Alberto Manzano collects in the book “The death rock” the history of the albums that six musical geniuses wrote when they had received a lethal diagnosis.

When Freddie Mercury got the news, it was like pocketing, folded up on hospital letterhead, a death sentence. That was exactly what AIDS was in 1987. David Bowie knew right away that his liver cancer was lethal and that he would barely have time to see “Blackstar” in stores, the album he immediately got to work on. Johnny Cash recorded the last 50 songs of him sitting in a wheelchair, his face like an old soccer ball and glaucoma pressing on him. As he revealed to his friend Alberto Manzano, Leonard Cohen could barely move out of bed when he was working on “You Want It Darker” before he left this world. Like them, George Harrison and Warren Zevon toothey undertook the recording of an album knowing that they were near the end .

It is time to break a cliché: in the history of music, those who did not know how to die have become more famous, the 27 Club, for example, than those who have reached the end of their lives fully and at peace with themselves. So, although talking about albums on the edge of existence may seem like a rather macabre subject, it is not at all: «It is a very revealing book for me, because it deals with the fact that acceptance is necessary to leave in peace. They have had a full life and they leave without making a fuss, without great drama, writing songs as they have done all their lives, “says the author Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen

Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen.

Take the case of Freddie Mercury . For Queen’s last album, “Innuendo” (1991), his health was already very bad. He could barely walk. And yet, he wanted to leave a vital message in the form of one of the most important songs in the band’s history: “The Show Must Go On” takes on a double message in Mercury’s vital context.File photo from 1967 showing George Harrison with Ravi Shankar in Los Angeles

File photo from 1967 showing George Harrison with Ravi Shankar in Los Angeles.

George Harrison received the blow in 2001. After a series of unfortunate events (including an assault on his home) and after a very long streak of ill health, the word tumor appeared. Last name, cerebral. A quick Google search was enough to know what happened next. Harrison, who had been recording failures for two decades, makes a trip to India, to fulfill the ritual of bathing in the Ganges, and he dedicated his last strength, the last days on Earth, to writing and recording new songs , “looking for the words and the notes that distilled the essence of its truth”. Johnny J.R Cash.  Johnny Cash - San Quentin (Live from Prison)

Johnny JR Cash. Johnny Cash – San Quentin (Live from Prison) .

Johnny Cash ‘s face is puffy and sunken, he’s half blind from glaucoma, and his hands are shaking. Years of addiction to amphetamines and the body shaken by diabetes, in addition to an assortment of surgeries -heart, eyes, jaw-, have turned the Man in Black, as Manzano puts it, into someone battered but “with the voice of experience, with stoic authority” to have one last record opportunity. We are at the turn of the new millennium and, thanks to Rick Rubin, the country legend finds an artistic path in American standards and even dares with modern versions that sound like old whiskey and dusty road just by singing them. However, in 1997 he was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy, a degenerative neurological disorder similar to Parkinson’s. Cash recovers and in 2002 he records “That Man Comes Around”, with the chilling version of “Hurt”, a song by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) who went so far as to say that this song “no longer belonged to him”.

The songs sound so good that he insists on continuing to record with Rubin. They are the “American Recordings” sessions that he used to combine with Christian communion by telephone. In 2003, June Carter, his wife, died, and only three days later he wanted to record again. He is driven by a higher mission and so, from his wheelchair, he records 50 songs before he passes away, just four months after his wife. 

David Bowie had been silent for a decade when, in 2013, he released “The Next Day”, which returned him to “number one” in the UK twenty years later. In 2014 he was diagnosed with liver cancer and, the following year, published “Blackstar” on his 69th birthday. Two days later, he passes away in New York. Bowie dedicated the last year of his life to this album, the one with the black star: “I am a black star, I am a black star / how many times does an angel fall? / How many people lie instead of speaking up? / He stepped on holy ground and shouted to the crowd.”Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen.

Finally, there is Leonard Cohen , the most special case for the book’s author, translator, and friend of the Canadian poet. In 2016, Cohen told the New Yorker: “I’m working on new songs, but I don’t think I’ll be able to finish them. (…) I have work to do. I have to take care of my business. I am operating in the proximity of death and I am prepared. I hope it’s not too awkward. Musician Warren Zevon

Musician Warren Zevon .

Perhaps less well known to the general public is Warren Zevon , an acerbic and genius singer-songwriter who also received a granite slab with his name carved early in the form of inoperable cancer. He refused to take medication, except to prevent nausea and pain. But he only had songwriting as a treatment. “The Wind” was published in August 2003, two weeks before his death