There is a certain tragic irony in the fact that Warren Zevon - the cult singer-songwriter who died of lung cancer a fortnight ago - released his first album in 1969 under the title, Zevon: Wanted Dead Or Alive. Chain-smoking, a one-time drug addict and alcoholic, he seemed to embody all the truisms of a rock star's gamble with mortality. "I was the hardest-living rocker on my block for a while," he is quoted as confessing, yet he drew his inspiration as much from the subsequent periods of detox and rehabilitation as he had from the years of excess.
Skulls had formed a vital part of Zevon's iconography - that multi-purpose emblem of bad-boy hedonism and death-wish lifestyle - and he was diagnosed with terminal cancer a little over a year ago; just two years, with yet further ghoulish coincidence, after he released his Life'll Kill Ya LP. There is a kind of brute fatalism which seems to run throughout Zevon's musical career, the summation of which might also be seen in the stark photographic portrait of the singer on his final album The Wind, which entered the US charts three weeks ago. Looking at it, you somehow don't need to know the facts of Zevon's case to realise that it's a picture of a dying man.
Death has been a principal theme of rock'n'roll since Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" took the number two spot on the UK Top 20 back in May 1956 - the song was inspired, after all, by the fragment of a suicide note reported in a Miami newspaper. From the Old Testament swamp rock of Nick Cave to the ambiguous fusion of preacher and undertaker that the late Johnny Cash made his trademark as "the man in black", there is a robust tradition throughout rock music of artists who seem to set themselves up as agents of the hereafter. At their best (Cash's American Recordings for example, or Cave's Your Funeral, My Trial) such musicians seem to bring back reports from the stilled, deepest space of the human condition - they mimic the great film director Luchino Visconti's line that "to look on the face of beauty, as you know, is to look on the face of death".
But while rock music has managed to play with the romantic idea of death, how capable has it been of confronting the real thing? Lou Reed's Berlin is steeped in morbidity, yet his uneasy Magic And Loss - describing the cancer and chemotherapy of a dying friend - just doesn't seem to work as an album. In this, death in rock music is rather like politics in rock music: once you address the subject directly, it becomes peculiarly clumsy.
Rock and pop work best with the subject of death when they become both melodramatic (Twinkle's fabulous "death pop" single "Terry" comes to mind) and achieve the kind of abstract poetry which runs in rare, precious seams through the strata of rock and pop from Johnnie Ray to Eminem. Paradoxically, this is a quality which seems to lie in the broader relationship between rock music and youth - the whole emotional hot-house of teenage and early adult experience, with its all-or-nothing approach to the world, its frequent sense of alienation, its uneasy tension between love and lust, and its traditional duty to rebellion and stimulants.
Somewhere deep in the middle of this mass of expanding hormonal impulses - as evidenced by Baz Luhrmann's superb pop-hip interpretation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet - there is an awareness of death at its most idealistic. And if you return to the founding English romanticism of the early 19th century, you can see the models for youthful pop-death angst. Indeed, one of the great images of rock'n'roll - directly comparable with David Bowie's "snow white tan" on the cover of his great Aladdin Sane LP of 1973 - has always seemed to be Henry Wallis's pre-Raphaelite portrait of the poet Thomas Chatterton. The poet is seen having taken his own life, stretched out on a low divan beneath the dusty window of his garret room. It's either dusk or dawn, and with his long red hair, cheek-bones like wing mirrors, powder-blue knee breeches and almost violet pallor, he is every inch the rock'n'roll suicide - Aladdin Sane's direct ancestor, requiring only Luhrmann to recreate the scene.
There is an art historical footnote to Wallis's painting which also seems relevant to rock music's relationship with death. For while Wallis's image of the dead young poet is gorgeously iconic, it reverses the facts of Chatterton's death by poisoning - which was violent, messy and not least unaesthetic. In this the poet's death would have resembled that of Oscar Wilde's, in the sense that "the debris was appalling". And there is an almost adolescent wishfulness, on Wallis's part, to exchange the blunt horror of these grim facts for the aesthetic heroism of his moodily-lit mise-en-scène. His purpose is to induce reverie and champion idealism.
But where the visual arts employ stillness to articulate death, rock music always works with the concept of speed. Death is the fast track to becoming a rock icon, and violent death is the fast lane of the fast track. Andy Warhol's Death and Disaster silkscreen canvases of the early 1960s pronounce violent death to be a sub-strand of the total Pop world - as much a part of the democracy of mass-media imagery as Coca-Cola or press shots of Marilyn Monroe. For Warhol recognised that violent death and tragedy (Monroe's suicide, Kennedy's assassination - even his Elvis is pointing a gun) were a vital informant of the translation of a mere image into an icon. Warhol's house band, The Velvet Underground, sang songs like bitter-sweet short stories concerning sex, death and hallucination in the city - a place of drugged sensuality and neurasthenic violence. As overseen by Warhol, the group became a statement about glamour's contract with death: to what extent will you suffer abuse in order to become a great beauty?
Rock stars live out that contract with death which Warhol rightly identified as the means of translation between mortality and immortality. And this marks the point, more often than not, where the mythological encounters the medical on an uncomfortable, decidedly unglamorous mezzanine between the reality and the ideal of rock'n'roll martyrdom. From Hendrix choking on his own vomit, to Gram Parsons' fatal OD (and in a bizarre twist, the stealing of his dead body, a story now immortalised in the forthcoming film, Grand Theft Parsons), to Jim Morrison's bloated terminal alcoholism, the moment of death tends to be earthed in an all too lumpen corporeality. The road sign-posted by Jimi Hendrix's claim to be a short-term visitor from another planet, or Jim Morrison's dramatic pronouncement of "The End", finds its destination in a terrible kind of sacrifice.
This is the conclusion, ultimately, of rock music's fetishised rhetoric of death and its consequences out in the real world. Is the moment of rock and pop death a sacrifice or a terrible accident? A heroic martyrdom or the tragic outcome of a life in desperate need of therapy? The answer, of course, is all of these; and yet there is a persistent, eternal adolescence in the heart of rock music which will still maintain an idealism of death. A thousand white American Nu-metal groups scream out their four-minute speed punk rants to death and disaffection every week on the ever-proliferating new punk channels like Scuzz and Kerraang. Mainlined into a million suburban bedrooms and as many teenage minds, they articulate an energy which elects the death of Kurt Cobain (from a shotgun cartridge taking his head off) as perhaps the ultimate existential act. As Douglas Coupland's obsession with the after-death experience of the grunge generation goes to emphasise, this is a nihilism which is fixated on notions of exit and departure - "Life at this point will be like throwing a frisbee in a graveyard," says one of his slackers of the approach of middle age.
And yet the tragedy of Cobain's untimely death is intensified by the very banality which existed at the root of his trauma - that the man's stomach was reduced to such a mass of unbearable, ulcerous acidity that he could no longer cope with its greater manifestation as a symptom of his life's pain. Perhaps one of the few rare occasions on which rock music really connects with the reality of death occurs on Nirvana's Unplugged New York version of "Pennyroyal Tea". Self-condemning, worn out, the mumble of Cobain's lyrics brings to life the whole world of his final pain-contorted misery: "I have very bad posture", one line intones, "I'm on warm milk and laxatives, cherry-flavour anti-acid" runs another. This is an expression of sheer exhaustion with suffering that you can find as much in the last letters of Arthur Rimbaud as the last diary entries of Kenneth Williams. The latter writes: "...so this, plus the stomach trouble combines to torture me - oh - what's the bloody point?" Kurt and Ken have that much in common, at least - joining with Elvis himself in a trinity of bowel-related deaths.
Perhaps one of the best analyses of the relationship between popular music and death - leaving aside Greil Marcus's superb meditation on the metaphysical significance of Dead Elvis - has come from Morrissey. In his sleeve notes for the Under The Influence compilation of tracks which have inspired him, this most enduring of pop icons defines death as the moment when pop attains its ultimate power to transform the listener's life. Having cited the deaths of Nico, Klaus Nomi and Johnny Thunders as examples of pop's transubstantiation of the human into the immortal - offering their fans the ultimate, almost Victorian romance with their idol - Morrissey asks a last subtle question of destiny: "Will I, too, die?" It's an equation between the fear of death and the proposition of immortality which Warren Zevon - pretty much Morrissey's polar opposite - put in quieter terms on his last LP: "I can hold my head up high and say that I left first/ Or I can hang my head and cry, tell me which is worse?"
Warren Zevon's last album is reviewed on page 15. 'Grand Theft Parsons' is screening at the London Film Festival (020 7928 3232) on 5 & 6 NovemberReuse content