originally published August 29, 2012
There are days when writing my daily tithe feels like it’ll be the death of me. But unless something should strike me down in the middle of penning a kilograph, I won’t be leaving behind any grand unfinished work. Sure, I might perish before I turn 40, in which case this project would be my incomplete (master)piece. But I’m going to choose not to dwell on my own potential demise; let’s look at the demise of others.
Some of the unfinished work on this list has nothing to do with a premature game-over. Sometimes its creator just abandons it, lets it go because it can’t be saved. For the greats of art and literature, some joker will always slip that incomplete work into the public after the artist is dead. People are just dicks like that.
Chris Tolkien has kept himself busy completing and releasing his father’s work. The Silmarillion was initially supposed to be a sequel to The Hobbit, but Tolkien never compiled it into a releasable volume. Chris gathered up the chunks and filled in some of the gaps himself to come up with what the New York Review of Books called “an empty and pompous bore.”
Charles Dickens was writing a serialized murder story called The Mystery of Edwin Drood when death came a-callin’. He’d penned only six volumes of the twelve-volume story, so the murderer was never revealed. When the tale was turned into a musical, the audience was invited to vote on who they believed committed the crime.
Franz Kafka ordered that his unfinished writings were to be destroyed upon his death. Even in life, it’s believed he burned nine out of every ten pages he wrote. Still, his buddy Max, to whom all his writing had been willed, along with the responsibility to destroy them, decided to publish them anyway because fuck Kafka, I guess.
Sometimes it’s not the artist’s mortality that sticks a piece in the unfinished file. Elizabeth Shoumatoff was hired to paint a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. She started around noon, shortly before a cerebral hemorrhage sucked the president over to the other side of the white light.
Even da Vinci couldn’t catch a break; he’d put together sketches and scale models for a 24-foot-tall horse statue, but the bronze was used to make cannons instead. It took five hundred years for someone to get around to making the end product Leonardo had been hoping to see.
Beethoven was working on a follow-up to his smash hit chart-topper “Ode To Joy”, in the form of a tenth symphony. While there were only snippets and fragments of notation lying about, it took some guy named Barry* in the 1980s to paste it all together into something coherent. No one is 100% sure all the assembled pieces belong to the 10th symphony, but there’s really no one around to prove that they aren’t, so there.
(*The guy named Barry is actually a respected British musicologist named Barry Cooper, and I’m sure he’s a lovely gentleman.)
When it came time for the surviving Beatles to tell their full story in a 1995 documentary, they also released two new songs: “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”. Both were taken from John Lennon’s demo tapes, and bolstered by newly-recorded vocal and instrumental tracks. While the former was soundly panned by Beatle fans as sub-par (and Jeff Lynne’s distinct production fingerprint didn’t help), the latter was even more grotesque as it could be compared to an acoustic version which had shown up on the Imagine film soundtrack a few years earlier. At least one of them included a killer video.
Both Jimi Hendrix and Elliott Smith were working on albums when they ran afoul of the Grim Reaper. Hendrix’s First New Rays Of The New Rising Sun has been released, along with an inexplicably vast library of other recordings, live shows and compilations, to positive reviews. Similarly, Smith’s From A Basement On A Hill, while not in whatever finished form Elliott may have taken it, still sounds fantastic.
Again, it’s not always death that gets in the way. Brian Wilson’s epic plan for the Beach Boys’ follow up to Pet Sounds became the most sought-after unreleased album in the rock world. Smile was scrapped (with bits and pieces showing up in subsequent Beach Boys releases), partly because the rest of the band didn’t like it, and partly because Brian was hairline-deep in psychotropic drugs and a deteriorating mental state. Thankfully, Brian put out an utterly perfect new recording of his vision in 2005, and the original Beach Boys tapes finally saw record store shelves last year.
When actor Peter Sellers died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1980, no one thought he’d make another movie. Does that sentence sound stupid? It should. But Blake Edwards totally made another Peter Sellers movie, The Trail Of The Pink Panther. Edwards pieced together a weak plot along with clumsy clips of Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, compiled from shots and deleted scenes from previous Pink Panther movies. Seriously, Sellers had passed away before this movie was even an idea. Oh, and actor David Niven’s voice was shaky due to ALS, so his it was overdubbed by popular impressionist Rich Little. Someone actually thought this was a good idea.
Bruce Lee died on the set of Game Of Death, then years later his son Brandon died on the set of The Crow. In both cases, their parts were completed by a look-alike or stunt double.
Orson Welles was working on a version of Don Quixote when he died. Well, he was working on it for the last thirty years of his life. The idea was to have Don Quixote and Sancho Panza show up in modern-day Mexico. Welles started shooting in 1957, but ran out of money. He continued to shoot pieces of it throughout the 60s, and continued on, even after his lead actors had died. 45 minutes of the footage found its way to the Cannes stage in 1986, the year after Welles’ death. Either his idea for the film was too grand, or the guy just didn’t know when to let go of a stinker.
Copyright law still protects unfinished artistic work, which means that decisions over what to do with an artist’s posthumous scraps are passed along with everything else to the heirs of the estate. Since no one is lining up to pay me for my work right now, I’m really not concerned about what might happen to any unfinished junk I might have lying around. Just in case, I should probably erase all that Quantum Leap fan-fiction from my hard drive. I don’t want my legacy to sink that low.