David Bowie and classic rock’s death knells

David Bowie's death Sunday proved, once again, the truth in the old saying: Death is a terrific career move. It’s also, in case you haven’t noticed, a pretty good subject for classic rockers, most of whom have lost close friends and loved ones and who are much closer to shuffling off this mortal coil than they are to having first picked up their instruments.

Turn and face the strange. (Image by Cole Henley via Creative Commons/Flickr)

(Except for Keef, of course. That sumbitch is outliving us all.)

Amidst all the articles and memes and Facebook postings and such, one of the most interesting observations came from, of all places, the Sports Illustrated website. In “Bowie’s Walk-Off Grand Slam,” John Gorman notes that “Bowie’s album, Blackstar, is a (what else?) genre-bending, critically acclaimed winking nod to the reaper, a hushed, subtle masterpiece of living (and making music) in the present while knowing all your living’s been done in the past.”

Which got me thinking about classic rock’s best songs and albums addressing the Ultimate Question. Here are my choices for a few of the most notable:

Lou Reed: Magic and Loss

Magic and Loss (1992) reflects a creative high peak in Lou Reed’s career and was his highest-charting album in the U.K. (it reached number six). There may be no more brutally honest assessment of radiation therapy than the one in “Sword of Damocles”: “I see the sword of Damocles is right above your head / They're trying a new treatment to get you out of bed / But radiation kills both bad and good / It can not differentiate / So to cure you they must kill you / The sword of Damocles hangs above your head.”

Bruce Springsteen: Magic and Working on a Dream

The topic of death weaves its way through much of Springsteen’s canon; The Rising, for example, deals powerfully with the subject of loss using 9/11 as a context. But it’s on these two albums that the Boss deals directly with the deaths of two close friends. “Terry’s Song” on Magic (2007) pays tribute to longtime friend and assistant Terry Magovern (“When they built you, brother, they turned dust into gold / When they built you, brother, they broke the mold”). “The Last Carnival” from Working on a Dream (2009) is a farewell to E Street Band organist Danny Federici, who died in April 2008.

Warren Zevon: The Wind

When asked on his last appearance on David Letterman's show what he knew about life that the rest of us don’t, the dying-of-cancer rocker famously responded “enjoy every sandwich.” It’s easy to think that Zevon was somewhat obsessed with the subject of death. Just consider the titles of his last albums: I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (a 1996 anthology), Life’ll Kill Ya (2000), and My Ride’s Here (2002). But it’s on The Wind (2003), which he recorded shortly after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, that Zevon is at his most raw. On that album, he gifted us all with “Keep Me in Your Heart,” a song that will be played at funerals and life celebrations for as long as such things take place.

John Mellencamp: Life, Death, Love and Freedom

Want to get into the head of someone who’s finishing up the back nine? Just listen to “Don’t Need This Body” from Life, Death, Love and Freedom (2008): “This getting older / Ain't for cowards / This getting older / Is a lot to go through / Ain't a gonna need this body / Much longer / Ain't a gonna need this body / Much more.” And it gets darker — and more poignant — from there.

Of course, this list is absurdly far from complete. And if we extend the performer list to include not just rockers but also country artists, we’d absolutely have to include Glen Campbell’s Ghost on the Canvas (released in 2011, his 61st album was recorded following his Alzheimer’s diagnosis) and Kris Kristofferson’s Feeling Mortal (2013).

So not only is death a great career move, but it’s also a rich vein of creativity for musicians of all kinds — right up there with love and. . .well, when you think about it, it seems like every song ever is about love or death in one form or another, isn’t it?

Rest well, Ziggy. Weird and Gilly (and the Spiders) are no doubt enjoying the jamming right about now.

Our readers respond

Bob Levin

of Berkeley, CA on January 13, 2016

Let me add Neil Young's "Long May You Run," Jackson Browne's "To a Dancer," and Bob Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven''s Door," "Ain't Dark Yet," and even, yea, "Forever Young."

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.