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I Can’t Die—I’m Booked!

Does playing into your 80s and 90s keep you alive longer?

According to the US Census Bureau, the average life expectancy of a male living in the US in 2010 is 75.7 years. Although there’s no hard evidence that musicians live longer, a quick look reveals a lot of geezers out there gigging. We all know those colorful old kooks in our hometown who make it to every jam session (as long as it wraps before 10 p.m.). More obvious examples are the celeb musicians who seem to go on forever—and I don’t mean Mick and Keith old. I mean fullon, antediluvian dinosaurs.

A short while ago, I sat three feet away from Dave Brubeck as he played a rare club show at The Dakota in Minnesota. Brubeck turned 89 in December, and you can see every year and long, road-weary mile in his gnarled hands and frail posture as he shuffles with assistance to the piano. But once he starts playing, he’s transformed into fluid movement, sound, and joy. Yes, that sounds corny as hell, but I know what I saw. And it was a mystical, powerful experience.

Maybe part of the magic of that concert came from the fact that everyone in the venue, including Brubeck and his band, knew that he won’t be here much longer. But there he sat, defying death and all the gloom and doom that comes with it, gently coaxing endless melodies out of all 88 keys. He plays with the spirit of a child and the knowledge of the most seasoned veteran in jazz. Even with my eyes closed, it was an amazing concert. With my eyes open, it was spiritual.

Les Paul went down swinging at age 94. What makes Paul an interesting case study is that he went into semi retirement at age 49— and his health quickly faded. By his mid 50s, he had had a stroke and a heart attack. Pauls’ doctor told him he needed to get back to work. He replied, “I thought work was killing me?” The doctor suggested that work would keep him alive. Within two years, Paul had a fresh Grammy for his collaboration with Chet Atkins, and his health and career had both taken a dramatic turn for the better. One could argue that Pauls’ returning to work may have almost doubled his life span.

Pinetop Perkins and David “Honeyboy” Edwards were both friends of Robert Johnson, and both won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award when they were in their 90s. At 96 and 94, respectively, both still do around 100 gigs a year. In 2004, Perkins was driving to a gig in Indiana when his car was hit by a train. The car was destroyed, but Perkins was uninjured. Now he’s taken to playing almost exclusively around Austin rather than logging serious miles on the road. In 2007, Honeyboy was featured in the movie Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and then toured Europe for two months. The average life expectancy of a black man in America is 69.8 years, which makes their longevity even more astounding.

Pete Seeger is 90. Doc Watson is 87. Earl Scruggs is 86. B.B. King is 84. Chuck Berry is 83. Fats Domino is 82. And Burt Bacharach is 81. Every one of these old road dogs can be heard and seen playing a casino near you— they just don’t quit. One suspects that if they did, they’d die.

Although the link between music and longevity may not be proven, there’s ample support for a positive correlation between music and one’s mental alacrity. Old musicians fair far better than their inactive contemporaries in the war against dementia (including Alzheimer’s). Watch an interview with any of the ancient players mentioned above and you’ll find sharp minds. The mere act of listening to music has been utilized for years as a successful treatment for dementia, dancing to music has an even more powerful effect. Although no studies have been done on the effects of playing music, the logical conclusion seems to be that, the more physically and mentally involved one is with music, the more profound the effect.

The life of a musician can be a tough one. We’re prone to money problems. We often pick up bad habits like drinking too much, sleeping too little, eating bad food, and perhaps dabbling in other inadvisable substances.

Musicians are more likely to go through a divorce or two—which is a hellish experience that can take years off of one’s life. All those factors routinely kill normal people early in life, but a good deal of our kind just keeps on rocking in spite of the damage we inflict on ourselves.

Maybe the connection between music and remaining healthy has less to do with exercising our minds and fingers and more to do with infusing us with a little shot of happiness when we play. Happy people live longer, healthier lives—and music is an excellent source of good times. And regardless of whether playing music adds years to your life, I think we can all agree that playing music adds life to your years.

John Bohlinger
John Bohlinger is a Nashville guitar slinger who works primarily in television and has recorded and toured with over 30 major-label artists. His songs and playing can be heard in major motion pictures, on major-label releases, and in literally hundreds of television drops.
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