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A long and winding trip along the yellow brick road

Time was in these parts, if you wanted to find The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pete Seeger, The Grateful Dead and the members of the famed “Million Dollar Quartet” of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley all in one place … you’d have to hit the fabulous collection available at the Music Coop in Ashland.

This month, though, those legends — well, their songs — are represented on various stages across the Rogue Valley.

It’s a curious phenomenon … the staying power of musicians, locked into a freeze-frame of time. Equally as fascinating is the culture of tribute acts bringing the legends “to life” — either through simple presentations, or elaborate stage shows with performers in period costumes and, yes, hairstyles.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first national television appearance of Rain — a Beatles tribute band that now has been performing four times longer than the Fab Four were together. If you think that’s a long and winding road, consider that Elvis tribute artists have been around since the mid-1950s … and that an Illinois impressionist named Dave Ehlert began doing Presley more than 50 years ago — and hasn’t stopped.

You'll remember that Elvis, if you believe the truthers, “died” at the age of 42.

It was The Who that lamented, “I hope I die before I get old,” but while Keith Moon and, arguably, John Entwistle were the only ones to follow through, the generation they were talking about finds itself at a strange crossroads. As they succumb to age, disease or drugs — or some combination thereof — the legends take their final bows while the fans want the music to play on.

Consider the latest addiction that has hooked stars of the Baby Boomer golden age of rock … retirement.

Elton John announced he’s saying goodbye to the yellow brick road of touring. Paul Simon says he’s slip, slidin’ away as well. Neil Diamond ended his 50th Anniversary Tour prematurely on the advice of doctors after the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Eric Clapton plays on — despite the revelation that he’s going deaf and that his legendary hands have been slowed by a form of eczema that causes pain when he plays.

Other bands from across the spectrum of the 1960s and '70s are starting to hang it up as well, as Alex Lifeson of Rush said this week to Rolling Stone (itself an anachronism of the time period): “We have no plans to tour or record any more. … After 41 years, we felt it was enough.”

All of those stars performed well past their eligibility for the “27 Club” (the infamous listing of famed musicians who died at that age) — whose members include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones of the Stones, “Pigpen” McKernan of the Dead, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain … and dozens of other less-familiar names.

Jiles Perry Richardson Jr. (aka The Big Bopper) was 28 when he and young guns Buddy Holly and Richie Valens were killed in a plane crash on “The Day The Music Died” ... 59 years ago this month. Don McLean was 26 when he memorialized the day in his classic “American Pie” — which makes the song itself 47 years old when he performs it next month at The Cascade Theatre in Redding.

Songs from Holly, Valens and The Big Bopper were staged a year ago as part of Camelot Theatre’s “Spotlight On” series — which this year turns the … well … spotlight on Joplin, Tina Turner, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles.

Local musicians take to the stage at the Craterian this spring to pay tribute to the music of Carole King & James Taylor (in April) and John Lennon (May). “Million Dollar Quartet” continues at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre through mid-April; and the Britt Festivals summer lineup likely will include names familiar to a certain generation of fans as well.

The fascination with the rock-pop hemisphere of our brains — what Boomers tend to over-dramatize as “the soundtrack of our lives” — appears much stronger than for other genres.

Rap and hip-hop seem so deeply rooted culturally in the here and now that the idea of tribute bands taking to the stage as N.W.A. or Run-DMC for the next 40 years would be unlikely at best.

And in country, to paraphrase Paul Simon, every generation sends a hero up the pop charts as classic acts get pushed further toward the fringes. Even relatively modern stalwarts wake up one day and find themselves in odd places: Vince Gill is playing guitar with the (post-Glenn Frey) Eagles, while Reba McEntire is hidden behind a white goatee and a Matlock-suit as the latest Col. Sanders in commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

So, as Abbey Road and Satisfaction take to the Ashland Armory stage this weekend as the Beatles and Rolling Stones, it might be the ever-lasting devotion to a sound and an era that stands the test of time.

Will we still need them, will we still heed them, when we’re 64? Apparently so.

— Mail Tribune copy editor Robert Galvin, who sings along to the works of Gilbert O’Sullivan, can be reached at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com.

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