BOB DYLAN RELEASES NEW SONG, “MURDER MOST FOUL,” FOR THE QUARANTINE BLUES

BOB DYLAN RELEASES NEW SONG, “MURDER MOST FOUL,” FOR THE QUARANTINE BLUES

Last Thursday, at midnight, on March 26, Bob Dylan let the hard rain fall, ending his longest lasting drought between original music releases with a new, 17-minute-long ballad, titled, “Murder Most Foul.” His first original release since 2012’s The Tempest, the song was released with a heartfelt message from the folk-rock star, “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant, and may God be with you.”

Most Dylan songs find themselves at home in one of two places. Songs in the first camp, upon first listen, often leave listeners awed but intellectually addled in a sea of similes. In songs like “Desolation Row” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” Dylan paints vivid, descriptive imagery; but his paintings are abstract, and like Kandinsky’s Compositions, are bereft of an obvious subject. In the second camp we have songs like “Hurricane” – a song about the unjust conviction of an innocent black man – or the more recently recorded “Tempest” – about the sinking of the Titanic. In the lyrics of these songs, Dylan paints his ideas as an impressionist; beneath his metaphors and poetic frills there is an overarching theme, ripe for picking, and you would be hard-pressed to miss it. Along these lines comes his latest studio release, “Murder Most Foul.”

The song opens with a vivid recount of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963: “It was a dark day in Dallas, November ’63; A day that will live on in infamy; President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high; Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die.”

Dylan meanders through the annals of the American songbook, skillfully weaving references to cultural milestones through his recount of JFK’s demise. In the second verse, he sings about the Beatles’ arrival in America: “The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand,” but first, he prefaces the lyric with a consoling sentiment, “Hush, little children, you’ll understand.” In the 60s, the arrival of the Beatles and British Invasion rock-and-roll was a cultural rebirth and a much-needed revival of a natural dynamism in the youth; a dynamism that, until then, was sorely lacking in an atmosphere defined and darkened by the then-recent presidential assassination and escalating war in Vietnam.

Dylan likely wrote and recorded this song some time back and stashed it away, only to be recently unearthed. And what time more appropriate than amid a global pandemic; a near nation-wide quarantine that has shuttered businesses and derailed lives; a pandemic that – like the JFK assassination of 1963 – has draped a dark, dreary atmosphere over a nation, engulfing and consuming the news.

The song continues down this course, against a backdrop of red, white, and blue, name-dropping cultural figureheads in a steady stream of consciousness that goes on for the 17-minute run time of the song, expressing flashes of Americana as they occurred through the past decades. It’s an epic ballad in the style of Don Mclean’s “American Pie” – or even Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” – albeit less karaoke-able and twice as long; its lyrics contain a more fruitful history lesson than the majority of college classrooms in the country.

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ORDINARY MAN: OZZY OSBOURNE'S FAREWELL

In February, legendary rock icon and Black Sabbath founder Ozzy Osbourne – also known by his more theatrical names: The Prince of Darkness and the Godfather of heavy metal – released his twelfth solo album, Ordinary Man.

Commanding a career that began in 1968 under the banner of Black Sabbath, Ozzy, influenced by blues and early rock, birthed heavy metal. Though the genre’s origins are endlessly debated and discussed, it’s reasonable to say that Black Sabbath, in 1970, released one of the first (if not the first) heavy metal album. Like most new art movements, it wasn’t spawned out of thin air, it was born out of the influences that fed the hungriest artists of the era – artists who yearned not only to play the music they loved, but who dared to explore, push the envelope, and test listeners’ limits for experimentation. They were influenced by hard-rock and blues-rock, and the acid-fueled romp of the ‘60s. As Sabbath prodded their instruments in search of new sounds, their distorted amps expunged the flowery, colorful tones that defined and soundtracked the 60s. Just listen to the opening on their self-titled debut: a heavy deluge of rain bucketing down on the paved road as thunder roars in the background over the haunting church bells ringing out, followed by a thick, distorted G power chord. This was dark, creepy stuff, unlike almost anything that was being written and recorded in the era. Judas Priest’s singer, Rob Halford, described it as the “most evil track ever that’s been written in metal.”

A decade later, as drug addiction consumed him, Ozzy was fired from the band he founded, but went on to have one of the most successful solo careers of any frontman. This is no easy feat. Think of your favorite bands; bands with a bevy of hall-of-fame hits (in Sabbath’s case, “Iron Man,” “Paranoid,” “War Pigs,” – and these are all from just one record). Now think of a case where the founder was fired for self-destructive tendencies and, in response, launched a solo career with hits that, at the very least, are on par with their former band’s. Ozzy’s solo debut, Blizzard of Ozz, charted higher than Sabbath’s first record without him, Heaven and Hell, both released in the same year. This would have been like Brian Jones, after being fired from the Rolling Stones, going solo and releasing a record bigger than Sticky Fingers.

Though not officially announced, Ordinary Man is likely the final official studio release from Ozzy – but who knows what the record label will spend years churning out as they comb every inch of his vaults for demos and recordings, years after he’s gone. The album features a slew of collaborations, starting with Ozzy’s newest producer, Andrew Watt. The two began their partnership last year when Ozzy cowrote and appeared on Post Malone’s “Take What You Want,” for his record, Hollywood’s Bleedin, which, at the time, Watt was producing. The much younger Watt, a millennial born around the same time Nirvana released their first record, was steeped in rock and roll from a young age, and is no stranger to working with decorated rock stars; in 2013, he founded his own band with Led Zeppelin descendant, Jason Bonham, and Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes.

The rest of the roster on Ordinary Man is no slouch either, with some heavy hitters hailing from an era closer to Ozzy’s: Slash and Duff McKagan from Guns N’ Roses, Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers all make appearances, in addition to Elton John.

With the recent news of a Parkinson’s diagnoses and thereafter cancellation of the No More Tours tour, it can’t help but feel like the end of the road for the esteemed ambassador of heavy metal, who, for generations, quenched teenage thirst for parental disapproval. In fact, Ordinary Man feels, in many ways, like David Bowie’s Blackstar. It is not only the final chapter of a discography, but its lyrics and arrangements bear acknowledgement of the fact. In “Lazarus,” Bowie sang while staring down his despondent cancer diagnoses with not anger or sorrow, but acceptance, “Look up here, I’m in heaven; I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” Ozzy, in “Ordinary Man,” echoes a similar poignancy, “Don’t forget me as the colors fade; when the lights go down, it’s just an empty stage.” Nearly every song on the album hints at the inevitable.

Ordinary Man is a deeply introspective statement from Ozzy. It strips the façade carefully curated by record labels and marketing gurus to hawk his music at angsty teens, eschewing self-mythologizing for something far more meaningful: realism. In “Holy For Tonight,” when Ozzy sings, “I’m runnin’ out of time; forever I know I’m someone that they won’t remember,” he isn’t the larger-than-life “Prince of Darkness” belting out the chorus from “Crazy Train,” but a weathered man in his later years who has come to terms with his own mortality and is ready to face it head-on.

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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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