The Tragic Backstories of Artists' Final Songs

Fame isn’t always full of highs. Sometimes, there are lows. Sometimes, there are tragedies. Sometimes, it’s just one’s time to go. In a world where many aspire to live until their 70s or 80s, to have a musician you love pass as young as 27 or 42 is devastating. It’s almost like it breaks the spell that these people practically worshipped by society are not unattainable deities. They’re just regular people, like anyone else. They can meet the same tragic fate that anyone can. Sometimes, fame is what brings that downfall. One thing that we can cling to when an artist dies (beyond their memories) is their works of art. The songs they leave behind play in the speakers of our cars, at backyard parties, and in our hearts, no matter how long ago the musician has passed. The final song recorded by an artist can be memorialized for decades, the last recorded song by someone who is no longer with us.

Today, I’m diving into the tragic backstories of some of those musician deaths. While an artist’s last song can have no correlation to their death, and oftentimes that is the case, sometimes, there are strange stories behind the final songs. Coincidences seem too convenient. Song lyrics take on a new meaning. So, let’s dive into these eerie stories.

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Freddie Mercury’s Fearful Final Words

Freddie Mercury was a national treasure and one of the biggest names in music in the 1970s. This section is including two songs that have mysterious circumstances on top of being around Mercury’s death.

September 5, 1991. Freddie Mercury’s 45th birthday.

The song “These Are the Days of Our Lives” was released in the US. It’s considered one of the most significant singles off Queen’s album, Innuendo. This is the case because of the accompanying music video which is some of the last footage of Freddie Mercury while he was still alive.

At the time that the video was being shot, Mercury was in really bad shape. To hide the severity of Mercury’s deteriorating health, the video was shot in black and white. Knowing this adds a darker aura to the entire video. Beyond this, the final lyrics of the song feel haunting knowing that they’re the last words recorded on camera of Mercury. As the last notes fade, Mercury says “I still love you” while looking straight at the camera. It feels as if he’s speaking directly to his fans, a form of goodbye. Freddie Mercury died just a little over two months later on November 24, 1991.

The music video was featured during the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert the following year, bringing tears to the eyes of fans all over the world.

While “These Are the Days of Our Lives” is the last video recording of Mercury, the last song co-written by Brian May and Freddie Mercury was “Mother Love.” At Queen’s recording base of Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, they began recording in May 1991. It is the last song that Mercury ever recorded. “Mother Love” is a fitting final song as it demonstrates the pain and sadness Freddie was feeling (and that May was witnessing) during the singer’s last year alive. In the song he begs for “comfort and care,” and pleads, “I long for peace before I die.” Unfortunately, due to Mercury’s health, the song wasn’t completely finished. His body just couldn’t make it for the whole song as he was only six months away from his death. It was said that after he finished his second verse, he said, “Oh I don’t feel too well. I’m going to go home and we'll finish it tomorrow.” But he never did. That was the last time Mercury was in their studio.

About two years later, the remaining members of Queen got together to finish those final recordings for “Mother Love” with Brian May singing the final verse of “Mother Love” in Mercury’s absence. The remaining bits of the song was used as a sing-along from Queen’s famous 1986 show at Wembley Stadium and a 1972 sample of Freddie singing, “I think I’m going back to the things I learnt so well in my youth.” In the end, you can hear a baby’s cry. The members of Queen used it to convey a circle of life message, in tribute to Mercury.

Jimi Hendrix’s Full Circle Final Thoughts

Jimi Hendrix was a guitar legend most popular in the 1960s for giving a new definition for what could be done on an electric guitar. Beyond his guitar playing, he was a talented singer and composer who fused American traditions in genres like jazz, rock, and soul with techniques from British avant-garde rock. He was a legendary figure that still inspires thousands of musicians today. Sadly, his life ended too soon. At the age of 27, he was killed from drug-related asphyxiation. His final song, as it turned out, was exceptionally poetic without meaning to be. You see, the last studio recording that Jimi Hendrix made before his death was a song about being born.

Hendrix wrote the country blues tune about the months leading up to being born. In the song, he imagines what it would be like for a growing fetus to observe his parents from the vantage point of a “Belly Button Window.” It’s been said that his inspiration for the song stemmed from Hendrix’s bandmate Mitch Mitchell who was expecting a baby soon. However, it has also been said that Hendrix drew inspiration from his own unhappy childhood memories. The song’s lyrics describe parents who are unhappy with the pregnancy, saying, “I swear I see nothing but a lot of frowns / And I’m wondering if they want me around.”

The lyrics for the song were written before the melody, and the lyrics were initially plugged in with the song’s melody for “Midnight Lightning” but they wound up not blending the two together. On August 22, Hendrix recorded the final, bluesy version of the track. As they were getting “Belly Button Window” together with the final melody, Hendrix was also spending time considering what new recordings would be on his next album. Only Hendrix would not live to see it released.

Days after the session, Hendrix, Mitchell, and Billy Cox left for the UK to play the 1970 Isle of Wight festival and then more dates in Europe, set to begin in September. Sadly, some of those dates never happened because, on September 18, 1970, Hendrix passed away. Less than a month after laying down “Belly Button Window,” Hendrix had died.

The final recording from the guitar legend later became the closing track on his first posthumous album, Cry of Love. Many find it strange that the last song written and recorded by Hendrix before he died was actually a song about starting life as a baby. It’s almost like reincarnation. A song about birth as one dies. The coincidence of the song’s subject matter is quite eerie, but also poetic in a way.


Janis Joplin’s Final Birthday Present

Janis Joplin, a singer of the 1960s known for her big bluesy voice and attitude, had massive popularity which grew more after her untimely death when she was only 27.

In September 1970, Joplin traveled to Hollywood with the Full Tilt Boogie Band to record Pearl. It wound up holding the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 for nine weeks and became her most polished and successful recording. The song “Me and Bobby McGee,” co-written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster became Janis Joplin’s first number-one single. Success was in the air, but unfortunately, Joplin didn’t get to enjoy her success. Beyond this, she didn’t even get to finish the album that cemented her as a legend.

On October 1, 1970, Joplin took to the studio to record the a capella song “Mercedes Benz.” She recorded it in one take then recorded a quick birthday serenade to John Lennon for his upcoming 30th birthday. These two things are the final vocal performances that Joplin ever committed to tape. Despite this, there was almost another final recording. Just two days after “Mercedes Benz”, Joplin went to the studio once more to listen to an instrumental track for the song “Buried Alive in the Blues.” Satisfied with the recording, she told her producer that she would add her vocal to the tape the next day. That night, she went out drinking at Barney’s Beanery, a high-end bar and restaurant in West Hollywood. At the end of her night out, she went back to her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel, where she had been staying since her arrival in California.

The next day, her studio entourage was concerned when she didn’t show up for the recording. Her road manager drove to the Landmark Motor Hotel to check on her and saw her psychedelically-painted Porsche 356 rag-top convertible in the parking lot, so he knew she had made it back. When he stepped inside her room, he found a grim sight. A dead Janis Joplin lying on the floor between her bed and the bedside table. On her arm, was a fresh needle mark and her lip was busted open from fall and hitting the table. Her hands each held something. One held a cigarette that had burned down to the filter. The other hand held four one-dollar bills. The coroner determined that Janis Joplin had died of a heroin overdose compounded by alcohol use. Her heroin use was no secret, but it did not make it any less devastating of a loss.

Without Joplin, the album preparations stopped, and “Buried Alive in the Blues” was kept as an instrumental. Although Pearl was incomplete, it still became her best-selling album upon its release. Those final recordings by Joplin may not have strange material related to the death, but it is still tragic that someone with so much talent didn’t get to complete or bask in the success of their best-selling album. (Source)

The Final Notes of John Lennon

John Lennon was a singer, songwriter, and peace activist who is most known for being a part of the most popular group in history, The Beatles. After the group disbanded, he began releasing solo music along with collaborative music with his wife Yoko Ono. In the final years of his life, he collaborated with Ono often. It was one of those collaborations that holds the last recording of John Lennon.

Yes, unlike others on this list, the last recording by John Lennon was not one of his own songs but a collaboration with his wife Yoko Ono on her new-wavey single, “Walking on Thin Ice.”

The album Double Fantasy had just become a big collaborative hit for Ono and Lennon. It seemed they were hitting their stride. Lennon even took out his old 1958 Rickenbacker 325 (the instrument he often used at the height of Beatlemania). With that classic guitar (along with a keyboard), he added parts to the dance-pop tune on December 4, 1981. Four days later, as they added the last touches to “Walking on Thin Ice,” and listened back to what they had made, they felt that they'd just finished Ono’s first big pop smash hit. Everything was going right. Big things were coming. Then everything went wrong.

Lennon and Ono returned to their New York home where Lennon was gunned down by Mark David Chapman. When he was shot and killed, Lennon was holding the final mix of “Walking on Thin Ice.” The fact that he was holding the final song he ever worked on, gives me chills. How tragic. Even more tragic is the fact that the song, features his wife Ono singing about the unpredictability of life. Neither knew when they wrote and recorded it, that John Lennon would be killed that day. He was only 40.

Many wonder what else Lennon could have released to the music world had he not died so soon, but sadly we’ll never know. About a month after his death, the song was released on January 6, 1981. To further carry a tribute to her husband, Ono had “Walking on Thin Ice” carry a simple tribute under the song title. The sleeve of the single read, “For John.”

Whispered Final Words of Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison of The Doors was an iconic figure in the 1960s known for his charisma and immense talent. Decades after his death, he is still regarded as one of the quintessential rockstars. His style was unconventional and shocked many strait-laced Americans, he was very fascinating to the younger generation. Although he was loved by the youth of that time, the truth was that Morrison was a very depressed and hurt person who turned to drugs and alcohol in unhealthy ways to get through life. This is what led to his early death.

Created in December 1970, the band’s final studio recording before Morrison’s death was “Riders on the Storm.” The song contains the final vocals of Jim Morrison. It’s been said that Morrison already had the story about a killer hitchhiker on the road in his head, inspired by hitchhiking murderer Billy Cook, but the mysterious epic wasn’t just about a spree killer. The song was also about love and loyalty.

Morrison’s bandmates said he was very focused during that five-day recording session for their album L.A. Woman. This was a strange surprise as the recording came at the end of a rough year that included Morrison’s infamous arrest for indecent exposure. Beyond this, he was still dealing with a lot of personal darkness.

The bandmates and producers have a lot of memories of those sessions, including how they came up with “Riders of the Storm.” Bruce Botnick, the audio engineer, “We all thought of the idea for the sound effects and Jim was the one who first said it out loud: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to add rain and thunder?’” Moments like these can be found in interviews surrounding the album. But that’s not as relevant as this next part.

The Doors’ drummer John Densmore had the idea for Morrison to record a second, whispered vocal on top of the traditionally sung part. It was added to make it feel spookier while also making an echo between the two vocal parts. It’s that whispered take that is now known as the last recording Morrison ever did with The Doors. His final recorded words were only but a whisper.

After the studio sessions, Morrison decided to go off to Paris with his girlfriend in March 1971. In June, “Riders on the Storm” was the final Doors single to be released during Morrison’s lifetime. About a month later, on July 3, 1971, Jim Morrison was found dead in a bathtub at the young age of 27. Yes, another person on this list who tragically died at 27. It’s been speculated it was a heroin overdose, but the autopsy officially cited it as heart failure.

The final recorded whispers in “Riders of the Storm” felt different now that he was gone. Ray Manzarek later described the final recording as “a whisper fading away into eternity, where he is now.”

Tragically, the song became a Billboard hit the same week in 1971 that Morrison was found dead in a Paris apartment. In the years after his death, the song became well-loved among fans. In 2009, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Knowing its full backstory can make those final whispered words feel like a soft goodbye even if it is a little sad.

Even though these talented, beautiful souls are no longer with us, we can take comfort in knowing their work lives on. As long as we have those final songs and maintain those memories, it doesn’t have to be a tragic one.


 

Special thanks to the following website for helping with my research.

https://ultimateclassicrock.com/last-rock-songs/?utm_source=tsmclip&utm_medium=referral


Written by Kristen Petronio