Looking death straight in the eye

by Philip Brasor

Though many important popular music figures died in 2003 — jazz diva Nina Simone and indie singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, to name two — the deaths of Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon drew particular attention because both artists also hit artistic peaks this year, and those peaks were directly related to their understanding that death was imminent. It’s not unusual for an artist to become more focused in the face of mortality, but pop music has always tended to blink.

Cash and Zevon were exceptions, since their music always confronted death head on. Producer Rick Rubin’s decade-long “American Recordings” project with Cash, whose most famous line was “I shot a man . . . just to watch him die,” offered the Man in Black a chance to explore every dark corner of his psyche in detail. Though the songs were other people’s, Cash imbued them with his own brand of melancholy, and with each successive bout of illness and depression that Cash suffered in the last few years, the melancholy took on an ominous air that was often bone-chilling. Following the death of his wife, June Carter — another giant — last spring, Cash let himself slip away.

Zevon’s obsessions were different, and if the titles of his previous two albums — “Life’ll Kill Ya” and “My Ride’s Here” — seemed disturbingly prescient for someone who had yet to be diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, they fit a thematic pattern that saw death as the ultimate punch line. Life is but a joke, as another death-obsessed songwriter once said, and the outlaws, drug runners, mercenaries and secret agents who populate Zevon’s songs were all the more ridiculous for their seriousness in the face of extinction. “The Wind,” which was written and recorded “with the hearse parked at the curb,” as he put it, is only morose for its context. The central song is not the obvious one — Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” — but the more practical-minded “The Rest of the Night.” “Why stop now?” he sings, weak but still game, “Let’s party for the rest of the night.” And smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

Notable additions to Heaven’s house band

Alto sax player Benny Carter
Singer Celia Cruz
Singer Maurice Gibb
Guitarist/singer Earl King
Flutist Herbie Mann
Rocker Robert Palmer
Guitarist Noel Redding
Percussionist Mongo Santamaria
Guitarist/singer Compay Segundo
Singer Edwin Starr
Singer Barry White