I was thinking about bands that define my generation the other day (my high school and college years). For me that is the years from 1990 to 1998. (Basically the '90s) I was really into R.E.M., U2, 10,000 Maniacs, Beck, Oasis, the Cranberries, Sheryl Crow, Blur, Ben Folds, the Beastie Boys, and Radiohead. (not to mention all of the classic rock artists that came before them, but that's a different story) Bands that were popular but not my cup of tea included Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and most of the other grunge bands.
Looking back at those bands today, I'm getting a sense of what you mean about rock stars being larger than life in their own time. I think people like Michael Stipe, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Veddar, Beck, and a couple others did seem larger than life - to me at least. When you are young and impressionable that's when people seem the most mythic to you. I thought Michael Stipe was a very mystic figure with tons of knowledge hidden deep in those cryptic lyrics. I thought Eddie Vedder was the politically outspoken rock star of my generation, Kurt Cobain the distant loner, Beck and Ben Folds the eccentrics, Radiohead were alternative rock's stubborn survivors, U2 and the Beastie Boys were the bands your other brother or sister looked up to that you liked as well, etc.
They all seemed tied to the era and the issues that defined the era. All great bands are. When I think of R.E.M. I think of the anxiety during the height of the AIDS epidemic and the safe sex campaign. When I think of U2 I think about the information overload they ridiculed and mocked on their Zoo TV and PopMart Tours. When I think of Pearl Jam I think about Eddie Vedder's fight against Ticketmaster and corporate control over rock and roll. When I think about Kurt Cobain I think about his appearance on MTV Unplugged and how sad he looked. When I think about Sheryl Crow I think about the line "all I wanna do is have some fun" pretty much defining my later-day college years. When I think about Oasis and Beck I think about the end of the grunge era and the beginning of a new pop/rock era.
When you combine your own experiences and memories with the artists and characters that define the era, the legend begins to grow. I don't think people will ever look back at the '90s quite the same way they do the '60s, but they will look back. When they do and retro styles come into fashion as they inevitably will, these bands will seem legendary and their popularity will rise again. Whether or not that means they will fill stadiums or arenas is a different story, but I think their history will be preserved.
But let's face it - when the majority of the people think about Macca they think about him in the '60s. They don't think about Flaming Pie or even Tug of War. When people think about the Rolling Stones they think about the '60s and '70s. They are still selling out stadiums and arenas based on the work they did 30 to 40 years ago - not the work they are doing today. I would also argue that U2 are still selling out stadiums and arenas based on the work they did in the late '80s and early '90s. I think all of these groups still make good records and most of us on this forum go to hear the new material, but they are defined by the majority of the folks out there by the era they originally represented. If people out there still want to re-live the '90s 20 years from now, R.E.M. and Pearl Jam might still be able to sell out arenas.
And in the end...