They say when a man is dying his life flashes before his eyes. I don't know for sure if the record industry is on its last legs, but this is certainly the year when the whole history of rock and roll is suddenly on DVD. From "Dylan at Newport" to "Nirvana Unplugged," musical performances that fans have wanted to see for years are finally available.
Here's the top of the Christmas list:
It is 40 years since the great Otis Redding died in a plane crash. A new DVD called "Dreams To Remember: The Legacy Of Otis Redding" conveys what a sweet, exuberant and charismatic man this great singer was. In his private life, Otis radiated joy. He saved the turmoil for his songs.
One soul legend who is still very much with us is Smoky Robinson, who gets the retrospective treatment on a new DVD called "Smokey Robinson And The Miracles Definitive Performances 1963-1987."
Did life ever get any better than that?
This is a treasure trove - you see how much the young Smoky of "Really Got A Hold On Me" took from Sam Cooke, and you see him very quickly find his own voice … a voice of elegant, impossible yearning.
The main attraction here are vintage TV performances of "Tears Of A Clown," "Ooh Baby Baby," "The Tracks Of My Tears" and so many other songs that are printed on our DNA.
U2's album "The Joshua Tree" is 20 years old - how does that make you feel? And there are three new anniversary versions out, at three prices, the top of which is a deluxe box that features the original album remastered, an entire second CD of outtakes and rarities, and a DVD of home movies, a documentary and videos from the "Joshua Tree" era, as well as a complete concert.
It's interesting at this distance to see the difference between U2's stern image at that time and how much fun these four very young men were having on the road and behind the scenes.
Full disclosure: I wrote an essay for this collection, but I didn't get paid, so no conflict of interest!
There's also a new double-DVD set of great performances from Johnny Cash's TV show that ran on ABC from 1969 to '71. I don't know if television's ever produced a better music series. Cash brought on Louie Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young, Derek and the Dominos and many more greats, but maybe the biggest surprise here comes from the country artists; Waylon Jennings and his band are the toughest, scariest bunch you would ever want to avoid running into in a dark juke joint.
George Jones looks like he's ready to pop out of his skin, even while his voice breaks your heart, and Merle Haggard is about the coolest cat on the planet - Clint Eastwood to Cash's John Wayne.
Watching "The Johnny Cash TV Show" is like eating popcorn - once you start you can't stop.
Of all the archival DVDs that have appeared this fall, the most astonishing has to be a box set called "Jazz Icons" that presents full concerts by Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, Dave Brubeck, Wes Montgomery, and Duke Ellington. I can¹t believe this stuff exists! There are three extended performances by John Coltrane from European television that trace his astonishing ascent during his greatest period, from "My Favorite Things" to "Naima."
The whole eight-disk box is an incredible gift, but you can also buy the individual DVDs. You can find out about it at jazzicons.com.
Finally, for the relatively young people, my corporate overlords at MTV Networks have finally released "Nirvana Unplugged" on disc. This was the high water mark for the "Unplugged" series, and some people think the high water mark for Nirvana. Even wet blankets who never understood what all the fuss was about were knocked out by this acoustic performance in which Kurt Cobain offered an unexpected glimpse of his gentle side. Five months later he was gone.
I guess we should be grateful to YouTube for forcing the copyright holders to get this stuff out of the vaults and into the stores in time for holiday shopping.
I can¹t think of a better way to spend that long week between Christmas and New Year¹s than lying on the couch drinking egg nog and watching these amazing performances. Have a great holiday, and remember: first the lights, THEN the ornaments, THEN the tinsel. You¹d be surprised how many people mess that up.