Death, the ultimate career move

Dying is no obstacle to making it big in pop. Quite the opposite. As Jeff Buckley, Tupac Shakur and others have proved, it's often the best thing that could ever happen to you
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Jeff Buckley releases a new CD on Monday week, his third full-length album, and the second to appear since his untimely death by drowning in Memphis in 1997, when he discovered the reason why locals sunbathe by the Mississippi shore, but never risk a dip. Mystery White Boy (Columbia), a collection of live performances, will sell well, too. Buckley, never quite a star in his short lifetime, continues to fascinate an audience ever growing by word of mouth.

Early death has never posed much of a career problem. It removes that major obstacle to success - the artist - and means any number of creative commercial strategies can be applied by management or record companies without interference from those temperamental types who keep them in a job. Tony Wilson, ex-MD of Factory, the North's only real rival to the London-based music industry during the past two decades, once famously commented that Ian Curtis's suicide was the best thing that ever happened to him (Wilson, presumably), then rambled on about how "death sells", possibly thinking "dead men don't request royalty statements". Mind you, he was sharing a panel at an American industry convention with Keith Allen and members of the Happy Mondays at the time, so prudence may have been at a premium that day.

Suicide is unusual though, especially as it was obvious to all that Curtis's band, Joy Division, their second album completed, were about to become massive. Not that success would necessarily have saved him. Kurt Cobain's quite unexpected rise to superstardom surely helped tip him over the edge. Without MTV rotation his demise might have been as traditionally messy and unresolved as that of the original punk Johnny Thunders, who expired in a New Orleans hotel room, leaving behind more questions than tangible wealth.

But neither Kurt or Curtis left much in the can. Post-Cobain, the Nirvana legacy consisted of a couple of live albums, and reports that his wife Courtney Love possesses a few rough demos of songs, while Joy Division came to a halt, early out-takes aside, and eventually re-emerged as New Order.

Even sudden death won't necessarily stop a rapper's career. The ill-starred Tupac Shakur has released more records since his 1996 murder in a still unsolved drive-by shooting than he managed when alive. An American magazine recently estimated that some 15 or 16 bootlegs of his work are currently available, and seasoned observers reckon that upwards of 200 tracks are presently circulating.

Certainly, his phenomenal work rate was commented upon during the last year of his life. Two or three new raps a day was commonplace as he visited the studio daily after his release from prison in 1995, working up a beat with whoever was present. His record company, the legendary/infamous Death Row rushed out an album under the name Makaveli within weeks of his death entitled Don Killuminati: The Seven Day Theory, shamelessly (but quite impressively) hinging on the Renaissance philosopher's speculation that faking his own demise would allow him to accurately distinguish his enemies on his return. And you thought it was all about guns, cars and bitches...

The Notorious B.I.G., an unmistakable target, even had his Ready To Die record on the schedules and ready for release when the East versus West Coast hip-hop wars led to his murder the following year. More recently, Biggie's memory has been besmirched in some eyes by the 1999 release of Born Again, where his fragmentary raps are enhanced by beyond-the-grave collaboration with present-day performers. Not that the boss of his record company, Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, has ever hesitated to remind the world of his great loss, with that infernal cover of The Police's "Every Breathe You Take" fashioned as a tribute to Biggie.

In fact, with so much material to call on, it's perfectly possible that, cleverly produced, Tupac could remain at the forefront of hip hop trends for years to come. Even the work of the best known and respected artists is not immune from tampering. Last year saw a distinctly tepid collection of Bob Marley's early classics remixed by various dance producers for the holiday crowd - an exercise in spiritual unconsciousness.

Marley's premature death in 1981 from cancer wasn't followed by a welter of material, however. The enormous success of 1984's Legend compilation merely confirmed what everybody knew all along - that he was a huge talent who left a legacy of fine music. More dubious were the developments following Jimi Hendrix's accidental overdose in 1970. His contractual dealings were already tangled during his lifetime, but in the years since, some 30 or 40 recordings bearing his name have appeared, often live performances of varying quality, but frequently featuring early work as a back-up musician where his role was tangential at best.

A relatively definitive version of his final unfinished studio album First Rays of the New Rising Sun, didn't appear until the mid-Nineties, and an official recording of his Woodstock performance only emerged last year. It wasn't worth the wait, either. All from a man who released four official albums in his lifetime.

The "what if" question has proved dangerously irresistible. The surviving Beatles finally reformed 14 years after John Lennon's death to complete two songs, fragments really, which had been circulating among collectors since the late Seventies. You can't imagine that he'd have been delighted at the results, though he was after all several years younger than his bandmates at the time, and will always be so. The Doors pre-empted them in 1978, when surviving members Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore cooked up a few backing tracks for some of Jim Morrison's uninspired poetics to create American Prayer. A pointless exercise.

We like to remember our stars as they were in their prime. Though Buckley left very little music behind, it's surely preferable to watching this golden boy grow into an increasingly cantankerous figure like Van Morrison or Bob Dylan. His memory will be unsullied, like that of Nick Drake, another lost talent who now sells more each month than he ever sold in his lifetime, and who mercifully left no more than a single album's worth of unreleased, frankly harrowing songs behind. Similarly, Sid Vicious will always be the boychild shooting the audience to his inimitable version of "My Way".

Even in the early Sixties, the unfortunate Cochran, killed in a car crash in the West Country in 1960, half a world from his California home, inspired a tribute in Joe Meek's "Just Like Eddie", sung by a cute blond called Heinz (who recently died - at 57). Buddy Holly, the first great rock casualty, dominated the charts posthumously, his clean-cut image preserved in aspic.

Merely disappearing can do the trick. Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers hasn't been seen since 1995, but the miming guitarist contributes no less to their music than he did when present. Yet for sheer chutzpah, no one can match Elvis Presley. Twenty-three years after his death, he still tours, with the help of modern video and sound technology and with the same band that backed him in his pomp. He'll always be at his best, and by extension, so will his audience.