THE ROLLING STONES’ ‘LET IT BLEED,’ ALTAMONT, AND THE END OF THE 1960S

THE ROLLING STONES’ ‘LET IT BLEED,’ ALTAMONT, AND THE END OF THE 1960S

This December marks the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ seminal 60s record, “Let it Bleed.” A record which, with its accompanying American tour, marked, and more broadly encapsulated, the end of an era: the 1960s.

The 60s was defined by its youth, aestheticized by the carefree hippie counterculture movement that made pilgrimages to music festivals and experimented with psychedelics. The end of the decade, however, saw the political and social climate become increasingly turbulent. Domestically, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Riots followed. Less than three months later, JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy met a similar fate. In 1969, a string of brutal murders in California by members of the Manson family followed by a deadly stabbing at a Rolling Stones’ concert at the Altamont Speedway further rocked the nation. Overseas, in Southeast Asia, America’s entanglement in the Vietnam War was at its peak. Meanwhile, in Europe, democratic, liberal reforms in Czechoslovakia were crushed under Soviet tanks as the Communists rolled through Prague.

While the world around them was on fire, the Rolling Stones themselves were, by the end of the decade, on the brink of collapse, brimming with financial woe and internal conflict. They hadn’t toured since 1966 (except a few European shows in ’67) and under the new management of Allen Klein, had seen whole swaths of their royalties funneled into Klein’s pockets. Meanwhile, the band’s founder, Brian Jones, had been slowly deteriorating for years, succumbing to his worst, most self-destructive vices. He had been absent for most recording sessions, and, even when present, was barely able to function. While this was happening, his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, left him for Keith Richards. And bassist Bill Wyman was going through his divorce, while Mick Jagger’s relationship with his girlfriend, Marianne Faithful, deteriorated as she spiralled down the rabbit-hole of addiction herself.

It was against this dark and disorderly backdrop that the Rolling Stones began sessions for their 8th U.K. studio album. The bulk of the record was recorded over six-months, beginning in February 1969. What resulted was a record that reflected not just the era in which it was recorded, but the internal state of the band recording it. Rather than allowing themselves to be consumed and destroyed by the turbulence and chaos surrounding them and boiling within, the Stones instead channelled that dark aura onto the grooves of their 1969 magnum opus, “Let It Bleed.”

With Brian Jones’ mental state, weighed down by his addiction, not to mention the bevy of arrests on his criminal record hampering potential U.S. tours, the band had no other option but to replace the founder of the group. On May 30, 1969, Mick Taylor from John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers played his first session with the Rolling Stones in Olympic Studios.

It was around that time that the band recorded the opening track, “Gimme Shelter.” There’s a reason Martin Scorsese used this song in three of his gangster films (“Goodfellas,” “Casino,” and “The Departed”). It starts with a subtle, foreboding guitar riff. Next, as the drums kick in, a new layer is added: a creepy, brooding background vocal, those haunting “oohs,” coupled with the creaking sound of guiros, leading up to Jagger’s vocals. The song is composed and structured to convey the dread of an impending storm, as well as its impact. It’s like a hurricane that starts with a trickle and builds to a thunderous pour. The opening lines, “A storm is threatening my very life today,” were written by Richards in his London apartment, staring out into the dreary, stormy skies and pouring out his anger and frustration at Mick Jagger over a suspected affair he was having with his then–girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg.

The entire composition is elevated, rocketed through the stratosphere in its second half by the soulful Merry Clayton. Her gospel cries, pushing her vocal prowess to its breaking point as her voice cracks on the third iteration singing, “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away,” animate the aesthetics of the era – the late 60s – the racial tensions, the anti–war protests, et al. In those few minutes and simple lyrics, “Gimme Shelter” sends genuine shivers running down your spine.

If “Let it Bleed,” as a record, marked the transition period from the Stones’ Brian Jones era to the Mick Taylor era, then its second track, “Love in Vain,” a Robert Johnson blues cover, is where Keith Richards officially replaced Jones as the blues engine of the band. The tragic irony of this track is that Brian Jones, the man who formed the band with intent to import the blues to Britain, was completely absent from these sessions where the Stones played the purest, most earthly blues they’d done yet. Richards, apart from playing his guitar parts, played all of Jones’, including Jones’ signature slide guitar. While covers are sometimes put on records as filler to make up for lack of material, the Stones’ “Love in Vain” is far from facile. Richards, influenced by Gram Parsons at the time, made the song entirely his own, rewriting it as a country-blues arrangement.

The Stones’ latest single at the time was “Honky Tonk Women.” When it came to putting it on the record, Jagger and Richards stripped the grease and slickness clean off the twangy single, exposing its acoustic, country-blues underpinnings, and releasing it in all its rawness. “Country Honk,” the resulting track, isn’t showy or grand. Whereas “Honkey Tonk Women” is electric, refined, and written for concert venues, “Country Honk” is relaxed and laid-back. It exudes that country aesthetic of southerners sitting back in wooden rocking chairs and strumming their guitars at the ranch, off, somewhere in Jackson, Tennessee.

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LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: THE ROLLING STONES

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: THE ROLLING STONES

“Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones.” These thundering words precede a pantheon of rock and roll that takes its place on stage as tens of thousands of fans, whose ages span several generations, look on in anticipation and joy.

It all started for the big, bad progenitors of rock and roll back in 1962. At London’s Marquee Jazz Club where, one summer night, the Rolling Stones played their first ever gig. At the time, their roster featured founder and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, Brian Jones; vocalist Mick Jagger; guitarist Keith Richards; and keyboardist, Ian Stewart. United by their passion for American blues, the unparalleled ensemble set off to bring the music of Chuck Berry, Muddy Mutters, et al. to Europe. As Richards explains in his autobiography, Life, “the British invasion was really an invasion of American music into Europe.” The four were joined a few months later, in January, by bassist Bill Wyman and jazz drummer Charlie Watts, thus completing the lineup.

In May of 1963, with a producer on board, the Rolling Stones were signed by Decca, the record label notorious for passing on The Beatles. In June, the Stones released their first single, “Come On,” a Chuck Berry cover.

They have been at it ever since, performing more than 2,000 concerts around the world, with grueling, nearly nonstop touring through the 1960s and early 1970s. They have claimed the title of top-grossing tour four separate times and amassed the world’s highest-grossing tours in both the 1990s and 2000s.

Now, showing no signs of stopping, the Stones are in the last stretch of their latest tour, “No Filter,” spanning two continents, and 45 shows. But the tour has not been without turbulence. A brief scare postponed the last set of shows, as Jagger had to undergo emergency heart surgery. However, Jagger — who just celebrated his 76th birthday — recovered from heart surgery at around the same rate that most adolescents recover from having their wisdom teeth pulled out. Within mere weeks, he announced he was back to his usual exercise routine and had a clean bill of health from his doctor. The tour was back on.

I, myself, saw the Rolling Stones play in their one Canadian show, and suffice it to say, every minute of the six hours spent standing still against the stage-front barricade was worth it for the spectacle that followed. The Stones regaled spectators with fan favorites, the majority of the set-list being drawn from the band’s famed, four sequential chef d’oeuvres: Beggars Banquet (1968), Let it Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971), and Exile on Main St. (1972).

Lesser-known records were played as well, especially thanks to the audience having a say in the set-list via online voting. Contenders were picked from a bag of forgotten hits and esoteric cuts off earlier albums: “Mercy Mercy” from 1965’s Out of our Heads – played for the first time in 50 years; “Under My Thumb” from 1966’s Aftermath; and the one I got to see, “She’s a Rainbow.” It was a welcome revival of a colorful, pop-ballad from the Stones’ oft-overlooked, early-era Pink Floyd inspired album, Their Satanic Majesties Request.

The Stones opened the show with the energetic, lively paean to protest: “Street Fighting Man.” Jagger emerged, draped in glam and glitter, his bellowing vocals filling the field, Richards in his usual debonair, driving the main riff, Ronnie Wood and Darryl Jones commanding the band’s tight rhythm, and Watts keeping the beat, as a bona fide human metronome. Any remaining qualms concerning the Stones’ ability to perform at peak performance were henceforth quashed.

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Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, 35 Years Old Today

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, 35 Years Old Today

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” marks its 35th anniversary today. The American rock icon’s seventh studio album was met with massive commercial success upon release, featuring seven top-ten singles; it was certified as a three-times platinum record within a year of its release, and has sold over 30 million copies just since 2012.

Working with remnant recordings from sessions off of his then-previous record release, “Nebraska,” Springsteen reunited with the E-Street Band and producer Jon Landau to assemble his most pop-infused album since “Born to Run.”

In “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen pooled a flourishing gamut of themes and ideas explored in previous records: The poignant depths of the human spirit on the verge of collapse from “Nebraska” (1982); the hardship of lost love and heartbreak from “The River” (1980); and the eminence of one’s roots and upbringing in “Born to Run” (1975).

In honor of the album’s anniversary, here’s a deeper dive into a few key songs that, 35 years later, have stood the test of time, and carry themes as relevant today as they were in 1984.

Born in the U.S.A.

The eponymous opening track, “Born in the U.S.A.” sets the tone for the album, kicking off as the most anthemic rocker in Springsteen’s discography since “Born to Run.” Set against a backdrop of red, white, and blue, it’s easy to see why the album’s title track is oft misinterpreted as either a paean to patriotism and America or as an anti-war harangue.

In fact, it’s neither of the two. If anything, it leans closer to the upbeat celebration of Americana than its browbeating. In standard Springsteen style, the song is a story, telling the tale of a wounded combatant who, at no choosing of his own, was sent off to fight in Vietnam and then returns home to find his town left hung out to dry.

Come back home to the refinery

Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”

Went down to see my V.A. man

He said “son, don’t you understand”

There’s a widespread consensus now that the Vietnam War was largely a tragic boondoggle. It isn’t a controversial position. And Springsteen, in his lyrics, doesn’t focus on the vagaries of Vietnam; he instead lends his voice to the neglected and abandoned veterans of the conflict.

No Surrender

Springsteen’s affection for the downtrodden veterans of Vietnam has its reprise on the opening track of the record’s B-Side (the flip-side of the record), “No Surrender.” The track ties the album back to its namesake theme.

Well, we made a promise we swore we’d always remember

No retreat, baby, no surrender

Like soldiers in the winter’s night

With a vow to defend

No retreat, baby, no surrender

The song “No Surrender” is about camaraderie and staying true to oneself in the face of adversity. Springsteen communicates this idea soulfully:

Now on the street tonight the lights grow dim

The walls of my room are closing in

There’s a war outside still raging

You say it ain’t ours anymore to win

I want to sleep beneath

Peaceful skies in my lover’s bed

With a wide open country in my eyes

And these romantic dreams in my head

Once we made a promise we swore we’d always remember

No retreat, baby, no surrender

Blood brothers in a stormy night

With a vow to defend

No retreat, baby, no surrender

Life is unpredictable. But even in the thick of battle, amid raging war when all one wants to do is go to sleep and dream of a more idyllic era, one has to stay true to himself and to those around him. No retreat, baby, no surrender.

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CHARLES AZNAVOUR: 1924-2018

CHARLES AZNAVOUR: 1924-2018

Charles Aznavour (Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian), the Paris-born Armenian singer-songwriter, actor, and diplomat, who was known as “France’s Frank Sinatra”, died this month, on October 1st, 2018.

Born in 1924 to Armenian immigrants who’d fled to France amid Turkey’s perpetration of ethnic cleansing and genocide against Armenians in the early 20thcentury, Aznavour was raised by a family of artists. His father was a singer, performing in French restaurants prior to opening his own.

Aznavour dropped out of school at a young age of nine to pursue his career as an entertainer — before his 10th birthday, he’d already starred in a movie and a theater production. Despite his young age, Aznavour insisted that he was never pressured or forced to become a performer. To him, it was a natural calling. “People say that they put me on the stage, but I put myself there. It was natural. It was what I wanted to do.” 

Aznavour later shifted his focus to professional dancing. He didn’t write his first song until the age of 24 in 1950.

He got his big break when he began opening for the legendary French singer, Edith Piaf. After his distinctive rich, mellow voice caught her attention, Piaf took Aznavour under her wing, mentoring the young virtuoso. Piaf advised Aznavour to pursue a singing career.

Aznavour went on to command a career lasting 80 years. He wrote a whopping 1000 songs, sold 180 million albums, and dazzled audiences in sold-out auditoriums well into his 90’s. He sang in an astounding 8 different languages: French, English, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Armenian, and Neapolitan.

Aznavour’s music knew no boundaries, touching upon an eclectic range of themes.

He wrote songs that by any standard were ahead of their time. In “What Makes a Man” (1972), Aznavour sang about a gay transvestite. The lyrics are overall great but especially outstanding are the lines, “Nobody has the right to be; the judge of what is right for me; tell me if you can; what make a man a man.”

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