GIVING UP GROWING OLD
It’s not often that you are confronted with a fully naked 71-year-old punk. Walking into Juergen Teller’s recent exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, three bigger-than-life-size photographs of an unclothed Vivienne Westwood dominate the atrium space. Her brazen red hair and porcelain body, draped over a satin-quilted sofa, are strikingly beautiful and defiant. If you look closely, you can spot indented lines like river tributaries that wrap around her skin – there’s no sign of Photoshop touching up, smoothing out, slimming down. Westwood’s barefaced portraits embrace being and looking old. But the word “old” is out of place when applied to her. I don’t think of her as old; I don’t think of her designs or attitudes as outdated. Westwood has done the remarkable feat of bypassing old age; she lives like she’s still in her twenties. I wish I could have even just half the amount of energy and guts as her when I hit seventy.
On an adjacent wall in the ICA main gallery hangs Teller’s photograph of Kurt Cobain playing a guitar. Being in black and white, it’s as though Teller preserves Cobain in that moment – the photograph contrasts to the immediate, vibrant colours of Westwood’s portraits. Cobain’s premature death in 1994 means he forever remains the same; frozen at the age of 27. Following his death, the first idea of the “27 Club” (a list of popular musicians who died aged 27, often due to alcohol and drug abuse) was brought into public awareness. Reams of books and articles have investigated this bizarrely common occurrence. Is it a curse, coincidence or phenomenon that more rock stars have died at 27 than at any other age? Amy Winehouse is one of the latest musicians to join the list, which also includes Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Mia Zapata and Richey Edwards to name but a handful. Three years before her death, Winehouse told the press how scared she was of joining the 27 Club. Yet to be so aware of the Club almost defeats the coincidental nature of it. I’m not saying Winehouse deliberately induced death at 27 in order to heighten this rock and roll myth, but neither am I ruling out that the hype around the Club’s existence may create harmful superstition.
To live fast and die young has always had a glamorous appeal. In a way, the American President Abraham Lincoln spoke of a similar concept: “in the end it is not the years in your life that count, it is the life in your years”. But with some great artists dying before they are 30, it often leaves us wondering about what unfulfilled potential has been wasted and which masterpieces may have been lost. Especially when compared to the decades of productive careers given to us by musicians who continue to be old age rockers, like Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and the remaining Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith and members of The Who.
One of The Who’s most recognisable songs, “My Generation”, contains the lyric “hope I die before I get old” and yet they are still performing in their late sixties. Their “generation” hasn’t passed and they remain a backbone of British rock music. In a TV interview for Good Morning America in 1989, guitarist Pete Townshend, in a dapper grey suit and tie, spoke about the famous line from “My Generation”. For him, when he wrote the lyrics, the word “old” meant “someone who had achieved everything and looked at anybody that was climbing up the ladder with an eye to kicking them off. So I guess we’re old now”. The interview was to celebrate their 25th anniversary tour, so if at that point they considered themselves old, then perhaps being old isn’t such a negative.