Review: “VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave”

VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV's First WaveVJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave by Nina Blackwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“If you grew up when MTV was a logical acronym instead of a cruel joke, you probably had a similar epiphany.”

This book is a compilation of interviews with the first five (American) MTV VJs, weaving a tale of make-up-as-you-go-along and a lot of laughs and a lot of sorrow. All in all though, they’re not (very) bitter, and even though this is a large collection of anecdotes, there are some very honest, wonderful and damn-the-1980s-were-sweet words on all that happened, from the days of when MTV was cobbled together by a few minds, where it was found to be a pillar of racism (where videos were concerned, at the very least) into becoming the behemoth that it is today.

A few weeks later, I came home from some other audition, about to go work at the bar. I hadn’t heard a lot of good feedback that summer—I had been in the Bowie video and Annie, and that was about it. Rejection, that’s the actor’s life. I checked the messages on my answering machine. Sue Steinberg had left a message, saying they wanted to offer me the job. It made no sense at all. In a state of total disbelief, I went to meet with Sue. It didn’t appear to be a joke or a mistake: She told me how much they would pay me and gave me an envelope with five hundred dollars cash in it to buy some clothes. Totally overwhelmed, I walked home to Jan. I shuffled across the room like a zombie, collapsed on the bed, and said, “Oh my God, Jan, this is fucking real.” We both cried: I had a steady gig in New York. The weight of the world was off our shoulders. We could buy a new couch.

I found out many years later that they cast us as types. According to Sue Steinberg, my niche was that I was the hunk. Which I didn’t necessarily agree with, but thank you for the compliment. J. J. was the benign black guy, Nina was the video vamp, Alan was the jock, and Martha was the girl next door that every executive wanted to fuck. Meg Griffin told me that the day she was supposed to sign her contract, she overheard Bob Pittman on the phone in the next room, only his list was a little different: “We’ve got our black guy, our Jew, our vixen, and our jock.”

Alan: One of my first interviews was with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, when they reunited for a free concert in Central Park. I was excited—I used to listen to my big brothers’ Simon and Garfunkel albums and I dug their music. I studied, and wrote questions with the producer. When they sat down, Paul Simon pegged me right off the bat as a twenty-four-year-old pup. Every question I asked, he answered yes or no or “Why do you ask that, Alan?” I was sweating, and Art was embarrassed because Paul was beating up on me so bad. He kept saying, “Come on, Paul, be nice.”

Seems like interviewing Frank Zappa wasn’t easy at times:

Nina: My worst moment was interviewing Frank Zappa. There’s nothing else even close to it in my whole career.

Mark: Three months in, Nina hosted a show in New York that was broadcast live, a concert with Frank Zappa on Halloween. Zappa ripped her to shreds and she didn’t even realize it.

Nina: He gave me trouble from the rehearsal on. He was just condescending and rude the whole time. I came in wearing a beautiful handmade poncho from Argentina, and he kneeled down in front of me, like he was pretending to be a midget, because I was shorter than he was! He sarcastically called me the “little MTV lady.” I had some experience interviewing the punks in L.A., but they were nothing compared to that obnoxious guy: He asked me to jump up and down on camera. If it happened today, I could put him in his place, but back then, I did not know how to handle it. As soon as the camera went off, I ran into the bathroom, not wanting to come out. I just was not ready for him.

Alan: People loved Nina’s vulnerability and her sweet nature. She didn’t do well with people who were being dicks—she got flustered and gave everybody the benefit of the doubt. She wasn’t made to be around people with a mean or cynical spirit.

Nina: J. J. probably should have done the interview. Zappa never would have acted that way with him. Mark, possibly. Al and Martha, it would have been the same as me, if not worse.

Martha: When I hosted a show with Zappa years later, he was a doll. Maybe he liked that I could quote from the Mothers’ Fillmore album, or maybe he was comfortable because we were shooting at his house up in the Hollywood Hills. I’m sure if he met Nina in different circumstances, they would have gotten along great.

Alan: It wasn’t a fair match. Afterward, J. J. said, “He’s a beast for anybody.” I was a big Zappa fan, but when I interviewed him, a few years later, he was a total jerk. “Yes.” “No.” “Why would you ask that, Alan?” “Well, that’s a stupid question.” Two weeks later, he came back to the studio with his daughter, Moon Unit Zappa. She was doing a guest VJ spot and she told him he owed me an apology. He said, “I was just feeling ornery that day.”

Mark: When Nina was hired, she was the video vamp, she was a hottie, and she was going to be the number one jock. She was perfect for what they had in mind, and they gave her a great time slot. That Zappa show was a big black mark on her record, and after that, she was on from 4 A.M. to 8 A.M. Everyone else had longer shifts and better times. They really kicked her hard for it. She was so insecure after that, and I don’t think she ever really fully recovered from it.

Alan: We all felt really bad about Nina’s fall from grace.

Nina: Years later, Mark told me about how it affected my career at MTV, but I was blissfully unaware of it at the time. Nobody in management ever said anything about it to me. Nobody ever said, “Well, next time, if you run into somebody like that, you should do this.” Not that there was anybody else quite as obnoxious as that. I just knew it was a fiasco. I had never been publicly humiliated like that, and it undermined my confidence. I wanted to hide forever. I wish there had been somebody there to support me, or a producer to slap him around. What were they doing? Because I know I was running into the bathroom by myself.

Five entertaining things about Billy Joel’s “Pressure” video, which seemed spooky and portentous in 1982 and is pants-wettingly funny now:

1. Billy writhes around in his leather jacket, attempting to simulate electroshock.

2. A car splashes water on Billy’s shoes—replayed repeatedly in slo-mo, as if it’s a presidential assassination.

3. Billy gets pulled into a white shag rug that appears to be made of quicksand.

4. A little kid gets sucked into a TV set, Poltergeist style—accompanied, for some reason, by a wide array of vegetables.

5. Billy appears on a game show, introduced by this on-screen text: “William Joel / Age: 29 / Occupation: Computer Software / Intersts [sic]: fast bikes, cooking, water sports, satellite.” His actual age at the time of the video: 33.

Some words of the racism of MTV:

Mark: Before Let’s Dance came out, David Bowie did a press junket in a hotel room. It was one of those deals where interviewers file in one at a time. I had interviewed him before, on the radio, but I’m sure he didn’t remember me. I said, “I have some tough questions for you, David—I hope you’re ready.” And he said, “Ha, great, because at the end I’d like to ask you some punishing questions as well.” That comment just blew by me. At the end of the interview, he started asking me why there was such a dearth of black music on MTV. I said, not trying to toe the corporate line but honestly, “Listen, if this was a radio station, we’d be a rock station. It wouldn’t make sense for us to play stuff that isn’t in our format.” The conversation got around to Bowie saying, “Don’t you think there are black kids in the audience who would like to see some of these videos?” I said, “Well, I guess so, but this is what we do, and we have to think about the audience that has cable.” A lot of times we were finding that cable’s heaviest subscribers were in rural areas where they couldn’t get any television reception at all, out in Oklahoma or whatever—not usually your biggest fans of urban music. Bowie was hammering me, and I was trying to defend the network—but it was an awkward position, and I was looking around for some help. Gale Sparrow in the talent department was there, as was John Sykes, one of our big executives, but nobody was stepping forward. Ultimately, they cut that part of the interview out. I think they did air it years later, which is okay with me. What irritated me was that I felt like a pawn. I had no say over what MTV played—I wasn’t an executive. And Bowie knew what the situation was. He knew John Sykes, and he knew a lot of the other principals. He was just using me to bring this issue into the forefront. I felt like an idiot, and I felt used, and I felt insignificant to David Bowie—which I probably was, anyway. It wasn’t my finest moment. As I thought about it afterward, I worried that I looked stupid to Bowie, and to the people around me. And I wondered if there actually was an issue. J. J. and I talked about it. He was a rocker, but what he said to me—which I hadn’t really thought about—was that we were playing white people who were basically doing black music. Even Bowie, to some extent. Why wouldn’t we play black artists doing music in the same style?

I also interviewed Ozzy in his trailer. I wanted to smoke pot with him, but Sharon, his wife and manager, was really terrifying. She was in rare form that day, having a huge argument with Bill Graham, and I didn’t want her to focus on me instead. Ozzy was nearly incomprehensible, but also funny and lovable, like a whacked-out uncle. In the middle of our interview, there was a power failure, and every light in the trailer went out. Sitting in total darkness but not missing a beat, Ozzy shouted, “Keep pedaling, Sharon!”

Nina: I was lucky that during our time in the public eye, it wasn’t like it is today with all the cameras and TMZ. I wouldn’t have survived that.

MARTHA QUINN: “What kind of audiences have been coming to the shows?”

BOB DYLAN: “Mostly foreign audiences. In France, we had mostly French audiences. In Spain, we had a lot of Spanish audiences. In Germany, there were German audiences.”

MARTHA QUINN: (deadpan) “What about Italy?”

Mark: The craziest promo I did was “Asia in Asia,” where you went to see the band Asia play at the Budokan arena in Japan. It was a very, very long flight to Tokyo, and I was sitting next to the winner, this girl from somewhere in the middle of America, who I hooked up with in the bathroom. When I traveled around the country and went to shows, sometimes I would see a good-looking girl, and I could see she was the prettiest girl at her high school, and there was something really charming about that—an innocence that wasn’t there with girls from New York or L.A. This girl was like that: She was cute, she was funny. I got to know her for a couple of hours, and I’m sure a lot of alcohol was involved. We were in first class, so we got free drinks and felt like we were getting crazy, like the rock stars. I said, “Why don’t you go back in the bathroom, and I’ll meet you back there.” We casually slipped into the bathroom—at least, I think we were casual—and started to grope and unbutton and unzip. We tried to have sex, but our balance sucked, and we kept bonking our heads on mirrors and getting leg cramps. It was kind of fun, but incredibly uncomfortable. The mile-high club is great in theory, but not in practice. That was just the beginning of the insanity. We stayed at the Akasaka Prince hotel, which was beautiful. But nobody in Tokyo spoke English, and all the signs were in Japanese, so I felt even more disconnected, like I had wandered into a scene from Lost in Translation. I was there with the MTV crew and executives—the A&R guy from the label knew a geisha house in the Kawasaki district. They said it was the one that the mayor of Tokyo would go to. I wanted to go—not necessarily because I wanted to get laid, but because I wanted to have the experience of a geisha house. And at the end, an executive put the whole thing on his card, which was a great joy to me. MTV picked up the tab for my first hooker!

Martha: In the beginning, everyone told us MTV wouldn’t last. As it turns out, they were right—our MTV doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no videos on the channel now: It’s Jersey Shore and Teen Mom and My Super Sweet 16. Recently, I was shopping at my local farm stand, and the farmer introduced me to a teenage girl. He told her, “This is Martha Quinn—she used to be on MTV.” She said, “Really? What show?”

Mark: We’re the reason you have no attention span. And you can pin reality TV on us too. You’re welcome.

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