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Area Resident’s Stylus Counsel | Tombstone Blues

Track 82 | Famous last words.

“Confusion will be my epitaph
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it, we can all sit back and laugh
But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.”
Epitaph by King Crimson

All you have to do is drive around any suburban neighbourhood a few days before Halloween to see how hard it is to be clever at writing memorable epitaphs.

All those fake tombstones with fake names. How did all this get started? Well, the ancient Egyptians were likely the first to have inscriptions, but they likely weren’t intended to be funny or clever. The Romans started adding more detail and eventually the English included verse. Epitaph writing has never really been an art form, though there have been several people well-known for their abilities in the area — technically known as epitaphists. Scottish poet Robbie Burns was one. He may actually have been the first one to perfect satirical epitaphs, which is what we’re talking about here today.

Specifically, the clever or interesting epitaphs of famous musicians — ones which are designed to sound as though they are the final or defining message of the occupant. Elvis Presley’s, by contrast, is about him rather than seeming to be from him. Similarly, Johnny Cash’s epitaph is just a section of Psalm 19:14.

But before we start, let me just say nobody has a better epitaph than actor Jack Lemmon:

Ramones bassist Dee Dee Ramone (Doug Colvin) has a pretty good one too: “OK, I gotta go now.” Which sort of refers back to the “Hey ho, let’s go” lyric from Blitzkrieg Bop, which he wrote. The upper part of his headstone has a more direct reference to his lyrics: “I feel so safe flying on a ray on the highest trails above,” from the song Highest Trails Above. Dee Dee died of a heroin overdose in 2002.

While his epitaph has lyrics which allude to death, Sonny Bono’s doesn’t. It just has a bit of one of his famous lyrics — “and the beat goes on.” I guess that depends upon which beat you’re referring to.

One could certainly argue that Ian Curtis’s epitaph contains both his most famous Joy Division lyric as well as a statement on his death by suicide: “Love will tear us apart.” Nick Drake’s simple marker also contains one of his lyrics — Now we are rise and we are everywhere,” from his song From The Morning.

Doors frontman Jim Morrison wrote many lyrics, songs and poems but the script on his headstone in Paris appears to pay homage to Alistair Crowley, though not directly. It reads: ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ which means “truth to your own spirit.”

Rick James’ epitaph (above) is a proclamation:
“I’ve had it all
I’ve done it all
I’ve seen it all
It’s all about love
God is love.”

Frank Sinatra and Canadian telecommunications businessman Ted Rogers share the same epitaph: The Best Is Yet To Come. In 1994, Tupac Shakur gave an interview to MTV in which he said: “I’m not saying I’m going to rule the world or I’m going to change the world. But I guarantee I will spark the brain that will change the world. That’s our job – to spark somebody else watching us.” Part of this famous quote now serves as his epitaph.

Marc Bolan of T. Rex has a bit of his own lyric serving as the epitaph on his non-official memorial. Bolan was cremated following his fatal car crash in 1977, but the site of the crash has become a memorial, complete with a bronze bust and the following inscription from early Tyrannosaurus song Child Star:
“Sad to see them mourning you when you are here
Within the flowers and the trees.”

Both Frank Zappa and Roy Orbison opted for a different approach — unmarked graves. Not only do they not have epitaphs, but they don’t even have headstones. Both men are buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles, but there is just a patch of green grass marking their final resting places.

Johnny Ramone and Michael Jackson have boasty bios, rather than epitaphs. The marker of actor, comedian, musician and Blues Brother Joliet JakeJohn Belushi — makes it clear what motivated him: “I may be gone, but rock & roll lives on.”

This is why I find the epitaph of AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott so devastatingly awful. It’s a standard, common epitaph you see in community newspaper classified ads: “Close to our hearts he will always stay, loved and remembered every day.” Good lord. They could have gone with Dirty Graves Dug Dirt Cheap? Sad.

David Bowie had his ashes scattered. Any physical memorial, if there even is one, is private. Most consider his final album Black Star an epitaph. It was recorded in secret and released two days before his death on his 69th birthday in January 2016.

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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.