Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dez Reviews the Book I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, 2011

I am the perfect age to remember and love the golden age of MTV (you know, the period when they played music videos and were about music). I remember coming home each day from elementary school, immediately running over to the TV and grabbing a healthy snack (bowl of ice cream, usually), and watching my MTV. Without fail, for about 5 months, they would play Spandau Ballet's "True" at the same time every day (approximately 3:30). Reading the 572 page oral history of MTV's golden years (1981-1992) was kind of like getting a backstage pass to my childhood entertainment, I got to see the inner workings of my many hours of viewing television during the 80's. It is an oral history, so aside from brief overview introductions to each chapter (which are very well done), the book consists of quotes from the actual players that are weaved together to tell the story. Executives, artists, video directors, bit players and main characters all are brutally honest in telling the sordid tales behind the cable channel that forever changed the music industry. Since it is divided into 53 digestible chapters that are clearly labeled topically, if you are not an obsessive like me you don't have to read cover to cover.

There is so much here. If you were fortunate enough to watch VH1 Classic over the summer, they aired the first hour of MTV to celebrate the 30th anniversary of MTV, you saw just how by the seat of their pants MTV was run in those early days. They had maybe 50 videos in their vaults, almost half of which were by Rod Stewart. Technical and editing problems galore, ad-libbing and ill-prepped VJs (of course, you cannot top those original five VJs, what kid in the 80's wasn't in love with Martha Quinn?) was a glorious disaster. (VH1, by the way, was created by MTV as a "fighting brand." It was created as a sacrificial lamb, to be a cheaper and dirtier vesion of MTV to run competitors out of business. Nobody expected it to last, in fact they were instructed not to be profitable).

ABOVE: Early ad trying to get cable companies to add MTV to their subscriptions. As this book reveals, the cable companies resisted mightily, so MTV ran these ads in markets where MTV was not yet available.

BELOW: Another of those great ads (featuring Mr. Bowie)...

MTV was funded and owned jointly by Warner Brothers and American Express, and neither company took their little channel seriously. That is why those early years were so glorious, they were completely ignored by meddling corporate hands. Budgets were shoestring, directors were creating a new artform with the music video that had no established rules yet, through some loopholes in the law the video shoots were not controlled by union rules so they could shoot for 48 hours straight and get it done in a couple of coke-fueled was the wild west with no rules at all. Naturally, there are many tales of destruction, crazy behavior, sex, drugs and rock and roll (hell, even the purposefully annoying Pauly Shore got laid constantly, as per Pauly: "There were groupies, all the time. That was kind of my thing...In the back of the bus, which I called 'The Wood Den,' I had a basket of buttons that said GRINDAGE, and another basket that had condoms. I'd have sex with them with a condom, and they'd leave with a button. So it was win-win.")

ABOVE: MTV was so powerful that it even allowed the extremely irritating Pauly Shore to have prodigious amounts of sex

The book masterfully tells hundreds of humorous, sad, joyous or fascinating individual anecdotes, but it also tells an overarching story of a little start-up with a novel idea that was dismissed by an essentially conservative record industry, then that same channel came to change that very industry and call the shots on which artists would succeed and who would not. A television channel that changed the basic rules of the music industry, as video budgets grew from $10,000 in the early 80's to millions of dollars in the early 90's. A channel that had to eventually betray its own model and charter to survive in part due to a music industry that rebelled against the monster that MTV became (hello reality programming). The book is filled equally with interesting discussions of the business side of the network and rock and roll history during the 80's. While there are many great stories here, I'll mention two or three in particular that I enjoyed...

First is the chapter about what many consider to be the worst video ever made (chapter title: A Whopping, Steaming Turd). That would be Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonite." Squier was a respectable rocker up to this point, but this one video killed his career. While much of this book focuses on how MTV made careers (Madonna, Duran Duran, even resurrecting ZZ Top), it also killed or diminished certain careers of artists who could not adapt or who made mistakes. Like the cringe-inducing "Rock Me Tonite" video. It is a hilarious and sad chapter, with Squier and others involved pointing fingers and blaming eachother for what occurred. Squier: "When I saw the video, my jaw dropped. It was diabolical. I looked at it and went, 'what the f*ck is this?' I remember a guy from the record company saying, 'don't worry about it, the record's a smash'...The video misrepresents who I am as an artist...The video had a deleterious effect on my career...[about director-choreographer Kenny Ortega] The guy crippled me." As another observer noted, "The lessons from 'Rock Me Tonite' are that fame can be oddly fleeting in show business - and that rock stars should always think carefully about wearing pink." Indeed. But as others point out in the chapter, maybe Billy should have thought about this while he was filming it, jumping on the feather bed in his pink muscle shirt. Enjoy "Rock Me Tonite" (as you watch it you can see a career dying over 5 minutes)...

ABOVE: The flipside to the Billy Squier tale. No band used MTV better or benefited more than Duran Duran. They would not have been nearly as big as they were without the iconic trilogy of videos from Rio: "Rio," "Hungry Like the Wolf" and "Save a Prayer" (above). It helped that they had pin-up good looks and that from the beginning they concentrated on mixing fashion and image with their music. These videos had a gorgeous style to them, and they were played incessantly. for the record, Duran Duran were/are also great musically, something often overlooked.

A story that is told throughout the book is MTV's complicated relationship with Michael Jackson. The racism issue is addressed in an entire chapter and it is a contentious issue amongst those involved (the popular wisdom is that Jackson's groundbreaking "Billie Jean" video broke the unspoken race barrier on MTV). Evidently MJ monitored MTV extremely closely, to see how often they played his videos and how they portrayed him. Jackson decided that he wanted to be called "King of Pop," so he threatened to withold his "Black or White" video from the channel unless they dubbed him King of Pop. It was all Jackson's idea. There was a memo that circulated around the MTV offices that stated, "I know this is a bizarre request, but..." and then outlined the rules that each VJ had to follow regarding Jacko's new title, calling Jackson "The King of Pop" twice per week on air, and "Please be sure to note which segments you do this in case we need to send dubs to the King of Pop himself." On a meeting with MJ for a video around the same period with MTV executives: "I met Michael at Sound Recorder Studios...The meeting was supposed to start at 6 p.m., but Michael - and Bubbles, his chimp - didn't arrive until eight. We started the meeting, and at 8:30 Michael suddenly says, 'Oh, we have to stop. The Simpsons is coming on.' We stopped the meeting and watched The Simpsons."

I would also recommend the great chapter about the Lost Weekend With Van Halen contest about how the band almost killed the contest winner with a debauched weekend of booze, drugs and strippers. I'll let the winner, Kurt Jefferis tell it: "They gave me a 'Lost Weekend' T-shirt and a hat. I met Valerie Bertinelli when I was backstage smoking a joint and drinking Jack Daniel's. They brought me onstage and smashed a cake in my face, then about a dozen people poured champagne on me, including two midgets. After the show, we went backstage and they brought a girl for me. She was a stripper in a short black leather skirt. David Lee Roth said, 'Kurt needs to meet Tammy.' They put on some music so she could dance and take her clothes off for me. David told her to take me into the shower. And I had Tammy in the shower." One of the MTV execs who was present added, "I could hear him howling from where I was sitting." Turns out the kid had a metal plate in his head and wasn't supposed to drink or do drugs. Exec Tom Freston: "They gave cocaine to the guy who won the contest. It turned out he had a plate in his head."

ABOVE: David Lee Roth loved MTV, and MTV loved David Lee Roth

If you love the 80's, if you are one of those people who look back angrily to the early 90's when MTV moved away from videos and music, if you want to know how the music industry was fundamentally altered in the 1980's, if you love tales of rock and roll excess and debauchery, then I Want My MTV is a must-read. Oh, and the fight between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain is worth reading about too.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Basketball Draft

Well, thank Tebow that we will have some NBA basketball afterall. Not least of all because A. my father-in-law gets his 4th row Spurs season package that I am frequently the beneficiary of, and B. I can play fantasy basketball again with my group that I have played with for about seven years now.

We had our draft over the weekend, and I got first pick! I've never had that before, in fact I have always been near the end of the draft (which is not a bad thing considering how the draft order goes). I got the #1 pick, but that also means, since we have 11 people, my next picks were #'s 22 and 23. I think it was basically a toss-up on whether to pick Jebron Lames or Kevin Durant, but since I can't stand Lames, I was happy to pick Durant. The rest of the first round went: Lames, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Dwayne Wade, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and Al Jefferson. First time in a long time that Kobe wasn't a first rounder. It is a roto scoring league, and the categories we use are: points, three pointers, shooting %, free throw %, assists, rebounds, blocks, steals and turnovers (as a negative, obviously).

My next two picks were Blake Griffin and John Wall. With Chris Paul now feeding Griffin the ball on the Clippers, that should be awesome. I also feel that Wall will blow up this year. He has his rookie year behind him and he was hurt a bit last year, so he is ready to be the stud everyone expects him to be.

The rest of my team rounds out with Joe Johnson (ready to redeem himself after the last two seasons, Crawford's departure from the Hawks helps), Marcin Gortat, DeAndre Jordan (who was outstanding in that preseason stomping of the Lakers, like with Griffin, with Chris Paul running the point he should benefit), Wesley Matthews, Aaron Aflalo, Jeff Teague (a sleeper who could blow up), Sam Dalembert (here's hoping he signs with Houston!), and with Omri Casspi, Jordan Crawford and Ramon Sessions sitting on my bench.

With that line-up, I think assists will be one of my main problems.

Like the team?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dez Reviews the Book No Regrets by Ace Frehley, 2011

Ace was always my favorite. First of all, he had the coolest make-up. Secondly, he was the lead guitarist for KISS, and the lead guitarists are always cool. I don't listen to KISS much anymore, but when I was wandering through the bookstore the other day and saw Ace Frehley's new autobiography/rock memoir on sale, I immediately grabbed it. As any KISS fan knows, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley have systematically tried to rewrite, err, Kisstory over the last few decades, minimizing the contributions of Ace and original drummer Peter Criss. I was interested in Ace's side of the story.

One of the main things that I took away from Ace's engaging autobiography is that Gene Simmons is a monumental a**hole. Considering how much Simmons has dragged Ace's name through the dirt, Ace is somewhat justified in dishing on his former bandmate. But that is not the only thing that makes the book interesting.

Ace delivers an engaging life story of a young tough from the Bronx who found salvation in music and his guitar and who was determined to make it big. His is also a story of prodigious substance abuse, and finally earning a hard fought sobriety. Rightfully so, the bulk of the book covers the KISS glory years in the 70's, and there is no shortage of entertaining tales of excess and insanity that comes with the territory of being a member of one of the biggest rock bands on the planet.

But what keeps Ace grounded and relatable is his sense of humor and self-deprecation. While never apologizing for the marketing machine that was KISS in the 70's, he can laugh about it. He has fun trashing the disasterous TV movie they made, 'KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park,' taking great pleasure in Gene Simmons's dashed film aspirations. He rambles off well known stories such as the vial of blood taken from each member of the band that was mixed into the red ink for the KISS comic book series...always with a laugh and roll of the eyes. But he stands by the music, as he should. He is always serious when discussing the music, and makes a good argument that what they were doing, at least in the early days, was groundbreaking theatrical rock.

He seems honest about his prodigious drug use and alcohol issues (so much so that he clearly finds those years immensely entertaining, even as he claims to be embracing the sober life). He gives the requisite warnings about the dangers and how it almost killed him, yet reading a full chapter about partying with John Belushi in the late 70's or another chapter entitled 'Smokey and the Bandit' which details an incredible police chase where a coked-out Ace evades what sounds like the entire police force of New York in his Delorean...damned if that doesn't sound like he was having a blast in those years, however he may be embracing the 12 Steps these days.

ABOVE: Ace still kicks it onstage with his own band (sans make-up)

Other than his substance abuse issues, his complicated relationship with KISS is really the heart of the book. As much as Simmons and Stanley minimize it, KISS in the 70's really was four guys contributing equally, and Ace makes a strong case in reminding us of that. He paints an incredibly negative portrait of Simmons (while Stanley, oddly, is an important player yet Ace doesn't really give him much life). Simmons has proven Ace correct when Ace accuses him of having no sense of humor at all. Just watch that infamous Tom Snyder interview clip (which Ace addresses at length), and that tells it all. Ace and Peter are blitzed out of their minds, cracking jokes, laughing, making Snyder laugh. Gene is shooting daggers at Ace and clearly wants to kill him, trying to talk seriously while they are all in their ridiculous costumes. Paul is stuck in the middle, but seemingly sides with Gene, as he also looks at Ace with disdain on camera as well. There is that moment where Ace looks at Gene, holds up his hands and mouths "what?" (as in "relax, what's the problem?") Go find it on YouTube, it is worth a watch. That moment right there shows why Ace is still more beloved than Gene, and helps explains the power play that eventually forced Ace and Peter out of the band.

As with many great bands, the relationships in KISS were complex, and when Ace writes "I think they're just a bunch of dirty rotten whores," and then pages later writes "To this day I still consider them my brothers in rock 'n' roll and love them," he is being honest both times.

It's a good read, Ace writes in a down to earth tone and spares no one, especially himself. He admits at times that he was difficult to deal with at the height of his fame and substance abuse. But he was/is a singular talent, and by far the most interesting and likeable member of the original KISS. That comes through in this engaging autobiography.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2012

First of all, I know it has been awhile since my last post. Sorry about that. I went to Wyoming last month. That was very cool. I should (will) post about that. Anyway, on to the very important business at hand.

The Class of 2012 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was announced today. It was actually leaked yesterday, but the leak left out one inductee that we found out about today with the official announcement. The Class consists of...

Performer Category:
Beastie Boys, Donovan, Guns ‘n Roses, Laura Nyro, The Small Faces/The Faces, Red Hot Chili Peppers

Early Influence Category:
Freddie King

Ahmet Ertegun Award (kind of a lifetime achievement non-performer contributor to music):
Don Kirshner

Musical Excellence Award:
Cossimo Matassa, Tom Dowd

ABOVE: Will Axl and Slash bury the hatchet for one night and actually perform together?

This is the strongest class in years. Beastie Boys, Guns ‘n Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers are newer (for Rockhall standards), exciting and worthy inductees. No question on any of those. I have been pushing for Donovan for a long time, and had begun to lose hope for him. So glad to see him there. His reputation has slowly and quietly improved over the years. When he was actually releasing his most celebrated material in the late 60’s and early 70’s, he was often dismissed as a Dylan-wannabe or a slight psychedelic waif. He was neither of those things. Donovan was a creative singer-songwriter who captured his time so completely that it is hard to take him out of that context. But what great music he made. Tunes like "Season of the Witch" and "Hurdy Gurdy Man" are creepy psychedelic classics, and his more traditional folky tunes are quite beautiful at times. I even dig "Atlantis."

ABOVE: Donovan is groovy

The Small Faces/The Faces is kind of a BS induction. It would be akin to inducting Joy Division and New Order as one band. Yes, one was born of the other, but they are two very different and distinct bands. Also, They are more on the margin of deserving enshrinement. The Small Faces were a talented British folkish/psychedelic band featuring the great Steve Marriott, while The Faces were a fantastic (but not really innovative) bar band featuring Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. I really dig The Faces music (not so much Small Faces), especially Ronnie Lane’s contributions. So, I think Small Faces/Faces is a marginal choice, but definitely not the worst in Rockhall history (that award goes to Percy Sledge). I find it interesting that Small Faces/Faces was the one inductee that did not leak ahead of time, and it brought the Performer total to six inductees instead of the usual five. Since the tallying process is far from transparent, did they decide to slip in The Faces? Did it have anything to do with Rod Stewart’s blatant campaigning and promise to reunite the Faces for a performance at the ceremony if inducted? Uh, probably.

ABOVE: Did Rod seduce the Rockhall elites into some voting fraud with his campaigning for a second Rockhall induction (this time as a Face) and his promise to reunite with his old band for the ceremony?

Laura Nyro should not be inducted as a performer. Put her in as a non-performer in one of these other categories for her songwriting. That is what she is really known for. Nyro is the only induction that I completely disagree with here, but someone on the Nominating Committee has had a hard-on for her, as this was her third year in a row to be nominated. That induction should have gone to Heart or The Cure.

I was shocked that Heart did not get in, I figured they would be a shoo-in. Right era, right demographics. The Cure is so deserving, as they greatly influenced/innovated within an entire genre of rock. I mean, bands like The Cure should be what the Hall is all about, clear innovation and influence. Hopefully they will be back on the ballot next year.

Freddie King got in through the backdoor, just as Wanda Jackson did a few years back. I’ve been pushing King for many years as well, so I am glad he got in, but it was not the best way to do it. He was nominated as a Performer, and obviously did not get the votes to be in the top 5 or 6, so the Powers-That-Be decided to induct him in the Early Influence category instead. Same deal happened with Jackson, and it was shady then too. King was hugely influential on a certain generation of guitarists, especially Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, so no question (to me) that he should be in.

Very glad to see Tom Dowd inducted as well.

For more analysis and Rockhall talk, as always, I suggest Future Rock Legends.


RIP Col. Potter (Harry Morgan, 1915-2011)