They were the original arbiters of awesome, a dream team for Generation X.
Yet, on August 1st, 1981, it is hugely unlikely that Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, JJ Jackson, Mark Goodman, and Nina Blackwood knew that they were standing on the precipice of something that would change the zeitgeist forever. With a singular line, "Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll," MTV launched, and the revolution most certainly was televised.
For the kids of today, it must almost seem imperceptible that there was a time when MTV was the face of the alternative. With shows like Teen Mom, Friendzone, and nary a music video to be found, it is occasionally hard to remember that MTV was once the beacon of anti-establishment on cable. However, when the channel launched, there was nothing cooler. Hunter, Quinn, Jackson, Goodman, and Blackwood were there from the start. They were the original VJs, ringmasters of rock 'n' roll chaos and a fab five we all wanted to be.
Being born in the early-'80s, I don't really remember a world without MTV. My mother, who remains infinitely cool and cutting edge, tuned into the channel from the start. It was not unusual to come home from school and see the latest Metallica video blazing in the background while she was at work on something. I recognized early on that there was something special about this network, and I secretly coveted the strange world it depicted, because it was so outside the norm of the rural America in which I was growing up. However, I freely admit, being the little scaredy-cat that I was, it took me awhile to feel at ease with some of the videos. A lot of the artists seemed to create things that were bizarre and dark, and I was still a few years away from fully embracing the garish persona I have now. The VJs became my conduit into the world of weird. They made me recognize that the videos were fun, expressive art, and that they often had some killer tunes to go with them. I loved the VJs for the same reason I embraced horror hosts like Rhonda Shear and Elvira, because it was like I was experiencing this untold treasure with a friend. They were there when the video ended to say, "Wasn't that awesome?" And you know? It was.
Because of this cable camaraderie, I became obsessed with the VJs. To me, they had the ideal job. They got to hang out and celebrate something they loved, all the while maintaining a rock and roll status equal to the musicians and artists they venerated. I especially loved the original five, because while some of the VJs that came after were cool, to me it was like, "Sure I'll listen to Wings, but I'd rather have The Beatles."
They were the first, and that made them untouchable.
Because of Martha Quinn's pluck, Alan Hunter's charm, JJ's music saavy, Mark's collected cool, and Nina's seemingly punk persona, I wanted to be like them. I used to dream of being on MTV (and eventually I was, sharing the spotlight with Carson Daly in one of the later episodes of TRL, but I digress), but it wasn't because of the music videos, it was because of them.
When I learned that Quinn, Hunter, Blackwood, and Goodman had teamed up to write a memoir titled VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV's First Wave (Jackson, to whom the book is dedicated, tragically passed in 2004), I knew I had to do everything in my power to get my mitts on a copy. Luckily, after some persistent internet detective work and an assist from Alan Hunter himself (thank you, sir), I had the book clutched in my eager fingers.
However, I admit I had trepidation. Just as the adage about not meeting your heroes states, I was worried that reading the memoir may, in some way, tarnish the mental image I had of these amazing trailblazers. While it's true that the book reveals its share of darker moments, complete with sex, drugs, sadness, and regret, any worry I might have had was instantly dispelled upon cracking the spine. After all, this was rock and roll! What would a story about revolution be without all those things?
With an assist from author Gavin Edwards, the memoir's block quote style allows each of the VJs to recount their version of the story in the first person, providing a delivery that is both cutting edge, but very much rooted in the oral tradition of yesteryear. Through tales of rough interviews, misbehaved rock stars, professional jealousy, and the overbearing bombastic persona that is David Lee Roth, each of the VJs never loses that particular zest for recounting their glory days. These people lived through pop culture history together, and you can feel the celebration leap off of every page. Not only do we know that they know what they did, but we also can tell that they want us to know that they know...
...and it's delicious.
Whether it's tales of JJ being New York's supreme man about town, Nina playing the harp at Tommy Shaw's (of Styx) wedding, how Martha's trademark pixie-cut was an accident, or any of the hundred other stories in-between, VJ is a memoir recounting a time when changing the face of culture itself was as simple as a four minute video.
So, is this a book review? In a way, I suppose so. After all, VJ is an excellent document for the thousands of kids out there who grew up just like me, wanting their MTV. It's a slice of nostalgia from the people who were there, and wading through those pages is like going home again, if even for the briefest of moments.
More so, however, this is a love letter. The release of the book has allowed, in an easy way, the opportunity for me, and fans the world over, to say thank you to those five VJs. For we, the pop culture inclined, they changed everything. They were our hosts, our guides, our sidekicks, and our friends, leading us through an exciting, strange new world. Music has the power to recall a moment, to let our story live forever, and through Mark, Alan, JJ, Nina, and Martha, we had the perfect companions for the musical scrapbook of our lives.
So, you know, thanks to them for showing us we could be part of something, but that we could also rebel... that we had a voice, that we had a song, and that we could play it loud and proud.
Through the VJs and MTV, a whole generation learned that through the individuality of music, we could become one.
...and that, ladies and gentlemen, is rock 'n' roll.