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.

Live From New York, it’s Your Not-Quite-Adolescent Introduction to S&M

Note about my previous post in this series: I wasn’t aware until around the time I started writing this that literally NO ONE knows who Judee Sill is anymore. To me her record was right there with Jackson and Sweet Baby James and the rest and who had a record with their picture on it that wasn’t famous? In any case if you like the Laurel Canyon/Americana thing and can handle lyrics about Jesus having a gunfight with the Devil or spaceships from heaven or magic spells based on the Musica Universalis designed to make God give the world a break, you should check her out. 

John Cougar on Saturday Night Live, April 10, 1982.

Not too long after this my Mom and I moved. We drove up I-45 about 30 miles, hung a left and ended up out in the pines of East Texas; outside of suburbia but still close enough to Houston to not truly be ‘in the country.’ My Mom married a great guy, an English teacher who had a comic book collection and books everywhere and “Ziggy Stardust” on vinyl (on which more later). Mom and Stepdad were progressive and/or laissez-faire about the media to which I was exposed. I can remember them taking me to Woody Allen double features down at the River Oaks and seeing “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*” when I was maybe 10. I didn’t get 99% of the humor, but with the rhythm and phrasing, the timing, and the slapstick Woody trafficked in at the time, it was still funny to me. At some point around then I was allowed to stay up late to watch “Saturday Night Live,” and that was what sparked my love for rock n roll.

John Cougar (post Little Johnny, pre Mellencamp) was the musical guest on SNL around the time his hit album “American Fool” came out in 1982. I don’t remember anything else about the episode (apparently Daniel J. Travanti was the host), but Cougar wore a green t-shirt and fringed leather motorcycle pants, and he did “Ain’t Even Done With The Night.” “We sound just like Martha and the Vandellas, don’t we?” he asked an apparently indifferent crowd as they started it up. He was obviously having a good time even if they weren’t. (Also: if you can, click on the link above to the “AEDWTN” video and at least watch the saxophone solo that starts around 2:40. Music videos used to be amazing).

More to the point, he also did “Hurts So Good.” As with the Woody Allen movies, I didn’t really ‘get it,’ I didn’t understand, but it hit me hard. It was scary and compelling. Why would somebody sing about pain in such an enthusiastic and positive way?   It was a little scary…and I liked it. His performance made an indelible memory, so much so that for a long time I wondered if I really remembered it as vividly as it seemed. Then one day in my thirties I happened across the episode on TV and, yep, it was all just as I remembered.

When I saw and heard “Hurts So Good,” on SNL, it was some sort of next step on that road. In the year or two leading up to that Saturday night I had gotten more into music in general. A friend of Mom’s upon request made me a 90-minute cassette of two Hall and Oates albums, ‘Private Eyes’ on one side, ‘H2O’ on the other, that I would listen to on a Radio Shack mono tape recorder nestled in the crook of my arm as I strolled around the middle school playground.

But “American Fool” was the first ROCK AND ROLL record – and by that I do mean an actual vinyl album – that I bought with my own money. Listening to it right now, and trying to lay aside the obvious four-coat varnish of nostalgia it has acquired, I get this: it sounds great, although it does sound of its time. Luckily its time was 1982, not 1988 so it’s not burdened with cannon toms and fucking Eventides and Bob goddamn Rock. It sounds expensive, which really just means it sounds like it was recorded in a real studio with a real producer and a rock-solid band playing pro-grade instruments.[1]

It’s emphatically un-hyphenated Rock, and its time was also one in which that was no bar to also being pop. It’s such an obvious thing, right? ‘Pop’ is supposed to be shorthand for whatever’s popular. Those three little onomatopoeiac letters aren’t supposed to contain a sui generis genre, unless it’s that of Popular Song in the Cole Porter/Bing Crosby/Sinatra sense. It just means what’s popular. And what was popular in ’82 was a lot of Rock. I had to look it up, but ‘American Fool’ was a pretty monstrous hit[2]. Number 1 album. “Hurts so Good” hit number two on the Hot 100 and “Jack & Diane” [3] number one. Even “Hand to Hold On To” hit nineteen and I have no recollection of ever hearing that one on the radio.

All of that said, I can be honest with my 10-year-old self and admit that it’s not a great album. It has two all-time great songs, four or five very-good-to-good songs and two or three weak-to-shitty ones (happily it’s pretty much sequenced from best to worst. That was nice of them. Every other musician: do that from here on in, OK?) Does that matter when you’re ten years old? No one has taste at ten and I’m going to say that’s a good thing. Ten year old me didn’t react to things because they were cool or because they fit into an aesthetic framework constructed over years of paying too much attention to popular culture. He reacted to things because they CAUSED A REACTION.

“Hurts so Good” on SNL gave me a perfectly calibrated whiff of danger and hit that attraction/repulsion sweet spot that can be so compelling. And I have to say after rewatching the videos from this album, Johnny C. was putting out a pretty sleazy biker vibe back then, in line with the best rock n roll traditions; he was not yet the Americana/60’s revivalist of a few years later. Shortly after seeing SNL I bought the album on a trip to Greenspoint Mall and I listened the hell out of it and wondered what else was out there. So I listened to the radio because that was literally the only place to hear new music. Between 1982 and 1984 I fully embraced Rock, started playing guitar and caring about my hair and along the way I accumulated the following records:

The Rolling Stones, “Tattoo You” (1)

Joan Jett “Bad Reputation” (51)

Quiet Riot “Metal Health” (1)

Def Leppard “Pyromania” (2)

The Rolling Stones “Hot Rocks 64-71” (4)

David Bowie “Let’s Dance” (4)

Genesis “Genesis” (9)

Scorpions “Love at First Sting” (6)

Motley Crue “Shout at the Devil” (17)

Billy Joel “Glass Houses” (1)

The Police “Synchronicity” (1)

If you eliminate “Hot Rocks” as an outlier (only compilation and only non-contemporary release) you can see how I was a slave to the charts: all of them were big goddamn hit records.[4] Look at the numbers in parentheses up there; those are the highest Billboard Top 200 chart positions for each record. You can see that what I was buying was what was selling, which was what I had a chance to hear, which was what was on the radio. I was too young to really have a shared musical experience with my peers, no older siblings, no other options. Pop, but rock, yes? The reason I am pausing this tale in 1984 is that we didn’t get MTV until around then and that. Changed. Everything.

[1] While writing this section, the drum break in “Jack & Diane” happened and OK the toms are a little cannon-y. However I know that JC was inspired to insert that drum break after hearing “In the Air Tonight” so we have to give him a pass.

[2] It was also Cougar’s FIFTH album. How in God’s name is that possible? I knew he had a couple before that, but Christ. Did he start recording as a zygote or is he now 73 years old?

[3] I didn’t want to get all Klostermanny (Foster-Wallacey?) with the footnotes here, but I’m perusing the Wikipedia entry for the record and see that MICK GODDAMN RONSON did “guitar, vocals, and arrangements” on “Jack and Diane”. How did I never catch that before?! We’re going to get to Ziggy here in a bit and I am, just, DEEPLY disappointed in myself for never knowing that before.

[4] OK the Joan Jett record wasn’t a huge hit, but her next record was and I think I bought “Bad Reputation” at the same time as “Hot Rocks,” on cassette at the music store where I took my guitar lessons, probably under the influence of my friend Mike M. who often wore a Joan Jett t-shirt to school and talked about how she was awesome in concert. He was in fifth grade and he’d seen a ton of rock shows. The 70’s and early 80’s were kind of a great time to be a kid.