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Songs of the Unexpected

18 March 2016

Justin Lewis-Anthony tackles death in popular culture

Danny Johnston/AP/PA Images

The way we were: Johnny Cash memorabilia displayed in the restored Dyess Colony Administration Building, part of a government collective build to help Depression-era families out of poverty

The way we were: Johnny Cash memorabilia displayed in the restored Dyess Colony Administration Building, part of a government collective build to help...

IN OUR film entertainments we absorb the deaths of thousands (The Avengers 2012 movie alone had 974); and death — the result of human choices and cruelty — fills the news. The reality of death, however, is not a popular artistic subject: a real individual’s death is generally something to be hidden, and not spoken of. Three songs from the past 25 years, however, go some way towards correcting the balance.

Johnny Cash’s last album was recorded with the producer Rick Rubin in Nashville, in 2002. His career had long before become “historic but irrelevant”, and Rubin’s ambition was to show that Cash’s work and life were important to understanding 20th-century America — a task made more difficult by the fact that Cash was dying.

“Hurt” was a cover song, which Cash delivered in his broken baritone. In February 2003 he filmed a video in the derelict House of Cash museum in Nashville. With his wife, Cash is seen moving through the wreckage of his life. Three months later she died; four months after that, so did Cash. That is what makes the performance, in song and video, so poignant. “I wear this crown of thorns / Upon my liar’s chair / Full of broken thoughts / I cannot repair.” For the profoundly religious Cash, his impending death meant that he could not escape the prospect of judgement.

In 1991, Billy Bragg wrote and recorded “Tank Park Salute” about the death of his father (both father and son had served in the Royal Tank Regiment). With a shimmering repeated piano figure, and a guitar accompaniment that is no more than triads moving up and down the fretboard, Bragg asks the dread question: “Daddy, is it true that we all have to die?” The question is made harder when it is clear that fathers, too, die: “You were so tall, how could you fall?” The lesson he learns, from death, like “a pale moon in the sunny sky”, is that “I’m but my father’s son.” The answer to the first question is, therefore, “Yes.”

David Bowie’s death in January was unexpected for his public, although it emerged that he had been living with cancer for 18 months before he died. His last album, Blackstar, was written and recorded when it became clear that his cancer was terminal, which makes the song “Lazarus” all the more affecting. Across an angular, industrial beat, Bowie sings: “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen . . . I’ve got nothing left to lose.” He filmed the video two months before he died, playing two parts: a cadaverous figure in a hospital bed, with eyes bound by bandages and hidden by buttons; and a writer who emerges from a wardrobe, struggles to get words down on pieces of paper, and is then compelled to retreat back into the wardrobe.

Our popular culture fetishises youth and health, and denies death. And yet, in a medium that seems so unsuited to examining the “last things”, we can find in Cash, and Bragg, and Bowie, arresting memento mori. The songs tell us that death is universal, and means the relinquishing of all our earthly plans and worries. If one task of the Church is to help people face the last enemy, then these songs may allow us to think about, and accept our own, individual, mortality.


The Revd Dr Justin Lewis-Anthony is Associate Dean of Students at Virginia Theological Seminary. He is the author of Circles of Thorns: Hieronymous Bosch and being human (Continuum, 2008).

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