EDDIE VAN HALEN: FAREWELL TO A ROCK & ROLL GREAT & TRUE AMERICAN SUCCESS STORY

EDDIE VAN HALEN: FAREWELL TO A ROCK & ROLL GREAT & TRUE AMERICAN SUCCESS STORY

Eddie Van Halen, the Hall of Fame guitarist whose indelible career, lined with 56-million album sales and 11 consecutive top-ten albums (including two diamond records), defined the direction of hard rock in the 1980s, died from throat cancer this week. He was 65.

Born to a family of jazz and classical musicians in the Netherlands, Eddie was in the second grade of elementary school when his family set out for America with next to nothing in search of a new beginning. They arrived at the sun-basked fabled region of South California with little more than fifty dollars and an out-of-tune piano. Over the next three decades, Van Halen would become one of the most influential figures in Rock and Roll history.

Growing up like many new immigrants, penniless and destitute, Eddie spent his childhood days going dumpster-diving for scrap metal to hawk for change at scrap yards and sharing just one room with his brother and parents, as he explained in a 2015 Washington Times interview.

Despite the hardship, Eddie understood that the freedoms and possibilities afforded to him in America were worth more than all the languid comforts of the European welfare state. When asked what it meant to him to be an American, Eddie extolled the American tenet of individual liberty.

“Obviously freedom. That is the biggest,” he said. “I still think this is the one country in the world where you can pursue your dream and accomplish what you set out to do.”

And pursue his dream he did. Eddie showed musical promise from an early age. He had a naturally shrewd ear for music and an acumen for sound. Starting off playing classical piano, he was uninterested in theory and never bothered to learn how to read sheet music. He relied on sheer instinct to improvise his way through recitals. Soon after, the two brothers shed their baroque beginnings and took up the rock-and-roll instruments of their musical heroes: Alex played the drums, and Eddie, the guitar.

In a 1980 Rolling Stone interview, Eddie said, “I don’t know sh*t about scales or music theory… I don’t want to be seen as the fastest guitar in town, ready and willing to gun down the competition. All I know is that rock & roll guitar, like blues guitar, should be melody, speed, and taste, but more important, it should have emotion. I just want my guitar playing to make people feel something: happy, sad, even horny.”

Armed with an unyielding work ethic and raw musical talent, Eddie toiled away at the guitar. His mind walled off by the thick padding of his headphones, Eddie listened endlessly to his favorite artist, Eric Clapton’s records until his ears could discern each note. And he played each note until the skin of his fingers molded into the fibers of his guitar’s fretboard and intertwined with the coiled copper in its strings. He played until the guitar became an extension of himself, a natural extension of his soul and his creativity.

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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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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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