Death, be not unproductive: 21 inspired creative works made by the dying

Death, be not unproductive: 21 inspired creative works made by the dying

1. Warren Zevon, The Wind
Warren Zevon was never the sentimental type, which makes his final album, recorded as he was dying of lung cancer, all the more moving. With his characteristically acid wit, and without an ounce of sentiment, he describes the ruin of his home in “Disorder In The House,” and his body in “Numb As A Statue.” Covering Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” he sounds almost eager, ad-libbing “Open up, open up, open up,” but he saves the most heartbreaking for last. “Keep Me In Your Heart”—the last song on his last album, the last new music he ever made—might as well have come from beyond the grave, so plaintive and open is its plea for remembrance. With that song, and so many before it, Zevon ensured he would never be forgotten. 

2. Robert Altman, A Prairie Home Companion
Robert Altman’s dramatization of Garrison Keillor’s long-running public radio program dovetailed with Altman’s own flagging health. Originally titled The Last Show, A Prairie Home Companion captures—in sprawling, Altman-esque ensemble style—the tone of the variety radio show’s final broadcast. Due to leukemia, Altman hired Paul Thomas Anderson to serve as a kind of understudy, as insurance guaranteeing that the film would be finished, should Altman be unable to complete it. Even this idea finds its resonance within the film, which adds a magic-realist wrinkle in the form of Virginia Madsen’s angel of death, stalking around the live broadcast set, comforting some about the show’s impending cancellation, while ushering others into the afterlife. 

3. Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly
Jean-Dominique Bauby was 44 years old and the editor-in-chief of French Elle when he was laid low by a stroke that put him in a coma for 20 days. When Bauby regained consciousness, he was almost totally paralyzed, unable to communicate except by blinking his left eye. He was able to spell out words, using his blinking to signal letters of the alphabet—an excruciatingly slow method of communication that, he notes wryly in his slim memoir The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, “disqualifies repartee.” Bauby dictated the book in this fashion, blink by blink, over the course of 10 months. With a minimum of self-pity and a surprising amount of humor, he describes his condition from the inside, and also recalls the life that ended the day his body froze. The book, an international bestseller, was published two days before its author died of pneumonia.

4. Lee Hazlewood, Cake Or Death
Although prolific throughout the 1960s and into the ’70s, singer-songwriter Lee Hazlewood went on a musical hiatus after his appropriately titled 1977 album Movin’ On, and apart from another 1977 album that was released in Sweden, he more or less stayed quiet for the next 25 years. Hazelwood briefly resurfaced in 1999 with a collection of standards bizarrely titled Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!! And Me… and found time to reteam with Nancy Sinatra in 2004 for the album Nancy & Lee 3, but it took a 2005 diagnosis of terminal renal cancer to get him back into the studio for one last proper solo record. Cake Or Death, its title borrowed from an Eddie Izzard comedy routine, features 13 tracks and a general absence of high-profile guests, but it’s thoroughly Hazlewood in its musical diversity, offering male/female duets (“Nothing”), political statements (“Baghdad Knights”), and even a psychoanalytical waltz (“Fred Freud”). On a more sentimental front, Hazlewood also revisits two of his most famous compositions, first with his old friend Duane Eddy dropping some six-string onto “Boots (Original Melody),” then with his granddaughter for a brief version of “Some Velvet Morning” that’s tearjerkingly credited to “Phaedra and Grandpa.” “I don’t think there’s anything to my knowledge that sounds like I’m sick on [Cake Or Death],” Hazlewood said in an interview filmed in conjunction with his final birthday party. “I think I sound just like I did in the old days, if that’s what you like. And if that’s not what you like, well, hurry and get your record back in and get your money back, ’cause that’s as good as it’s ever gonna be.”

5. John Huston, The Dead
The 80-year-old, emphysema-stricken John Huston helmed The Dead from his wheelchair, sporting oxygen tubes throughout its production. But in spite of his profound health issues, the film doesn’t suffer for his condition, leading Pauline Kael to observe how Huston “never before blended his actors so intuitively, so musically,” and that he “went into dramatic areas that he’d never gone into before—funny, warm family scenes that might be thought completely out of his range.” Although Huston died of pneumonia four months after completion of The Dead, which didn’t see release for four months after that, his final cinematic effort was rewarded with two Academy Award nominations (Adapted Screenplay and Costume Design) and a place on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.

6. Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways and American VI: Ain’t No Grave
Johnny Cash enjoyed a late-career revival with 1994’s Grammy-winning American Recordings. His first collaboration with producer Rick Rubin was sparse and spare, focusing on his voice and a simple guitar accompaniment. Rubin’s label, also called American Recordings, expanded the series with further installments in 1996, 2000, and 2002. But in 1997, Cash was diagnosed with a degenerative autonomic disorder, and severe pneumonia in 1998 damaged his lungs and his voice. The albums took an increasingly somber turn, with Cash’s 2002 cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and its accompanying video drawing particular attention for the way Cash turned a self-destructive, angry song into a mournful epitaph for a misspent life. Throughout 2002 and 2003, Cash and Rubin re-entered the studio to record again, but by that time, according to Graeme Thomson’s The Resurrection Of Johnny Cash: Hurt, Redemption, And American Recordings, Cash was wheelchair-bound, nearly blind, diabetic, asthmatic, and “aware that his time was short,” but in a positive, peaceful mood nonetheless. As of his death in September 2003, he was still scheduled for further recording with Rubin. Their final two American Recordings albums, A Hundred Highways and Ain’t No Grave, came out in 2006 and 2010 respectively, and they make for grim, haunting listening. Focused on Biblical imagery, death, the afterlife, judgment, contentment, and goodbyes—the final album ends with the Hawaiian farewell song “Aloha Oe”—they sound like a conscious series of meditations on where Cash had been, where he was, and where he knew he was headed soon.

7. Frank Zappa, The Yellow Shark
An expansive knowledge of 20th-century classical music isn’t required to appreciate Frank Zappa’s The Yellow Shark, a recording of live performances of orchestral music released just a month before his death in 1993. Though he courted reputations as a weirdo musical prankster, libertarian snark-meister, and nimble-fingered guitar god, Zappa long considered himself foremost a composer, and his “wacky” music (and certainly his guitar solos) always possessed unmistakable complexity. After Zappa was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 1990, his prolific recording and release pace grinded to a halt. But in 1991, he was invited to serve as a featured composer at the following year’s Frankfurt Festival (he was huge in Europe), for which he arranged material new and old for the German chamber group Ensemble Modern. The Yellow Shark is the result of these performances, serving as a suitable, even moving, curtain call for a musician whose value as a serious musician had always been seriously underestimated.

8. Nicholas Ray, Lightning Over Water
As final films go, Lightning Over Water is hard to pin down. Co-directed by Nicholas Ray and German filmmaker Wim Wenders (who, like so many other important filmmakers, was hugely influenced by Ray’s films), Lightning Over Water captures Ray in the last stages of his life, struggling with terminal lung cancer. The film feels incredibly loving, inflected by Wenders’ obvious affection for Ray, while remaining unflinching in its depiction of Ray’s physical deterioration. Still, even as Ray struggles to haul himself out of bed, his imagination is very much alive. If, as Jean-Luc Godard famously proclaimed, “The cinema is Nicholas Ray,” then Lightning Over Water pulls double duty, unfolding as a living testament to Ray’s artistic legacy as well as a eulogy for movies themselves.

9. George Harrison, Brainwashed 
Released a year after George Harrison’s death, Brainwashed never approaches the former Beatle’s creative highs, but it’s far from a wan swan song. Harrison had been tinkering with the album ever since 1987’s Cloud Nine, and he continued working on it—with the help of his son Dhani and ever-reliable producer/fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne—up until the year of his death. The breezy “Any Road” was a minor hit in the UK, but the six-minute closing title track is the album’s standout, summing up nearly everything Harrison stood for: a distrust for authority and the media, a love for nature, a love for God. (The final two minutes of the song are devoted to the “Namah Parvati” prayer, chanted in unison by George and Dhani.) But instead of a teary-eyed highlight package, the song comes off as a wicked piss-take. (“Brainwashed in our childhood, brainwashed by the school / Brainwashed by our teachers, and brainwashed by all their rules.”) Harrison still had plenty of life and humor left in him, which makes his death at 58 all the more tragic.

10. Spencer Tracy, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner
Although the concluding chapter of Spencer Tracy’s 37-year cinematic career wasn’t the greatest of his film endeavors, there’s little argument that his performance is, in and of itself, a work of art. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, which once again teamed the actor with director Stanley Kramer and his favorite co-star on and off the screen, Katharine Hepburn, provided Tracy with the opportunity to tackle the racial strife of the 1960s as a newspaper publisher forced to deal with the unexpected revelation that his daughter is engaged to a young physician who looks an awful lot like Sidney Poitier. Tracy’s health was so poor at the time that no insurance company would cover him, but a deal was worked out where Kramer and Hepburn put their salaries in escrow during filming, so if Tracy died during production, they’d cover the cost of hiring another director out of their own pockets. It was a disconcertingly close call—Tracy died 17 days after Dinner wrapped—but the end result leaves little doubt that he made the absolute most of his final film.

11. Derek Jarman, Blue
There’s no crueler fate for visual artists than losing their eyesight, especially when that vision was as sharp and singular as Derek Jarman’s. But even as AIDS ravaged his body, Jarman left the world one final gift, a singular film that dispenses with picture entirely. In Jarman’s 1993 film Blue, the screen is a solid, unwavering block of color, matched to a complex audio collage of interwoven voices and ambient sounds. Unsurprisingly, the film is a meditation on death: the deaths of Jarman’s friends as well as his own, which at this distance, amounts to a document of the devastating toll of AIDS at the epidemic’s worst. It’s also a final, coruscating burst of insight. “At the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from image,” says one of the film’s disembodied voices, and the movie is indeed a release: from image, from the scrim of fiction, and from the elaborate symbolic language of Jarman’s late features.

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12. Jason Robards, Magnolia
For Jason Robards, acting often seemed to be a literal life-and-death matter: He almost died in a drunken car crash after being denied the chance to recreate his trademark performance as Hickey in the film adaptation of The Iceman Cometh, and he had to bail on Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo after contracting amoebic dysentery. Robards was reluctant to take on the role of the more sympathetic of the two dying, cancer-stricken fathers in Paul Thomas Anderson’s intimate epic, telling Anderson, “I don’t know if I can do it, I’m on oxygen,” and he told a Variety reporter that Anderson touched his trouper’s soul when he replied, “Bring it along, it’ll save me on props.” Robards had always brought a special kinetic, theatrical energy to long speeches, but here, as a rich, powerful man reduced by illness to a shredded husk, he is, in the words of critic J. Hoberman, “hypnotic in his rambling soliloquies,” delivered “flat on his back with a tube up his nose.” Robards died of lung cancer a year and a day after Magnolia’s release.

13. Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story
Farnsworth started his career in movies as a teenage stuntman. After three decades of riding and falling off horses, he began to get small speaking parts, before winning an Academy Award nomination for his supporting performance in 1978’s Comes A Horseman and bringing off a rare starring role in the 1983 Canadian Western The Grey Fox. But like the late bloomer he was, he saved the best for last. In David Lynch’s only G-rated movie, Farnsworth plays a man who travels 240 miles on a lawn tractor to make peace with his estranged, ailing brother, because he already has too many regrets. Farnsworth’s richly felt, elegantly controlled performance is all the more remarkable for the fact that he was in near-constant physical agony from the bone cancer that was killing him, a fact that he did his best to keep secret, for fear that it might cost him the role. The 1999 movie earned him another Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Actor. (He lost to Kevin Spacey for American Beauty, a decision that even Spacey might now think calls for a do-over.) As his pain continued to worsen, Farnsworth chose to end his own life in October 2000.

14. Ulysses S. Grant, The Personal Memoirs Of Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant had always insisted he would never write his memoirs, perhaps because he didn’t have that much to look back on fondly: His early years were marked with failure, and his presidency dented the reputation he’d finally earned as the savior of the union. Grant had just been financially wiped out by a 19th-century Ponzi scheme when he learned that he had throat cancer and had only a year to live. After negotiating a publication deal with Mark Twain that ensured his wife a generous share of the royalties, Grant set to work, turning out pages at a prodigious rate, while racked with pain and receiving well-wishers who’d heard the General was on his deathbed. The resulting two-volume book, completed five days before Grant died, was a great commercial success and is regarded as a classic of American autobiography. In 2002, John Guare used the story of Grant’s last year at the writing desk as the basis for his play A Few Stout Individuals. 

15. Dennis Potter, Dennis Potter: The Last Interview
Potter was best known for his writing for TV (Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective), and when he received the news that he had pancreatic cancer and didn’t have long to live, he rushed to finish the scripts for two final, linked miniseries, Cold Lazarus and Karaoke. But his last great TV work was his performance in an hourlong interview with South Bank Show host Melvyn Bragg. Gripping a cigarette in gnarled hands and swigging liquid morphine from a flask, Potter talks about his autobiography and his aesthetic and political philosophy, describing the childhood memories and attitude about the country that fueled his work. He also lists the modest pleasures of not having to worry anymore about things like cholesterol and having to journey overseas, and explains that he named his tumor “Rupert” because Rupert Murdoch is the man he’d “most want to shoot.” The interview caused a sensation when it was first aired, and was rerun shortly after Potter’s death, three months later.

16. Nancy Marchand, The Sopranos
When Nancy Marchand was cast as Tony Soprano’s hectoring mother, Livia, Sopranos creator David Chase already knew she was ill, according to Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised. Yet he decided to roll the dice on the acclaimed actress—who won several Emmys for her work on Lou Grant—because she was the best actress for the part, bringing a vile, bitter streak to a role that could have become a wacky-old-woman character in other actors’ hands. In spite of her age and condition, Marchand made Livia a formidable opponent for Tony, the specter of a bad childhood he would have to overcome if he ever wanted to be happy. Entering the show’s second season, both Chase and Marchand knew her illness would be fatal, and that made Livia’s rants about how people die alone, in their own arms, even more harrowing. The character had a major storyline planned for season three, but Marchand died before it began production. Her work, however, was so potent, it haunted all four seasons to come, figuratively and, in some cases (via Livia surrogates and dream sequences), literally.

17. Nicholas Colasanto, Cheers
The cast and crew of Cheers knew Nicholas Colasanto, who played the loveably dumb Coach Ernie Pantuso, was ill during production of the show’s third season, according to a recent oral history of the series published by GQ, but no one except Colasanto could have known just how significant his illness was. He died with a handful of episodes left in the season, and his death was occasionally reflected on in the bittersweet comedy’s long run. (One of the final acts Ted Danson’s Sam Malone performed in the series was to touch a picture of Geronimo that had always hung in Colasanto’s dressing room.) Cheers’ third season is also Colasanto’s finest, offering some excellent Coach showcases and heightening his oblivious sweetness and his friendship with Shelley Long’s Diane.

18. Julian Beck, Poltergeist II: The Other Side
As the co-founder and co-director (with his wife, Judith Malina) of The Living Theatre troupe, Julian Beck spent most of his career on the avant-garde fringe of his profession. But in his last years, he had a brief, improbable second career as a Hollywood character actor, after Francis Ford Coppola cast him as a hit man in The Cotton Club. Beck’s final performance, which he filmed two years after being diagnosed with stomach cancer, was as a sinister emissary from the spirit world in preacher’s garb in the sequel to Poltergeist. The movie itself is schlock, but Beck’s performance is brilliantly unsettling, and the artistic provocateur in him may have appreciated the sick joke that, thanks to the magic of movies, he would be coming back from the dead to play a ghost. (The movie opened eight months after he died.) The political activist in him may have even appreciated the fact that this job probably paid better, line for line, than all his years with his theater company.

19. Minnie Riperton, Minnie
In 1976, soul singer Minnie Riperton—whose 1974 hit “Lovin’ You” was already well on its way to becoming a classic—was diagnosed with breast cancer and given six months to live. Three years later, she released Minnie, her first album written after her diagnosis. From the jazzy, wistful “Never Existed Before” to the lush “Return To Forever,” the album hints at a melancholic resignation—but the bittersweet, softly funky “Memory Lane” best reflects the pain and joy of her condition. Riperton died two months after Minnie’s release, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting eulogy.

20. Jacques Brel, Brel
After retiring from the concert stage in 1967, singer-songwriter Jacques Brel may have enjoyed the opportunity to expand his creative horizons by working in the theater (L’Homme De La Mancha), starring in several films, and even directing a few. But fans of his music were left wanting, with 1968’s J’Arrive seemingly serving as a songwriting swan song. In 1974, Brel learned that he was suffering from advanced-stage lung cancer and went so far as to make a formal statement to the press on the matter, but he soldiered onward, living quietly and peacefully in the Marquesas Islands, until deciding in 1977 to return to Paris and record one final album. Les Marquises—or Brel, as it’s known in some countries—reteamed Brel with longtime collaborators François Rauber and Gérard Jouannest, resulting in a number of poignant songs, including “Vieillir,” “Le Bon Dieu,” and “Voir Un Ami Pleurer.” Although Brel pointedly requested that his label, Barclay Records, avoid turning the album’s release into any sort of large-scale publicity event, it didn’t have to: The mere existence of a new Jacques Brel album was enough to result in a million advance orders for Les Marquises.
Brel lived to see the album’s release in November 1977, but his health began to decline further, and he died of a pulmonary embolism in October of the following year.

21. J-Dilla, Donuts
The rapper and producer born James Yancey, and professionally known as J-Dilla or Jay Dee, was a cult figure who ascended to the level of hip-hop legend after his passing. J-Dilla was a prolific, gifted, and in-demand maker of beats for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Common, and The Pharcyde, as well as a member of Slum Village and super-duo Jaylib, but much of his legacy lies with a funky instrumental album titled Donuts. He recorded the album on what was to be his deathbed; it was released three days before his death at 32. In 2002, Dilla was diagnosed with a rare, untreatable blood disease known as Moschcowitz Syndrome or TTP, but the rapper-producer remained upbeat about his chances even as his health rapidly deteriorated. He recorded the tracks that became Donuts using a sampler and a small record player provided by his pals at Stones Throw Records, the independent hip-hop label that released the album. Donuts’ psychedelic fusion of disparate genres and sense of humor reflect the influence of Madlib (Dilla’s Jaylib partner), and the album demonstrates one of rap’s greatest producers striking out in a bold new direction he never got a chance to explore. 

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