphrase of Dr Johnson’s infamous remarks about female preachers, which is to say, I was amazed not so much by the Who playing well, as that they were capable of playing at all.

By Will Self

I was talking to a small crowd of doctors a while back and came out with one of my favourite headlines from the US satirical magazine the Onion, which reads: “World death rate holds steady at 100 per cent”. Most of the medics dutifully chuckled at this evidence of their own lack of omnipotence – but one of them objected. “Strictly speaking, that isn’t true,” said the stethoscope-toting pedant. “Given that all the people currently alive constitute half of those who have ever lived, we can only confidently assert that the death rate is 50 per cent.”

I thought about this the other day because, walking into the 3Arena in Dublin, I came upon a sizeable cohort of these potential immortals, and I have to say they weren’t in terrific shape. Making our way to our seats, we had to ask several of them to stand and I’m afraid they made pretty heavy weather of it: palsied hands clutched canes and ineffectually gripped seat backs, jowls twitched with the effort, and at least one pair of bifocals clattered to the floor. Meanwhile, on stage, Messrs Daltrey and Townshend belted out the line that more than any other in recent memory has come to exemplify shutting the stable door after the valetudinarian nag has bolted: “I hope I die before I get old.”

Yes, we were at the Arena for one of the gigs on the Who’s 50th-anniversary tour, and while the old boys on stage seemed pretty spry, their fans were . . . Well, frankly, we’re getting on a bit, and many of us share at least some of Tommy’s disabilities – although, unlike the deaf, blind and dumb kid, we’re no longer capable of playing a mean pinball. For us baby boomers, whose culture of aggressive juvenescence came to dominate the burgeoning global population over the past half-century, the spectacle of an aged crowd is deranging to the point of . . . well, dementia. And it would have been deranging at any previous point in history, given those damned statistics.

Illustration: Jackson Reese

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To Daltrey’s and Townshend’s credit, they neither tried to avoid the reality of the situation nor made too much of it. The stage backdrop was – as is so often the case at gigs nowadays – an enormous screen, and throughout the set images were projected on to it of the lads when they were indeed lads.

The impression was that they were jamming with their younger selves: one confirmed by the presence on drums of Ringo’s boy Zak Starkey. (At least superficially; the intergenerational shtick doesn’t quite hold up when you realise that Zak himself is about to turn 50 and could theoretically be the grandfather of the skinny young pill-popping mods in the videos.) I must confess that, some time before I reached my own half-century, amplified electric music became an anathema to me and I began hanging out at the Wigmore Hall instead of the Wembley Arena.

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The great advantage of rocking out to the Schubert Ensemble, or getting your rocks off over Matthias Goerne singing Schumann’s Dichterliebe, is that even if you’re a year or two older than Ringo’s boy you’ll still feel refreshingly youthful compared to the rest of the audience. Actually, I felt refreshingly youthful compared to the Who’s audience as well, but while they were equipped with hearing aids, I had opted for earplugs. These made the experience seem a little muffled – as if my ears had been tucked firmly into a tartan rug – but I could still see all the horrors going on around me: the bingo wings flapping in time, the myriad chins wagging like metronomes, the liver spots caught in the spotlights, and the grey hairs being whipped into a blur synchronous with Townshend’s wildly revolving arm as he crashed out the chords.

When I reflected on the gig later, it occurred to me that the only possible summation would be a paraphrase of Dr Johnson’s infamous remarks about female preachers, which is to say, I was amazed not so much by the Who playing well, as that they were capable of playing at all. The two surviving members of the original line-up are septuagenarians, and come September it will have been 37 years since Keith Moon popped his clogs. At 53, I barely have the stamina to sit still listening to the band – but these Freedom Pass-holders were belting it out like there was no tomorrow. (Which indeed, given the Who’s demographics, might well be the case.) True, Daltrey’s corybantic excesses have been somewhat curtailed along the darkening passage of time: at one point, in lieu of dancing, he did a little jog around the stage, as if to demonstrate there was life in the old dog yet.

But of course scenes such as this are only likely to become more common as humanity “advances” towards mass senescence. The median age in Britain hit 40 this year, which means the archetypal Briton is one among a vast crowd of middle-aged folk. It remains to be seen what the consequences of this will be for our collective behaviour. Arguably, an older crowd is a less febrile and suggestible one. Moreover, it’s difficult to stampede when most of you need a Zimmer frame to walk.

But I wouldn’t bet on it. The hoary old ­adage has it that you’re as young as you feel – and although I have been feeling like Methuselah since the early 2000s, all the evidence is that my contemporaries side with the number-crunching physician. Good luck to them, I say.