The Edgy Enthusiast

In My 80’s-Video ‘Safe Room,’ It’s Always Sept. 10

Next to “terror sex,” the most interesting two-word phrase to emerge from post–Sept. 11 culture has to be “safe room.” It crept into discourse in the aftermath of the anthrax scare. Originally, “safe room” referred to a sort of fallout-shelter-type room, well-stocked and reinforced for protection against hurricanes and tornadoes. But we’re not in Kansas anymore: I saw a cable-news “terrorism expert” take a camera crew into his city apartment to demonstrate how he’d turned his gold-fixtured, black-marble bathroom into a “safe room” for the terrorist attacks.

It didn’t seem that safe a safe room to me; it seemed more suited to “terror sex.” (Not that I’d know.) Although maybe they’re two sides of the same coin.

But seriously, in these times everybody needs not so much a physical safe room as some kind of mental refuge, some kind of respite from constant terror-attack warnings, plane crashes and suitcase-nuke paranoia.

As someone who spends most of his waking hours with some all-news medium incessantly bringing war and terror home, I suspect there are others seeking occasional shelter from the storm- a safe room of the mind , you might say. I’ve found it in occasional time travel: back to a less troubled era, the 80’s, with the new all-80’s-videos-all-the-time cable-channel VH1 Classic, Channel 136 on Time-Warner digital. (O.K., it’s not all 80’s all the time, there are all 80’s segments amidst live clips from the 60’s and 70’s, but it’s the 80’s and the birth of the music form that has me riveted.)

Think about it: All-80’s-videos-all-the-time means the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” with its archetypal 80’s echo-amplified automaton sound. All-80’s-videos-all-the-time means Human League and “Don’t You Want Me?” with its schlocky star-is-born betrayal plot (“You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, when I met you”), which also features the once-cold-and-alienating, now-antique-and-charming echoey amplified automaton sound, with its early techno-age ambition to imitate computer-generated tones.

And yes, it means “haircut bands” like Flock of Seagulls (immortalized by Samuel L. Jackson in the “Big Kahuna Burger” scene in Pulp Fiction , where he blows away a dealer he calls “Flock of Seagulls,” at least subtextually because he hates his Flock of Seagulls–style floppy pompadour).

And, of course, there are the haircut bands that even named themselves after haircuts, like Haircut 100, testimony to the instant ironic self-consciousness of the 80’s video form, best exemplified by Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”-a reflexive video about video culture. (The animation set in an appliance store, where cartoon Bluto-like guys lifting refrigerators mock and envy the rock stars “on the MTV” (“Get your money for nothin’ and the chicks for free”).)

But it’s also 80’s videos before the entire medium itself became totally , irrevocably, ironically self-conscious, looking at itself through the sleazoid-camp perspective of Behind the Music and Pop-Up Video .

And it’s 80’s videos that, every once in a while, offer some heart-stopping moments of beauty and fluidity and synthesthesia that marry music and film so perfectly you feel they were born for each other. It’s true that the silly moments outweigh the profound, and that most of those heart-stoppingly profound moments are by Sinead O’Connor-not just in the incomparable “Nothing Compares 2 U,” but in a brilliant epic rocker I’d never seen before, “Mandinka,” which features a bald Sinead madly hopping around stage wielding an electric guitar like a witch’s broomstick. O.K., there’s Prince, REM and the Go-Go’s, U2 and Tom Petty.

But it also features 80’s moments that are neither silly nor exactly profound but wrenchingly emblematic, by bands that have just about totally disappeared, like Modern English with their immortal “I Melt with You,” which I’d first heard on the soundtrack of the underrated Valley Girl , starring Nicolas Cage (and overshadowed by its contemporary, Fast Times at Ridgewood High , mainly because of Sean Penn’s instant classic surfer-stoner Jeff Spicoli).

And then there are the heartbreaking videos that explicitly summon up the loss of New York innocence, like my candidate for the greatest New York music video of all time: the Rolling Stones’ “Waiting On a Friend,” which features Mick and Keith hanging out on an East Village stoop, just, well, waitin’ on a friend. But their love for New York sends it somehow soaring, captures the spirit of the city in a way that may never be recaptured.

It’s 80’s videos, in short, that allow you a brief, illusory but consoling moment in which to live again in a less tragic New York past: a rent-stabilized safe room of the mind.

It’s really misnamed, when you think about it: “VH1 Classic.” Because I’d guess the majority of the videos they play were made before VH1 came into being, especially if you count the live clips of artists that seem to have been made either before-or not for -MTV. I think it might be more true to the spirit of the channel to call it “Early MTV” or ” Way Behind the Music” or maybe “The Meta-Nostalgia Channel.”

Because one of the things you notice watching 80’s videos is that they’re so incredibly nostalgic already. We’re looking back at them looking back. Almost every band feels compelled to insert either real or faked “home videos” showing them growing up in the bleakest council flats you can imagine in a northern town in the U.K. (most beautifully reflected in Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town”). All featuring the same grainy black-and-white faux home-movie shots of grim and chill cement-and-limestone façades. Since Sept. 11, I feel I’ve lived an entire life or two in a provincial northern town in the U.K.

But that isn’t necessarily bad. (It made Long Island look great!) Recently, we’ve heard a lot of decrees from the media about what we must and must not dispense with in our culture. First irony was out, and now I read in Vanity Fair that nostalgia is over. Certainly, living entirely in the past, in pre–Sept. 11 feckless innocence, is over. But selective nostalgia-the occasional visit to the safe room of the past-seems sensible at a time like this. And so far, except for their horrible, nightmarish all–Pink Floyd weekend, Channel 136 has given me that.

But it’s not just a refuge, a form of flight. I’d define it as a serious aesthetic discipline. An examination and exegesis of an important phenomenon in cultural history-the rare opportunity to witness the birth and evolution of a new art form. One that seemed almost expressly created for those of us who find aesthetic pleasure in both film and rock ‘n’ roll. It was a fusion I loved when I first saw Godard’s proto-MTV documentary One Plus One , which consisted mostly of video documentation of the Rolling Stones’ rehearsing “Sympathy for the Devil.” As you’ll recall, the producer insisted it be released in two different versions: one in which the song is played in full at the end. And one in which the finished version is never played at all (Godard’s preferred version).

It’s my favorite Godard film-actually, just about the only one I really like, but I like everything about it, including the two versions with the two separate titles, and the question it raises about the nature of aesthetic completion: the way it interrogates the relationship between aesthetic process and product. It was heavy, man.

Needless to say, I’m not arguing that all of MTV (including Def Leppard and Duran Duran) is great art. But I actually believed in- still believe in-the music video as a groundbreaking art form. There are moments when it achieves a true alchemical fusion of two fluid art forms, moments which rise to an exchange of souls between the two. An act of creation, an act of procreation even, that gives birth to a bastard form of beauty.

Some would say it subverts the mystery of the music; I would say it deepens it, and I’ve always felt the great music videos deserved more serious attention from critics-and not just rock critics. One of my true regrets as a writer was blowing off an assignment from Rolling Stone in the mid-80’s to write about music videos as an art form.

I wanted to become the first music-video critic, to bring a fusion of William Empson’s exegetical attentiveness and Pauline Kael’s unbridled passion to reviewing the new form. I think the problem was I never found the right voice for doing so, the right combination of seriousness and silliness.

But now, in my 80’s safe room, I can do just that-I can be the Music Video Critic I always wanted to be. Only now it’s not mere reviewing, it’s cultural history .

And I think I’ve finally found a congenial form and voice with which to order my many perceptions. It’s one I’ll introduce in a future column. But meanwhile, an …

Eerie Postscript : A siren alarm went off in the middle of my phone call with Eric Sherman, the MTV programming exec whose brainchild VH1 Classics is. He was on the 28th floor of the Viacom building in Times Square, a 54-story skyscraper, and he was in the middle of telling me about his 80’s-video specialist programmer, Mike Lopez, when the alarm sounded.

The alarm was loud and insistent and, well, alarming: It was an alarm in a Times Square media skyscraper in the aftermath of the American Airlines crash, and with bin Laden nuke claims in the air.

I suggested to Mr. Sherman that he pay it heed; we could talk later. No, he said, let’s keep talking. He seemed confident it was either a drill or a false alarm.

And we did keep talking about the 80’s for a few more minutes, until Mr. Sherman quietly said, “You know, I’m seeing people heading for the exits, maybe …. “

Yes, yes, go, I said.

So there it was, right in the middle of a discussion of my 80’s safe room: a skyscraper alarm, people heading for the exits. Mr. Sherman later called back to continue the conversation. It seems it had been a false alarm or a routine bomb scare, but it was almost like an allegory. Et in Arcadia Ego , as Poussin’s Grim Reaper liked to say: the specter of death is always with us. There’s no real escape, but that doesn’t diminish the value of temporary sanctuaries, however illusory.

Which brings me to something Mr. Sherman said when he called me back. There are three other VH1 channels now running virtually everywhere else but in New York, ones you can’t get even with my 600-channel Time Warner Digital option: VH1 Soul, VH1 Latin and VH1 Country.

A country-video channel! Regular readers of this column know how crazy I am about beautiful, sad country music (my pick for beautiful, sad classic of the week is Willie Nelson’s thrillingly, exquisitely depressing “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning (Was to Have You Walk Out on Me)”). And just about my favorite part of traveling in the rest of the U.S.A. is the chance to see country-music videos on hotel Spectravision. That’s where I discovered the Dixie Chicks.

I can’t stand to know that Time Warner Cable is holding out on this wounded city by denying us these three safe-room channels. Call them (358-0900) and tell them how it’s their civic duty to add them all to basic cable. It would be their way of helping us to heal. I mean, we’re doing O.K. without them. We can get by. But I have a feeling we’re going to need all the safe rooms we can get.