One of the more uncomfortable moments I’ve viewed on network television occurred on The Today Show recently. I almost never watch these morning shows; morning’s my time to read and write—TV’s for evenings. But I was on the road, in my hotel room preparing to leave and do a seminar, when I flipped to The Today Show. Host Matt Lauer was noting that it was National Honesty Day and mentioned that, just like his Honesty-Day share of last year, he really hates the orange couch in the studio’s lounge. His co-hosts shared their equally trivial moments of honesty.
Then it got to happy-go-lucky weathercaster Al Roker, who said, “Y’know, I just turned sixty and I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the end of life.” Matt and the others were so taken aback that they spluttered and stuttered to the commercial break. Al’s candid little Honesty-Day moment was a downer, and not the kind of fluff that fits the cheery morning-show atmosphere.
And, to be honest (though Honesty Day has passed back into the usual not-totally-dishonest days), since I turned sixty, I, like Al, have spent more time thinking about death. It’s unavoidable, really: My parents have both died, and many aunts and uncles and parents of friends are gone. And an alarming number of friends, people my age, have died. I don’t get morbid about it or dwell on it, but it’s always there, lurking.
“Keep Me in Your Heart” Warren Zevon recorded his concept album about death, Life’ll Kill Ya, two years before he was diagnosed with late-stage mesothelioma. He must’ve seen something coming.
His final album, The Wind, was recorded post-diagnosis, when Zevon knew his remaining time was short. It’s not a gloomy or angry album. In fact, it’s less dyspeptic than most of his other stuff. He covers “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” invites several guest stars to help out on songs, and closes with the ballad “Keep Me in Your Heart,” a nice, thoughtful way to go out. “Shadows are fallin’ and I’m runnin’ out of breath / Keep me in your heart for a while / If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less / Keep me in your heart for a while.” Zevon was only 56 when he died.
Warren Zevon’s known for some advice he offered on pal and supporter David Letterman’s show toward the end: “Enjoy every sandwich.” Words to live by.
“Blood Count” The last song Billy Strayhorn wrote, two months before he died at the age of 51 of lung cancer, was “Blood Count.” David’ Hajdu, in his Strayhorn biography Lush Life, comments on the song’s bass line “evoking the rhythmic drip of intravenous fluid.” The song became part of his mentor Duke Ellington’s tribute album, …And His Mother Called Him Bill, recorded shortly after Strayhorn’s death, when Duke was still grieving.
The album closes with Duke at the piano alone, playing his favorite Strayhorn number, “Lotus Blossom,” while the other musicians can be heard in the background packing up their instruments.
“Rising” A few years ago, I came across a mysterious, dark song, sung in Spanish, called “De Cara a la Pared.” The singer was Lhasa de Sela. I was wondering how I’d never heard this singer, this song, before, but it turns out that I had. Must have, anyway, because the song was used in the John Sayles movie Casa de los Babys, which I’d seen on video years before. It didn’t register then, but it did when I heard it again. The voice is smooth, bright and, at the same time, dark. The music is hypnotic and repetitive. Dreamlike.
I immediately searched for more of her music and found her wonderful second and third albums. In the process of the search, before I heard any songs other than “De Cara a la Pared,” I learned some things about Lhasa. Her father was Mexican, her mother Jewish-Lebanese. They lived in Mexico and Canada. Lhasa toured Europe in a circus with her sisters after recording one of her albums. She made only three albums in twelve years, the first in Spanish, the second in multiple languages, and the third, recorded in 2009, in English. She died at 37 on New Year’s Day 2010, of breast cancer.
When I listened to Lhasa’s third album, I was overwhelmed by its beauty and sadness–even though I was listening while driving through rush hour traffic. It stayed with me throughout the day, and after I listened to it again driving home from work, it stayed with me through the night. I was drawn in to the music and engulfed by its desperation and longing. This effect was certainly heightened by my understanding that Lhasa recorded the album knowing she had breast cancer and was dying from it.
And then I found out that the cancer was diagnosed after the album was complete. I was reading themes of death into it. Still, the song “Rising” from that album is almost unbearably sad, even though I now know its lyrics about being “caught in a storm” and “breaking, breaking” were not about her apprehension over death.
“Fixin’ to Die” There are many notable songs of death written and sung by artists who lived long after the song was created. Bukka White’s 1940 song “Fixin’ to Die,” in fact, helped give new life to White, at least as a recording and performing artist, when Dylan covered the song on his debut album in ‘61. The song was written shortly after White’s release from Parchman Farm, the Mississippi state pen. White died in 1977 at the age of 67.
Honorable Mentions: Son House is another bluesman (and another Parchman Farm inmate and sixties rediscovery) with a classic song of death, “Death Letter.” The song recounts the story of the singer learning of and lamenting his lover’s death. House lived to the age of 86.
Ralph Stanley is still kickin’, nearing ninety. In his seventies, he sang the folk song “O Death” a cappella for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? And won a Grammy for it.
In his biggest pop hit, “The Thrill is Gone,” B.B. King sang, “Although I still live on, but so lonely I’ll be.” I don’t think King was a lonely fellow, but he did live on to 89, and we were blessed to have him so long.