WHAT'S THE LAST SONG YOU'D LIKE TO HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE? by Donny Levit
South Orange author Mike Ayers asks musicians this curious question
While David Bowie is considered to be one of the most influential and beloved musicians of all time, his albums never made it to number one in the United States. That would change only days after his death in 2016. Blackstar, Bowie’s final studio album, would top the Billboard Top 200 chart the week after the cultural icon succumbed to liver cancer, which he had been battling privately for many months.
Music and death have always had somewhat of a mysterious and integral relationship. South Orange author and journalist Mike Ayers recently published an engaging new book that features the words and thoughts of a diverse selection of 32 musicians to whom he posed a very simple but intriguing question: What is the last song you’d like to hear before you die? One Last Song: Conversations on Life, Death, and Music hit the shelves in October 2020. And if you liked that nugget about David Bowie, there’s a whole lot more to dig into.
While the inquiry may sound somewhat morbid, the assemblage of musicians in the book opened up to Ayers in surprising, poignant – and yes – peculiarly amusing ways. You’ll hear from the likes of Jeff Tweedy (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo), Phoebe Bridgers, André 3000 (Outkast), Wayne Coyne (The Flaming Lips), and Rosanne Cash. And you may be surprised by which songs they’ve chosen to soundtrack the end of their lives.
“I was in the city one night seeing a show and I was waiting for the train in Hoboken to bring me back to Maplewood,” recalls Ayers. “I was just sitting there listening to ‘Terrapin Station’ by the Grateful Dead, and I thought, man, I am just never getting tired of this song and this would easily be the last song I’d ever want to hear.”
With that idea in mind, Ayers reached out to his future editor with the following email: “What’s the last song you’d like to hear before you died?”
Ayers began his self-taught journalism career covering music for Billboard and the Village Voice. He’d later have a brief stint at Rolling Stone and branch out to work at the Wall Street Journal as an editor and reporter hybrid. “I never went to journalism school,” says Ayers, who would quickly expand his writing to cover film and television. “I realized I just couldn’t pigeonhole myself into one beat because, as a freelancer, it’s not as lucrative. I started doing lifestyle stories as well as food and culture for anybody that would hear an idea.” By 2010, Ayers picked up writing stints at New York Magazine and Vanity Fair. “I was just kind of hustling everywhere,” he says.
Nowadays, Ayers serves as the executive editor of Money.com. However, his years as an entertainment journalist afforded him strong connections with publicists and managers who were able to connect him up with beloved musicians. And Ayers was amazed at what they had to say.
“The way [these musicians] can articulate so well is just really different from the rest of us, because they’re working at such a high level,” he says. “When you’re performing at Madison Square Garden, you have put in the work and you get to a level where you can understand songwriting and song crafting in ways that a lot of us just don’t. They’re able to articulate why a Lou Reed song or The Byrds’ ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ are such powerful songs that you would want to hear as you’re going out.”
“This is a hard one. It’s a big decision. I think my natural inclination is a really sad, warm kind of song. Like Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’,” says Courtney Barnett, an Australian rock musician whose 2016 debut album “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” introduced us to her fierce guitar skills and indelible songwriting. “But then it’s like, ‘Why didn’t you pick something really happy?’ Like ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ – Cyndi Lauper or something,” Barnett adds. “It’s like you need a mixtape. Not just one.” She later goes on to remark that, “I think my last song choices have a lot to do with that nostalgia bone in our body.”
Other musicians in the book “chose to tie the song choice back to a deep personal connection or narrative,” says Ayers. However, that narrative reveals itself in different ways.
“The Rosanne Cash entry was just really beautiful and it was so different,” he says. “It wasn’t something from her teens and twenties; it was a song that her son wrote [‘Gold and Glass’ by Jakob Leventhal]. I just loved when she says this connects me to my past, present, and future.
That’s incredible and it makes perfect sense, too. She didn’t pick one of her father’s songs [Johnny Cash] or one of her own songs. She picked something that was deeply tied to her family.”
One of the most gripping moments in the book takes place as Jeff Tweedy (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco) describes his family playing Wilco songs while surrounding his dying father. “It wasn’t to make me feel good. But it was extremely touching,” writes Tweedy. “They were listening to the box set of outtakes and B sides. Some of those things I hardly listen to, if ever. Apparently, my dad listened to them a lot. As a contrarian, he would have thought most of those things should have been on the records and I had missed an opportunity with them.”
Although the interviews make up the lion’s share of One Last Song, Ayers has structured the book to include song facts and “Easter eggs” for the dedicated music fan. “Some of it is really profound and just kind of morose at times,” he says. “So I wanted to balance it out essentially with getting my little sections to be a little light-hearted, or just kind of goofy to give it this balance.”
Each interview entry includes short biographical material about the artist, as well as sparkling, pithy sections that may just inspire you to create Spotify lists to revisit songs both new and unfamiliar. In Courtney Barnett’s Lou Reed entry, you’ll be reminded that David Bowie plays keyboards on Reed’s “Perfect Day.” And when New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman chooses Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 hit “Baker Street,” we learn that the saxophonist who played the familiar solo in the song received a bounced check for his studio work.
Without spoiling the treasure trove of Steinbeckian interchapters for the music aficionados and pop culturally-inclined, one of the highlights of the book takes place when Ayers drops a series of top ten lists of songs people play at funerals in the UK. And yes, both Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” and The Fugees’ cover of “Killing Me Softly” make the cut.
In addition, the book is nimble and attractive. Ayers credits author Shea Serrano as an influence for the visual development of the book. “I took inspiration from [Shea’s] books like The Rap Year Book and Basketball (and Other Things) where you can have a reading experience but it can also look beautiful,” says Ayers. “I really think someone could get something out of it if they just picked it up off a coffee table and read one chapter, or they could get a different experience if they read it from start to finish.”
Ayers and his publishing team employed Studio Muti, a design firm based in Cape Town, South Africa, to create illustrations that matched each of the interviews. You’ll be able to spy Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips lunging down a field in the band’s iconic bubble, as well as many other beautifully rendered images with a healthy field of visual Easter eggs for the dedicated fans to hunt down.
“[Studio Muti] was everybody’s first choice so we went after them and pitched them the project and they signed on immediately,” the author says. “I would send them art direction and they would just work to bring it to life.”
Ayers has lived in the South Orange-Maplewood community since 2011. After calling Maplewood home for almost a decade, his family relocated to South Orange last summer. He and his wife, Diedre Ayers, have two children: 8-year-old Emma attends Clinton Elementary School while their son, 11-year-old Liam, attends South Orange Middle School.
The two towns and their surroundings quickly became the author’s writing office as he carved out time in the early mornings beginning in the summer of 2018. He’d haunt Starbucks in Maplewood on weekend mornings. “I would do a 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and then I’d bring my family home Bagel Chateau on Saturdays and Sundays. And I’m an early riser so I could focus, and there was no one ever in Starbucks at that time.”
Ayers would switch it up and head over to Liv Breads in Millburn as well as Boxwood Coffee in Summit. “Boxwood is amazing,” he says. “Their coffee is great. And if I was super disciplined, I’d let myself go to Scotti’s,” the local record shop. By the completion of the book in June 2020, he’d done his fair share of crate diving and family bagel delivery.
By the late fall of 2020, One Last Song had received its rounds of accolades and acknowledgements, becoming a Vulture Pop Holiday Pick, a Variety Best Music Book of 2020 selection, and one of TIME’s 42 Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2020.
As a fan himself, Ayers laments the tremendous effect that the pandemic has had on musicians, the touring industry, the business surrounding music venues, as well as local losses such as the cancellation last year of Maplewoodstock.
“The fact that [Maplewoodstock] was erased from this town…even if you’re not a hardcore show goer, people go out for it, they have a good time, and kids can experience it,” he says. “But I’m optimistic that there’s going to be a lot of opportunities once we can go back. Bands will be touring more than ever.”
At a time when death is all too often at the forefront of our cultural dialogue, Ayers has come up with a way to treat the subject with grace, a healthy dose of creature comforts, and a lot of hope.
Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident. He is the author of "Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories." You can hear him DJ his indie rock show "Under the Influence" and his jazz show "Kind of Pool" on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio and @kindofpoolradio.