When I’m Sixty-Five
My brother Larry was always ahead of the rest of us when it came to music. In the mid-1960s he festooned his room with garish black light posters and the latest discs flying out of the hit factories. It was not surprising, then, that he was the first in the family to throw the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” on the creaky record player we had on the premises.
Like most of the rest of the planet, I was mesmerized by the explosive technicolor dream that virtually every track of the 1967 masterpiece wrapped us in, from the prologue where the Beatles were nowhere to be seen and another band had usurped their place and stardom—to the inexorable ending with its frantic wall of sound turned on its side and headed for the moon two years before humans landed there.
Everything in between thrummed with disorienting power, with the exception of the one song that did not carry the same psychedelic freight of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “A Day in the Life” or “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” The outlier was “When I’m Sixty-Four,” a modest ditty that echoed the English Music Hall tradition in which Paul McCartney had been reared and that stubbornly resisted the novel glitz of the other numbers.
This tune was at odds with the maniacally youth-obsessed zeitgeist of the time, as it imagined a future where old age was still an incredulously plausible feature of our lives, in contrast to the fierce determination to die before getting old, as the Who insisted at full throttle.
Even more, this track assumed that life forty years hence would be pretty much like it was then. (Here are the lyrics.) Fuses would be replaced, gardens weeded, sweaters still knitted in front of a crackling fire. There would be the occasional, and not overly expensive, get away. The tangle of enduring human concerns would still command our attention—will you need me, feed me, and let me spend the night (with the light left on, just in case)?
There would also be the matter of those who would come next. Vera, Chuck and Dave would carry on this cozy life into a further future of valentines and cottages, of scrimping and saving. The future would not be Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It would be neither the grim apocalypse nor the rosy golden age. Instead, it would be more or less the ordinary post-war white Brit middle-class life, even if a bit worn around the edges.
I turned 64 just about a year ago, and this Pepper’s track regularly popped up in notes from friends and in my own mind like a detached strand of DNA from the now firmly-embedded Beatles genome. And now, in a scant few weeks, I will rocket away forever from this last thread-bare step of middle-age to what, at least in this culture, has long been regarded as a definitive launch into the last phase. While 65 traditionally has been a moment marked by retirement and gold watches, I am joining the endless others who carry on working well past that erstwhile milestone—in my case, teaching and organizing. Nevertheless, the present moment is a way station of sorts for assessing the journey thus far and what might be ahead.
If McCartney in the mid-Sixties envisioned a comfy world in the far future—one that was already at some variance with how things actually were even at the time he wrote it, in the go-go Sixties—the roller coaster over the past half-century must have come as a shock, what with careening Thackerism, war with Argentina, miner strikes, a growing diminution of Britain’s place in the world, the rollback of vestiges of the welfare state, and the self-inflicted wounds of the still unsettled Brexit debacle. Sir Paul has managed to thrive in spite of it all—indeed, well past 64 he is still producing music and vigorously touring, as his recent acclaimed concert at Grand Central Station attests—but fewer and fewer Brits are likely to splurge on a vacation on the Isle of Wight.
And on this side of the pond the shocks have never stopped over the last five decades, as the political shift to the right launched by Reagan set the tone for this era marked by the shredding of the safety net, one war after another, the shrill entitlement of white supremacy, and the racism, sexism and economic injustice that’s recently deepened under the shadow of growing authoritarianism and the attack on whatever remains of democracy.
At the same time, catching my breath before lunging forward to 65 and beyond, I marvel at the unbroken chain of resistance movements that have been at work over these decades, some of whom I have been fortunate to be part of. I wandered into activism without a plan and, before long, was so moved by the gifted and relentless people I saw in action there that I decided to see what I could do to join them, long-term. It was not the life I expected. But it became a path, sometimes crowded, sometimes with only one or two others loping along to what we hoped would be a more just world. For me, the path has widened in the past several years as Campaign Nonviolence has gathered steam.
I am grateful for all of it, then and now, and for the future that I long to see.
When I’m 65, I want to see a world where everyone counts.
When I’m 65, I want to be part of a multi-racial democracy.
When I’m 65, I want to live and roam around in a nonviolent city.
When I’m 65, I want to see headway on dismantling racism and sexism and homophobia – anything that pretends that some are superior to others – and everything that seeds and accelerates war and poverty and environmental catastrophe.
When I’m 65 I want peace, racial justice, economic equality, and environmental healing.
That’s what I want when I’m 65. And, if by some chance, I do not get my wish, I will want it, if I am fortunate to still be here, when I’m 75. And 85. And 105. And forever after I’m gone.
That’s the valentine I hope to be sending, even then.
In addition to teaching at DePaul University in Chicago, Ken Butigan has worked with Pace e Bene since 1990. He will be 65 all year long beginning on November 5.