Raw Power: How Iggy Pop Transcends Rock’s Ageist Mythology

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Ever since The Who proclaimed, “Hope I die before I get old,” rock ‘n’ roll has been a young person’s game. Over the years, countless musicians have extolled the virtues of youth and reveled in iconoclastic denunciations of all that’s gone before. This sets music apart from other art forms — literature, visual art, even film — which respect and celebrate the experience and wisdom that come with old age. In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, Saturn never gets a chance to devour his children; by the time the idea presents itself, they’re already making records about how much they hate him.

The result is that Saturn just kinda hangs around, growing ever less relevant as he ages. Nearly half a century after The Who made their incendiary declaration, rock’s mythology of youth is rubbing up against its reality in increasingly disruptive ways. There are plenty of examples of this, although perhaps the neatest was Sonic Youth retaining a moniker that became increasingly incongruous with every passing year, before they were finally put paid to by that most middle-age of crises: marital infidelity. As punks and even indie musicians join the ranks of classic rockers in the AARP, the question of how an art form so intimately attached to the veneration of youth handles that youth receding grows more urgent.

Nick Cave’s most recent album addresses this topic, and it’s one that holds enduring fascination. Some artists choose to pack it in gracefully — the relatively young James Murphy, for instance, told Stephen Colbert that he ended LCD Soundsystem because “I’m 41… at a certain point it gets embarrassing,” and a generation earlier, Grace Slick stopped performing because “all rock-and-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire.” (One could argue that being responsible for this might have been a contributing factor to the whole looking-stupid thing, but that’s a different discussion.)

But there are others who seem able to challenge the orthodoxy of the idea that old is inherently bad. The obvious example is artists who were never greatly into the whole youth idea in the first place — like Leonard Cohen, who at nearly 80 is probably more well-loved and respected than he’s ever been. (The amazing three-and-a-half hour shows he’s been playing on his recent tour haven’t hurt, either.) But then, Cohen’s also never been entirely about music; he was a published poet and novelist before he ever recorded a song, and his musical career didn’t begin until his 30s, by which time he’d conveniently avoided the idea of being any sort of avatar of youthful rebellion.

Others who’ve managed to maintain a similar level of respect are similarly old souls who’ve always inhabited their own world — Tom Waits, Kate Bush, and Bob Dylan, for instance — or former hellraisers who’ve mellowed somewhat in their old age, give or take the occasional blowout and/or questionable facial-hair episode (Cave, David Bowie, John Cale — and also Brian Eno, who somehow seems to be very respectable and establishment indeed these days, despite still being as delightfully mad as a box of monkeys, bless him). This isn’t entirely surprising; apart from the questionable dignity of continuing to leap around like you’re in your early 20s, there’s also the simple fact that it’s exhausting, and also the small matter of ongoing Herculean drug consumption being generally incompatible with longevity.

Artists who’ve managed to maintain their youthful vigor are fewer and further between, and it’s these artists who really risk descending into ridiculousness. The Rolling Stones, for instance, are basically a Rolling Stones cover band these days, strutting the line between knowing self-parody and utter obliviousness to the fact that wearing leotards at nearly 70 is a dicey proposition no matter how many sit-ups you do every day. In this respect, Led Zeppelin were probably wise to leave their reunion at a one-off show, rather than dragging it out into a tour. A band that epitomized hirsute youthful vigor (for better or worse) during the ’70s was never going to be quite the same transformed into three balding middle-aged men plus the deceased original drummer’s son.

All of which brings us to the enduring exception to pretty much every rule of the music industry: Iggy Pop, who turned 66 earlier this month and is, improbably, exactly the same as he ever was. As I found myself pondering when I saw the rejuvenated Stooges’ cracking show at LPR over the weekend, Iggy doesn’t so much defy the effects of aging as ignore them altogether. Iggy and the Stooges’ new album, Ready to Die, is improbably good, although that’s almost — almost — beside the point.

Because really, seeing him live is what forces the realization that as a concept and a persona, Iggy Pop is untouchable and nigh on immortal. Off stage, James Jewel Osterberg of Coral Gables, Florida is happy to putter around in his garden and eat bananas. He works out to stay in shape, he feels the effects of aging just like the rest of us (probably more so, given the physical toll years of drug abuse takes). But when he gets up on in front of a crowd, he’s Iggy Pop.

And Iggy Pop hasn’t aged a day. I doubt he ever will. Because perhaps the key point here is that Iggy exists independently of his creator. As a character, he’s the embodiment of rock’s rebellious, iconoclastic urges — the man himself recently said on Colbert that the genesis of his musical career lay in a desire to be free, and nearly 50 years after the first Stooges record, that’s what his performances continue to represent: a wild, unconstrained grab at catharsis and transcendence, the vital energy that makes rock ‘n’ roll what it is. It’s exactly this energy that sets rock apart from other, more staid art forms: the ability to function on a level both cerebral and visceral, a… well, a raw power, if you will. And Iggy, alone of his contemporaries, still has it.