Friday, September 6, 2013

Brooks on Books: "VJ" by Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, and Martha Quinn with Gavin Edwards

First of all, if you think you will enjoy an oral history by the original MTV video jockeys (4 of the 5 put together this book with Gavin Edwards; J.J. Jackson passed away years ago but his presence is still felt), let me tell you something: You will! This book is a fascinating journey through the early years of MTV and music videos in general, but it is told through the eyes of those individuals who were there. Make no mistake, this is their story. "I Want My MTV" is an outstanding oral history of MTV period, but if you are hungry for more of the early years and of these 5 individuals in particular, you must read this book.

In telling friends about "VJ," I find myself silencing myself lest I ruin all the great tidbits and hilarious quotes and anecdotes. I'm going to try to hold back here as well. If you take my advice, you're going to read it, anyway, so why spoil the good parts for you? In reality, though, there are so many good parts that it probably wouldn't be an issue.

The book hits the ground running with a brief chapter of David Lee Roth stories, a table setter that establishes the tone and gets us laughing from the get-go. Then we get into more or less a chronological account of how the 5 VJs got started in life, in the business, and then at MTV. The principals mostly tell their own stories, but there are occasional interjections by Edwards to provide context or to offer verbatim transcripts from archival footage of key events and on-air moments. Some chapters are built around a theme like fashion, the videos themselves, or a single happening like Live Aid.

I had to laugh at an early Amazon review of the book that complained about the constant references to drug use and gossip. The writer said something like, "I don't need to hear about your high school meth dealer or who you did coke with." That cracked me up because that's exactly the kind of stuff I wanted to read about. "VJ" delivers all kinds of tales of debauchery, and it is a riot reading Alan Hunter, discussing his own drug intake during the live New Year's Eve party specials, make a casual reference to how Mark and J.J. were such pros they could take just enough of a bump to get through a broadcast. But don't get me wrong. These VJs were more than just party animals, and the great triumph of the book is that they come off as compelling 3-dimensional human beings.

I think it's a mistake to reduce them to traits, especially after I just wrote about how they come alive as well-rounded individuals, but here's what stands out about each of them after reading "VJ":

Mark Goodman: Passionate. His lobbying for what he believed in and his faith in the music remind me of the infamous memos Robert Reed wrote to the show's producers during "The Brady Bunch."
Alan Hunter: Playful. His sense of humor and self-awareness are evident. He was never a hardcore music guy, but he brought personality, and that spirit is in here as well.
Martha Quinn: Pretty much as unaffected and unpretentious as her on-screen image and as I'm sure all her fans would wish that she were.
Nina Blackwood: Cast early on as "the rocker babe," Blackwood was and is in fact much more vulnerable and delicate than I would have ever imagined.
J.J. Jackson: He sounds like the unofficial mayor of New York City at times. Perhaps the least acclaimed of the 5 in the minds of the general public, he comes off as a fascinating, almost enigmatic character, a little vain but passionate in his own right and a mentor figure to the others. I really wish he were still around to tell his own story because it must be a great one.

Of the 5, Goodman in particular is the most surprising and perhaps dominant "character." For one thing, many of his most vivid memories are contradicted or unsupported by his colleagues. But he pours everything out here for better or worse, confessing to his own ego, his problems with relationships, and his getting wrapped up in the rock lifestyle. Yet he seems to be in a good place now, and you can't help but admire his willingness to criticize himself and his clear love of music. I enjoyed reading about his faith in the potential of the fledgling television format and his desire to better the product.

What stands out about the experience in general is how seat of the pants everything was. Especially from the VJ's perspective, it was a whirlwind, with rules created and discarded as situations occurred. Many times, the 5 relied on each other because management had little interest in creating potential stars and increasing their bargaining power. Sometimes the VJs found themselves in tough situations because of simple neglect, like being hung out to dry in a difficult interview or not being prepped for a live broadcast. The business history of MTV is an amazing one, and you can read about that elsewhere, but here is a vivid account of what it was like to actually work there as the thing got off the ground.

The only drawbacks of "VJ" are: J.J. Jackson couldn't participate--obviously a shame, but no one's fault here--and the appalling absence of an index. I blame Gavin Edwards or SOMEONE for that omission. Other than that, this book is a perfect blend of nostalgia, biography, and pop culture history, and I recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in MTV history.

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