The Rolling Stones just released their first new song in almost a decade. Living in a Ghost Town is a catchy enough tune, but the lyrics are somewhat trite. “Life was so beautiful, then we all got locked down”? Come on Mick, you know you can do better. If you want a song about deserted streets, the deeply dystopian Ghost Town by The Specials does the job nicely. Although, ironically, when it comes to gloom The Stones are hard to beat. Paint it Black is – literally – the darkest song ever written, and among my all-time favourite tunes. Which says as much about me as it does about Jagger and Richards, but wtf, as they say in my homeland, after all we are like this only. In any case, Jagger falls woefully short of the Dylanesque epoch defining music these troubled times demand; for that we must wait.
Speaking of Dylan, the handwritten lyrics to The Times They Are A-Changin‘ went on the block this week for a $2.2 million minimum price tag, potentially setting a new record for rock lyrics. Not surprisingly, a record hitherto held by the maestro’s own Like a Rolling Stone. While times they certainly are a-changing, I guess some things always endure. If there’s ever a complex thought or emotion that needs to be expressed, Bob’s your man. No surprise, therefore, as I started to sketch out my own soundtrack to The Great Lockdown, Dylan featured prominently. Yours will undoubtedly be different – give it a go, and if you don’t already have one, a lockdown reading list is an essential exercise as well. Mine started with Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fu*k and ends with the resounding Everything is Fu*ked.
The compilation begins with a Rolling Stones classic, this one the real deal from the 60s. As I scrambled to catch what turned about to be the last commercial flight from San Francisco to London on March 15th – propitiously, the Ides of March – the ominous guitar riff and bleak lyrics of Gimme Shelter screeched inside my head. “If I don’t get some shelter…ooh yeah, I’m going to fade away”. The head pounding continued upon arrival at a disturbingly normal Heathrow airport (wtf were these idiots thinking?) with Black Sabbath’s Paranoid taking over. In fact the Prince of Darkness stayed in my head for a while, and he still lingers. “All day long I think of things but nothing seems to satisfy”. Yes, I needed Shelter From The Storm, and Dylan’s infinitely more mellow Things Have Changed played in the background as the hunkering down began at home in a decidedly vernal London. “People are crazy and times are strange, I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range. I used to care, but things have changed.”
For the next week, I went through a phase of mind numbing morbidity. Perhaps this was true for the world at large, when you consider that March 23rd marked the low point of unbridled panic in the financial markets. I contemplated the calculus of my own mortality, captivated by the probabilities so callously suggested by the epidemiological models, while the apocalyptic A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Van Morrison’s soulful take on It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and Jim Morrison’s terrifying The End played in the background.
But the panic gradually receded, and what reigned instead was ELO’s Confusion (“you know its driving me wild”), or the more strident Land of Confusion from Genesis (“Oh superman where are you now, when everything’s gone wrong somehow?”). One slowly adjusted to a world that was not necessarily terminal, perhaps just different? No, unlike the plague the virus isn’t actually Blowin’ in the Wind, and yes I’m Still Standing, but it’s definitely a case of You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Another One Bites the Dust may sound eerily like Freddie Mercury reaching out from the grave, but for me Queen resonates every time I yank yet another bottle from my wine cellar. MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This serves as a constant reminder of a lurking danger, while Sting’s Don’t Stand So Close To Me has the potential to be the all time favourite T-shirt print. As central banks crank up the printing presses, the cash registers in Pink Floyd’s Money ring loud, while Spandau Ballet suggest now might be the time to buy Gold. But as far as profoundly therapeutic music goes, John Lee Hooker’s The Healer – featuring Carlos Santana on lead guitar – is unrivalled. Yeah man, “blues a healer, all over the world…I was down, it healed me…it healed me, it can heal you…”.
Of late though, an increasing sense of detachment has set in, and Tears for Fears have emerged as unlikely poets. Yes indeed, “I find it hard to tell you, I find it kind of sad. When people run in circles , its a very very…mad world, mad world”. Kissinger once said the difficulty of leadership is that, by design, all the easy decisions have been made before they reach a President’s or Prime Minister’s desk. In a time when judgements made today will impact the lives and livelihood of billions, I find myself wondering who is the greater wack job – the dolt who suggests imbibing Clorox disinfectant as a lung cleanser, or the organiser of a cow urine drinking party? Pick your poison. Meanwhile, a roll of toilet paper costs a fortune but you can pay for it by buying a barrel of oil, Georgia has re-opened tattoo parlours, Missouri has sued China, and The Daily Mail reports that cruise ship bookings for 2021 are up 40 percent. Are people fu*king insane? If I was stranded on a desert island, down to my last bottle of rum, and a cruise ship offered to “rescue” me, I’d be scampering up the nearest palm tree. And pulling up the trunk after me. People Are Strange. In fact, they’re bat sh*t crazy.
At this point, it is a foregone conclusion this annoying malaise will be with us for at least another year. Decidedly no V-shaped recoveries, more likely a long tailed Nike swoosh, but hopefully not a deathly flat bottomed W. Many of you will seek solace in the inspirational saga of Captain Tom Moore and You’ll Never Walk Alone. The coda in my soundtrack, however, is the title track from one of my all time favourite albums, the surreal and psychedelic Strange Days by The Doors. It is a song that perhaps best captures the vibe of our times, an era where designer face masks are an essential fashion accessory – Alexander McQueen for me – but sadly it may be a case of all dressed up with nowhere to go. Faith in science, human ingenuity and Marley’s Positive Vibrations suggests there must be an easier way out, but meanwhile I suspect the words, delivered in the Lizard King’s rich baritone, will remain with us for many days to come:
Strange days have found us
Strange days have tracked us down
They’re going to destroy
Our casual joys
We shall go on playing
Or find a new town
Link to Spotify “Strange Days” Playlist :