One last song before I go

Warren Zevon died this month, leaving an acclaimed final album. And he wasn't the only example of great-last-album syndrome. Nick Hasted examines the concentrating effect of impending death
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Warren Zevon wrote his own final act, as cancer swiftly killed him. When he died - earlier this month - from the inoperable growth diagnosed in August last year, the American singer-songwriter of "Werewolves of London" had recorded one last album, The Wind. A documentary on the music TV channel VH-1 shows its price. Told by doctors that he had three months to live, he laid up long past that date with the record half-finished, hoarding his energy. Writing with a rapidity he hadn't had in years, being dosed with morphine and other agents to mask the killing symptoms, he somehow returned to the studio, with friends such as Bruce Springsteen, and finished his task.

The result is a series of last goodbyes to lovers, and confessions of need and pain, couched in the sardonic realism of a man who put a pipe-smoking skull on the cover of his Best-of last year. "Playing your own wake is a rare opportunity for a showbiz personality," he explained, of his need to make his last record in the shadow of death. But the truth is, either of his previous two albums, Life'll Kill Ya (2000) and My Ride's Here (2002 - the ride was a hearse), would have been a fitting memorial. "Don't Let Us Get Sick", a song on the former hopelessly pleads, but The Wind is the brave finish to rock's first mortality trilogy, Zevon's response to sickness as it burnt through him.

Few final albums have been so self-conscious: rock'n'roll's eternal adolescence doesn't lend itself to questions of extinction. But the release next month of Joe Strummer's last LP (finished by his band after his sudden heart attack) shows that middle age in the form's creators makes artistic last wills and testaments increasingly pressing. Whether caused by burial or a band's differences, final acts can define them.

Zevon is not the first to record under sentence of death. Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Frank Zappa and Ian Dury are among those who also taped as death bore down on them. Cash reputedly was recording songs as good as any in his oeuvre in the months between the death of his wife, in May, and his own death, a fortnight ago. Harrison, creatively blocked for years, like Zevon found new inspiration as the sickness spread, though his son Dhani and the producer Jeff Lynne had to complete last year's Brainwashed, with brushes of ghostly, George-like guitar. Dury, too, could not match Zevon's perfect timing, his slower cancer allowing him to reunite with his Blockheads for the resurgent, typically wry Mr Love Pants (1998) but killing him half-way through Ten More Turnips from the Tip (2002). The would-be classical composer Zappa used his fading energy to make his most successful orchestral album, The Yellow Shark (1994).

Others have had their end precipitated by a record. In 1981, Marvin Gaye, creatively stymied, at war with his label, Motown, addicted to cocaine, depressed and lost, quietly relocated to Ostend, Belgium. Taken in by a family there, he lived almost like a normal person, seeming to regain his soul. Renewed, he summed up his themes of carnal and spiritual longing on Midnight Love (1982) and its single, "Sexual Healing". But the album's success lured him back to America and a final spiral of crack-taking, attempted suicide and the provocation of his hated preacher father into shooting him dead in 1984.

While heroin addiction and depression seem to have caused Kurt Cobain's 1994 shotgun suicide, Nirvana's In Utero (1993 - rejected title: I Hate Myself and I Want to Die) also contained clues to his end. A punishing global tour in support of the band's previous surprise smash Nevermind and a conflicted attitude to the punk crime of "selling out" led Cobain to try to sabotage the band's success, crudely parodying Nevermind's melodies and channelling his self-loathing into sonic roars such as "Rape Me". Their greatest record, In Utero had an unrelenting savagery that slowed their success, but not enough. Seeing no other way out, Cobain died seven months after its release. The posthumous live album, Unplugged in New York (1994), an alternative ending, proved the waste with its startling array of possible futures, from Bowie cover to blues.

Frustrated promise made other sudden deaths worse. Of all the Fifties rock originals, Roy Orbison was the most biblically cursed: his wife was killed by a truck, and two children died in a fire. David Lynch's use of his music in Blue Velvet and his participation in The Travelling Wilburys had prepared the way for the 1995 album Mystery Girl, containing his first surefire hit in a decade, "You Got It". Typically, the Big O died of a heart attack just before its release. By contrast, John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy (1980) gained a lukewarm response at first. It was Lennon's slaying that month that gave poignancy to the ballad "Watching the Wheels", with its lyric: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

LPs have often killed off bands, too. Pink Floyd's The Final Cut (1983) was in effect the end of a group imploding with envy, ego and mistrust. Billed as "a Roger Waters album performed by Pink Floyd", it was the inevitable climax of Waters's conceptual and personal hijacking of the group.

The pressure of following their era-defining, eponymous 1989 debut (and of spending their multimillion-pound advance) froze The Stone Roses for five years. Second Coming (1994) was the desultory follow-up; its torturous gestation tore apart the former teenage friends Ian Brown and John Squire, destroying the band soon after. The Smiths' Strangeways Here We Come (1987), though far more accomplished, was a similar death knell. And The Band, shorn of ideas and friendship, brought in Martin Scorsese to film friends such as Dylan attending their farewell concert/album The Last Waltz (1978), self-mythology standing in for lost talent.

Only The Beatles managed to end perfectly. Though Let It Be (1970) would be their last, delayed release, Abbey Road (1969) was their true finale. They were being torn apart by legal and personal disputes when they made it, the hope of "All You Need Is Love" long gone. But somehow, from fragments left on the studio floor, Paul McCartney and George Martin assembled a farewell suite. The Fab Four's last moment of singing together was even called "The End".

Nothing, though, quite matches Zevon's achievement: to beat death to the punch and go with The Wind.

'The Wind' is out on Monday on Artemis/Rykodisc