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Live Long, Die Slow, Leave a Beautiful Album: Dying Musicians’ Last Recordings

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We’re entering an era in rock history where “live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse” will soon be replaced with “live long, die slow, leave a beautiful album.”

The last two years have seen several high-profile last albums from dying artists, and I suspect more will be on the way as artists from the golden age of Rock confront their mortality. Joey Ramone’s final effort, 2002’s “Don’t Worry About Me” and Warren Zevon’s August 2003 release “The Wind” were both recorded as the artists raced the clock against cancer, and Johnny Cash released three albums between being diagnosed with and dying of Parkinsons-related ailments.

There is something novel about music written by dying songwriters. Even if the material has little to do with death on the face of it, their condition, as long as the listener knows about it, inevitably colors the listening experience. It’s part of a larger package of “performativity” issues that pointy-headed academics (like me, sometimes) talk about, and which boil down for our purposes to the relationship between a fan and the musician they venerate, and how that relationship works in the fan’s mind.

Part of popular music’s appeal has always been in the persona the performer creates. From the on-the-spot character plays and dying-children ballads of Vaudeville and music halls to Jimmie Rodgers as “The Singing Brakeman,” Johnny Cash as “The Man in Black” to Curt Cobain as “Tortured Genius,” how an artist presents themself is tightly bound up with the music itself. Without the personas, the music would still stand up, but the songs are richer for them.

Paradoxically, in light of the importance of image, rock has always thrived on asserting its “authenticity.” Long before the first rapper kept it real, rock and roll musicians were downplaying artifice, theatricality, and forethought in favor of instinct, spontaneity, and honesty. Of course, to present yourself as honest can take a lot of planning, acting, and hard work (viz. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan), but that’s beside the point. The point is, popular music is often assumed to be (or presented as) an unedited communique’ from the singer’s heart to you. Indeed many artists enjoy the interplay between their “real” selves and the characters they create, and this interplay only works if the perception remains intact that the artist has a “real” side visible to the fan.

And what better way to get “real” then with death, the ultimate authenticity trip?

Some artists have made careers out of audiences predicting (or celebrating) their suffering and death (Keith Richards, GG Allin, Kurt Cobain, Iggy Pop, a whole slew of rap guys). Can you imagine a world in which Keith Richards had died shortly after recording “Sister Morphine”? Can you imagine the towering legend that he would be? Can you imagine a world where Kurt Cobain had entered rehab? Can you imagine his decline from relevance? The possibility of dying suffuses our (my?) experience of Keith’s and Kurt’s work to the point that it’s shocking that Richards is alive, and not at all shocking that Cobain is dead.

The interplay of an artist’s persona and the reality of death gives power to the music created under these conditions. What we’re seeing today is a new twist. Whereas Janis, Jimi, and Jim Morrison all gained in stature after their deaths as their legends grew unhindered by the real person, that was accidental. And although a dead Elvis is a saint and a dead Sinatra is no longer a wife-beating cad, death in their cases too only uncoupled myth from reality. But now, artists from an autobiographical songwriting tradition are singing about the end of their own lives, taking the opportunity to fuse their “real” inner lives with the public personas they inhabit, and actively mold the outcome. So far, the first efforts along these lines are excellent works of art.

But isn’t it a little weird that watching our heroes chronicle their own death holds such an appeal? I mean, George Jones sings about drinking killing him on literally every album, and every couple of years almost manages to pull it off. One of these times will be the last. Tupac Shakur sang about dying over and over, and his posthumous body of work exceeds that released during his life. Pete Townshend eventually backed off his “hope I die before I get old” schtick, because he was getting old and the sentiment was getting weird.

It seems to me that, like with most other things, rock fans use musicians as scapegoats for their own darker urges and deathwishes. It is exhilarating to see someone walk the line between junkie and corpse, and it is profoundly satisfying to honestly mourn the death of someone who has touched your life deeply yet doesn’t share your last name. I wept for Johnny Cash when June died, and I wept again for the man himself, but at least it’s not my wife, father, or mother in the grave. I mean, it’s cool and all, but I just want to call it what it is.

That being said, it is right and good that the first Rock and Roll Death Autobiographies are from Warren Zevon, Joey Ramone, and Johnny Cash, three artists whose personalities seemed always to shine through the characters they created. Death settles all questions of authenticity.

Listening to Joey give the Ramones Treatment to Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” or sing “I want my life, it really sucks” in “I Get Knocked Down,” you understand the pain Joey is in yet understand that he approaches death the way he approached life– with equal measures humor, introspection, and cartoonish fervor. Ditto for Warren Zevon. The last track on “The Wind,” “Keep Me In Your Heart For Awhile,” is an elegiac, touching, and humble capstone on a career that encompassed everything from archly intellectual smartassery to lacerating fury. Here the weight of his young man’s anger seems to be stripped away as Zevon accepts that he won’t be here anymore very soon. (Ironically, Zevon’s ‘meditiations on death’ album was 2001’s “My Ride’s Here,” recorded before he was diagnosed with cancer, and I suspect the irony was not lost on him.) Finally, if there is any justice in the Christian tradition, I know that Johnny Cash is sitting on a lawn in heaven next to June, and they both have guitars.

This article also appears at The Ministry of Minor Perfidy.

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About John Owen

  • Eric Olsen

    excellent and thought-provoking Johno, thanks!

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