When I'm 64: It's Not What I Thought
The Beatles song painted a very different picture of what it's like to grow older
John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.
As every boomer knows, this is a milestone birthday — as important as turning 21, 40 or 65 — made famous by Paul McCartney in his song, “When I’m 64.” Who of our generation doesn’t know it by heart? “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?” It’s in our DNA.
The song, of course, is off the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, which was released in the summer of 1967. How far away 64 seemed to me then. Forty-five years away, to be exact. I was 19 and living at home when Sgt. Pepper came out. I first saw it in the LP record rack at Long’s Drug Store in San Pablo, Calif. Its cover art — the Fab Four dressed in Day-Glo military uniforms, surrounded by a collage of famous people in cardboard cutouts — stopped me in my tracks.
I had to buy it, though I’d yet to hear any of the cuts. Didn’t matter, it was the Beatles! Once I did play it, I couldn’t stop listening. Both my parents worked so the house was empty most of the day. I’d put the record on the turntable of our Curtis Mathis stereo and play it over and over from beginning to end. Songs like “Fixing a Hole” and “She’s Leaving Home” spoke to the heart of this lonely, mixed-up teenager. The exotic Indian instrumentation on “Within You, Without You,” put me in a hypnotic trance. I felt stoned when I played Sgt. Pepper.
The only song that didn’t speak to me was “When I’m 64.” Although I liked its bouncy melody, I couldn’t relate to its message of aging. I was never going to be 30, let alone 64.
So here I am turning 64 on October 9, the same day that John Lennon would have turned 72. By now you’d think I could finally identify with the song. But I can’t — and it’s not the Beatles fault. Being 64 today isn’t what it was in 1967. Times have changed.
Not so long ago life was pretty much over at 64. The song says as much: mending fuses, knitting sweaters, digging weeds — those, say McCartney’s lyrics, are the activities that await us as seniors. Tell that to the boomers who pack health clubs, run triathlons and go on kayaking excursions in the Yukon.
In 1967 people who were 64 seemed ancient and very square, like Bing Crosby, Arthur Godfrey and Lawrence Welk. Compare these entertainers to today's 64s: Billy Crystal, Steven Tyler and Ozzy Osbourne for starters. In just 10 years Madonna will be 64.
And who today has grandchildren with such old-timey names as Vera, Chuck and Dave? Nowadays, it’s more like Madison, Cole and Dakota. And try putting them on your knee, as the song says we’ll be doing. They’re way too busy texting.
As for getting older and losing my hair, that didn’t happen either, at least for me. I still have a full head of it, even if it is gray.
Ours is the generation that swore it would never grow up. So far, we’ve done an excellent job of fulfilling that pledge. Like it or not, what we couldn’t have foreseen is how the economy would conspire to keep us from slowing down and growing complacent. McCartney’s lyrics talk about renting a summer cottage on the Isle of Wight “if it’s not too dear.” A three-month rental in a resort area known for its sailing regattas? Sorry, Paul. Not unless you’re a 1 percenter.
My grandfather retired when he was 65. He and my grandmother settled back and watched the world go by. He had a pension on top of his social security so he could afford to kick back. And his house was paid for. It should have been. He and my grandmother lived in it for 30 years, paying off the mortgage.
Like so many boomers, I’m still weighing employment options: Do I work to 70, 80 — and then what? Be a Wal-Mart greeter? I’ve refinanced my condo so many times I’ll never own it. Maybe the only person still needing me and feeding me will be myself.
“When I’m 64” is not the only song on the Sgt. Pepper album whose meaning has changed for me over the last 45 years. I used to think the opening song, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” was about drugs, and the comfort they bring. Not anymore.
Times are different and I'm different too. At the end of the day it’s my friends who get me by. If not in person, they’re there for me on speed-dial and email. Some I’ve known since the summer of 1967. At 64, some things haven't changed.