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Rock of All Ages: Playing Bass

A former frontman steps back to learn a new instrument — and keep on rockin'!

By Peter Gerstenzang | June 25, 2012

Although it’s just a hobby, one of my life’s greatest pleasures has been to get up onstage and rock out, to throttle my guitar and sing passionately like, say, Elvis Costello. But in recent years I began to gain weight and started lumbering around up there, until the only Costello I really resembled was Lou.

Around this time, I took stock of myself. I was pushing 50. My hairline was receding. My waist size was almost identical to age. Did this mean I was supposed to stop rocking? Or take desperate measures before hitting the stage, like covering my head with more scarves than Erno, King of the Gypsies? To accommodate my expanding stomach, should I start wearing a pair of those ridiculous pajama jeans?
 
As it turned out, no. There was a way I could cede to the passing years and still rock on. Instead of remaining the frenetic frontman, strutting and howling like a rooster on Ritalin, I could play bass — safely tucked away in back, keeping the groove, the soul and my dignity. The bass has always struck me as something made to be played by the middle-aged. Heck, this big, ungainly instrument looks like it was born middle-aged. If it was an actor, it would be Walter Matthau.

So, a few years ago, at 49, I bought a bass guitar and began teaching myself to play. I immediately felt better. It was as if I’d acquired both a new hobby and a way to keep myself excited. As hobbies go, that’s pretty good. Trust me, you don’t get the same feeling learning how to play Yahtzee.
 
Now, I should mention that almost anyone can learn the bass. It has only four strings and they are identical (tuning-wise) to those of a guitar. Plus, you usually pluck notes that require one finger. So all you need is a halfway decent ear to immediately play a few tunes. With a slightly better ear, you can learn every song ever written by Neil Young and still have time to clean the house and make dinner.
 
Once I’d learned a little bass, other wonderful benefits accrued. I made new friends. I found two middle-aged guys and a gal who also played for fun. We got together and jammed. Admittedly, at this point, my skills were pretty rudimentary, so we wound up playing "Down By The River" three times that first day. But the real boon? Because of our collective fear of tinnitus, we kept the volume comfortably low. And when our session was over, we weren’t so deafened that we were yelling or signing to one another. In the old days, by night’s end the bands I was in used to look like the road company of Children of A Lesser God.
 
Also, we middle-agers sat down while playing — except for our guitarist, Johnny, who foolishly ended one song with a Pete Townshend-style windmill. I think Johnny’s arm is still stuck in an upraised, waving position. It’s not such a bad thing, though. He’s known as the friendliest guy in his town.
 
A few years have gone by and I’m still plunking away. And, as with my increasingly gray hair, it suits me. Sure, I’m no longer at the mic, gesticulating, jumping and shrieking like Richard Simmons beseeching you to try Deal-A-Meal. Instead, I’ve bowed to time and allowed younger men to take their turn up front. I know this is good. In fact, I believe it’s written in the Book of Ecclesiastes. The “kids” do their thing. I back them up — literally and figuratively.
 
As time moves on, I think this decision is going to go down as one of my smarter moves, like eating more fiber or dumping my AstraZeneca stock in 2009. I think it's safe to say this aging thing isn’t going to stop anytime soon. As old frontmen get even older, they have to desperately squeeze into leather pants before a gig — which, afterward, will need to be surgically removed in a trauma ward. And what will their insurance providers say about that?
 
Us bass players? We’ll be all right. Okay, we won’t be as sexy as Billy Idol. Then again, neither will Billy Idol. Still, we’ll be keeping the beat, providing the groove all you midlife cats dance to. Okay, if you look closely at me, I won’t be wearing the hippest duds. But, come on. Isn’t it better to make concessions to age than to pathetically fight it?

So, yep, I’ll still be rockin’. And, yes, people may be mumbling, “He’s cute! But what’s up with those pajama jeans?” But you know what? If that’s the worst thing they say about me, I think I’ll be able to live with it.