My thoughts on mortality in music
I’ve struggled with the notion of death since I was little.
Between my fear of the great loss after it comes, the uncertainty about what lies after and other such things, death in my mind can become a dark, fearful concept. I’ve heard this is not an uncommon thing for young people as they come to terms with the things they’ve done in life so far, developed relationships and accumulated memories they cherish.
One of the most effective ways I’ve found of helping to curb the anxiety of it has been to immerse myself in what I call death culture, specifically in the subject of mortality and how different people deal with the idea. While a little morbid, my curiosities are greatest when individuals are staring at death in the eyes - often through sickness.
Through my research I’ve found evidence of creative individuals meditating on the notion of their approaching death through the creation of artistic epitaphs. It has been in music that I have found the messages to be the most profound, and the two sets of music I’ll explore approach the notion of death in slightly different manners. Their creators of course, are legendary.
Study 1: Freddy Mercury and Innuendo
The first range of work that caught my attention was from Freddy Mercury in the rock band Queen. He was fiercely private about his diagnosis with AIDS and the toll it took on his health, continuing to make music right up until his death in November 1991. While he did not turn his death into art per se, he used his creative energy to power through the sickness, making as many songs as he could before death claimed him. While this is under some debate, he seems to reference his sickness in the song I’m going slightly mad, made in early 1991.
I’m going slightly mad/ I’m going slightly mad/ It finally happened - happened/ It finally happened - ooh oh/ It finally happened - I’m slightly mad/ Oh dear!
As his health deteriorated, so too did Mercury’s journeys out into the public eye decline. He still kept making music, and the last video of Freddy Mercury is for the song These Are The Days Of Our Lives. The Album both songs appear in, Innuendo was released two months before his death, with the video having been recorded only three months after I’m Going Slightly Mad. His physical decline is much more apparent, with the production crew employing techniques to hide his ill health, such as the use of black and white, and makeup to help smooth blemishes. However, in this video I think Mercury truly looks as if death was looking over his shoulder. Unlike I’m Going Slightly Mad, where his movements are energetic, flamboyant and dramatic, in These Are The Days Of Our Lives, he hardly moves at all.
It’s as if, through the progression of the music on Innuendo, you can see Mercury’s mortality stalk him, until it climaxes with The Show Must Go On, the last song Mercury records - released 6 weeks before his death. Such was his weakness that his band were unsure he’d have the strength to record the song at all (but he did manage to do so, apparently with the help of Vodka). Instead, when you listen to the song - all you hear instead is the energy Mercury jams into the song, as if he’s cramming what life he has left into the lyrics.
My heart may be breaking/ My make-up make be flaking, but my smile still stays on
Study 2: David Bowie and ★
It wasn’t until I’d heard of David Bowie’s passing from cancer, not only a fortnight ago that I saw he had released an album recently too. Eerily, Blackstar (★) had only been released two days prior to his death. From my understanding of cancer, it can be a slow beast, and he had suffered it for 18 months before succumbing. His producer and friend, Tony Vicsotti divulged that he had intended ★ to be for his fans, and the timing of the album release so close to his death confirms that Bowie perhaps intended for his album to be a farewell of some kind.
Feeling echos of Freddy Mercury - I suspected there may be some interesting imagery in Blackstar(★), and when I listened to it, I was correct. The music, identifying as “progressive jazz”, is rife with images of mortality, fear, farewells and passing.
Even moreso than Innuendo, I found myself mesmerised with every song. It resonated quite deeply with me, and I believe it was how he layered any message about his death and illness in a myriad of metaphors (and there are lots of metaphors. Just look at this breakdown of the title song. Between the lyrics, the timing, and the imagery - it feels like Bowie didn’t just die - it feels as if he played with his death, and the notion of it, right up until the end. A beautifully staged epitaph, a message to the world, and perhaps a unique insight into what it feels like to die.
★ did did not terrify me, as it did for many - but instead felt oddly reassuring. “Look up here, I’m in heaven” Bowie calls in Lazarus. “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you”, he soothes in Dollar Days. Amongst the occultist metaphors and symbolism he’s layered in the music, he places messages that are soothing, comforting - and this is from a man who’s facing his demise, who’s suffering from terminal disease. Whether he had truly come to terms with his mortality and beckoned to it, or his calmer words are merely a mask for an immense terror he felt of his impending death, I don’t think we’ll ever know.
Regardless - both of these pieces of art got me thinking hard about the concept of death. Indeed it comes for us all, but each of these great men approached it very differently. Undeniably, both pushed through their weakened bodies to get the message to the world, and that I find truly commendable.
It’s art like this which I will always use to help soothe me when fear of death surges to the forefront of my mind - for in the pages of art and history are stories and messages from the billions of people who have already gone ahead, and amongst the ones that are scared and unsure - there are ones (Like Bowie) that tell us “it’s OK”.