Losing our edge?: 14 panicky works about growing older

Losing our edge?: 14 panicky works about growing older

1. LCD Soundsystem, “Losing My Edge” (2002)
In the Internet era, past history that once took years to explore is available with a single Google search, which leaves aging culture vultures up against the wall. In “Losing My Edge,” LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy frets that “the kids” are catching up to him, a sentiment inspired by the resurgence of the wiry, beat-driven post-punk that had been his DJing stock in trade. How can anyone compete with youngsters who have “a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody”? By asserting the one thing they can never make up: physical presence. They may be hip to what came before, but they weren’t there at the first Can show in Cologne, or when Captain Beefheart started his first band, or any number of other increasingly absurd landmarks Murphy claims to have witnessed. A crowning irony: Now that LCD Soundsystem has itself passed into history, today’s indie kids will be able to lord having seen the outfit over generations to come. “You never saw LCD play?” they’ll sigh. “Too bad. I was there.”

2. About Schmidt (2002) 
Not long after his reluctant retirement following decades as an Omaha insurance salesman, Jack Nicholson’s character in About Schmidt returns to his old office in a pitiful attempt to feel useful and help his successor in the transition. But along the way he passes a Dumpster, where boxes and boxes of carefully kept files he’d accumulated over the years have been placed for pick-up. It’s the bluntest possible statement about his legacy. From there, his wife dies unexpectedly, and suddenly he’s thrust in the twilight of his life without having accomplished anything meaningful and without the company of even the wife he resented. About Schmidt is a comedy about a man’s desperate attempt to bring some meaning to his life as it enters an uncertain third act, whether that means “adopting” a penpal named Ndugu or mending ties with his estranged daughter. He could die any day; with his files in landfill, he needs to have some record of his existence. 

3. Steely Dan, “Hey Nineteen” (1980)
Gaucho, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s last album together—until the 2000 comeback Two Against Nature—is full of acknowledgments that it isn’t 1972 anymore, none of them good-humored. The hero of “Hey Nineteen” is old enough, in 1980, to be nostalgic about 1967, and just sane enough to be bewildered to find himself trying to seduce a teenager who has no idea who Aretha Franklin is. As he sees it, the girls he used to make time with have all married and “moved down to Scarsdale,” leaving him with his coke and pot and nubile youngsters who are happy to share them with him, but with whom he can neither dance nor converse. “She thinks I’m crazy,” he says of his new friend, who thinks she has his number. “But I’m just growing old.” 32 years further down the line, there’s no telling what Fagen wouldn’t give to be that young again.

4. Red House Painters, “24” (1992)
In an interview with Ben Gibbard, Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek talked about “24,” the first song on the band’s debut album, Down Colorful Hill. Gibbard wondered how the now-40-year-old musician felt about playing a song like that today, when the fretting of a guy in his early 20s might seem a little cringe-worthy. Kozelek replied, “It’s all context. At that time, when you’re 24, you’re supposed to have direction. You should probably be out of college and have your career started. And I think at that time, I hadn’t been to college, I was working down at the hotel, just wondering, ‘What is going to happen to my life?’ So I had that fear.” That’s a great piece of perspective, but the song itself isn’t really about a lack of direction. It’s about getting old, and how sad and terrifying that is. “Like a friend you don’t want to see/ Oldness comes with a smile,” Kozelek sings. “And 24 keeps pounding at my door.” Never too early to be aware of your own mortality. 

5. The Seventh Seal (1957) 
Director Ingmar Bergman made two classics in 1957: Wild Strawberries, about an old author’s bittersweet recollection of the past, and The Seventh Seal, about a medieval knight returning to a plague-filled Denmark after fighting in the Crusades. The protagonist in Wild Strawberries goes back to his old haunts, and considers the events and decisions that set his course in life. Regrets? He’s had a few. The Seventh Seal, by contrast, runs headlong into the intractable brick wall that is Death itself—unyielding, unsparing, unjust, and as unbeatable in chess as Deep Blue. As it happens, Max Von Sydow’s knight loses his famed chess game with Death, but gets spared for now, with the promise that his time will be up the next time they meet. He returns to his family with that sword permanently dangling over his head. 

6. Jerry Lee Lewis, “Middle Age Crazy” (1977)
The same year that Elvis Presley graciously conceded the title of greatest living ’50s rock ’n’ roll star to Jerry Lee Lewis by dying, The Killer recorded this country song (written by Sonny Throckmorton) about a good ol’ boy’s midlife crisis. “Today, he’s 40 years old, going on 20,” sings the then-42-year-old Jerry Lee, who proceeds to list the symptoms of M.A.C.: The hero has traded in his good old Olds for a Porsche, “his usual gray business suit” for “jeans and high boots with an embroidered star,” and his faithful, long-suffering wife for “a young thing beside him that just melts in his hands.” The song, or at least its title, inspired a little-seen movie starring Bruce Dern. Its chart success also inspired Lewis to further mine this territory with such hits as the Jack Benny-influenced “39 And Holding.” (“He still thinks that he’s the man that he used to be/ He’s 39 and holding, and acting 23.”)

7. The Fall, “Living Too Late” (1986)
Interpreting Mark E. Smith’s lyrics is a dicey proposition, but the opening lines of “Living Too Late,” from The Fall’s 1986 album Bend Sinister (released in the U.S. as The “Domesday Pay-Off” Triad Plus!) make it clear that aging was on his oft-impenetrable mind. “Sometimes like is like a new bar,” Smith drones. “Food with no taste, music grates—I’m living too late.” Even in his 20s, Smith looked and sounded like an old crank, but the fact that The Fall—which is to say Smith and whatever musicians half his age are backing him this week—continues to put out vital albums indicates Smith might have jumped the gun on his own ennui.

8. The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1890)
Oscar Wilde’s only novel, adapted to film in 1945, is written from inside the mindset of the hedonistic dandy who lives for beauty and sensual pleasure and is horrified at the thought of decaying with age. The antihero poses for a portrait and, reflecting that the painting will always preserve his youthful beauty while he himself grows old and ugly, wishes that it could be the other way around. He gets his wish, and lives a life of reckless, unbridled debauchery, without anticipating that he may begin to feel some of the cost to his soul. Unable to go on, he finally resigns from immortality by stabbing his portrait—a happy ending, in the sense that it reminds the audience that, if they could strike a bargain to stay young forever, it would probably suck.

9. Pulp, “Help The Aged” (1997)
Always the social activist, Jarvis Cocker pins a young thing and urges her to extend some sympathy toward the grotty oldsters in her midst. “One time, they were just like you / drinking, smoking cigs, and sniffing glue.” But simple awareness isn’t enough: “It’s time you took an older lover, baby. Teach you stuff / although he’s looking rough.” His trump card? “One day, you’ll be older too,” and there’s a thing called karma. He does his best to sound like a neutral third party, but Cocker was 34 when he wrote the song, and that can seem pretty old in rock-star years. If he isn’t old enough, or his name isn’t cold enough, to be worrying about himself, he knows that someday, maybe someday soon, he will be. 

10. Tom T. Hall, “I’m 40 Now” (1976)
On “I’m 40 Now,” Tom T. Hall reflects wistfully on all the aspirations put by the wayside as the years pile up and the fantasies of childhood and adolescence give way to the harsh realities of middle age. The narrator of the song puts a positive spin on getting older, treating it with weary resignation and acceptance rather than rage, but there’s no getting around the fact that this melancholy little number is ultimately about the death of youth’s dreams. 

11. They Might Be Giants, “Older” (1999)
The TMBG track “Older,” from 1999’s Long Tall Weekend, masks any overt anxiety about aging and death behind a stentorian voice that sounds like Father Time making an uncompromising proclamation: “You’re older than you’ve ever been, and now you’re even older / and now you’re even older / and now you’re even older / …and now you’re older still.” There isn’t much more to the song, beyond that chant with variations (“This day will soon be at an end, and now it’s even sooner”) and a bridge that announces, “Time is marching on! And time… is still marching on!” But the starkness and simplicity of song makes the message even more unadorned and terrifying: We’re all constantly moving toward death and running out of time, and actually thinking about it is maddening… but not thinking about it doesn’t slow down the process one whit.

12. Alejandro Escovedo, “Sad & Dreamy (The Big 1-0)” (2002)
For the Bloodshot Records children’s compilation The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs For Bumpy Wagon Rides, Alejandro Escovedo contributed “Sad & Dreamy (The Big 1-0),” an adorable faux-mournful song about a little kid hitting double digits. “I hit the big 1-0/ I feel so old/ Candy just doesn’t taste as good any more,” goes the ironic chorus, as the song’s pint-sized narrator feels the lament of someone five times his age. But for adult listeners, the tone of Escovedo’s song really is mournful: Growing old means not experiencing the world with the surprise and wonder and boundless pleasures of the young. Add to that the distance between the singer’s age and that of his mopey subject, and “Sad & Dreamy” marks the immense amount of time that’s passed since candy’s sweetness still registered. 

13. 8 1/2 (1963) 
The title of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 refers to the number of titles in his filmography, and the nervous breakdown his alter ego, played by Marcello Mastroianni, suffers in the process of trying to make a new movie. 8 1/2 is understood as one of the great films about filmmaking, a vital and spontaneous expression of the anxiety and creative stasis that can grip even the most imaginative of artists. Yet it’s also tied unmistakably to a fear of death—just as Mastroianni’s ideas threaten to dissipate, and the pressures of playing ringmaster to a cinematic circus are too great to bear, his life could evaporate right along with it. The very existence of 8 1/2 gives Fellini no cause for alarm, since the crisis itself bears another kind of creative fruit, but the film is fraught with a tension and panic that couldn’t entirely be exorcised. Only few years later, Fellini spent a month in a nursing home after experiencing a real nervous breakdown. 

14. Loudon Wainwright, Older Than My Old Man Now (2012)
The aging process has long fascinated idiosyncratic singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, but never more so than on Older Than My Old Man Now, a 2012 concept album about, in the prickly troubadour’s words, “death and decay.” The album cycles through a dizzying array of tones, perspectives, and attitudes about growing old and facing the looming specter of mortality, from the wacky novelty shenanigans of “I Remember Sex,” a duet about reaching an age where sex is just a distant moment, to the haunting “In C,” a heartbreaking ballad about coming to terms with the past. The album-closing “Something’s Out To Get Me” is a dread-soaked exploration of the not-so-secret cause behind all cranky songs and art about getting older: fear of death.