Happy

Never kept a dollar past sunset
It always burned a hole in my pants
Never went to school, but I’m happy
Never blew a second chance

-“Happy” Rolling Stones

On a nearly perfect June evening, Mom and I braved the most ridiculous traffic jam this side of New York City to squeeze into the Summerfest grounds and witness four men with a collective age of more than 280 years ply their trade.

The Rolling Stones had included Milwaukee as one of their stops along the 15-city “Zip Code” Tour the band crafted in honor of the re-release of the 1971 “Sticky Fingers” album. Eschewing Chicago for Milwaukee was kind of a stunner, but what made it even more shocking was the choice of venue: The Marcus Amphitheater. This 26,000-seat shit-box on the shores of Lake Michigan lacked the sound system, seating capacity and stage options associated with other places in Milwaukee. Still, it was where the band went, so that’s where we went.

I had seen the band in 1994, when the Stones visited Camp Randall in Madison. Mom hadn’t gotten the chance in the 10 stops the band had made in Cream City since 1964, and this was likely to be the only shot she’d have. Tickets sold out in seven minutes and only a miracle of computerized randomness had me picking up two tickets without having to brave the astronomical secondary market.

By all rights, this concert never should have happened.

This band should have been dead in 1969, when Brian Jones drown in his swimming pool or that same year when the Hell’s Angels killed Meredith Hunter in front of the Stones at Alamont Speedway.

If not then, probably when Mick Taylor left the group in 1974 and the music scene began to shift away from rock ‘n’ roll.

Or maybe in 1977 when Keith Richards was busted in Toronto for possession of heroin with intent to traffic, an offense that carries a seven-year prison sentence in Canada.

Or after the 1981 tour basically crapped out, in what one journalist noted was a “series of performances fueled more by sponsorship money from Jovan Musk perfume than intensity from the Stones.”

Or in 1986, when Richards and Jagger’s lengthy feud over vocals finally boiled over publically.

Or…

And yet, here were these septuagenarians mounting a stage again.

It wasn’t because they needed the money. It wasn’t because they had to prove anything to anyone. It was because they wanted to play live and we all wanted to see them.

To watch Mick Jagger run from pillar to post on that stage was something to behold as he belted out lyrics that were as strong and true as the first time they erupted from his prodigious lips. Ron Wood, the “kid” who joined the band in 1974 and never left, ripped off riff after riff, even busting out the slide guitar to back his buddy Keith during Richards’ two-song vocal set.

Perhaps the most incredible and yet unnoticed part of the performance was Charlie Watts. A Stones aficionado once told me that if I got another chance to see the Stones live, I should spend at least one song just listening to the drums. Watts has spent a lifetime quietly giving the band its steel core and spine as he adapted a jazz-drumming style to fit the needs of the band. Although everyone in the band has an ego, during one interview, years ago, the other four members (Bill Wyman was with the group at the time) noted that anyone could be replaced. Except Charlie.

As I watched this joyful expression of musical mastery, I thought of my mother.

It wasn’t because we spent the last two summers catching incredible musical acts together, but because of how similar she was to these guys.

Once she hit her 35th year of teaching, people kept asking, “So, when are you going to retire?” She never gave them an actual answer and often felt insulted by the question. To her it was an indictment of talent and skill.

She would teach until she was done. It’s what she loved. It’s what she enjoyed. It’s what she was good at.

When she finally called it quits after 45 years, it wasn’t because she hated the kids or the administration or anything like that. It was because the state had piled on ridiculous testing requirements and floated ideas that made her fear for her pension. She wasn’t about to lose all she’d worked for, so she grudgingly took a bow and left.

Still, she loved teaching, so she took part in a “Teachers on Call” program and volunteered to teach as a paid substitute for her old school. She had multiple long-term gigs, subbing in for her friends who were taking trips or new teachers who were going on maternity leave.

Why? You just retired, people would say.

Because I love it, she would answer. I’m not going to sit around the house and watch TV.

The concert experience was an extension of that “get busy living or get busy dying” approach my mother took to everything in her life, especially teaching.

Just before the show began, the guy in front of us started making small talk.

“Redwings fan?” he asked, pointing at my jersey shirt.

“Sort of. It’s Gordie Howe’s jersey.”

The guy told me he was a Blackhawks fan and we chatted a bit.

I never thought about the shirt until the guy pointed it out, but it’s one more case of someone who just loved doing something great.

Gordie Howe played for 25 years as a Detroit Redwing and as he got older, people kept asking when he was going to retire. He’d always have the same answer:

“I’m going to play next year, anyway. And if they don’t figure out that I’m done, well, I’ll probably play another year after that.”

Finally, the Wings had had enough of their ageless star. Sports personality Dave Diles noted that the Wings management of that era “couldn’t find their fanny with both hands,” and they moved Gordie into an office job. He used to say he got “the mushroom treatment: They keep me in the dark and every once in a while they shovel some manure on me.”

When the World Hockey Association drafted Howe’s sons, he decided to make a comeback at age 45. Hockey purists called it ridiculous. Howe went out and scored 100 points. He kept scoring and playing and winning. When the WHA folded and several teams came into the NHL, Howe was on familiar ice again, playing until the age of 52.

Even when he called it quits the second time, he wasn’t really done. When he would go scouting for the Hartford Whalers, he kept his equipment in the trunk of his car, just in case the team invited him onto the ice.

One of his colleagues noted that many people feel as though maybe they should do something else with their lives after doing one thing for a long time. That wasn’t Gordie. All he ever wanted to be was a hockey player.

In this strange confluence of events, I found myself in awe of Stones, my mom and anyone else of “a certain age” who can still bring it. If I am ever able to be as good at ANYTHING as these people were at that age, I would be grateful beyond any calculability. If I loved doing it to the degree they did, it would be absolutely incredible.

Two days after the concert, I had a long-dreaded meeting with the provost about my involvement in the student newspaper. He approves my salary for that part of the gig and for the past seven years, he’s never even asked for an email from me. This year, with budget crunches and general state insanity, he asked my boss to schedule a formal sit-down meeting with me. I was bracing for the worst.

The first thing he asked me was if I wanted to keep working at the paper.

“More than anything,” I explained.

He went on and touched on a few minor issues, asked a few questions and then kind of summed up.

“We’ve had people in this role before who either do it for the money or because they’re forced, so I wanted to see where you were at with this. I also wanted to make sure you felt involved.”

“Yes, sir, I am. It’s my life. I love it more than anything else I do.”

“Good to know,” he said with wry smile.

He walked me to the door and sent me on my way.

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