The best way you can learn about music is by listening to it – sure, you can research, ask questions, read up, get opinions from others…these are all smart ways to build your knowledge, but number one is to listen widely. And far too often.
Reading about music has been a big part of my life. Going and seeing shows in the flesh, absolutely. Listening to music is something I’ve probably done far too much – it’s still a constant, music on in my ears while working, while walking, in the car, and at home before and after a day at work.
But one of my favourite things to do is watch music concerts on a screen and watch music docos.
I am talking about any kind of music documentary.
When I was a music writer and, briefly, a tutor up at the university, or when I gave guest lectures at both Victoria and Massey, sometimes even after poetry readings (since the poetry often includes references to music) I get asked about how to get into music writing, or how I learned what I learned. The obvious thing to say is music writing is dead and that you can’t get into it. But the obvious and slightly less crushing thing to say is that I’m still – and forever – learning. The less obvious thing to say, and it’s been hugely important in my life, is to watch whatever random music show or feature film you can get your eyes across.
Back when I first discovered the video store I would repeat-rent those bombastic music-movies Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, I would watch any concert I could find – which would mean cheap package tours from the 1980s that featured soul and R’n’B legends from the 50s – they might be 45 or 55 minutes in total and feature a song or two by Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Country music, classical, jazz…
I had favourite concert films – Prince’s Sign O’ The Times, a Fleetwood Mac show from the Mirage tour of the early 1980s, Lou Reed’s New York Album and an earlier 80s VHS tape called A Night With Lou Reed. Chick Corea. I first learned about Saturday Night Live by watching compilation tapes of the musical guests.
The video store was such an education. From Hawke’s Bay, and a small music section in the video store, down to Wellington in the 90s, a video store on nearly any street corner, VHS tapes for sale (to keep!) in the music stores, and then to DVDs.
When the DVD explosion occurred, I was working for a chain of music stores, I was also reviewing for the newspaper and TV. So, I was sent music DVDs, given them. And I had staff discount to buy up anything else. I would also take boxes of unwanted review copies to Real Groovy and trade them in for books and DVDs.
Rare documentaries that never made it to the cinema, collections of music videos, concerts, anything…everything.
I worked, briefly, at a video rental store, unlimited rentals for free – it was recommended we take a tape or two home every day (for knowledge; research). I would leave with armfuls of music videos. Suzanne Vega Live in 1986, Johnny Clegg and Savuka (I like neither Johnny Clegg nor Savuka) Oscar Peterson, B.B. King, the Riverdance!
This has always been a big part of my musical education. Watching Tangerine Dream live in 1975 and then jumping straight to an unauthorised documentary about Prince, from there to David Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour (I couldn’t understand it as any sort of flop, to me it was just amazing spectacle) – and then Elvis Costello’s talk show, called Spectacle. Two seasons, boxset DVDs, brilliant interviews. Henry Rollins had a cool chat show too with interviews and kick-ass performances.
My personal collection of VHS tapes and DVDs was towering for a while and then I had to make sense of it. Which I did, mostly by toppling those towers.
I’m lucky to still have a video store on the corner, and Aro Video is where I saw The Cramps: Live at Napa State Mental Hospital on DVD and through their Aro Vision streaming service I saw the recent Brian Wilson documentary. It’s lovely. But even if it wasn’t, even if it had been advertised as a travesty, I would still have watched it since I’ve seen all the TV movies, the bootleg concerts, the unauthorised docos, even some of the 60 Minutes-styled interviews.
I survived the first lockdown by reinstalling Amazon Prime and just watching as much of the music content as I could. Learning things I’d forgotten about Led Zeppelin and The Who, watching Jeff Healey scratch at his guitar, seeing Buddy Rich blaze behind Frank Sinatra.
When I felt like I clocked that I started watching reggae documentaries on YouTube.
The very best place to find music footage now is YouTube. There is no denying that. I watch various concerts by Hans Zimmer and a few of the recent tributes to John Williams. I watch all sorts of things on YouTube. Because I always do.
But I also added the Tubi app to the home screen of my TV. Very exciting. I resisted Tubi for a while because it looks cheap and nasty. But, of course, I’m also a big fan of cheap and nasty. And Tubi’s content was sold to me on the fact that it carries some truly diabolical horrors (I can confirm this, I recently watched Skull Forrest). I’ve had the Tubi app on my phone for a wee bit, I don’t sleep in, so Saturday mornings usually begin around 4-5am with a screening, or partial screening, of a sci-fi or horror film on my phone or iPad. Lol.
But now I have Tubi on the big screen – and yes, I have cast it to my TV previously, I’m not totally useless. But Tubi on the TV allows me to scroll through the content before watching. Planning to watch something is almost as much fun as watching something. There’s a reason the video store strip is still such a treat. You don’t know what you’re going to get – even if you have an idea in mind, it could change as soon as you get there. You might be forced to reconsider. Or you might just see something else that takes your eye.
Tubi has over 600 music titles. My eyes were excited to see several of the music VHS tapes I owned in another life, and hundreds of things I haven’t (yet) seen. I am making plans to clock Tubi’s music content.
As I write this – whatever this is (and I like to think of it as a love letter to cramming my own brain with content long before and so I could eventually cram your inbox with content; good enough description of pretty much anything I write) I found a documentary about the great jazz drummer Paul Motion so I’m watching that. And it’s fabulous. But the thing is, even if it was terrible, I’d still be watching it. And learning something from it too. Bonus!
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