by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

A friend said I must buy this “new” CD.

“It’s great!” he gushed. “Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane live at Carnegie Hall.”

They’re both dead, I said.

“But this is their best stuff ever!”

I have given that sentence some thought. Perhaps we’ve been worrying over nothing. Being dead is not the career killer we thought it was.

In fact, it may do wonders.

Look at Monk, the pianist who died in 1982. His new “live” CD is selling like crazy. Look at Coltrane, the saxophonist, who died 38 years ago. He recently had two of the top three jazz CDs in the country!

That’s pretty good for dead.

Elvis Presley, who has been gone for decades, had a song remixed that shot to No. 1 in England. And it seems as if the King releases a “new” CD every year. On occasion, even a “new” boxed set.

I read that Frank Sinatra, who died seven years ago, will “star” in a spectacular new musical in London, in the form of a larger-than-life video projection. An orchestra will accompany Ol’ Blue Eyes, and a group of dancers will shimmy around his image.

Who you calling ol’?

From rap to reggae

The rapper Tupac Shakur has so much posthumous material, fans distinguish between his “before death albums” and “after death albums.” Rap is so hip to the whole death market, that the Notorious B.I.G. actually had a CD released called “Life After Death” just a few weeks after he was killed. The cynical call that “synergy.”

But this post-funeral success is not limited to the Bob Marleys or Kurt Cobains or even the music industry in general. Every now and then, someone finds an undiscovered story by Ernest Hemingway (who died in 1961) and the literary world goes wild. A few years back, someone paid more than

$2 million for the scroll of typing that became Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”- even though Kerouac himself had been dead for 31 years.

When an artist dies, his paintings can skyrocket in worth. It happened with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Even mediocre comedians can be elevated to genius status once they’ve left the world. How else do you explain the endless fawning over Andy Kaufman?

The leftover junk

Now, I have a theory about all these “new” releases, “newly” discovered manuscripts, “newly” found works and “newly unearthed” material. My theory is, more often than not, if they were any good, the artist would have released them himself.

Sometimes there are reasons people hide things in boxes. Not every tape, pad, scribble or canvas was meant for public consumption. Have you ever listened to some of those “homemade recordings” of famous artists? There was a reason they kept them at home.

But death has long been good business for legends. Ray Charles, once he died, got larger than life on the big screen, and his portrayal won Jamie Foxx an Oscar. Now Johnny Cash, who died two years ago, is an almost sure Oscar-nomination for Joaquin Phoenix, who plays him in an upcoming movie, “Walk the Line.” When they made a movie about Jackson Pollock, thousands of people were suddenly interested in his work, even though they didn’t know who he was before. And “The Aviator” sent people scrambling to find Howard Hughes’ films – which went ignored for years.

What does it all mean? Well, perhaps you want to keep that unpublished novel or unfinished symphony someplace it can be found. After all, if Coltrane and Monk can release a “live” album, you never know. Your best years may be ahead of you, even when they’re behind you.

On the other hand, if there’s something that really embarrasses you, you might want to burn it.

You can’t take it with you, but they sure can sell it without you.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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