I was browsing online a couple of months ago when I came across the headline, “Petula Clark Turns 80.” What? That’s not possible. I remember when she was part of the British invasion, an icon of Swinging London, a mainstay of the Top Forty. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Downtown” or “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” coming out of a transistor ra—
I experienced a similar cognitive rebuke a few weeks later while riding on the uptown 1 train. I was standing near a trio of women I would guess were at least in their mid-60s. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop—not that I’m above that sort of thing—but two words kept surfacing: “Mick Jagger.” I couldn’t quite get close enough to hear what they had to say about Sir Mick, but I did notice that they were talking about him with great familiarity, as if they had grown up listening to the Rolling Stones. And then I realized, they had.
Obituaries of members of 1960s rock bands have been appearing with greater and greater frequency lately, and not because of choking-on-vomit youthful idiocy. Because of natural causes. Old age causes: Lee Dorman, 70, bassist for Iron Butterfly, while waiting for a heart transplant; Jon Lord, 71, keyboardist for Deep Purple, pulmonary embolism; Reg Presley, 71, lead singer of the Troggs, after a series of strokes; Ray Collins, mid-70s, singer with the Mothers of Invention, cardiac arrest; Levon Helm, 71, drummer and singer in the Band, complications of cancer. (Mick Jagger had better watch himself; he turns 70 this year.)
Not that I feel a particular affinity for any of those bands, though you gotta love “Wlld Thing” and “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida.” But let me put it this way. If I hear that a Patti Page or a Dave Brubeck has died, I don’t feel any shock. I might not even know they were still alive. But Davy Jones of the Monkees (66, heart attack)?
Psychologists refer to the inaccurate estimation of the passage of time as telescoping, though the term seems to have been coined, in 1965, by a pair of statisticians. The idea itself dates at least to the 1860s, when the German experimental physiologist Karl von Vierodt found that people tend to underestimate long time intervals and overestimate short time intervals. One extension of this idea is that events in the distant past seem to have occurred more recently than they actually did (forward telescoping) while recent events seem to have occurred more distantly in the past (backward telescoping). “This phenomenon,” Vicki G. Morwitz, a professor of marketing at New York University, wrote in a 1997 paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, “is commonly experienced in daily life and is the cause of such a phrase [as] ‘it seems like only yesterday.’”
Hearing Petula Clark’s “I Know a Place” for the first time doesn’t quite feel like yesterday to me, but it sure doesn’t feel like half a century either. But then, what is half a century supposed to feel like? You have to be at least 53 or 54 to know what it feels like to you, and by that point in your life the years seem to be passing faster and faster, a phenomenon that is presumably related to telescoping, and that would seem to compromise a reliable assessment of time.
As far as I can tell, the research into why the brain treats time like a Slinky is inconclusive. The cause might be physical; perhaps a slower metabolism makes the world seem faster. It might be psychological; as we get older, maybe we value time more than when we were young because we have, one, potentially less of it ahead of us and, two, a greater appreciation of its passing than, say, a 16-year-old. That’s the age at which Paul McCartney composed “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Sixty-four must have seemed forever away then. I can’t speak for Sir Paul (rock stars being knighted should have been a clue that a lot of time was passing), but I suspect that, at 70, he would agree: Yesterday came suddenly.