I Want My MTV As Long As They Stop Playing That Goddamn Dire Straits Video

Another installment in my ongoing series.

I don’t think the mainstreaming of music videos, meaning their conversion via MTV from promo clips that might get shown on late night TV or pay cable to THE way youngsters were exposed to new music, was quite as game changing as the Internet would be a generation later. But it certainly had a huge impact in regards to creating a shared/homogenized youth culture. I remember seeing the random video here and there before we got MTV – “Fish Heads” on Showtime at a friends house[1]; “Centerfold” on SNL one night; the full version of “Thriller,” obviously, at a church youth group ‘lock-in.’ I even remember my friend Kevin describing Tom Petty’s video for “Lucky” and being completely mystified. Music video wasn’t a term yet; he literally did not have the vocabulary to describe what he had seen to me. It’s like a Road Warrior movie but to a song? Huh?

Being from North Florida, Sir Thomas was always going to have a leg up in surviving the apocalypse.

Receiving MTV was a genuinely revolutionary event for me.   Out there in the sticks I had no pipeline aside from mainstream rock mags, mainly Rolling Stone; my parents’ record collections (which were not to be despised and on which more later); and once I was in high school some of the freaks in the upper classes were a great help. But MTV was fucking manna from heaven, especially up through maybe ’86 or ’87 when they were still playing just about any video they could in order to fill 24 hours with something other than Rod Stewart tracks (seriously, why did he do so many damn videos before there was a reason to?).

I had been playing guitar for at least a couple of years. My first song on the electric was “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” and through junior high and into my freshman year it was all about the metal. But then I somehow was allowed to talk to girls, and they[2] liked the Cure and the Violent Femmes and obviously I was going to find out what that was all about. I started watching “120 Minutes,” and that late night video show was my one beloved pipeline to actual cool music from March of 1986 until I moved to Austin three years later. The first big gift I got from MTV was seeing The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” video on 120 Minutes one night. It grabbed me immediately, with the swirling psychedelic imagery and the opening guitar/sitar line evoking some of the late 1960’s records my Mom had loaned me. And then WHACK!!!! A gunshot of a snare hit and the song kicks into a propulsive, almost metallic chug. It was leading me into a musical borderland where I would spend most of my time thereafter. I sought out the cassette of The Cult’s album “Love” immediately and it was a solid collection, although “Sanctuary” was far and away the best thing on it.

To the eternal question of “Quaker hat or headscarf?” Ian Astbury’s answer is “Costume Change!!”

And then a funny thing happened. I recall sitting in English class talking to S.S. and I brought up the Cult and she asked to borrow the cassette. She loved it and then I loaned it to someone else, and someone else and suddenly my “thing” was turning people on to the cool new shit. I had people thanking me for introducing them to bands or records years later. I was a tunepusher.

I tortuously figured out how to play “Sanctuary” on the guitar and later on my girlfriend introduced me to some guys who needed a guitar player for their party band. They asked me to bring a song to the table, and “Sanctuary” was the card I dealt. I was in.

MTV’s second big gift I remember thusly: it’s a weekend afternoon, I turn on the TV and catch the last half of Concrete Blonde’s “Still in Hollywood.” It was exactly what I was looking for: loud guitars, shouty chorus, chick singer, grainy black and white, chaos and urbanism and punk rock[3]. In my memory it was later the same day when I rode with my parents to Wal-Mart and, improbably, there was the eponymous Concrete Blonde debut cassette right there in the rack.

This video predicted the popularity of cat videos, bad tattoos, hoarding and good musicians not making any money ever.

So I get this Concrete Blonde record and I’m REALLY digging its swirly, spacious sparseness and I’m thinking that, solos aside[4] it seems pretty simple guitar-wise. So I get my rig set up and push ‘play’ and start strumming along and something just goes ‘click’ in my brain; maybe it was “Song for Kim” with that simple single-note riff that brought it all into place for me, but regardless I suddenly knew how to play by ear[5]. I had never grasped how to do it before; it’s one of those leap-learning things that happens all at once. It just has to click and it clicked and I jumped in to learning songs with both feet.

Aside from its eternal association with my growth as a musician, I loved that record from the first time I pressed play. I still do, it’s a nostalgia generator par excellence. Whenever I go to L.A. it’s playing on a loop in my head if not on my car stereo. All because MTV existed and decided to play a regionally known indie rock trio signed to IRS Records in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.

[1] Directed by Bill Paxton. Sorry I am required by my brain to trot out that piece of trivia any time it is even remotely relevant.

[2] By “they” I mean the tiny, tiny sweet spot in the Venn diagram of exurban East Texas girls encompassing those that a) would talk to me and b) had any valid opinion about music whatsoever.

[3] i.e. exactly the opposite of what and where I lived.

[4] Jim Mankey is a god.

[5] To the musician this means you can learn new songs by just listening to them instead of referring to sheet music or tablature.