While David Bowie’s “Blackstar” stands as a superb example of incorporating one’s own impending death into art, it’s not entirely unprecedented. With a hat tip to the Facebook hive mind:
▪ Queen, “Innuendo” (1991): “Innuendo” is the final album Queen made with Freddie Mercury, who died of AIDS the year it came out. Given that, “These Are the Days of Our Lives” assumes great poignance: “You can’t turn back the clock, you can’t turn back the tide/Ain’t that a shame?”
▪ Frank Zappa, “The Yellow Shark” (1993): Zappa passed from prostate cancer a month after this album of his orchestral compositions appeared. Ensemble Modern recorded the material live a year earlier, with as much involvement from Zappa as he was capable of.
▪ George Harrison, “Brainwashed” (2002): Beatle George died before his final album was completed, but his son Dhani and producer Jeff Lynne were able to finish it based on his instructions. “Brainwashed” was released about a year after his death from cancer.
▪ Joey Ramone, “Don’t Worry About Me” (2002): Toward the end of a seven-year battle with the lymphoma that killed him in 2001, the Ramones frontman made his first solo album. The high point is a triumphant, revved-up take on the old Louis Armstrong classic, “What a Wonderful World.”
▪ Warren Zevon, “The Wind” (2003): Zevon had pleural mesothelioma, and he managed to hang on just long enough to see “The Wind” released. He died two weeks later, but this is a stunning and heartbreaking elegy – especially the closing song “Keep Me in Your Heart.” Local songbird Lynn Blakey does a particularly lovely version of that one on stages around these parts.
▪ Tretetam, “Handbook for Mortals” (2013) and “Shimmering Ghost” (2014): Tretetam was Letha Rodman-Melchior, a musician/artist in Durham who battled various forms of cancer for years before her death in 2014. She left behind a series of beautiful records suffused with intimations of mortality, and they’re plenty spooky even if you don’t know the backstory.
▪ Glen Campbell, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” (2014): At the time of this writing, Campbell is still alive in body. But he’s been suffering from Alzheimer’s for years. For this mini-album and its 2011 full-length predecessor “Ghost on the Canvas,” producer Julian Raymond showed great sensitivity in “co-writing” new songs based on their conversations.