Don Pardo, 1918-2014

August 23, 2014

pardoI was waiting for the Don Pardo obit like a horror-film audience member peeking through hisser fingers, but when it finally came it was still a shock. “A light just went out,” as they say when somebody important to you passes away. Well, one just did last Monday, an announcer so strong and true that he was still strappin’ on the cans at age 96.

Don Pardo had been active since the heyday of radio, but he was best known to those of a certain age for his work on tv game shows, especially THE PRICE IS RIGHT and the original JEOPARDY!, the network version hosted by Art Fleming. (The Alex Trebek JEOPARDY! is syndicated.) We knew his voice because it was rock-solid, and we knew his name because the hosts of those shows would often call out to him on the air: “Don Pardo, tell her what she’s won!” His only real competition was a guy named Johnny Olson, who announced all the Mark Goodson-Bill Todman game shows and THE JACKIE GLEASON SHOW. Olson’s was the very excitable tenor voice that made a catchphrase out of the words “COME ON DOWN!”

So, in 1975, when Lorne Michaels hired Pardo to announce SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (originally called NBC’S SATURDAY NIGHT) it was certainly through a gauze of irony. The hippest thing on tv, billboarded by an ancient Mr. Game Show? And Pardo did indeed have enemies among the hipsters, including the curmudgeonly Michael O’Donoghue, who also loathed the Muppets with which he was forced to share the stage in the early days. When O’Donoghue briefly took over after the disastrous Jean Doumanian season, he tried to throw Pardo out along with the rest of the “old guard,” including longtime director Dave Wilson.

But Pardo and his strange stretched syllables had already become as totemic to SNL as Lorne himself. The record will show that Don Pardo billboarded every single SNL episode for 38 seasons, missing only season 7, when Lorne too was gone, even though Pardo flubbed the name of the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” on the first live broadcast. (There were a few more flubs that night, making the experiment even more thrilling: it was actually live.)

I’d wager most everybody who has ever been connected with the show, even those who hated the experience – and there are plenty of them – have “something in their eye” right now in memory of Don Pardo. Even we simple fans do. He was the sound of American comedy through thick and thin, his dulcet tones matching and encouraging our own excitement. Goodbye, Mr. Pardo, and please give our regards to Belushi after first slapping him around a bit for leaving us far too young. You showed us, and told us, how to do it right.

9/19/14: Today we learned that former longtime cast member Darrell Hammond, the impressionist who actually subbed for Don Pardo a couple of times when the elder voice was ill (and completely fooled us!) will be SNL’s new announcer, but as himself: the “Don Pardo voice” will be permanently retired out of respect.


The Guy Next To Me On The Train

July 18, 2014

I was waiting on the platform at the Rhinecliff train station last Monday. I was talking to a newly-made friend who had also just attended Ricky Jay’s magic-appreciation-immersion weekend. The Amtrak train to Penn Station pulled up. I had to say goodbye because, weeks before, just after I’d ponied up the fee for Ricky’s “Congress of Wonders,” I’d also decided to treat myself to business-class seats on the train, up and back. A gentleman in a light brown suit pointed me to the right car. I walked through the “café car” and found only one empty seat, next to a window seat already saved by a small pack. The helpful gentleman returned from the café car; I’d begun to make myself at home without thinking that he might have been ordering a veggieburger and needing to slip past me.

“Do you know Marc Connelly?” he asked, once he’d settled in and gotten his burger situated on his tray table. Startled, I looked straight at him. “No,” I said. “You remind me of him, I thought you might be related.” I was aghast. “Are you in the theater?” “Yes,” he said, with an inimitable side-of-the-mouth grin, at which point I pegged him.

“You look like John Astin,” I said. “I get that all the time,” said he as he dressed his veggieburger. “And,” said I, “you sound like John Astin.” Now he reached for my hand. The next ninety minutes flew by as we plied each other with conversation. It was the final bit of magic from the Congress of Wonders; I’ll never know how Ricky did it.

astinMr. Astin was returning to his Baltimore home from teaching a master class upstate. (His base is Johns Hopkins, but he’s frequently elsewhere.) He knew who Ricky Jay was, and seemed interested in my weekend experience, which I could only describe to him as a series of outré TED Talks, each of which had at least one spoke aimed at the art of magic. He was amused by my inability to communicate, but sensed a fellow mind.

We talked about our upbringings, what brought him into performance, what led me into studying theater in college, the close relationship between theater and magic, how theatrical arts can be taught and what that means (in subsequent real life, I have depended far more on my college theater-major training than on my political-science-major training), one-man shows (he loved learning about the William Faulkner evening I co-wrote and described the opening minutes of his own Edgar Allan Poe piece, which are chillingly cool), and more and more and more.

He even mentioned Gomez Addams. That led to a discussion about fame, or simple notoriety. Chance had sat me next to Ricky Jay the previous night in the back room of a Rhinebeck tavern, and I couldn’t help but watch countless sycophants bring stuff up to Ricky to sign. This natural curmudgeon endured them all and, as I confessed to my new train-bound friend, the jagged line — you think you’re done, then one more person walks up! — actually became tedious to me, and I’m not even Ricky! He reminded me that he’d already enjoyed some tv notoriety before THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and that what you have to do is just be thankful and continue moving on: in truth, there’s nothing to complain about. I assured him that, even to ten-year-olds, it was his show that was the transgressive one, and the other one that was relatively square. He’d probably heard something similar before, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

As we were pulling up to the final stop, he thanked me for entertaining him on the trip. Heck, he’d done the same for me my whole life! As we departed inside the terminal, “See ya later, John!” “I think we just might, Tom!” Man, I hope so. What a well-read, well-spoken guy. I’m a deeper fan than I was before.


This Single Is A Homer

June 13, 2014

76 coverWhen did everything change? Because everything sure has. High rollers pay to go backstage at rock concerts, which are themselves underwritten by huge corporations, and Dylan tunes are musical beds for commercials. A stint on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, as writer or actor, is a golden ticket to a career in sitcoms or the movies. Pop and hip-hop musicians are regular White House guests, and it’s the rare politician indeed that doesn’t have some classic rock stuffed into his iPod, itself created by a company founded by a couple of hippies in a garage, not all that long ago.

David Browne makes a compelling case for 1976 as the cultural hinge point in a swell new Kindle Single, THE SPIRIT OF ’76. (A Kindle Single is an electronic piece too short to be a book but too long to be a magazine article; the writing is of professional quality, curated by editors at Amazon.com and sold through the Kindle e-book platform, which means you don’t have to own an actual Kindle to read it: just download the Kindle software on any Internet-connected device you have.) Full disclosure: I’m a longtime Browne fan, dating back to when he was the chief music critic for Entertainment Weekly. I also edited his first book, DREAM BROTHER, a fascinating history of the parallel careers of Tim Buckley and his son Jeff which, among many other pleasures, demonstrates that musical talent may actually be genetic. He’s still knocking them out today as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

While we were celebrating our country’s bicentennial, Mr. Browne reports, the counterculture was becoming mainstream in so many ways; the tremors were rattling dishes everywhere. The new SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, a rock-world reaction against corny tv variety shows like Carol Burnett’s, won the first four of its Emmys. The two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, were bringing the same sensibility to the decidedly non-hip world of computing. The Ramones arrived to carpet-bomb the artificial barriers between givers and receivers of music. A struggling, hangdog-looking actor created a movie sensation glorifying blue-collar determination and come-from-behind perseverance. A Southern-drawling peanut farmer who loved the Allman Brothers was a serious contender to dethrone the sitting president of the United States. They were all part of a wave of excitement and optimism that didn’t last long, but smashed its way through pop culture all at once. “It was the perfect year for new things to be born and develop,” says Tommy Ramone.

THE SPIRIT OF ’76 looks closely at all these events and more through that prism. It’s as breezy and authoritative as Mr. Browne’s astonishing book-length FIRE AND RAIN, which connects four important pop acts and albums from 1970 in such gorgeous detail that no matter how many times you’ve worn out these records, you will learn something new about CSN&Y, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles. (How does somebody so young find out all this stuff? It’s called journalism.) Mr. Browne’s work is so entertaining and likable because he seems to be speaking for the reader. He doesn’t live in a snobby critic’s ivory tower; he’s a fan just like you and me (albeit more industrious and learned). Pick up this Single and you’ll find yourself not only glad there was a 1976, but also sad that its vaulting spirit dissipated into venality and cynicism.


Roger & Thee

March 7, 2014

loudest voiceWho’s the most powerful conservative in the United States? God knows it’s not Mitch McConnell or John Boehner. Not Rush Limbaugh or Karl Rove. Not the former President Bushes or anyone in their family. Not even the Republican Party’s personal Mr. Monopolys, the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. Nope, America’s most powerful conservative rules his fiefdom from a second-floor office on New York’s Avenue of the Americas. He is Roger E. Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, and as he will gladly tell you, he elected two presidents – and might well have made it three if he hadn’t been busy creating a monster instead.

The brash, mercurial Ailes – part instinctive genius and part paranoid bully – is the subject of a new biography by New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM. It tracks his career from the Mike Douglas TV show where he met and wooed Richard Nixon, to the 1968 campaign immortalized in Joe McGinniss’s classic THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT (with which Ailes eagerly cooperated before having to backtrack and humble himself before H. R. Haldeman), then to TV and theater production, an early attempt at partisan conservative broadcasting, a stop at CNBC, and finally permanent sponsorship in the form of an equally bombastic media magnate who felt “mainstream” journalism was too lefty. Since Fox News went on the air in 1996 (just in time for Monica Lewinsky), it has become the official campfire of the right wing, the nexus of one-sided opinion. Its slogan “Fair and Balanced” was created to get under liberals’ skin, and it’s worked: the channel is anything but either and everybody knows it. Fox News is the broadcast home of a parade of blowhards who never have to answer to the public, not even to Rupert Murdoch himself: only to Roger Ailes.

Piecing together Ailes’s upbringing is beyond any biographer, even one who can get a face-to-face with the subject (as Mr. Sherman could not), since Ailes routinely lies about dozens of biographical facts. For example, Mr. Sherman titles his first chapter after an allegedly traumatic childhood experience in which Ailes’s father extends his hand to catch his jumping son and then snatches it away to let him fall: “Don’t ever trust anybody” is the parental takeaway. The source is an Ailes confidant. The story is almost certainly a lie.

Another fiction which has stood the test of time concerns the signal day when MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW producer Ailes met guest Richard M. Nixon. According to official Ailes lore, there was a belly dancer named Little Egypt also booked on the show, “so I stuck Nixon in my office for 15 minutes. If I’d put Little Egypt in there, I’d be managing belly dancers right now.” This was the conversation – sometimes he says it was an hour long – in which Ailes convinced Nixon that he needed a “media adviser.” Trouble is, as the author reports, “According to several of Ailes’s colleagues who were present and the show logs, there was no belly dancer named Little Egypt booked that day.”

Ailes’s life is festooned with such bits of retroactive “history,” but friends and foes alike note that he has long created a “reality distortion field” as powerful and impervious as Steve Jobs’s. So why should we even care about digging through his shape-shifting past? Because Roger Ailes has become not just a reflector of modern American culture, but a driver of it to an almost unthinkable degree, the thought leader of a rabid, vocal and inward-looking minority. As Mr. Sherman writes, in Fox News’s early days, emboldened by Bill Clinton’s personal foibles, some viewers “kept the channel on for so long that the static Fox News logo…burned the pixels. Before a rotating one was introduced, even when they turned off their sets for the night, the outlines of the graphic remained tattooed to the dark screens.” Some cable channels have viewers. Fox News has believers.

I remember when Rush Limbaugh’s first book appeared in fall 1992. I’d never heard of him, but then I hadn’t listened to talk radio since my grad-school days twenty years earlier, when Atlanta’s WRNG, a 24-hour call-in station, entertained me on long car trips. Stuart Applebaum, Bantam’s corporate spokesperson, predicted a huge hit for our competitor Pocket Books. Why? “Conservatives don’t have anything to read.” And it was true: when I thought of conservative literature, it was ages-old screeds from Barry Goldwater or the John Birch Society, maybe ragged conspiracy-spouting pamphlets for gun-show booths. Well, conservatives didn’t have anything to watch either. For years it was accepted right-wing wisdom that the big-shot media were hopelessly biased in favor of progressivism, from organized labor to women’s suffrage to civil rights. (That continues to be a powerful motivating force on the right, which likes to view itself as the long-suffering victim.) And Rush Limbaugh represented its first shot across the bow, now that mass media had become untethered to even the pretense of objectivity.

For most of the 20th century, on radio and television at least, bald editorializing was actually quite rare. Eric Sevareid’s spots on CBS, for example, were devoted to explicating the news rather than promoting an opinion, which would have been anathema to the longtime journalist. When official opinion was broadcast, station owners – mindful that they were using airwaves licensed to them by the public and guided since 1949 by the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” – would invite an opposing view. This conceit became a weekly 60 MINUTES feature called “Point/Counterpoint,” savagely parodied by the new satirical program SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”). But in 1987 the FCC rescinded the Doctrine, and Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush beat back attempts in Congress to reinstate it, on the grounds that broadcasters’ First Amendment rights to free speech were being impinged. That opened the floodgates for partisan broadcasting that had no obligation to present an opposing view. This relatively recent development in mass media is the hottest thing on radio, and despite the public sackcloth and ashes, the leading programs are overwhelmingly conservative. As for television, Fox News speaks for itself – quite literally.

One of the most impressive aspects of the right-wing establishment is its message discipline. Do you remember just after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, when presidential spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters, “I’m not going to engage in the blame game,” and continued to use the term repeatedly during his press briefing? Then the same term was picked up by Congressional Republicans, conservative talk radio and Fox News. It also happened when President Obama refused to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse because “we don’t need to spike the football”: the instant right-wing meme was that he was doing exactly that (perhaps hoping we’d forgotten George W. Bush’s flight-suit strut on that aircraft carrier), and this exact phrase tumbled from right-wing mouths for two days. What, does Fox hold meetings to decide what today’s talking points are going to be? As Mr. Sherman reports, why yes, as a matter of fact it does. That’s the exact opposite of reporting news, but that’s also what creates Fox fans. Besides, simply repeating something, no matter how preposterous, gives it weight, as Fox News has proved with the “Swift Boat” campaign against John Kerry and its laughable annual “War on Christmas.”

Many observers, including me, have long wondered whether the on-air opinionators of Fox News are simply performing for the camera or genuinely subscribe to the principles they’re spouting. After reading this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that at least some of the on-camera talent may indeed be pontificators-for-pay (Glenn Beck in particular was never an Ailes team player and stuck to his own messages, and Bill O’Reilly’s main orientation is apparently Bill O’Reilly), but Ailes himself actually believes a lot of this stuff. He is an intensely paranoid man who sees conspiracies lurking everywhere – perhaps they are remnants of his time spent with Richard Nixon – and is so afraid of assassination that he had his Fox News office bomb-proofed and installed a bunker beneath his mountaintop country home in Putnam County, New York (after purchasing the sleepy local newspaper and turning it into an advocate) to weather an attack, which will be easier for him to spot after having cut down the nearby trees and bought as many surrounding houses as he could.

Is Fox News the official organ of the Republican Party? You may recall that no less than Dick Cheney directed that all tv sets in his vice-presidential hotel suites be pre-set to Fox, and a host named Steve Doocy flabbergasted observers one day by casually consulting a GOP talking-points memo on the air. Or is it the other way around? After all, it was Fox News – particularly its acerbic host Sean Hannity – which fanned the flames of the nascent Tea Party and probably cost Republicans control of the Senate for two straight election cycles; hyperventilating bombthrowers can win Senate primaries, but it turns out they get clobbered in the more rational general elections. (In the gerrymandered House, quite a few bombthrowers actually won, and collectively became Speaker Boehner’s worst nightmare.) Whatever Fox News is, it’s here to stay for a while, if not exactly at full strength: the channel’s core viewers are aging white men, and most of their potential younger replacements have long since learned to laugh rather than obey. Let’s face it, it’s more fun — and more lucrative — to be Roger Ailes when you have an enemy in the White House; whatever would Fox run 24/7 during a Romney administration? For now, railing against the Kenyan socialist (while secretly hoping for another Clintonian punching bag?) will just have to do.

3/9/13: Read this great story on Chris Ruddy, the guy behind the Newsmax empire, who is ready to give Ailes a run for at least part of his money on television. Ruddy has calmly discerned and exploited the market potential of serving right-wing-but-not-frothing boomers, and in real life he’s an independent who makes up his own mind.


Blockbuster Video, 1985-2013

November 7, 2013

BlockbusterI missed Blockbuster, by and large, so I won’t really miss it. But millions of others won’t miss it for an entirely different set of reasons.

In 1980, while waiting for the result of the home video format war (ask your parents), I became one of the first kids on my block to own a VHS videocassette recorder/player. I guessed right; though VHS was technologically inferior to Betamax, its cassettes held more stuff, and that was enough for me and the non-Sony world. This machine changed my life – and, as it turned out, the entire culture’s. Not only could I record ordinary tv programs to watch later (the eggheads instantly gave that phenomenon a fancy name: “time shifting”), but they also included, if I so chose, uncut and uninterrupted movies off HBO, or classic flicks that aired at 3 in the morning: I could set the thing like an alarm clock! How useful this would have been while I was struggling through my Master’s thesis on Fifties monster movies. They’ve gone about as fer as they kin go, said I.

As with television a generation prior, Hollywood had no vision of the future and its knee-jerk reaction was to fight home video tooth and nail. In 1976, Universal and Disney brought suit against poor Sony, alleging that home video recording amounted to piracy; by the time the matter finally reached the Supreme Court eight years later and time-shifting off the air was judged to be fair use, the practice had grown so widespread that the legal action was basically moot, now enriching only lawyers.

In the meantime, of course, the studios were taking big chomps of the new home video pie themselves. They began to issue official, “studio-struck” versions of their most popular movies. Fox Home Video was a pioneer: I remember being astonished to see PLANET OF THE APES, PATTON and M*A*S*H shown at people’s homes during parties (the serious film and tv production guys all had Betamaxes early on). At one such bash at my friend Dave Adcock’s, 2001 played with the sound off, and you could see people taking quick glances over your shoulder. Far from ruining the movie business, home video revenue came to carry the biz on its back – you made more money on home entertainment than on the theatrical release – and continued to do so until very recently.

Renting videocassettes, in both Beta and VHS formats, was the next logical step – after all, most adults only want to see a movie once – and it sprang up in thousands of mom-and-pop stores, located in strip malls and lesser venues, DIY-shabby but cute, like independent comics stores. Mine was called Video Station, owned by a wonderful movie fan named Curtis. The first time I walked in, I was gobsmacked at the choices I had, for movies I could see tonight. I simply must share this with others, I said.

So, every Friday night for several years, I screened a movie at my house. Ten or fifteen friends came over to watch – the audience was constantly changing and self-regenerating – and we loved having our own private movie theater. After the first few weeks, one of my neighbors timidly came to the door and said, “Sorry, but we just have to know what you do on Friday nights. All these cars pull up in your driveway and on the street. Then you turn off all the lights, and we can’t hear a thing!” (Remember, VCRs weren’t very common back then. Once I explained that we were all watching a movie, it made sense. Hope nobody thought I was hosting the world’s most boring coven.)

I was such a reliable customer that Curtis would give me a peek at release schedules and let me have pre-dibs on new movies, which were appearing on tape even before their pay-cable runs. One Friday his delivery ran late and he personally drove the cassette over to my house just as people were beginning to arrive for the movie. (He declined a beer, but accepted our warm applause.) This was the state of home video rental in the early Eighties: warm, personal service, hand-selling (Curtis recommended most of the lesser-known films we screened, just as Quentin Tarantino did at his video store out in California), the same qualities you want in a good independent bookseller. Video life was sweet.

Then, in 1985, a Dallas businessman named David Cook decided to take the concept wide. Mom-and-pop video stores were starting to add locations and develop into local and regional “chains,” but Cook’s eyes were bigger, and Blockbuster was born. Wayne Huizenga executed its national rollout: it quickly added videogames, swallowed up smaller companies and opened new stores aggressively, aided by a virtuous circle in which floods of new customers were entering the movie-rental market every week. Less than ten years after its founding, the now-ubiquitous Blockbuster was big enough to seriously propose a merger with Viacom.

Now all the homegrown Video Stations were out of business, and everybody was dealing with Blockbuster (there were 9,000 stores at its peak in 2004) or a franchise just like it. Oligopoly bred complacency as video rental became a typical weekend’s afterthought. Blockbuster customers were treated to a shelf full of thirty display cases of that weekend’s new release, all of them already rented. There was little quality control over returned rentals; you wondered exactly what some people had been doing with them. And then there were the late fees. You couldn’t ignore them like some did with their library books, because Blockbuster had your credit card. Grumbling about Blockbuster became a national pastime (especially when it appeared that late fees constituted a profit center), but its business model was already mortally wounded.

Those late fees inspired a Blockbuster customer named Reed Hastings to think of a new business model, and what he came up with was Netflix, which opened in 1997, concentrating on the new DVD format. There was no store; you ordered your movies via the Internet and got them through the mail. And – here’s the master stroke – you paid a monthly fee to have a certain number of disks at your house for as long as you wanted. The company got a reliable stream of revenue without having to charge late fees! Netflix subsisted on mail-order while it quietly broadened its “streaming” capability, and lately has even moved into original programming, the very thing which has kept HBO afloat all these years. Fun fact: in 2000, Netflix offered itself to Blockbuster for $50 million, and was turned down.

So why do you need Blockbuster anymore? Hmmm: you don’t. Yesterday the company’s current owners announced that it will close its remaining 300 company-owned stores by early January. That will leave only about fifty franchisee-run stores, and they’d better watch their backs, because the brand name’s “goodwill” has long since been used up. Entertainment is still big business, but the way it’s delivered to our eyeballs is constantly mutating and adapting to fit new technology. Blockbuster controlled the golden goose for 25 years, but these days it’s about as relevant as a Commodore 64 – and I know plenty of former customers who are just fine with that.

11/9/13: Variety reports, “Blockbuster has sent out tweets over the last several days alerting customers it will stop renting movies on Nov. 9, with most stores starting to liquidate inventory on Nov. 14.” (Note to Rand Paul: this is how you quote somebody without plagiarizing them.)

11/11/13: The funnest fact of all: Variety reports that the last movie rented from a company-owned Blockbuster store was THIS IS THE END. (First half: amusing. Last half: embarrassing. Kind of like Blockbuster itself!)


Like, Life And All

January 20, 2013

The Bard aside, there are seven stages in a typical showbiz career. I’ll use my own name to illustrate them.

1. Have you seen Tom Dupree?
2. Let’s go see Tom Dupree.
3. Let’s hire Tom Dupree!
4. Can we get Tom Dupree?
5. Can we get a Tom Dupree type?
6. Can we get a young Tom Dupree?
7. Whatever happened to Tom Dupree?

And that, my bruthas, is showbiz.

I’ve also observed that there are stages to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE fandom, thusly:

1. You’re excited about the host and the musical guest.
2. You don’t get everybody in the cast, but the host is OK and the musical guest still rocks.
3. You still like most everybody, but you’ve never heard of the musical guest, who rocks, I guess.
4. You’ve never heard of the host OR the musical guest.

Since that day, SNL has hipped me to acts I would certainly have otherwise ignored, including Dream Academy [sue me!], the Corrs, and now, the Lumineers. I am a fogey. You got to do two hot live spots on SNL before I will even consider. The Ls did. They rock. End of line.


Music To Look At

April 19, 2012

One afternoon in December 1981, my partner John Maxwell and I were at the Bottom Line in New York, prepping two performances of our one-man show in which he played William Faulkner. Several expat friends from Mississippi wandered in. I remember my delight at welcoming Clif Dowell, who was working for Geraldo Rivera at the time and whom I hadn’t seen since college. Another was Alan Hunter, whom John and I knew from theater circles back home. “Whatcha doin’ these days, Al?” He flipped me a business card that read:

MTV

MUSIC TELEVISION

Alan Hunter

Video Jock

Four months earlier, Alan and four other “video jocks” had launched MTV – but of course, like most people we’d never heard of it. (In fact, it wasn’t yet available even in New York City: the staff had had to schlep out to Fort Lee, New Jersey to watch MTV go on the air at midnight on August 1.) I was laughing inside as I read Alan’s card: all I could think of was the Rick Moranis “video jock” character on SCTV, pushing a fader bar and spouting an exaggerated radio-announcer intonation. But, my friend, in the fullness of time, the joke was on me.

The lively, entertaining I WANT MY MTV is an oral history of the channel’s early days, from ’81 to 1992, when MTV debuted THE REAL WORLD and kind of became something else. It’s perfect for me, and for anyone else who was watching the young “national radio station.” The past two decades have seen MTV morph into irrelevance as far as I’m concerned (of course, I’m no longer within its target demographic), and I truly don’t care to go backstage for those years. But this book is about the era in which MTV actually played music videos (it quietly removed the words “Music Television” from its logo in 2010) and shook up the entire record business. There have been other books about this period, even other oral histories. This is the best one by far.

MTV was just feeling its way when we met Alan Hunter that day. Even that initial broadcast began with a flub: he was supposed to be the fifth and final VJ (their segments were taped separately; nothing about early MTV was live), but a technician loaded the tapes in the wrong order, so Al became the first MTV VJ to appear on camera – by mistake. It might have continued crawling along had not Bob Pittman, one of the founders of the channel, hired famed adman George Lois for a marketing campaign.

In those days, local cable providers – mostly serving rural viewers who were too far away for over-the-air signals to reach – held all the cards, and not a few of them didn’t care for the sex, drugs and rock & roll menu MTV was serving. Lois reasoned that it was a mistake to market “top-down” to the cable companies; MTV needed to go over their heads, to the viewers themselves, and create demand. One of Lois’s best-known campaigns was for a breakfast cereal. Based on an idea by animator John Hubley, the ads had famous sports stars sobbing into the camera, “I want my Maypo!” Lois simply trotted it out again thirty years later – but the key was turned by MTV’s Les Garland, who convinced none other than Mick Jagger to say, “I want my MTV!” into the camera. Other rock stars followed, and it didn’t take long before the cable operators were inundated. Round One to MTV.

Those heady let’s-put-on-a-show days are exhilarating to read about, because nobody was aware they were causing a sea change in the music business; they were just making it up as they went along. MTV was existing on a total library of just a few hundred already-produced videos when its executives made the rounds to try and convince the record labels that shooting a video was a legitimate bit of promotion. It took comparing sales to MTV playlists, but the correlation was so obvious that soon the labels were financing more and more elaborate videos themselves. In retrospect, perhaps that was an unwise decision, but MTV continued to get its programming for free. Round Two to MTV.

This book is especially useful in showing how music videos also affected the film business. The list of successful directors who started in music video is long and impressive, but unfortunately we only hear about David Fincher and Michael Bay in the words of colleagues (other directors, like Steve Barron, Russell Mulcahy, John Sayles and Tarsem Singh, are only too happy to talk). Video shoots even served as film schools for other people who just took the opportunity and ran with it, and since nobody at any label had any experience supervising videos, the job often fell to women, advancing their power in the industry.

MTV caused harm as well, and these issues are also covered. In my opinion, the worst thing about music video is that it prescribes a visual template onto a song. Whereas once music inspired different imagery for each listener – one of its most pleasant attributes – now a video director is, in a way, telling you what a particular song looks like. For example, it’s hard to forget the animated kaleidoscopic video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” on subsequent hearings. Also, the kinetic editing style that’s supposed to keep you glued to the set has seeped into feature films, with Bay being the poster boy, and made storytelling so much harder to follow, the technique even descending lately into cliché. Time and again we read about parties at which MTV played in the background with the sound off; I can even remember hosting a few.

Another consequence of MTV was more pernicious. It caused musical acts to worry more about how they looked than how they sounded. The term “hair metal” brings to mind dozens of lousy videos from lousy groups, and that’s strictly a cosmetic issue. Some people think the video era stunted the careers of perfectly great musicians who didn’t look so hot (and even one who did: the collective evisceration of Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite,” considered by many to be the worst video ever made, is hilarious). When your only view of a rocker was from the 40th row at an arena, appearance didn’t matter so much. But it didn’t take long for the MTV audience to tire of “performance” videos – in other words, just shoot them on stage playing a song – in favor of hot chicks and stripper poles.

But that’s all water under the bridge by now. And the full-force cultural flow is right here, those first insane ten years, from the Moonman to Dexys Midnight Runners to Michael Jackson to Madonna to YO! MTV RAPS. This is the story, from the people who were present at the creation. It’s one of the most delightful reads out there.


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