Known Unknowns: Death In Music By Cameron Arndt (Edited by Matthew Currie)

How we face death is at least as important as how we face life, wouldn’t you say?
— Captain Kirk

I know, morbid subject for my first ever article, right?!  Facing death is a theme that features heavily in popular culture – books, movies and TV shows to name a few – but it is also a sad reality of life. As someone who enjoys writing and performing songs about all sorts of subjects, the handling of mortality in music is of particular interest to me. How do songwriters who spend their lives crafting music which explores and reflects the world as they inhabit it approach the idea that it’s about to end?

With what seems like an unusually high number of deaths experienced by the music world so far in 2016, it seems like a good time to consider this question again. I’m going to look at a few examples, primarily of the music an artist creates when they know the end is near. Do they shy away from it? Focus on certain aspects? Celebrate all that has gone before? Do they give up, or does it spur them on to create something extraordinarily memorable? I’ll also discuss a few other instances where an album or song seems to reflect an end that was not foreseeable, or perhaps takes on a new meaning after the creator passes away.

But let’s start with some examples where the end was (knowingly) near in a section grandly and creepily entitled…

Imminent Death

Queen – Made In Heaven

The first ‘last’ album that I can remember hearing was Made In Heaven by Queen. It was released in 1995, four years after Freddie Mercury’s death and was in many ways cobbled together by the other band members from bits of recordings, some solo music and some unused songs from previous sessions. I’m pretty sure I didn’t appreciate this on first hearing the album though: it was the first Queen studio album I’d heard - previously I was only familiar with the two Greatest Hits releases. At 11 years old I may have found it a bit disjointed compared to the stuff I was familiar with, and certainly didn’t appreciate the depth of invention that went into the record. But I remember being intrigued by the music, as well as that awesome silhouette shot of Mercury at Lake Geneva in Montreux on the cover. Over the years since, I’ve come to love the album which features some great songs interspersed with interesting meditations on life and death from a band not exactly known for their cerebral musings!

Mercury was clearly ill throughout the recording of the band’s previous album, Innuendo (1991), and his awesome performance of The Show Must Go On from that record became the first of many tributes in the days following his death. In the spirit of that seminal track the band returned to Mountain Studios in Montreux after the album’s release and, even as Mercury grew sicker, he told them to keep writing music, keep giving him stuff to sing and vowed to record as much as possible before passing away. Looking through the track list song titles like My life Has Been Saved, This Could Be Heaven For Everyone and Too Much Love Will Kill You - not to mention the title track itself – certainly suggest that matters of mortality were on the band’s mind. In reality though, these were all songs that were previously recorded for other projects and subsequently reworked after Mercury’s death. The three remaining members, as well as producer David Richards, have done an incredible job with this work in what must have been painful circumstances. The song Made In Heaven, originally included on Mercury’s solo album Mr. Bad Guy, has been given the full Queen band treatment and emerges as a great rocking number which perfectly encapsulates the themes of the album - even though it wasn’t written to do so.

Elsewhere the gospel-tinged epic Let Me Live features a verse sung by all three singing band members (Mercury, along with Drummer Taylor and Guitarist May) before their vocals combine during the choruses. Although this was done because Mercury never completed the song, it is successful in adding a different flavour to the album. The track You Don’t Fool Me, meanwhile, was never a song at all; it was created by producer Richards from snippets of lyrics that Mercury had recorded which he then presented to the band to add their instruments – including a stunning guitar solo, which is in my opinion one of May’s best. The CD is book-ended by two versions of It’s A Beautiful Day, a lovely piano version to acting as the introduction before a heavier rock version as a sign off.

The heart and soul of the record is, however, Mother Love. It’s the final song written by Mercury and May, and features Mercury’s last ever vocal performance. A gorgeous slow ballad tinged with sadness, and one of the most personal songs the band has ever written, where Mercury seems to directly address his situation:

‘I’m a man of the world and they say that I’m strong, but my heart is heavy and my hope is gone.’

As if that wasn’t affecting enough, he never completed the song. After singing the second verse Mercury left for a rest at home, promising to return the next day. He never made it back to the studio. Brian May takes the lead vocal for the last verse and his mournful tone plus the contrast of his generally thinner singing voice further highlights the emotion of the song, as well as just how great Freddie’s last performance was. The track ends with a montage of short clips from various Queen tracks, then the sound of a baby crying.

Johnny Cash – American Recordings

Johnny Cash experienced a remarkable career resurgence late in his life thanks to his collaboration with Rick Rubin. Cash made 4 albums in the American Recordings series while he was still alive, and two more have been released since his death in 2003.

The original American Recordings (1994) album solely featured Cash and his guitar and is a glorious stripped back opportunity to hear the man alone singing songs he loved. Subsequent releases extended the format with American II: Unchained (1996) finding Cash exploring more of a rock sound backed up by various other musicians including Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. His cover of Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage is particularly awesome. American III: Solitary Man (2000) has more of an acoustic vibe although it again features the Heartbreakers which expands the sound nicely. The second posthumous release, American VI: Ain’t No Grave, has its moments but for me is more of an off-cuts, B-sides type release lacking so many strong songs.

The two most vital albums to this part of the article are records IV and V: The Man Comes Around (2002) and A Hundred Highways (2006). His last release before passing away, The Man Comes Around finds Cash contemplating life, death, belief, and sorrow and is certainly most famous for Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt. It’s well accepted that a good cover is one where the artist puts their own stamp on the track, but how about the far rarer occasion when the new version becomes the definitive reading of the song? That’s certainly the case here, as admitted by NIN’s Trent Reznor himself. Cash makes you feel what he’s going through, owning the lyrics and telling a story about life and loss. Along with the devastatingly honest video - which shows him, old and sick and surrounded by the remnants and memories of his illustrious life – this is one of the most powerful moments in music history.

It’s far from the only emotional moment on the record though, with versions of Danny Boy, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Give My Love To Rose all present and correct if perhaps a little populist or on the nose for my tastes. More interesting is I Hung My Head where Cash repeats the Hurt trick of owning another artist’s song. I’m still shocked to this day that this lesser known tale of outlaw misfortune by Sting wasn’t written by or specifically for Johnny himself.  Meanwhile the title track is a scything epic beginning with crackling biblical quotes and chugging acoustic guitars and Personal Jesus is atmospheric and doom-laden. Cash delivers all these songs like no-one else possibly could have.

Released in 2006, three years after his death, A Hundred Highways is even more unflinching in its portrayal of a man at the end of his life. Recorded in the four months between the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, and his own passing Cash was sick, dying and broken hearted. His voice has grown weaker, thinner, yet the power of his emotions shine through. The album opens with the pleading lament of Help Me by Larry Gatlin before a stomping, stirring take on God’s Gonna Cut Me Down. Like The 309, the last song Cash ever wrote and it’s not subtle in its tale of the protagonist contemplating his own demise and final journey by train:

‘Put me in my box on the 309’

Rubin has worked wonders on these songs with sparse arrangements and small additions - a little violin here, some handclaps or rattling chains there - adding just the right texture and punch to the songs.

The only other original song here is the spiritual I Came To Believe but Cash turns Bruce Springsteen’s rocker Further On Up The Road into something quite different entirely. There’s an incredible spookiness and weight to lines which just slipped by in the original version, for example:

‘Got on my dead man’s suit and my smiling skull ring, my lucky graveyard boots and a song to sing’

Then there’s Hank Williams’ On The Evening Train; listening to this it doesn’t matter who wrote it. It’s about one thing and one thing alone, and that is Johnny saying goodbye to the love of his life, June Carter. Heartbreaking.

There are many moments like this across the album, though perhaps none quite so devastating. It’s a difficult record to listen to, but an incredibly moving one which is a fitting end to an incredible musical legacy.


David Bowie – Blackstar


A more recent example of an artist finishing their last work with their end approaching is of course David Bowie’s Blackstar (2016). Released on his 69th birthday, just 3 days before he passed away, no-one in the wider world had known he was terminally ill. Bowie himself did however and set about recording this final album in the year before his death. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet had time to listen to this enough to give a properly informed opinion – it’s a dense, layered work which will take more than a few spins to even start to unravel.

However, the dark subject matter is immediately apparent as the albums opens with an execution taking place during the sprawling, nine-minute title track. Images of darkness and doom recur throughout the record while Bowie is backed by a group of New York jazz musicians who help to give the music an experimental, unsettling edge.

Meanwhile the video for the single, Lazarus, is in hindsight punishingly explicit about the great man’s upcoming demise. It features him lying in bed, wrapped up and masked and begins with the line

‘Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.’

Disconcerting images continue throughout the piece as he sings ‘This way or no way, you know I’ll be free, just like that bluebird, now ain’t that just like me?’ It closes with him stepping backwards, disappearing into a cupboard and closing the door behind him.

Blackstar is a last gift to his fans, but it’s also as uncompromising as Bowie always was. It’s not an easy listen, nor should it be.

Foreseeable Death

BB King – One Kind Favor

In the case of a musician of advanced years any album could prove to be their last. While the ‘King Of The Blues’ lived – and kept playing and touring – for seven more years afterwards, One Kind Favor (2008) was his last studio release and at the age of 82 clearly he was well into his twilight years. Despite King’s age however this is one of his strongest albums. With a stripped back sound and lack of star guests, in contrast with most of his other late career releases, this is all about BB’s vocals and guitar. While his singing voice has clearly aged and matured it can still be as powerful as ever when he lets loose, and as ever his ability to say more with one note on the guitar than others can with a hundred is unsurpassed. The songs were picked by BB from a list of 200 given to him by producer T-Bone Burnett and they include classics such as Howlin Wolf’s How Many More Times and Mississippi Sheiks standard Sitting On Top Of The World as well as three numbers by the now somewhat-underrated Lonnie Johnson.

It is the opening track See That My Grave Is Kept Clean by Blind Lemon Jefferson that proves the most moving however, with every line looking ahead to the moment he would leave this world and making one last request as a mournful church bell tolls in the back ground. Although it should be noted that when the time came BB’s last send-off was far more fitting with a loud party parade down Bourbon Street in New Orleans led by his beloved guitar Lucille – an appropriate way for the last great original legend of the blues to bow out.


Unforseeable Death

Of course, an artist often doesn’t have advance knowledge of their own death – or at least no time to write and record an album about it before they go. Sometimes though their last work can seem prescient in some way…

Ronnie James Dio – The Devil You Know (with Heaven And Hell)

Dio’s last album certainly seems prophetic with this re-named version of Black Sabbath Mark II. For a man who often wrote about demons, god, the devil and so forth it’s probably unsurprising that an album made in his later years would feature some meditations on what happens after we leave this world. The backing from Vinnie Appice’s pounding drums, Geezer Butler’s rattling bass and especially Tony Iommi’s none-more-heavy crunching guitar is all suitably doom filled and while this is to be expected from Black Sabbath alumni tracks like Bible Black, Follow The Tears (featuring an amazing slow-building organ led intro) and the closing Breaking Into Heaven definitely seem portentous in some way. Most poignant perhaps is Rock And Roll Angel where Dio sings:

‘Soon to see the holy one,

Can he really block the sun,

Then at last a shining star,

Make me who you are.’

His passionate vocal combined with some excellent Spanish tinged guitar from Iommi make this a very beautiful track, though it’s still suitably heavy! Although Dio didn’t know about the cancer that claimed him when the track was written, the song and the album are a nice memorial to a great singer.

Y&T – Facemelter (2010)

Similarly, I’d like to make honourable mention of Y&T who lost bass player Phil Kennenmore to cancer shortly after releasing this, their first studio album in over a decade.  It was written as a classic-style Y&T album where life and rock & roll are foremost on the band’s minds so there’s no overt tribute. If You Want Me – one of the last songs co-written by Phil with mainman Dave Meniketti - was often played in memory at subsequent shows but for me the lead single I’m Coming Home fulfils this role better.

For a band who revel in constantly touring the world it initially seemed a strange song title and sentiment. After Phil’s passing and Dave’s remarks about how strange it was after 35 years to not see him when he looked to his left, it seems to me that the song could just as easily be about the stage being their home. When viewed in that light, I’m Coming Home may be the best tribute possible.

Avenged Sevenfold – Nightmare

Nightmare (2010) was the first Avenged Sevenfold record not to feature drummer James ‘The Rev’ Sullivan due to his death in December 2009. Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy performed on the record in his place. The Rev did however contribute some parts which were used on the final album and – though not a concept album – the record certainly functions as a memorial to the drummer and features many dark, heavy lyrics inspired by his life and death.

The Rev wrote the track Fiction for the album – with the original title Death. He submitted the song in late December saying ‘that’s it, that’s the last song for this record.’ Three days later he was found dead at his home of a suspected overdose. Much could be read into such an occurrence, and the lyrics do seem eerily prophetic. Clairvoyant or not, the haunting piano-led track is highly effective and emotional, not least due to the band’s decision to keep The Rev’s demo vocal for the track and combine it with singer M Shadows new lead vocal. It’s a chilling, powerful song, most especially when Shadows’ vocal drops out leaving The Rev alone to sing:

‘I hope it’s worth it, here on the highway, I know you’ll find your own way, when I’m not with you’

Tribute Records

Bit of an aside here but just want to mention something which has become a bit of scourge in the music industry… the tribute record. This is where a bunch of musicians or bands are brought together to re-record all an artist’s most famous songs after (or sometimes before!) their death. Every now and then this results in an excellent new imagining of a classic song. More often though it’s an uninspired re-tread of music whose original form likely can’t be bettered. Honourable mentions here to Dave Meniketti’s cool version of AC/DC’s Night Prowler on the otherwise extraneous High Voltage, The Ultimate Tribute Collection (2009) and to Jack White’s storming version of Love Is Blindness on the tribute to U2, Achtung Baby Re-Covered (2011). Both of these records are, you may note, ‘tributes’ to still functioning bands. Sometimes the artist in question even do it themselves (I’m a fan but… The Purple Album, Mr Coverdale?).

That’s not to say that a band shouldn’t record a memorial to a colleague or friend but it seems more worthwhile when a new piece is written, or time is taken to re-invent something by the artist themselves, no? How about this for example:

AC/DC – Back In Black (1980)

…in which the band paid respect to their fallen leader Bon Scott, while simultaneously reaching new heights with new singer Brian Johnson.  

As I say, just a wee aside there –just wait till I get started on so-called ‘tribute bands’!

A Happy Mistake


Wilko Johnson – Going Back Home (2014)

After all this talk of musicians rushing to finish their life’s work before passing away I figured it would be nice to end on a happier note. People – even famous musicians - get old, people get sick and people die. But once in a while it doesn’t go quite that way, even when the end seems imminent. In January 2013 Wilko Johnson, once guitarist of 1970s R&B rockers Dr. Feelgood, was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer. He opted to not to receive treatment and was told he had nine or ten months to live. He said this knowledge made him feel ‘vividly alive’ and arranged a farewell tour in March of that year, then followed that up with a final album.

I’ll have to cite that album as a rare exception to my above complaints about re-recorded hits (sorry Mr Coverdale) as re-recording old songs is indeed what Wilko did. However, this album absolutely crackles thanks to a kick-ass band consisting of his regular bassist, Norman Watt-Roy and drummer, Dylan Howe, along with Mick Talbot on piano/organ and excellentblues harp from Steve Weston, a powerhouse vocal performance from The Who’s Roger Daltrey and of course Wilko’s machine gun guitar style. He plays out of his skin here and as he told BBC News in October that year ‘I thought that was going to be the last thing I ever did’.

At the end of 2013 however a fan – who was also a doctor – got in touch telling Wilko there was ‘something strange’ going on as he was still alive. This led to a pioneering operation to remove the tumour which resulted in Johnson being completely cured. He’s now back on tour and planning another album with Daltrey.

As Wilko said ‘If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that you never know what’s going to happen.’