"I Want My MTV" authors Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks in New York Thursday night (photo: Simona Rabinovitch)
"We're here tonight to celebrate a bygone era," said Rob Tannenbaum, co-author of "I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution" -- out today on Dutton -- at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble in Manhattan Thursday night. "It's more like Animal House. A bunch of outcasts who were crazy, drunk nearly every night, had no experience in the television industry and didn't abide by any rules at all," as opposed to more organized companies of today like Facebook.
Tannenbaum and co-author (and former Billboard editor) Craig Marks gathered for an event celebrating the release of the book -- a smart oral history featuring some 400 interviews with insiders from MTV's glory years of 1981 to 1992 -- before a full house of friends, MTV alumni and music execs like Glassnote's Daniel Glass. Rather than hold a traditional reading, the authors kept the storytime vibe alive and moderated an hour-long chat with panelists from MTV's "golden era": former MTV exec Steve Leeds (who now heads up talent at Sirius XM), former VJ Dave Holmes (now a TV personality) and former "Yo! MTV Raps" co-host Ed Lover (now a stand-up comedian and radio host on New York's KISS-FM). All three are interviewed in the book.
"The reason I got the job is that Fab 5 Freddy didn't want to do a daily show cause they didn't want to overexpose," Lover said.
From left: Tannenbaum, Marks, Steve Leeds, Ed Lover, Dave Holmes (photo: Simona Rabinovitch)
All three panelists were bursting with scandalous memories. They talked -- in vague but vivid terms -- about feuds between VJs and how the network almost failed two years after its launch. Leeds recalled being asked to scout for female VJs in comedy clubs and even in the porn industry. And Ed Lover stole the show with animated tales about the inebriated artists he interviewed, reminiscing about stars being drunk, high, and accidentally dropping cocaine vials onstage during live performances. (You know, the usual.) "You could always tell when somebody was a little off or doing something they weren't supposed to be doing," he said.
Ed Lover (photo: Simona Rabinovitch)
Yet Lover said his fondest memories of that era are of connecting with fans who said they learned to speak English or learned about hip-hop by watching "Yo! MTV Raps." "That kind of touches me right in my heart," he said.
He also recalled meeting with Michael Jackson, "one of the smartest men I've ever had the opportunity to meet," crediting the late king of pop with knowing everyone and everything about hip-hop.
Such behind-the-scenes gems were relevant as well as entertaining. The authors always made sure to frame their guests' anecdotes in specific cultural context. For example, Marks discussed MTV's original policy of narrowcasting to "white suburban males" and hesitation to play videos by black artists. Until Michael Jackson's "Thriller" "saved the network from itself," Tannenbaum added. (They all joked how at one point, "Thriller" ate up 20 minutes of every MTV broadcast hour.)
Then, the authors played their pick for the worst video of all time (Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonite") and took audience questions before readers lined up to have their books signed. Meanwhile, Ed Lover mingled with fans.
As Marks put it, it was a night and a book for "people who miss their MTV." Considering how the network managed to shape our cultural identities and the feelings many associate with that time, that makes quite a few of us.