No artist knows when they have sung their last song. It doesn’t matter how old or young they are, how successful or derelict they might be, or what personal circumstances they are be going through – every performance is a chance to rise to the occasion. Unless it’s a predetermined retirement show, no one steps onto the stage thinking it will be their last time.
And yet, for all legendary figures, there is that inevitable final performance. Sometimes it’s a poignant encore that puts a sense of finality on an entire career. Sometimes it’s a fluke hit or cover that just happens to be the last song that they ever took on. Extrapolating meaning from an artist’s final song can be difficult precisely because almost no one believes it will be their final song. Maybe it’s an appropriate summation of someone’s life, or maybe it means nothing at all.
But there’s always something fascinating about the songs that the all time great musicians decide to go out on. Most live shows are purposefully sequenced so that the finale is emotional and memorable, but very rarely do most of the top tier artists actually sing their most appropriate farewell songs as their final goodbye.
The prevailing feeling you might get from looking at the list down below is missed opportunity. Why couldn’t John Lennon have left the world with ‘Imagine’? Why couldn’t Aretha Franklin’s final performance have been her show-stopping version of ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ at Carole King’s Kennedy Center Honors? Why did Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen both choose covers to end on? These might seem like strange choices, but they’re all deliberate artistic decisions, and they shed some fascinating light on what their respective musicians’ mindsets were towards the end.
To try and shed a light on those mindsets, we’ve compiled eight of the most unique final songs from legendary musicians. Some of these are perfect choices, others are weirdly poignant, and still, others are just flat out bizarre. But they all tell us something about the men and women behind the microphone. Here they are, right before the curtain closes for good.
8 iconic final encores from legendary musicians:
1. David Bowie – ‘Life On Mars?’
Category: Perfect Ending
David Bowie could have chosen any song as a sendoff. He’d sent himself off before, killing his Ziggy Stardust character with a final take on ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, but given the scope of his career, perhaps a final swing at ‘Space Oddity’ would have been appropriate. Maybe one last ‘Heroes’ could have ended his live career on a triumphant note, or he could have ascended with the final notes of ‘Starman’.
But as it turns out, the space alien that was David Bowie chose another otherworldly conclusion that turned out to be a masterstroke. At the Fashion Rocks event on September 8th, 2005, Bowie joined Arcade Fire and brought out long time pianist Mike Garrison the sweeping balladry of ‘Life on Mars?’, his Hunky Dory cut that brought new gravity to the surrealistic tale. Although he lived for another decade, Bowie never again graced the stage.
2. Nirvana (Kurt Cobain) – ‘Heart-Shaped Box’
Category: Missed Opportunity
1994 was a dark period for Nirvana. Although buoyed by the success of the uncompromisingly atonal In Utero, Kurt Cobain was still struggling to find a way to remain happy, musically or personally, within the whirlwind that came with being the biggest musician in the world. His heroin addiction continued to debilitate him, and oftentimes he found himself sitting in a chair while the band bashed behind him, weak or numb or uncaring or all of the above.
Few would grouse about getting to hear Cobain sing the classic track ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ live, or even that it be the final song that the singer ever sung, but it’s hard to think what it might have been like had ‘All Apologies’ wistful beauty been in its place, or the frightening final scream of Lead Belly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ like on Unplugged in New York. By this point, Cobain was well past the point of creating a coherent ending, and ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ works as an aggressively appropriate, if somewhat sad, final curtain call for Cobain.
3. John Lennon – ‘I Saw Her Standing There’
Category: Bringing It All Back Home
The circumstances surrounding John Lennon’s final stage performance are about as atypical as it gets: Lennon lost a bet with Elton John regarding his song ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ hitting number one, and so he appeared at Madison Square Garden to perform a few numbers. This being 1974, around the time that Lennon was recording the throwback LP Rock ‘n’ Roll, the singer wanted to play an uptempo boogie.
Stepping up to the mic that night, Lennon announced that he and the band were going to play “a song by an old estranged fiancé of mine called Paul.” Then, as it happened, the final song John Lennon ever played was actually (largely, or exclusively, depending on who you ask) written by Paul McCartney: The Beatles’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. Although it’s a strange pull, considering it was the first and last time Lennon ever sang lead on it, the song choice serves as a sort of poetic return to Lennon’s roots while acknowledging the band that made him famous in the first place.
4. Janis Joplin – ‘Summertime’
Category: In Media Res
Janis Joplin never left her audience hanging. Whether it was with the strained screams of ‘Piece of My Heart’ or more commonly the apocalyptic blues of ‘Ball and Chain’, Joplin went full demolition mode during her live career. Unfortunately, she finished her final concert on August 12th, 1970, on a decidedly muted note.
Joplin ended the show with a cover of the George Gershwin classic ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess. In a deviation from her normal explosive encores, Joplin exited the stage while her band continued to play a final instrumental entitled ‘That’s Rock n Roll’. Joplin left without a mighty fanfare and with the music still playing behind her, an apt ending for someone who died just as she was finalising her last album Pearl.
5. The Doors (Jim Morrison) – ‘The End’
Category: Blaze of Glory
The Doors were never going to be a band who went out on a poignant high note. A band known for psychedelic exploration, hardened blues, and utter destruction, The Doors faced many of their final performances in front of hostile crowds and under legal threats, with Jim Morrison rising to the combative – and often drunken – occasion. Bloated by alcoholism and largely disinterested in his own back catalogue, Morrison took to antagonising his crowds as a way to deal with the madness.
The band’s planned two-night stand at The Warehouse in New Orleans in December of 1970 was an exciting time: L.A. Woman was in the process of being recorded, and the band played a number of new songs from the album, including the title track and ‘Riders on the Storm’. But Morrison was out of whack, and an aborted attempt of ‘Riders’ proved that he was in no shape to perform. Different accounts of a microphone smashing breakdown exist, but officially the show ended, appropriately, with the band’s first epic ‘The End’. The other members mutually agreed to retire as a live act until Morrison could get himself back on his feet, but shortly afterwards the singer would make his ill-fated final trip to Paris.
6. Grateful Dead (Brent Mydland) – ‘The Weight’
Category: Prophetic Cover
Death was nothing new to the Grateful Dead. It had no mercy, and it certainly didn’t spare the litany of keyboard players who had joined the Dead on their sonic explorations. Original organist/keyboardist Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan died in 1973, casting a long shadow over the band’s future. Subsequent keyboardist Keith Godchaux died in a car accident only a year after he left the band. The dark humour that the Dead favoured led to them jokingly calling the position “cursed”, but it wouldn’t be as funny when a third victim fell.
That would be Brent Mydland, who joined in 1979 and lasted all the way up to 1990. Mydland brought a vivacity to the Dead: a good deal younger than the rest of the band, Mydland’s soul-influenced playing and strident vocals gave an additional spark to the band and especially Jerry Garcia. However, Mydland’s drug habits would catch up with on July 26th, 1990. Just three days before, he played his final show with the Dead and took the lead on the second verse of The Band’s ‘The Weight’. His last words ever said on stage were, “I gotta go but my friends can stick around.”
7. Aretha Franklin – ‘Freeway of Love’
Category: Fluke Hit
Aretha Franklin has one of the most formidable discographies of any artist. Whether it’s in the southern soul of ‘Chain of Fools’, the dry funk of ‘Rock Steady’, or the driving balladry of ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’, Franklin knows how to bring a palpable drama and purpose to every song she sings. When she arrived at the 25th anniversary of Elton John’s AIDS Foundation gala, Franklin had a whole arsenal of show stoppers to pull out.
How bizarre, then, that the final song ever performed by the legendary diva is a cheesy ’80s cut from her comeback album Who’s Zoomin‘ Who? ‘Freeway of Love’ is certainly not a bad song, and it probably served as an appropriate cap on what was a celebratory event. But when held against her legendary career, it just feels wrong that this wasn’t ‘Respect’ or ‘A Natural Woman’ or even something like ‘Amazing Grace’. Still, Franklin no doubt brought her signature powerful delivery to every last note of the synth-pop tune.
8. Leonard Cohen – ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’
Category: Stirring Reinterpretation
I’m sure it would have been appropriate for Leonard Cohen to walk out for the encore of what was to be his final concert on December 21st, 2013, and play his most legendary song, ‘Hallelujah’. But there was one problem: Cohen had already played it that night. In fact, that show in Auckland, New Zealand, was a blowout affair as the final concert of the ‘Old Ideas World Tour’ and extinguished many of Cohen’s best loved works before he even stepped out for an encore.
Cohen played just about every one of his signature songs over the two sets and three encores, proving that the octogenarian still had the stamina and setlist depth to play well into the night. When he steps up for the final song, it’s a cover of The Drifters doo-wop classic ‘Save the Last Dance For Me’. The way Cohen sings the lines ‘But when we’re apart / Don’t you give your heart to anyone” take on a significant bittersweet weight knowing it would be his final words on stage. Cohen reinterprets the classic song of devotion as a pleas for his audience not to forget him. All these years later, we still haven’t.