Monday, June 29, 2009

Still want my MTV

We lived in the country and for most of my high-school years we didn't have cable. That meant we had six channels, maybe seven if the wind was right, and fine-tuning meant going out to the backyard with a monkey wrench and twisting the antenna. When MTV came around, this was like living in East Berlin. My best friend, Virgil, lived in town -- on the good side of the cable wall. So most days after school I ended up at his house.

Sometimes we would warm up with a little Asteroids on Atari. But before long we'd flip over to find out which one of the Original Five VJs was on the MTV afternoon shift. (The Original Five: Alan, Mark, JJ, Nina and Martha. No last names necessary.)

It's hard to describe what it was like going from a world where the Saturday-night TV choices were, literally, Lawrence Welk or "Hee Haw," to a world where all the musicians I loved -- and a thousand others I had never heard of -- were making little movies out of their songs. You might have grown up in a big city where this stuff was on the radio all the time. I grew up in a town where Casey Kasem's Top 40 was the cutting edge and we had never heard of, never seen, never imagined something like this:

After Michael Jackson's death a lot of people talked about the "Thriller" video as this massive cultural event, which it was -- bars would have "Thriller" nights where they would play it every hour on the hour. But for me the massive cultural events were happening every day. I remember watching that Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams" video, with androgynous Annie Lennox pounding that conference table, and thinking: I don't know what the hell this is, but it's pretty great.

MTV did that over and over again, up until about 1990 -- I think this was the last music video that mattered (at least for me). Since then, of course, the music videos have dwindled to pretty much nothing, and the schedule is now full of reality shows that are painful to watch, literally -- if you pay attention you can feel little pieces of your soul tearing off and flying away. Clearly it's a better business model than music videos; they're not stupid up there in the MTV offices. But watching the Michael Jackson videos all weekend felt warm and celebratory and great. And not just because it was Michael Jackson. For me it was like being in high school, and flipping on MTV at Virgil's house, and feeling that lovely little high of not knowing what would happen next.

Start me up

So it's Monday and I'm out on the street, looking for ideas... what should I be writing about? What's happened over the last few days (or weeks or months) that we missed? What do I need to know?

(By the way, my Official Comeback Column was in the paper yesterday... for some reason the comments online got merged with the comments from my Mark Sanford column from three days before. I don't know why, but it makes for an entertaining read.)

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Years ago -- this was probably the early '90s -- a group of us decided to each come up with the 100 greatest songs of all time. We had lots of different tastes in music so we ended up with lots of different lists -- this wasn't a "Stairway to Heaven" crowd, but I seem to remember "Born to Run" being at the top of one list, somebody else had something by the Smiths, somebody else had Sinatra. It's a great way to start an argument.

In my mind there was no argument. This was, and still is, the greatest single of all time. There's a lame Bill Cosby bit at the beginning but skip ahead to about 1:20.

We all know what Michael Jackson became -- he's the greatest test of all for those of us who struggle to separate the artist from the art. I can't even begin to articulate what his life was all about -- it was too tangled and weird to understand, and I'm sure he didn't understand himself either. About all I understand tonight is that this is one hell of a record. And what I want to do right now is play it over again.

Column up!

Well, hey there. I had hoped to plan out my comeback a little better than this, but the South Carolina governor had other ideas, so here's my first column after 11 months off.

I've got some things I want to play around with on this blog, and you'll be seeing that stuff shortly, but for now I want to throw it out to you: What's up? What have I missed since last summer? What should I be writing about? How's everybody doing?

And by the way... it's good to be back.