What It Was Like to Be a VJ in the Salad Days of MTV

MTV.

Brain food. (Photo: Screen shot/YouTube)

It was the dark November of my soul. My heart was warmed only by shots of pepper vodka from the Great Jones and the fact that the Smiths had just come into existence. It was late 1983. I was 21.

I was living in a howling, Dickensian dump on Eldridge Street. Rats literally nipped at my toes as I slept, and a former Sex Pistol frequently shot up in my living room. The walls were bloated with the flyers of a 1,008 bands, and sometimes they appeared to be alive, due to the tiny, willful animals that resided behind them. I was the guest of an old friend, the rather comically ubiquitous punk rock didact Jack Rabid. He allowed me to crash in his apartment on a couch adjoining the kitchen (which resembled the set of The Honeymooners). I paid him $50 a month for this privilege, and I remain grateful. Really. Thank you, Jack.

For much of the fall of ’83 I had traveled around America as part of the glorious harmonic jet engine known as the Glenn Branca Ensemble. This was a life-changing experience, and it was a horrific downer to come back to the ashy blur of the shambolic Lower East Side.

The Manhattan I returned to that late autumn was prematurely gray; I remember the skies being so sunless, sickly and pale that the world underneath them was stripped of color. I recall staring out a window so filthy and spotted with a century of grime that it reduced East Houston Street to a vague rumor of despair. I did what any pretentious, depressed college dropout in New York City would do: I started carrying around Artaud and hanging out with Mike Gira.

I had no idea that I was soon to be rescued by the exciting new world of cable television.

MTV turned 35 this week. That’s why I am thinking about all this stuff.

At the time, I knew MTV only as a rumor. Literally no one I knew in the city had cable at that point—heck, most of my friends had shared toilets in the hallways, bathtubs in the kitchen and cinder-block bookshelves on which slim volumes of insufferable Richard Brautigan poetry precariously rested.

However, I did know that MTV employed a statistically improbable amount of my friends. For starters, two friends from my days in NYU’s Weinstein Dormitory had gone to work at MTV: John Norris, who was working as a writer (his VJ future still lay far ahead), and Martha Quinn, who had already become a VJ.

I had met Martha early in my freshmen year. If you ever lived in a college dorm, you probably recall that if you got to the laundry room after your drying cycle was done, you were likely to find your clothes dumped all over the place by someone who needed the machine. This was just standard laundry-room etiquette, and any dorm resident knew you had to get to that dryer before your cycle ended.

So one evening I rushed down to the laundry room pretty much knowing I had missed the buzzer, certain I was going to find my stuff strewn all over the floor. I entered the laundry room, expecting the worst. Instead, I found a young woman neatly folding my clothes and placing them on a table. “I hope you don’t mind,” Martha said. “I needed the machine.”

But anyway.

At the time, if you had any experience in college radio, even the most tentative connection to TV production, had been a vaguely reputable music journalist, or had simply graduated from NYU or Emerson, you could pretty much get a job at MTV Networks. Really. MTV seemed to be NYC’s prime employer of anyone in their 20s who could tell Scotch tape from three-quarter-inch video tape, and who could name one dead Rolling Stone and at least three living ones.

Two good friends of mine, rock critic Stuart Cohn and cultural journalist Merle Ginsberg, reached out to me through the haze of my Jacob Riis-ian, Rosario Pizza-fueled existence. They asked if I would be interested in working at MTV. Both of them were writing copy for the recently formed Music News department. There seemed to be zero reason not to take the gig; my primary occupation at the time involved awaiting the release of the second R.E.M. album and talking with Jack about the Damned and the Bad Brains, and neither of these things paid exceptionally well.

I remember virtually nothing about my job interview. I met the new head of the department, a shock-headed, reggae-loving recent Emerson grad named Doug Herzog. I think they hired me on the spot; actually, I’m not sure I was even interviewed. I probably shook hands, and was told to find a typewriter, get on the phone and get to work.

I was the youngest person in the department. Doug was the second youngest. Today, Doug is president of Viacom. I am, however, still younger than him.

Here’s what I was hired to do: once every hour, the VJs delivered a minute or so of music news (this was a few years before dedicated news jocks like Kurt Loder, John Norris and Tabitha Soren began doing the job). We typed little 60-word blurts about who was going on tour, who was putting a new record out and who had just been in a car crash or gotten married, and we wrote set-ups for short clips from interviews, usually ones that we had conducted.

It was hard but engaging work, and I rarely left my desk before 7:30 p.m. (I know the time because John Norris—who had the desk next to me—and I made it a daily ritual to watch Jeopardy.) You spent your day calling publicists, and getting calls from publicists, and typing things. The typewriters were the kind that had little metal balls with letters on them, and you had to make sure you were using the right kind of little ball, since only a specific font would work with the teleprompters.

It was, without any doubt, the best office I ever worked in. We were constantly laughing or trying to make someone else laugh, or playing pranks on each other, and our social lives morphed effortlessly with our working lives.

I’ll tell you something that makes me feel very old indeed: when I started at MTV, our offices at Sixth Avenue and 44th Street didn’t even get MTV; the local cable system hadn’t picked up the network yet.

Here’s something else that makes me realize how very, very long ago all this all was: one day in late 1984, Doug walked into the news bullpen and announced that he was sending all of us to computer school. For a week, we went to a class where we learned the basic elements of word processing on machines that were slightly larger than a dorm refrigerator. One day shortly after that, during work they literally rolled out the typewriters and rolled in the word processors, peculiar cream-colored machines with glowing green-on-black displays.

I am afraid I can’t tell you a whole heck of a lot about what was going on outside of our little Music News Zoo. MTV Networks was still a decade or so away from the programming complexity and cable-lineup lebensraum it was later assume, and to tell you the truth, I barely watched it at home. I just came into the office every day, put down my coffee and called IRS publicist Cary Baker and asked him what he wanted me to promote.

“Can you get a story on about Let’s Active?”

“Yes, Cary, I can make that happen. Do you have the pre-release cassettes of Fables of the Reconstruction yet?”

Then lunch!

Meanwhile, in June 1984, I moved to outstanding new digs across the river in Hoboken, N.J. I rented the place with two old friends from Weinstein dorm. We shared a bright and long railroad apartment near the Path, and we each paid about $250 for the privilege. One of these roommates, Mike Espindle, found a counter bar in the lobby of a transient hotel by the train station that sold beer for 35 cents a glass. To a 22-year-old, this is the equivalent of finding a piece of the True Cross.

Now, a lot of people would gripe about MTV’s programming back then—lord knows, we would, too—but many of these complaints now seem quaint; griping about Stacey Q or Foreigner appears positively trivial when compared to the fight for economic survival virtually all musicians engage in during this century.

I will, however, be Captain Obvious and note that the end of the Classic Rock era coincided precisely with the rise of MTV.

As short-form music videos precipitated a return to a pre-Revolver singles-based pop culture (an atmosphere that still remains dominant), the large-scale idealization of the classic LP format vanished, never to truly return. If you were to wave a finger at MTV about one particular thing and shriek “J’Accuse!”, that would probably be it.

For all those presumed negatives, there is one notable positive about the post-MTV world which I’d like to note.

Between 1976 and 1980, a “reset” button had been pushed on the entire British music industry; the new sounds of punk, new wave, metal and post-punk had taken over the charts, the radio, the television, and both the music press and the national mainstream press. The old guard had been overthrown and replaced by artists half their age and twice as loud.

But by 1981, with the exception of a very small handful of acts on the Columbia-related labels and a few “outliers” like Blondie and Devo, the new music that had swept the U.K. had failed to make anything but the most minor inroads in the U.S. Here, the old guard had held the fort.

However, by 1984, this story had changed entirely, and MTV should get a lot of the credit for that.

MTV taught the American radio and record industry—not to mention print outlets like Rolling Stone, which held off from embracing the new music for a long, long time—that alternative, attitudinal rock could be joyfully embraced by America, and make everyone a lot of money. Unless you were following alternative music in the United States before MTV, you may not realize quite how firm that industry/media/radio wall had been, and how unlikely it seemed that it would ever be breached. MTV changed that story.

So next time you get all snarky about the music videos you hated in junior high, remember that the success of alternative music in America was largely a by-product of MTV.

The people who worked at MTV during its first decade were creative, young, hungry, deeply friendly and fun, and many used their initial portal into the mainstream entertainment world as a springboard to do fantastic things in the future. We were barely adult children, startled, I think, to be getting paychecks, and we felt very damn fortunate to be doing it amongst people who were our friends, our co-drinkers, our concert-going buddies, our neighbors, our lovers. Anyone who was at MTV in the 1980s still feels that connection, I think.

In early 1987, I left MTV News to go full-time with my avant-pop band, Hugo Largo.

My co-workers (and especially my bosses, first Doug Herzog and then Dave Sirulnick) were hugely supportive of my extracurricular creative work, and nearly always allowed me time off to go on short tours with Glenn Branca (who I continued to play with until mid-1986), or record with my own band.

The only time they hesitated was in the spring of 1985, when I was offered the chance to become a temporary Beastie Boy; Doug let me know that getting six weeks off was not feasible, so I lost my chance to be the Jimmy Nicol of the Beastie Boys (and considering how Jimmy Nicol turned out, Doug was probably doing me a favor).

I returned to MTV Networks in mid-1989, and stayed until early 1992. By then, the Wild West had been tamed. We no longer seemed like drinkers and music geeks who were working in our spare time, but workers who were drinking and music geeking in our spare time. I would go on to have jobs that were more lucrative, or which enabled me to make more direct and/or asinine engagement with the musical landscape; but I would never, ever enjoy a job as much as I enjoyed my time at MTV between 1983 and 1987.

Please allow me to dedicate this piece to some of my friends from MTV who have gone on to that Great Cosmic Coffee Shop in the Sky: Chris Kreski, Alisa Bellitini, Kathy Davis, Peter Dougherty, Bill Aiken, and Ted Demme.

What It Was Like to Be a VJ in the Salad Days of MTV