There are those of us who find insight, wisdom, and perhaps strange fascination in the last utterances of famous people. Others contemplate the meaning of epitaphs of various writers, poets, painters, and musicians. On the other hand, what tantalizes and interests me are the final works of such creative souls. I am fully aware that a particular artist should be remembered for their entire body of work, not just the last thing they produced. But what these assorted individuals chose to undertake in their final years, months, and days is a revelation into the window of the creative spirit.
Marlon Brando and Salvador Dali neither cared nor dared to venture out of their bedrooms in their final years. Confined to bathrobes and the eccentricities that made them who they were, they made no attempts at a final film or painting to add to or define their legacies. Notable writers: Brendan Behan, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dylan Thomas allowed the scourge of alcoholism to zap them of whatever creative urges lingered in their souls during their final years and days. But wasn't it Thomas himself who admonished us to "not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light."?
Three musical artists who if they didn't rage against the dying of the light at least registered a strong complaint. They are Jimmie Rodgers, Warren Zevon, and Johnny Cash. They knew death was coming and coming soon, but yet they pressed on under dreadful circumstances to produce astounding recorded documents. These recordings are truly the last will and testament to family, fans, friends, critics, and fellow musicians. I do not consider their final works to be macabre or to be a morbid curiosity. These men cared deeply about their legacies and what they would leave to posterity.
"The Singing Brakeman" Jimmie Rodgers, considered the Father of Country Music, lived his entire recording and performing career under a death sentence. Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1924, Rodgers never knew when the disease might take him. At that time, T.B. was incurable and a leading cause of death in America. However the disease was a motivating factor for Rodgers, driving him to pursue his dream of a musical career since the rigors of railroading were no longer an option. Truly an innovator and the archetype guitar slinger, Rodgers would scale the heights of fame and celebrity during the infancy of the recording industry. But in May 1933, with his health rapidly deteriorating, Rodgers travelled to New York City for what would be his final recording session. Sensing that death was finally at hand and wanting to make financial provisions for his family, Rodgers recorded some of his best music at that session. Though his voice was strong, Rodgers was so weak that he was forced to rest on a cot in the studio in between songs. He died on May 26. One of the final songs he recorded was the prophetic I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now.
Warren Zevon, one of the most literate, sardonic, witty, and darkly humorous singer/songwriters of his generation is perhaps best known for his rock and roll singalong Werewolves Of London. Warren often incorporated rougues, scoundrels, villains and those on the margin of society into his songs such as Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, Carmelita and Mr. Bad Example. Of course having a gangster for a father might give you a unique perspective into the human condition. Zevon survived the 70's, 80's, and 90's after dealing with numerous trials and addictions. In the fall of 2002, Zevon was diagnosed with cancer. Given as little as three months to live by his doctors, Zevon did not stand around feeling sorry for himself. He set out to produce one of his finest albums, The Wind released in 2003. Warren succumbed to the cancer on September 7, 2003. The Wind went on to be nominated for five Grammy nominations, winning in the category of Best Contemporary Folk Album. His oft quoted insight into death and dying is "enjoy every sandwich."
Johnny Cash, that great American treasure and iconic figure would in all probability be understood and forgiven if he decided to throw in the towel after the death of his beloved wife, June Carter Cash in May of 2003. After all, Cash was beset by numerous ailments and respiratory maladies. And then to lose the anchor and love of your life would be quite traumatic for most human beings. But Johnny Cash was not like most human beings. He did the only thing that gave him any sense of peace and contentment - he recorded. Teaming up with producer Rick Rubin, recording equipment was set up in Cash's house. He recorded whenever and whatever he chose to record when he was physically able to do it. In August 2003, Cash recorded his final song. On September 12th of that year, he was gone. These final recordings were released earlier this year under the title American V: A Hundred Highways. Cash's last original composition appears here (the funeral dirge Like The 309) but the rest of the album is filled with songs by other accomplished songsmiths: Bruce Springsteen, Rod McKuen, Hank Williams and Gordon Lightfoot. Though the great voice was noticeably weaker due to illness, Cash more than made up for it with raw emotion. A great work indeed. And what is the final song on A Hundred Highways? It's I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now.
As we have seen, artists can squander their final days on this earth or they can turn the time they have left into something meaningful, spiritual, and enduring. Let Jimmie Rodgers, Warren Zevon, and Johnny Cash be an inspiration to us all. Keep fighting the good fight, keep pressing onward.