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Rock Star Swagger At Any Age

Former Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster shares his secrets to midlife confidence

Jon Wurster of The Mountain Goats performs on the Twin Peaks Stage during the 2018 Outside Lands Music And Arts Festiva
Getty Images

When the folks at The Arrow asked me to give some advice on aging gracefully — a daunting challenge for anybody, but especially if you’ve chosen a youth-centric career like rock music — I was a little unsure at first. I make a living playing in rock bands and calling in to a talk show as ridiculous characters. I have aged, but there’s nothing to demonstrate that I’ve done so gracefully.

But I’ll give it a go. Maybe you’re like me, pushing 60 and still doing the same job you had at 20. Here’s what I’ve learned about staying cool even when you’re the oldest one in the room.

Your back’s new job is to betray and humiliate you. Don’t trust it.

The biggest adjustment for me has been injury avoidance. Rock ’n’ roll history is littered with drummers who broke their ankles tossing footballs in hotel parking lots, so I take no chances. I don’t play any sports, and I have not sprinted in at least 10 years. 

But things still happen. Six months ago, I fell flat on my ass in front of the entire staff at Birmingham, Alabama’s Saturn nightclub. I bent straight over to pick up a cymbal stand and threw out my back. It was the first time I’d suffered what could be called an age-related injury, and it was immensely humbling. I limped to the finish line of that tour in pretty intense pain, but I learned an important lesson: Always bend at the knees.

You can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks.

A few years ago, I found myself in a Santa Monica studio recording a version of T. Rex’s sublime 1971 song “Cosmic Dancer” with the great Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave. It was a last-minute session, and I’d never played the song before that day. On the way to the studio, I listened to the original recording, which featured T. Rex drummer Bill Legend’s jaunty, elongated single-stroke drumrolls. 

I knew I wasn’t particularly great at executing those drum fills. I also knew we were going for a master take of a fairly long ballad, where a six-piece band, a string section and Nick’s live vocal would all be recorded at the same time. If I mangled any of those drumrolls, the take would grind to a halt and we’d have to start over. I did a simplified version instead, and was immediately disappointed in myself. 

But wait: There’s a happy ending. I didn’t want to be caught unprepared like that again, so I worked very hard at getting good at those jaunty drumrolls. Now, to the annoyance of my bandmates, I can’t stop doing them.

Do things that scare you.

Although my plan is to live to at least 117, I’m very aware that my time on the planet is limited. I have very few regrets because I usually take whatever opportunities arise, no matter how weird or improbable they may be. Sometimes they go well (playing “We Will Rock You” with Katy and Joe Perry during an MTV VMAs opening number); sometimes they don’t  (I auditioned for but was not chosen to voice the titular role in the Better Call Saul animated spinoff, Slippin’ Jimmy). I’d rather have tried and failed than regretted not going for it. Any athletic shoe company wanting to lease the previous sentence can contact me through this publication.  

Sometimes there’s gold in our failures. Recently, Bob Mould Band bassist Jason Narducy and I had the opportunity to be Pretenders for a night. In my 40 years of drumming, I have not practiced a single song more than “Tattooed Love Boys,” Chrissie Hynde’s punky brain twister in the ungodly time signature of 7/16. I was having nightmares about losing the beat and, wouldn’t you know, I did exactly that during soundcheck. But I was shocked by how quickly I recovered and righted the ship. 

That mistake was the best thing that could’ve happened. It taught me I had the tools and the instincts to pull the plane out of the tailspin. 

Don’t obsess over what can go wrong.

As we get older, our bodies get weird. Vision fades, knees creak and our skin literally gets thinner. I can’t tell you how many drum-related cuts and scrapes I’ve incurred in the last couple years that never would have happened in my 30s. 

Sometimes I think, What if I collapse during a show? What if something really goes wrong? And then I remember that a rock show in 2023 would be one of the best possible places to bite the dust. Think about it: There’d be at least 35 doctors, nurses or medical students in the audience, right? If I were in Counting Crows, it would be 10 times that. And don’t get me started on the millions of Spotify sympathy spins. There’s a good chance I’d make enough that month to order off the fancy side of the menu at Outback Steakhouse.

Follow Article Topics: Inside-Dope