Why you should care
Because if things work right, you’re going to get older. And aging with grace is no accident.
We could probably blame rock and roll.
Or, more specifically, Pete Townshend with all of his hoping he died before he got old. Which, at age 68, he presently is.
Yes, rock and roll eats its young. And age bias is part and parcel of our perceptions of the other performing arts as well, where the unspoken wisdom is that if it’s going to happen for you as an artist, it’s going to happen well before you hit 70.
Sticking to your artistic guns in the face of general urgings to “get real” isn’t easy at any age…
Which is why we tend to bet against outliers like Charles Bukowski, the poet who worked in a post office for almost a decade until catching a break and officially hitting his stride at age 49. Sticking to your artistic guns in the face of general urgings to “get real” isn’t easy at any age, but sticking to them long after hope still seems seemly — that takes no small amount of panache, professionalism and, most important, art that’s both vibrant and vital. So it is with the three artists (plus one honorable mention) we feature here, who have persisted in creating relevant art deep into their latter years.
Being called the “godfather” of just about anything will never be anything other than cool, but in the case of 91-year-old Lithuanian artist Jonas Mekas, being glossed as “the Godfather of American avant-garde cinema” approaches turbo-cool. He was captured by and subsequently escaped from the Nazis in 1944, and by 1949 he was making films on a camera bought with borrowed cash.
Mekas cut a significant swath through film criticism/journalism and filmmaking, made his way to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood well before it was drawing hipster crowds, and eventually collaborated with a who’s who of art world notables — Salvador Dalí, Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon and Andy Warhol — while championing the so-called obscene works of none other than Jean Genet and getting arrested for his troubles. Flash forward to 2007, when an 82-year-old Mekas launched The 365 Day Project, in which he released one film per day on his website … for a year. A Mekas film retrospective wrapped up just a few days ago in Brussels.
”It would not be incorrect to say about Mekas,” said Gibbs Chapman, director of the recently released Mother Mortar, Father Pestle, ”that from his influence on Warhol to Warhol’s influence on most of how you understand what you see today, in music videos for example, that he owns it all.” Not bad for an ”old” man.
The 71-year-old Laraaji is noteworthy not so much for his advanced age (and he’s a mere slip compared with Mekas), but for his climb to artistic notoriety, which came in the unlikeliest of ways well after most of us would have heeded the call of other pastimes. Entering this life as Edward Larry Gordon, Laraaji went to Howard University and bumped around on a variety of instruments, from the piano and the trombone to violin, before he came to rest on the underappreciated zither. He electrified it and took it to the streets, and began a spiritual journey by way of busking in New York’s Washington Square Park in 1979.
One day he found a scribbled note in his cash case. It was an apology for the fact that it was on a rumpled piece of paper — but this piece of paper was from Brian Eno. And if you’re a fan of Roxy Music, Eno’s stuff with Robert Fripp, or just a fan of wild-assed experimental music, you know that’s like getting a note from God. Since then, Laraaji has had — if not a rocket ride, then a steady stream of compelling work (almost 50 records to date) — all while he keeps on with his interests in yoga, tai chi, laughter therapy and a pastiche of other Eastern influences.
And next for this son of the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia? The Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, with Steve Reich, Television, John Cale and others from March 28 to March 30. If you’re younger than 71, there’s probably no plausible excuse for missing his twisted take on so-called “new age” music.
We tracked Barbara Chase-Riboud down to the 6th arrondissement in Paris, right near Luxembourg Gardens. The 75-year-old Chase-Riboud has led enough lives in this lifetime to qualify as an honorary cat. Painting, sculpting, poems, books, films, awards, a Yale degree and even a lawsuit against Steven Spielberg over aggressive similarities between his Amistad and her previously published Echo of Lions . And before that? Her book Sally Hemings broke open what had been a long-contested issue regarding Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with the slave Sally Hemings and the six children they had together. DNA tests finally put the issue to bed, so to speak, confirming Chase-Riboud’s contention that one of the fathers of the United States of America also fathered biracial children.
And sitting in a café with her, it seems strange to say about a talent and intellect so prodigious, but her glamour comes at you in waves. “I don’t go looking for trouble,” she says, her face framed by large sunglasses. ”But I am a fan of letting the work really speak for itself.” The work she’s most recently been letting speak for itself was a display of her sculptures at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After that, the peripatetic ex-pat goes on to editing the letters she sent to her mom since leaving Philadelphia, with an eye toward what will be her eighth book.
“It’s really a grand journey.” We should all be so lucky.
And our honorable mention goes to…
Sigríður Níelsdóttir didn’t start making music until she was 70. And even then, just for friends and family. That in and of itself, given our purview, is not that shocking. What’s a little more than surprising about this Icelandic octogenarian was that within the confines of her living room in Reykjavík she generated over 600 songs, 59 CDs and had a fan base that included Björk, Sigur Rós and at least one set of documentary filmmakers who tracked her down to make a movie about her use of keyboards, found sounds, harmonicas, cassette players and computers.
Half-German, half-Danish, the Icelandic Níelsdóttir passed away in 2011, well into her 80s. Too shy to play her music live, she lived long enough to see others perform it to widespread acclaim. “When I started, I had 240 tunes, and after that I have made more,” she says in the documentary. And she did. Right up to the end of not going gently into this good night at all.
Which is all to say that if you’re looking for an excuse for nonperformance, continuing to use age as a reason for not getting stuff done just got harder. Unless you’re already old. In which case, just consider this a serious call to arms.