Rock and Roll Book Club: Music stars pick 'One Last Song' they'd want to hear on earth

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Mike Ayers's 'One Last Song.'
Mike Ayers's book 'One Last Song: Conversations on Life, Death, and Music.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

When I first started at Minnesota Public Radio, I worked at both The Current and our sister station, Classical MPR. Multiple times even during the few years I worked at the classical station, we heard from grateful listeners who reported that when family members were literally on their deathbeds, they chose to have Classical MPR playing as a final soundtrack.

What would your final soundtrack be? In researching his book One Last Song (buy now), Mike Ayers learned to phrase the question as, "What would you want to hear as your last song on earth?" That made it less about the circumstances of the death (though some of his respondents thought about those anyway) and more about the nature of life.

Years in the making, One Last Song landed with special poignance when published in October, amid a global pandemic that cruelly circumscribes what Jim James, in a foreword, calls "our final act of creation." To protect their loved ones, COVID-19 victims must die alone, with only PPE-clad medical personnel — doing heroic, compassionate work — to ease their transitions.

When most of us think of death, we imagine our loved ones at our side. That's certainly what Stephen Malkmus had in mind when he made his pick: "Carefree Highway" by Gordon Lightfoot. "It's almost not about you," he told Ayers. It should be a song the whole family can enjoy together.

Malkmus is one of 32 artists who responded to Ayers's query; each response appears as a brief essay in a book that's kind of a page-turner once you get past the unavoidably macabre premise. It would be an interesting question to ask just about anyone, but the special appeal of querying musicians is that the answers reveal something of how the artists think about music itself.

Some of the answers are very on-the-nose. André 3000 picks a song about death — the song about death — by an artist who's greatly influenced him, Prince's "Sometimes It Snows In April." Margo Price picks the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," an epic way to go and perhaps a comfort insofar as you'd pass on while allegedly being assured that the Cute One went before you. A.C. Newman (New Pornographers) picks Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street," pointing out that if you actually listen to the lyrics and not just the iconic sax solo, it's a reflective song about mortality. Who knew?

Other artists prefer to cut against the grain. Lauren Mayberry (CHVRCHES) picks Katy Perry's "Firework," offering an extended explanation of why that's definitely not a joke. She cites Perry as a role model of female empowerment, and says she can't think of a better way to end your life than the way you'd end a perfect night out at a dance club. Courtney Barnett's a little more offhand in her dual pick, pairing Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" with Lou Reed's "Perfect Day." (Speaking for myself, I'd do whatever it took to make it through "Perfect Day" so I could go out with Cyndi.)

Mayberry remembers dancing to "Firework" at a pivotal time in her life, when she was emerging as a musician while also working a day job and running a women's collective. Multiple respondents think along those lines, picking songs that take them back to moments they'd like to live in forever...or, at least, when it seemed that time seemed to stop. Angel Olsen shares a vivid memory from her early 20s, hanging out on the roof with her roommates because their apartment was infested with bedbugs. Not the most fun scenario in theory, but it makes for the kind of summer that sticks with you. The song she remembers playing up there on the roof: "Always It's You" by the Everly Brothers.

In some cases, the musicians pick towering examples of their artform. Adam Granduciel (The War on Drugs) picks Roy Orbison's "Crying," because "that song is undeniable in its craft." Sax great Sonny Rollins goes with Coleman Hawkins's "The Man I Love," which he describes as "the essence of jazz improvisation."

You knew someone was going to go with their own music, and here it's Killer Mike (Run the Jewels), who says his 2012 solo track "Untitled" is "the total culmination of who I am as a man." Will Oldham (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) picks a song that doesn't exist, from a collaborative album he'd ideally create with his loved ones in the lead-up to his demise.

In addition to the artists' statements, Ayers adds death-related sidebars throughout the book. Maybe the most fascinating is a feature on the last songs legendary stars played live before their deaths; it warms my '80s-loving heart to know that the Queen of Soul had "Freeway of Love" as a swan song. There are also lists of most-played funeral songs from various genres, although they're based on U.K. data so you get a lot more Robbie Williams and Snow Patrol than stateside mourners probably go for. (We can, perhaps, take a pro tip from British bereaved and add Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" to our postmortem playlists.)

There's also a decade-by-decade list of "the most morbid number one songs of all time." It's an apt reminder that if you don't think pop and death go together, you've forgotten about all those '50s and '60s car crash songs, Don McLean's "American Pie" (in which the narrator keeps promising to die but never quite follows through), Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill" ("an ode to an assassin"), and a raft of memorial songs including but not limited to "I'll Be Missing You" and "Candle in the Wind 1997." The prize for most morbid, though, has got to go to Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," a song about global conflagration.

By the end of One Last Song — in fact, after just a few pages — you'll doubtless have thought about what song you'd pick to be your last listen on earth. Me? I think I'd pick "(Nothing But) Flowers" by Talking Heads. It's a gorgeous melody and arrangement, elegiac yet uplifting, with lyrics about the contrast between nature and civilization. In a classic David Byrne move, though, the singer reverses the "Big Yellow Taxi" story and sings about how shopping malls are covered with flowers, and how what once was a Pizza Hut is covered with daisies. It's a wistful sort of back-to-nature song, which seems fitting for death — the ultimate "back to nature" move.

Oh, and the lyrics were written in the Twin Cities, while Byrne was driving around waiting for his then-partner Twyla Tharp to finish rehearsing at the Walker Art Center. Gotta go out with a local angle.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

January 14: Let Love Rule by Lenny Kravitz (buy now)

January 21: Sweet Dreams: The Story of the New Romantics by Dylan Jones (buy now)

January 28: Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band by Willie and Bobbie Nelson (buy now)

February 4: The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience Since the 1960s by Emily J. Lordi

February 11: The Big Life of Little Richard by Marc Ribowsky

February 18: Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll by Maureen Mahon

February 25: This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On + Off the Record by Neal Karlen


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