Johnny Cash San Quentin best live albums

Johnny Cash At San Quentin, Feb. 24, 1969

The best old-school live albums to ease the concert void

Live via Memorex.

The best old-school live albums to ease the concert void

Neil Diamond, Hot August Night (MCA Records, 1972)

(The best old-school live albums to ease the concert void)

Since the outset of the Coronavirus crisis, we have been deprived in Montreal of the three cultural venues for which this city is most known: churches, restaurants and live music. I’ve been missing the music most of all — not just music, which I can listen to any time across any number of media, but the liveness of music, its event-ness. It’s not enough to watch some streaming set online. In fact, I can’t bring myself to do it. It feels forced, which it is. It lacks spontaneity. This is not just an aesthetic quibble; it’s a metaphysical one.

Nonetheless, there is something about live albums recorded before the internet age which manage to retain some sense of being-there. Maybe it’s the sound of the crowd, or the particular acoustics of the auditoria, or the techno-historical particularities of an era’s musical instruments, microphones and recording techniques. Whatever it is, I’ve been returning to a handful of live albums under lockdown to remember what it felt like showing up to a gig and literally being moved: by the crowd, by the music’s vibrations, by the magic ritual itself.

Growing up, I always thought Neil Diamond was what the British call “a bit naff.” Naff loosely translates into North American English as: “a bit lame.” I remember my mom listening to Neil Diamond cassettes in the car, which was always a bit naff. I recall Neil Diamond playing softly on AM radios in dentists’ office waiting rooms, which was always a bit naff. But how wrong was I? Neil Diamond is not at all naff. Neil Diamond is the real deal, not that cubic zirconia shit, not that glass-that-cuts-glass crap. Hot August Night is a diamond in the rough.

Rolling Stones, Get YerYa-Ya’s Out! The Rolling Stones in Concert (Decca Records, 1970)

(The best old-school live albums to ease the concert void)

They say that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, but I’d be willing to contest that. The way I see it, hairdressers must have come first, because I like to believe that a self-respecting caveman would have at least tried to look his best before patronizing the flesh trade. Paying to look good is sound strategy. Paying for sex is abjection.

Nina Simone, Nina Simone at Town Hall (Colpix Records, 1959)

(The best old-school live albums to ease the concert void)

There is an old adage in show business: never open with a showstopper. You can’t just bring down the house right off the bat; you’ve got to build up to the night’s biggest numbers. Exceptionally, Nina Simone casts that axiom to the wind, though, starting her 1959 Town Hall performance off with the most devastating performance of the night — maybe one of Simone’s most devastating ever performances, full stop. And she’s had more than a few, from Montreux to Montreal.

George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, and the protests that ensued, have been called “unprecedented” across the media, and have sparked calls for sweeping change from the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama, among others. Justin Trudeau attended an Ottawa march in solidarity with the American Black Lives Matter movement and was unresponsive for 21 seconds when asked by a reporter to comment on Donald Trump’s threats of military intervention.

Sadly, however, there are precedents: Eric Garner in 2014; Tamir Rice in 2014; Trayvon Martin in 2012. There is a long list of Black American men whom the police killed unnecessarily. And there is an equally long list of protests that followed the killings, demanding change, demanding “never again”. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone was asking some version of the question: “when will things go back to normal?” I’m afraid this is and always was America’s normal — always at each other’s throats.

Ministry, In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up (Live) (Sire Records, 1990)

(The best old-school live albums to ease the concert void)

It’s been 30 years, and Jello Biafra’s pledge is as fresh as paint on a picnic table. Nothing changes in the US. It is a stillness system. Every four years — long enough to feel like time has passed, but too short to do anything significant, but long enough to undo everything significant — another round of campaigns, slogans, promises, elections, and disappointments. A shark needs to keep moving or it dies. America is that shark. But the tank has been getting ever smaller for the good shark America. Soon it will realize that it has been swimming in a holding pattern, doing figure-eights, treading water.

God bless the United Stasis of Acceleration.

Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash At San Quentin (Columbia Records, 1969)

(The best old-school live albums to ease the concert void)

Out of the global pandemic has emerged a strange impulse: the idea of perfect health; the model subject vaccinated and inoculated against every conceivable viral strain; the elimination of disease; the transcendence of death. This all smacks of Ubermensch-ism and sidles up dangerously close to Eugenics — the practice of genetic selection in pursuit of purity and superiority.

South of the border, Donald Trump has pledged a Coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020, through his government’s “Operation Warp Speed” initiative. In mid-May, Trump appointed Moncef Slaoui, former head of research at the vaccine pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Smith Klein, to step up efforts. HIV has been around since 1983. To date, no effective vaccine exists. A safe and successful COVID-19 vaccine in 12-18 months, then, seems unlikely.

Well before Corona, pharmaceutical companies had been up to no good. Min-Jean Yin, a Pfizer oncology researcher, was fired in 2016 after falsifying data leading to a number of scientific paper retractions. Same with the dubious studies published and later rescinded by Igor Dzhura of Novartis, the company from which GlaxoSmithKlein acquired its vaccine portfolio in a 2018 $13-billion asset swap.

It’s curious that healthy markets for the overwhelmingly profitable pharmaceutical industry just happen to be sick human beings. ■

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