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Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The last songs played live by famous musicians (part one)

(This blog is going to be a morbid one, so apologies in advance.)

So many musicians I love are now dead. It seemed in particular that 2016 was a killing field, but 2017 wasn't much better.

It made me start to wonder a possibly strange and morbid thing about these late musicians - what was the last song they played live? I started thinking this after Chris Cornell died and footage began emerging of Soundgarden's last show and final song.

So I began doing some research and went down a bit of a rabbit-hole. Here's what I learnt.

(Sorry but most of the audio in this of a really terrible quality.)

Musician: Kurt Cobain (Nirvana)
Last song played live: Heart-Shaped Box
Date: March 1, 1994
Location: Terminal 1 Flughafen M√ľnchen, Munich, Germany

Kurt Cobain was clearly unwell by the time Nirvana unwittingly played what would be their final show - you can hear him struggling to hit the higher notes in Heart-Shaped Box in the above recording. Nirvana had spent almost all of February touring Europe, and life on the road combined with his addictions and mental health problems had pretty much broken Cobain. Three days after this final gig (the rest of the tour was cancelled), Cobain overdosed on champagne and Rohypnol. His wife Courtney Love later said the incident was a suicide attempt. About a month later, Cobain was dead, having unfortunately decided it was "better to burn out than to fade away", as he put it in his Neil Young-quoting suicide note.

Musician: Jimi Hendrix
Last song played live: Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
Date: September 6, 1970
Location: Open Air Love & Peace Festival, Fehmarn, Germany


You can buy Hendrix's entire final concert from Dagger Records - the officially sanctioned Hendrix estate label. And while that was the last proper performance from The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hendrix himself turned up at a jam session nine days later (September 15) on the invitation of The Animals' Eric Burdon. Too drug-fucked to join the jam session at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club with Burdon's newly formed band War, Hendrix returned the following night in better shape and sat in on two songs - Tobacco Road and Mother Earth. This was the last time he played in public. Hendrix died on September 18. You can hear him jamming on Tobacco Road in the video below.

Musician: John Lennon
Last song played live: Imagine
Date: April 18, 1975
Location: Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York, USA

Unlike most musicians featured in this blog, there was a lengthy gap between John Lennon's final concert and his death - more than five and a half years in fact. In the intervening years, Lennon effectively retired to raise his son Sean, attempting to make up for the fact he had been an absentee dad for his first son Julian. The former Beatle was on the verge of making a return to live performance when he was gunned down - he had been readying Double Fantasy for release in the lead-up to his senseless murder. As for that final gig, five years earlier, it was for a TV special celebrating Lew Grade, a man Lennon had been fighting in court for the previous few years. The whole weird story about it is told best here, but the upshot of it all (at least in terms of this blog) is that his deepest, most powerful and arguably best song ended up being the final one he played live.

Musician: Janis Joplin
Last song played live: Summertime
Date: August 12, 1970
Location: Harvard Stadium, Boston, USA

The final gig of Janis Joplin and her Full Tilt Boogie Band was on a hot August night in Boston and it started an hour and a half late. The crowd was stoned and restless, but the lengthy wait was because some of the musical equipment for the show had been stolen the night before. When Janis finally took to the stage, a bottle of Southern Comfort under her belt, she exploded for less than thirty minutes and was then gone again. This was a typical set for the ragged-voiced powerhouse. After a blistering rendition of George Gershwin's Summertime, Joplin left the stage and the band finished with their blues jam Full Tilt. Over the next two months, she worked on her landmark album Pearl but was dead on October 4, aged 27 - just 16 days after Hendrix died, also aged 27.

Musician: David Bowie
Last song played live: Changes
Date: November 9, 2006
Location: Hammersmith Ballroom, New York, USA

Bowie's final gig seemed innocuous at the time, but grew steadily in importance as almost 10 years elapsed between it and his death on January 10, 2016. It was a simple three song set at the Keep a Child Alive's annual Black Ball fundraiser. He opened with his cover the Oscar-nominated Johnny Mathis song Wild Is The Wind (as heard on Bowie's Station To Station album), followed it with The Lodger cut Fantastic Voyage, and capped it all off with Changes, for which he was joined on stage by Alicia Keys. It would be the final performance he ever gave and it came more than a year after his previous gig. Heart surgery prematurely ended his Reality Tour in 2004 and he only did one show in 2005, which was at the Fashion Rocks variety show in New York where he played Life On Mars? before singing two songs with Arcade Fire. Bowie never gave a reason for the lack of live shows in his later years, but then he always was a man of mystery.

This is part one. Let me know who you'd like to see featured in part 2.

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