MTV Sucks (and so do I)
by Dan Kennedy
In the very late eighties, I was living in very northern California. About as far north as you can go before you're in Oregon. Just months before the alternative music scene exploded in Seattle, I sold what meager belongings I had amassed working part time in a record store. I used the money to buy an acoustic guitar, and then I filled up the tank of my 1979 two wheel drive Toyota truck and drove. I drove for days…in the opposite direction of Seattle…all the way to Texas. Somebody had, uhhh, given me the tip that the alternative music scene was actually going to explode out of Austin, not Seattle. Yeah, well I think we all know that that wasn't such a great tip after all. But who would've known at the time, right? I should have doubted the validity of this tip, because as I made my way down the West Coast, staying with friends along the way, each friend I stayed with looked at me with this kind of blank, confused statement when I told them where I was going. Among the most popular responses from friends in L.A., San Francisco, and Tucson were:
-"Why are you going to Texas?" ----Jozef in Davis, Ca.
-"No, seriously, dude. Where are you going?" ----- Brian in L.A.
-"I didn't know you played that kind of music. I guess I didn't know you played music, period."--Rob in Tucson.
In retrospect, I can see that Rob had a point. The only bands I was in never really played any gigs, aside from some parties and the occasional Tuesday night gig opening for another bad band usually in the form of one of those top 40 cover band acts, usually named something like "Fire and Ice" or "Joker". The reaction to my bands from audiences ranged from indifferent to violently opposed, as we could never play well enough to play any of their favorite songs. And any sincere attempt we made to do so was not well received…they usually thought we were making fun of their favorite songs. Basically, the only bands I was able to get by in were bands that when all of us played at once, with the volume high enough, you couldn't tell that none of us had ever played instruments. A pretty routine situation if you know anything about alternative music, but not routine to a bowling alley filled with folks who were "Working for the weekend". Folks who couldn't "Fight this feeling anymore", because at this point they had "Forgotten what they started fighting for". So, not being the best guitarist to start with, this decision to go solo and drive to Texas to make it may not have been the best decision looking back.
When I got to Austin I found something out. I found out that with an acoustic guitar, and no wall of noise to hide behind, I couldn't really play any of the songs from the bands I used to be in.
I also found out that I couldn't write a song. This was a problem, as I was lucky enough to have lined up a gig for the following night. Okay. Don't panic. The first thing I needed to do was go buy a big amplifier for the Korean-made acoustic guitar to make it much louder. While at the pawn shop, I also bought a whole box full of cables and second-hand effect pedals to make the guitar distort, flange, wah, and just about anything else I could make it do loudly. As for songs, I thought "Fuck it. I'll make up the songs as I go. That's how revolutions happen. You don't write and rehearse alternative music revolutions…you let them explode out of your angst-ridden, adolescent soul."
When I walked into the club in downtown Austin the place was packed. And I'm looking around. Everybody there is this awesome portrait of southwestern music and song and life. I mean these guys all look like some kind of country-folk legends. Their faces looked like they were etched in stone. They had long ponytails of gray hair. For the record, I am THE ONLY person in this place wearing cut-off army fatigue shorts, a flannel shirt with the sleeves cut off, with very short hair that is not yet gray.
Most of these people have their instrument next to them at the bar in its case. Not guitars, really, as much as a smaller black cases containing the fiddle or mandolin that they will use to defy absolutely concrete laws of logic when they show you that you can be every bit as virtuoso as, say, Beethoven, and still drink and smoke and bullshit about the bass fishing down the road. I mean, these men are playing songs that their dads and grandfathers played. Songs that have been alive for generations.
I make my way through this crowd in my second-hand army fatigue get-up with about fifty pounds of second-hand electronic shit clanging around behind me. An amplifier in the case with the wheels on it.
A couple of back packs filled with cables and pedals that make the guitar echo and distort, and of course a little journal with some notes on what I'm pissed off about. Those are the notes to try and work into the songs that I'm going to be making up on the spot.
And the best part is, I'm still not catching on that I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time. I mean, I've realized I'm the first one on the front lines of this revolution, but I still haven't starting to kind of catch on that Texas is not the place where the fucking revolution is happening. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, I'm sure everybody in Seattle was like, advertising in music stores with flyers that said like "Come be in our band! We're going on tour and we've already got interest from SubPop and even if all you have is a mediocre guitar made in Korea we could really use you." People are going to great gigs. You know, the guys from Mother Love Bone and Green River are going "God, I don't know we need like, somebody to write lyrics and sing. What should we call it? Let's call it Pearl Jam. Yeah. Cool." Cut back to me in Austin, TEXAS STARTING TO WONDER WHERE everybody is. And I have so much stuff to plug in and hook up that the sound guy tells me to start setting it all up behind the guys who are already playing. And I'm trying not to unplug, like, Jimmy-Bob and his cousin Dale, who are busy reminding the audience that they are so fucking adept on mandolin and fiddle that they can play heart-wrenchingly beautiful music and still not miss taking a hit of their cigarette and beer. They finish and everybody is clapping and it's my turn. I turn everything on. It all starts to buzz and scream and let me know it's ready.
I start trying to make up a song.
Oh, God. These folks have no idea what to make of me. They aren't mean about it, but they are not exactly into it, either. I'm looking down at my little notebook and singing lines about the stuff that's been pissing me off lately, like "You…uhhhh….talk to your ex-boyfriend way too much on the telephone….yeah, I will wipe the slate clean in this revolution and you'll just have to listen to me on the radio, won't you?" And I'm looking out into the audience to kind of see if any of this is hitting them. You know…see if the revolution was starting yet. These men are like looking at each other and trying not to laugh. As if I'm their little brother or their son and it's just kind of "neat" that I even got up there and tried.
After the gig, on the way back to where I'm staying, I saw a copy of SPIN magazine on the newsstand.
On the cover were the words "Seattle scene explodes." And here I am in Austin. I couldn't be farther away from where I needed to be, and I had spent all of my money getting there. So, I get some odd jobs, make some money for gas and food, and drive back to northern California. And I stay with each friend I stayed with on the way down when I head back…and I fail to really mention that the new plan was to go to Seattle. I went back to where I started from in California, worked at a book store, saved some money and tried to get things together to leave for Seattle.
By the time I got to Seattle I was a year and a half late. Not the best timing. Basically once eight million people buy the Nirvana record, the revolution is pretty much all over. So when I got there, everybody was out on tour. Since I was sort of the kid too late to be picked for a team, I had to change my stance. Ahhhhhh, enter my 'Alternative rock sold out and I'm not going to' phase. Basically, between customers at my job as a counter person at the espresso place, which apparently didn't qualify as selling out, I would tell friends that "I didn't care (Can I help you?) about these bands because they were sell outs (Whole milk?) and making music that way was like having a lame job (All we have is 2%. No skim today, sorry.) and I didn't need a fucking stifling job that (that'll be $3.25 please) was going to kill my spirit (Thank you. Sugar and stuff is on the counter to your left.) and get in the way (I can help whoever's next over here.) of my individuality (What can I get for you, sir?)."
I got a morning shift on the college radio station. After all, somebody had to play the music that was not getting swept away or rich in all of this. The Fastbacks, Pere Ubu, American Music Club, The Replacements. So I hold a handful of really bad day jobs and continue to pose as sort of reckless music elitist who hates so called alternative rock and its fans for selling out.
And one day I'm right in the middle of a really, really turbulent speech about how they all sold out, and I'm like, on fire. I'm citing examples like Henry Rollins' Black Flag tour journals coming out in hardback for $35.00, and I'm saying things like "Don't you see! They've become the rock stars that they despised so much! Ah...ha ha ha ha!". All of the coolest, most self righteous bullshit was coming out of me, and I was making brilliant points, and as great as this speech was it was mostly lost on the older Hispanic man that I was standing next to as I washed dishes at a local catering company as he separated, dried and counted the silverware.
But something inside of me was telling me he kind of got it, because every now and then he would smile and wipe his forehead and say something in broken English like…
"The more… we wash the… more they bring dirty to us."
I felt like at least one person was listening. Sort of.
"Yeah, brother…exactly. The more we wipe the slate clean, the dirtier the slate gets…."
So, anyway…I was right in the middle of fire and brimstone and silverware and dishes and the moment was so pure and...
The busboy lets me know I have phone call. It's a friend of mine who's started dating a development executive at MTV and this woman thinks my college radio show is cool and funny. And would I like to audition to be a VJ? And he said that before I said no and started knocking MTV, I should at least…
"Yes! When can I go out to New York and Audition!? Wow! Cool!"
It was now imparative that I change my platform. My new cause had to become "I'll be the only person in alternative rock keeping it real. Yeah, I'll fucking make fun of bands that aren't cool, and I'll make jokes about MTV, and I will be the only one that is flying off the handle. I'll be the nineties on a nose full a airplane glue screaming into the homes of millions of viewers and fucking look out and if you don't like what you hear. Cover your fucking ears because I am here to make Dennis Leary look like one of those guys who are fucking feminists just because the woman they're dating is a stronger person than they and he's afraid to have an opinion anyway. I'll make a guy like him look like somebody that digs watercolors and herbal tea. This was not selling out. This was changing things from within and somebody had to do it and it was gonna be me.
When I went up the escalator of 1515 Broadway on the first day of my first trip to New York, and I found myself in my first conference room looking out over Times Square for the first time in my life…a voice that I had NEVER heard come out of me. It was the voice of some guy who wanted this to work out. And when that guy clashed with the guy who was determined to never sell out the results were strange. Essentially in my auditions I looked like a nice guy who wanted things to work out, who would suddenly get some kind of stomach cramp and be kind of pissed off. I would start to say something like…"Alright, coming up we have the new video from The Smashing Pumpkins..." and then in that three or four seconds when the camera is still on me I would like, try to look tough and cool and intense all of a sudden. That's the part that looked like a stomach ache. I thought it was going like this:
I'M IN THE CAMERA'S FACE. MY INTENSE RAGING VEINS AND MOUTH AND HEAD ARE SCREAMING INTO THE MIC AND THE CAMERA-MAN HAS TO WORK HIS ASS OFF TO FOLLOW ME. MY PUNK ATTITUDE IS SATURATING THE TINY MONITORS.
Me: (Mic is almost down throat) Arrrrrre you reeeady, you tired, flabby, Middle Americans? This is the eye of the fucking hurricane America, and your kids are in con-fucking-trol!
When I looked at the audition tapes at the end of each day, it was clear that it was actually going more like this:
Me: (looking very agreeable and eager) Okay, my name is Dan Kennedy...glad to be hanging out with you this afternoon. Coming up, we've got the new one from The Backstreet Boys...so stick around.
Then, of course there were the 'ad-lib' movements while the camera lingered. The ones that made me look like I was in the very early stages of food poisoning.
So things were getting interesting and I was so sure that I wouldn't need a day job in New York that I spent time drinking and hanging out and telling bartenders how "I used to be a bartender myself".
And then I met a bartender who used to be a hit character on a hit soap opera. And then I went to the dentist that friend at MTV referred me to and he said "I was Mark Goodman's dentist" and the assistant said "Who?" and the dentist said in some kind of weird slow motion that the nitrous oxide had seemed to put on everything: "Maaaarrrrk Goooodmmmmaaaaan. He usssssed to beeee aaaaaaaa veeeeeeee jaaaaaaay."
It was at that very moment, looking past the hands that were reaching into my mouth, listening to the dentist tell the assistant about Mark Goodman, and how thirteen years ago Mark Goodman had told him he was going to quit MTV and go out to Hollywood because he had some good movie offers that all of this started getting scary to me.
Of course, it turned out I had nothing to worry about. My 'nice guy with intermittent stomach or neck pains' persona wasn't turning out to be much of a fit for the network. In the coming season a new guy surfaced on MTV named Carson Daly. Turns out, his whole 'nice guy who doesn't get jolts of intermittent stomach pain' act was what the suits at MTV were after. And I have to admit, the guy does a good job. As for me, after thinking about making some money for a plane ticket to the next right place at the right time, I decided to change my approach and stay in New York for awhile. I figure if I can stand in one place long enough, I'll realize I'm right where I need to be.
About the author:
Dan Kennedy is a writer in New York. He has recently appeared at Stories at The Moth, and contributed to NPR's This American Life and McSweeney's. He is finishing his first novel, "Pout and Grind".