January 21, 2016

Last Work / Final Act


When Brian Jones was found dead in his swimming pool on July 3rd, 1969, he was just 27 years old. The death of the Rolling Stones' guitarist and songwriter came as a complete shock to his bandmates and fans but no one could have imagined that two more major rock stars would die within 15 months of Brian, and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison would also die at the age of 27.

Nearly a quarter-century later, Nirvana singer and songwriter, Kurt Cobain, committed suicide and the coincidence of his death age (27) helped solidify a cult that has became known as "The 27 Club."  It is a belief that musicians are likely to die at 27, and these deaths will necessarily be premature because of violence and/or drugs and alcohol.

The 27 Club might also be said to substantiate an archetype of the musician who comes to his or her end through tragic circumstances, and fulfills the old adage, "Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse."


That other archetype of musician's death is less dramatic and involves obscurity. Particularly in pop music, successful purveyors of the form are invariably young. But most pop stars fade into the "Where Are They Now Club" when they enter middle-age, certainly by their senior years, and die unknown.

The recent death of David Bowie is a new archetype for a musician's death, one in which the musician has verifiable or medical knowledge that death is imminent. But instead of flaming out in rock 'n' roll glory, doing "all in" hedonistic excess, these artists simply create last works.

Bowie joined that rare clique of musicians who learn that death is near. I don’t mean knowing death is certain and coming someday, which is knowledge we all possess. But Bowie knew of his cancer months ago, and it was terminal, and this was knowledge gained soon enough to prepare.

Philosophers have said that knowing we are going to die allows us to lead a more authentic life. How we face death, how each person deals with the truth of their death is an individual act of subjectivity.  

How Bowie faced his death would be much the same way he lived his life. Within the larger group of human beings, Bowie lived and worked in a definitive category of artist, having the associative actions of making objects, experiences, visual, aural or otherwise; representations that exist outside of our selves and that never before existed.

I won't delve deeply into Blackstar, Bowie's final work; there are elegant and erudite reviews already. Let us just heed his courage and respect his supreme art, and his farewell.


IMAGE: David Bowie in Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976).