Issue 12: Saying Goodbye in a Song
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Unlike Cash’s “Hurt”, Janis Joplin had no idea she would be dead within a few weeks of recording “Me and Bobby McGee” in 1970, so she certainly didn’t intend it to be any sort of final statement on her life. But even today it’s difficult not to think of it as something of a swan song for a 27-year-old on the verge of dying from a drug overdose. When the song was released in 1971, it became the second posthumous number-one single on the U.S. pop charts.
The first song to earn that distinction was Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. Like Joplin, he died just a couple weeks after recording what would become his best known song. The lyrics of “Dock of the Bay”, while melancholy, certainly aren’t anything too bleak. As the title suggests, it’s simply about a guy sitting on a dock, watching ships, to take his mind off his problems.
It’s the fact that the guy singing it would die just a couple weeks later when his plane crashed into a lake in Wisconsin that makes the song take on another-worldly quality. Regardless of what it was designed to be, it’s become Redding’s de facto final statement.
Joplin and Redding died long before I was born, but one rock death I can remember the details of is Kurt Cobain’s. I would imagine Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York would have become a classic album regardless of whether Cobain was still alive today, but since it came out right around the time of his suicide, it cemented its legacy.
For clarity, Nirvana recorded the acoustic concert in November 1993, about six months before Cobain took his own life in April 1994. The album was released commercially six months after that, in November 1994. Naturally, it was impossible to listen to without thinking about Cobain’s death.
If it’s not enough that the stage Nirvana played on for the unplugged concert was literally designed to look like a funeral, the music itself is plenty haunting as well, specifically the last song, a cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”. Much like “Hurt” and “Dock of the Bay”, it has come to be thought as something of a final statement from Cobain.
Lyrically, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” isn’t different from many old blues songs, a simple ditty about a guy worried that his girl is cheating on him while he sleeps in the “pines”. It’s the way Cobain performs it that is unnerving, screaming the words at the end – and most eerie – that heavy sigh he has to take before he hits the last note. It sounds like someone at the end of their rope.
The Beastie Boys’ MCA wasn’t able to make an emotional swansong as an artist, a la Unplugged in New York or “Hurt”. But perhaps that’s for the best. As any Beastie Boys fan could tell you, the group never seemed to have an interest in establishing the type of gravitas artists like Nirvana or Johnny Cash had. When all is said and done, they will be remembered for the creativity and humor I cited above.
Put another way, you don’t want to listen to the high school class clown’s emotional poetry. You want to drink Brass Monkey with him behind the school.

Marc Ingber is a communications specialist and writer for a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, MN. He was born and raised in the Twin Cities and attended journalism school at the University of Kansas. His primary interests include rock n' roll, movies, food and drink, the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins - probably in that order.
Read other articles by Marc Ingber
With song titles like “Nonstop Disco Powerpack”, “Funky Donkey” and “The Lisa Lisa”, the Beastie Boys’ 2011 album, Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2, wasn’t exactly a leap into maturity for the group.
Forever known for their creativity, sense of humor and irreverence, it’s quite apparent the Beastie Boys weren’t about to get all serious and make a concept album about aging, war, politics, technology-driven dystopias or anything of the sort just because they were approaching their 50s. Though easily old enough to be most contemporary MCs’ fathers, on Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2 they continued to rock the mic in much the same way they did when they were 21.
But shortly after releasing the album something undeniably serious did happen to the group – one of them died. With Adam “MCA” Yauch’s death in 2012, it seems safe to say the Beastie Boys are finished, thus making Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2 their final musical statement as a band. If you want to get more technical, the last song on their last album ends with them saying, “Money, money, making, making, New York Citaay”.
To be fair, it’s highly doubtful the Beastie Boys knew they were making what would be their last record. They started the recording process before MCA was even diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him at just 47. And even after being diagnosed, MCA and his band mates Ad Rock and Mike D seemed optimistic he would make a full recovery.
Would they have made a different, more serious record if they knew it was going to be the last of their 25-year career? It’s hard to say. Faced with a similar fate, other musicians have made purposefully “poignant” final albums, if not to sum up their careers and say goodbye, then perhaps to at least go out on a high note.
From Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon to Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and Kurt Cobain, several artists have made music in the final months of their lives that became especially moving following their deaths. In Cash’s and Zevon’s case, they were fully aware they would be dying soon. With the others, death came suddenly at a much younger age, but their swansongs are as much a part of their artistic legacy as anything they did before it.
In Johnny Cash’s case, it’s a little different. Since he was a country icon for decades, lived to be 71, and didn’t die suddenly, it’s safe to say his legend was sealed long before he ever released a cover version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” in 2002. With that being said, it’s just about impossible for me to think about Cash without thinking about that song, and especially the video for it, which features Cash looking back on his life with a seemingly heavy dose of regret.
About as haunting as music videos get, as far as final statements go, Cash’s “Hurt” is a doozy. The irony of course is that it’s technically not even his statement. Trent Reznor wrote “Hurt” years before and it was a well-known song for Nine Inch Nails before Cash did it. But even Reznor was blown away by Cash’s version.
Cash knew he was close to death when he shot the “Hurt” video and anyone watching it can tell as well, which makes it all that much more powerful. It’s one of the reasons something he did in his 70s is as much a part of his artistic legacy as “Folsom Prison Blues”.
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Saying Goodbye in a Song
Marc Ingber
Vhcle Magazine Issue 12, Music