By Raffique Shah
July 04, 2019
There is a song, a beautiful song in lyrics, melody and its first recorded rendition, that has been the anthem of successive generations that grew older—over 50, over 60, take your pick. It is an ode to nostalgia, but more than that it celebrates youth even as it warns the young that growing old has its challenges, an inevitability that we must all face.
By now, most readers who love good music will have identified “Those were the days”, a timeless poem (yes, it was originally a Russian poem/folk song) as the classic I am referring to. For those who are lost to what I’m writing about, let the chorus sing for itself:
“Those were the days my friend/We thought they’d never end/We’d sing and dance forever and a day/We’d live the life we choose/We’d fight and never lose/For we were young and sure to have our way…la la la la…”
When Paul McCartney chose Mary Hopkin to record the Gene Raskin version of the folk song on The Beatles’ Apple label, he could not have selected a better singer and a more appropriate time. Hopkin added soul to the romantic idealism of the young people who sang along as singers, in several languages, sang the song. And in July, 1968, when it shot to the top of the charts (behind The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”), there was a massive global “youth-quake” in which millions of young people across the world, especially in Europe, and the USA, shook the established order to its foundations with their cries, “Make love, not war!”
Many songs and singers influenced that global revolution, but this one, which expressed the invincibility of youth, the near-immortality we ascribed to ourselves, but also peered into the realities of aging that were inevitable once we lived to cross the biological boundaries that marked the point of deterioration, which is not the same for everyone.
Listening to it now, at age 73, as I have over the 50 years it has made an indelible mark on the part of my brain that evokes pleasure from good music. I never tire of it. I can better appreciate it, especially as I have lived quite a satisfying life given that my modest goals, my preference for simplicity over sophistication. I never craved wealth or material things that can never compare with the love one experiences in a caring extended family and the warmth that emanates from friendships that stand the test of time.
Like so many of my peers, I have lived the spirit of that song—the abandon, sometimes the recklessness of youth-and later matured to shoulder the responsibilities of parenthood as well as those that went with the leadership of fairly large organisations. I have been far from perfect—I will readily admit that. But I can truly reflect on my life and lustily sing, or likelier croak, “Those were the days my friend…”
Other than celebrating youth, this song conditions our minds and our bodies to expect and accept the aging process: “Just tonight I stood before the tavern/Nothing seemed the way it used to be/In the glass I saw a strange reflection/Was that lonely woman really me?/Those were the days my friend…”
When you are young, you can hardly envisage growing old. In fact, since the song stamped its lyrics as an ode to aging, generations have fought this natural path with everything possible and more than a few that are patently impossible. Physical fitness and exercise that were the province of a minority 50 years ago exploded into trillion-dollar industries globally. Marathons that once upon a time were run by a small number of eccentrics, if not outright madmen (women were excluded), grew exponentially and became prestigious events.
Gyms that were sparse and catered to small numbers of muscular freaks, expanded from crude shed-like structures to sophisticated social and workout clubs where women more than men sweat to maintain youthful appearances for as long as the laws of nature would allow them. And the health industries, whose promises of delivering the fountain of eternal youth in capsules or via surgical procedures, now rank with hydrocarbons, minerals and information technology as the most profitable enterprises globally.
People are living longer now than ever before, although the so-called “lifestyle diseases” are taking a toll, rendering the extra years more a burden than a blessing. Indeed, a vast number of older persons stricken by diseases that are debilitating, sometimes crippling, many of whom have been all but abandoned by their too busy or ungrateful and uncaring offspring, pray for a hasty exit to the hereafter.
For all the advances in medicine, pharmaceuticals and herbal products, relatively few people live to enjoy the eighties without any serious afflictions or the aches doctor-defying pains that mark aging. In fact, a high percentage begin to experience the downhill signals from as early as their fifties, and the sixties invariably signal their closer-to-Thee-my-Lord landmarks in life with an array of “pills”, medical appointments and herbal concoctions.
Which is why, if I am to give advice to the young about living their lives to the fullest, my first injunction will be “ignore everything you hear or read about the golden years”. Golden years my foot! Enjoy yourself, with moderation and within your means, while you are young and able to “sing and dance forever and a day”. Ensure that you provide for your families, educate your children, but above all, have fun.
For if you end up in your sixties or seventies stricken by some debilitating disease that robs you of the joy of living and doing the things you’d like to do, at least you can look back at your active years and croon: those were the days my friends.