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David Bowie and the History of Grand Farewells

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David Bowie and the History of Grand Farewells

When David Bowie died on Jan. 10, 2016, he left behind a massive body of work created over nearly 50 years. His final album was released just two days before his death, and that was no accident. Bowie knew his time was growing short – he had been fighting cancer for 18 months when he died. And he created his last album with his own mortality in mind.

Bowie’s "Blackstar" features the lead single “Lazarus,” and that song begins with the line, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” It’s not the only song on the album that dwells on death, and the consensus is that "Blackstar" is an impeccably timed swansong, one that Bowie intended to drop as close to his death as possible.

Bowie said goodbye in an extraordinary way, but he’s not the only artist who consciously created a parting gift to fans. Here are a few others – musicians actors and even a cartoonist – who offered last words with their last works.

1. John Wayne. The ultimate man’s man, star of countless westerns and war movies, died in 1979 of stomach cancer. His final role, as gunfighter J.B. Books in "The Shootist," came three years earlier in 1976. It was a powerful performance, one that earned Wayne critical praise. And it featured a crucial revision by Wayne himself, who insisted on a change to the ending, which had his character shooting another man in the back. Wayne told the director, “Mister, I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it.” His demand was met and the change stuck.

But perhaps more remarkable than Wayne’s spot-on revision of the film was the uncanny similarity between the actor and the character he played. Books, too, was dying of stomach cancer, according to the script. He was facing his final days and trying to live them with dignity. Wayne was sick enough when production began that no one sought him out for the role, but he campaigned for it, knowing he could bring his own personal experience to it and make it richer than any other actor could. He was right, and the film serves as a uniquely powerful eulogy to the superstar.

2. Warren Zevon. Like Bowie, Zevon – best known for “Werewolves of London” – knew the end was coming when he began working on his last album, The Wind. He was diagnosed with inoperable peritoneal mesothelioma – a cancer of the abdominal lining – in 2002, telling his good friend, David Letterman, that he hadn’t been to the doctor in 20 years before his diagnosis.

Though the cancer was inoperable, Zevon could have received treatment to prolong his life. But he skipped treatment in favor of recording a final album, worried that radiation would make him unable to work. What he created with "The Wind" was a thoughtful finale to his career. A cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” nodded at Zevon’s mortality, but it’s the closing tune, recorded at home after he was too sick for studio work, that's the real heartbreaker: “Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath,” it begins. “Keep me in your heart for a while/If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less/Keep me in your heart for a while.” The album was released just two weeks before Zevon’s 2003 death.

3. Johnny Cash. The Man in Black’s career lasted almost exactly as long as Bowie’s, with Cash’s first recordings made in 1955 and his recording career continuing until his last days in 2003. Encouraged by his wife, June Carter Cash, he continued to record prolifically at the end of his life, turning out 60 new songs in his final four months. Cash was very sick when he made those recordings, and he knew it – he had battled diabetes and associated neuropathy for years. But his late body of work is as good as his early work, with added gravitas from a man who had lived a long, complex life.

His "American Recordings" series, recorded in the 1990s and 2000s, had Cash singing mostly interpretations of other artists’ work and making them his own. The third and fourth installments came when Cash knew he was very ill, and he included songs that spoke to his illness and impending death (“I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, “The Mercy Seat” by Nick Cave, “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn). But the cover that served as his epitaph and broke fans’ hearts was “Hurt,” made famous by Nine Inch Nails. Cash made the song a meditation on his life, ending on a quiet and emotional note with the lyrics: “If I could start again/A million miles away/I would keep myself/I would find a way.” The video – switching between old footage, new recordings of Cash performing the song, and images of the closed Cash Museum – is considered one of the finest ever made.

4. Patrick Swayze. Known for physical roles like the dancer Johnny Castle in "Dirty Dancing" and the surfer Bodhi in "Point Break," Swayze quickly declined after pancreatic cancer struck when he was just 56. It was stage IV cancer at diagnosis, fast-moving and aggressive. Swayze had just 20 months to live, but he wasn’t ready to give up his acting career.

The actor had just filmed the pilot for a new TV show, "The Beast," when he received his diagnosis. He not only continued to move forward with the show despite his chemotherapy treatments and his increasing pain and weakness – he did it without taking painkillers. He worried they would keep him from the top of his game, and even while he was dying, Swayze was determined to excel. The Star-Ledger called it “the best performance of his career” and mused that Swayze’s fight for his life might have fueled his fine performance.

5. Charles Schulz. After drawing the beloved comic strip "Peanuts" for nearly 50 years, Schulz was diagnosed with colon cancer. It quickly advanced, with treatments sapping his strength and the disease obscuring his vision. Schulz knew he couldn’t produce "Peanuts" anymore, so he announced his retirement and drew a final strip to say goodbye to generations of fans.

That was in December of 1999. When he turned in that final strip, it was the last of a backlog of strips he’d drawn well in advance of publication, as he always did. In fact, Schulz had drawn so many strips in advance that he predicted "Peanuts" would outlive him. It did – by a single day. His goodbye strip was scheduled for Feb. 13, 2000, and Schulz died on the 12th.

6. Joey Ramone. Known as the vocalist for iconic pioneering punk band the Ramones, Ramone spent much of his career as part of the band, rather than pursuing solo fame. He didn’t begin recording a solo album until the last months of his life, when he had already been battling lymphoma for years. But when he finally did create a solo project, he sent a message to fans with its very title: "Don’t Worry About Me." That title was made all the more poignant when Ramone died before the album could be released – he had been dead for ten months when it debuted.

Ramone’s exuberant cover of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” is a particularly bright spot in the album, giving the listener the sense that Ramone was joyfully thinking of all the things he’d loved and preparing to leave them behind as he sang it. Also of note is the track “I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up).” It directly references his illness as well as his fighting spirit with lyrics such as “Sitting in a hospital bed/Sitting in a hospital bed/I, I want life/I want life/I want my life.”