In high school, I had a VHS copy of “Pulse,” the live Pink Floyd album and concert film from 1995. I’d watch it whenever I had a long weekend night to myself, which was more often than I would have liked. I was in the throes of my inevitable teenage Floyd phase, and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
Which is weird in hindsight, because on paper it’s the opposite of cool. “Pulse” is a premium boomer nostalgia artifact: middle-aged rock stars dressed in peak ‘90s dad fashion performing decadently to promote an album, “The Division Bell,” that was released long after their creative heyday.
But since the dawn of social distancing, I’ve returned to the familiar comfort of “Pulse” a handful of times on YouTube. It’s usually in the background, but sometimes I’ll watch intently, just to see people who were great at something doing the thing they were great at, imagining the rehearsals, the lighting concepts, the sound production, all the moving pieces that lock together into an experience shared by thousands, hundreds, dozens or even just a handful of music fans.
The loss of live music during this crisis has been devastating for the artists who’ve lost their livelihoods and for the shuttered venues that nourish the cultural souls of their communities. It’s tragic in a less tangible sense for those of us who mark time by the concerts we saw in key periods of our lives and who stare restlessly at the blank calendar days between upcoming shows and festivals.
At the very least, we can still watch live music. There are thousands of excellent, historically significant, life-affirming performances online — some bootlegged, some posted officially with pleas for donations to COVID-19 relief — that make tremendous quarantine viewing. I’ve watched at least one a day since whenever time stopped mattering.
Metallica release a new concert film each Monday, including one from Muskegon, filmed in 1991, right as the self-titled “black album” had turned them into gods. Radiohead also has been sharing a weekly concert, reminding me that, as much as I love this band’s albums, onstage they’re a different beast altogether.
You still need a Netflix subscription to watch Beyonce’s “Homecoming” Coachella set from 2018, but there’s an indelible performance in her home city of Houston on the 2013 Mrs. Carter Tour as a free alternative.
I love seeing innovators at different creative peaks — like Miles Davis in Vienna in 1973, followed by his scorching set at the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts in 1980. Or Madonna’s “Blond Ambition” film from 1990 alongside her “Drowned World” concert special shot at the Palace of Auburn Hills in 2001.
Queen’s entire 1985 Live Aid set is available, and it lives up to its reputation. Unauthorized Prince content tends to come down pretty quickly, but as of earlier this week, there were full shows available from both the “Purple Rain” (1985) and “Controversy” (‘82) tours, which are, needless to say, amazing.
I found a great, sweaty 1978 Bruce Springsteen performance at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, and a terrific Clash show from two years later at the venue. I stumbled across David Bowie at the 2002 Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where after a set of hits and newer material, he encores with a full performance of his art-rock masterpiece “Low.”
None of this, of course, can replace being there. “It is the most life-affirming experience,” Dave Grohl wrote this week in the Atlantic, “to see your favorite performer onstage, in the flesh, rather than as a one-dimensional image glowing in your lap as you spiral down a midnight YouTube wormhole.”
For now, the image will have to suffice. A recent wormhole led me to a 1991 Nirvana show in Dallas. It was after “Nevermind” came out but before the band became too big to play dingy rock clubs, near the beginning of Grohl’s tragically brief tenure as Nirvana’s drummer. Kids were stage-diving, screaming, losing their minds.
I used to find reasons not to go to shows — I’m old, it’s a weeknight, it’s expensive, etc. Now I miss them more than anything.