Riding the Waves with the Original MTV VJs
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When MTV made its debut on cable television on August 1st, 1981, I was spending my third summer at Kutsher’s Camp Anawana in the Catskills. A few weeks shy of my 12th birthday and my first kiss, despite having a mouthful of metal (if you must know, the lucky boy was Todd Goldman, who also wore braces), my introduction to the VJs and the trove of music videos that would make the music and artists I already loved – or hadn’t yet discovered – come to life, would have to wait.
When I returned home, it didn’t take long for me to “want my MTV” – and, like everyone else fortunate enough to have cable, to get hooked on it. The VJs, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn, and JJ Jackson were the coolest of the cool. They became my older, virtual siblings, guiding me on a unique and multisensory journey that in many ways shaped and define my adolescence. The music videos they delivered to our living room television – and into my heart – were fuel for my hormones, inspiring everything from my wardrobe (I wore lace, rubber bracelets, one earring and a fake mole like Madonna) and my workouts (let’s just say I got physical with Olivia Newton John) to my locker and bedroom décor (pictures and posters of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Billy Idol) to my lip sync selections (I “performed” Madonna’s “Dress You Up” and Belinda Carlisle’s “Mad About You” at my high school’s Superdance fundraisers).
After hearing about – and pining to go on – Entertainment Cruise Production’s 80s music cruise, I decided to just do it. With my family’s blessing, I booked the cruise, vowing to use the seven solo days to find inspiration as I worked on a young adult novel. If I was lucky, I’d also have the opportunity to interview three of the original MTV VJs who were part of the amazing lineup.
I got lucky!
To prepare for my time with Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, and Alan Hunter, I read their bestselling book, “VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave” (Atria Books).
Written in interview style, the book was a real page turner. I could not put it down. It was intimate and enlightening, uncovering what it was really like behind the scenes just prior to and during their early days at MTV. Although introducing new music and interviewing artists sounded like — and probably was —the most amazing job on earth, I was surprised, and at times saddened, to learn about the challenges and personal costs of being thrust into the uber-bright limelight during their tenure at MTV. The book provided a front row seat into the VJs’ lives. I truly appreciated their honesty in sharing their stories and evolving perspectives of their experiences.
Needless to say, it was more than a thrill to ride the waves and sit down and dish with Mark, Nina, and Alan on what turned out to be a magical – and memorable – week at sea.
Here’s when we met…
…and here are the highlights from our conversations.
What’s so special to you about 80s music, and why do you think so many of us have stayed so connected to it?
Mark: My general theory is that people will always tune into and hold tightly to the music of their adolescence. And there was something about this particular decade. For some reason – and I wouldn’t be wise enough to answer why – the nostalgia for the 80s has gone on longer than the 80s. It’s odd having lived through Reagan and all the problems, financial issues, the whole ‘greed is good’ thing. I remember all of those things, and living in New York when it was under siege. It wasn’t a war zone, but it was definitely a tough place, and that was certainly echoed throughout the United States. To a great extent, 80s music – U2 aside – was really escapist kind of music… synth music and other types of music at that time took you somewhere else, and I think people needed that.
Nina: I think that, especially these days, it’s uplifting. It’s fun music, but it’s also substantial. I think that’s why it’s lasted as many decades as it has. I have to associate 80s music with MTV. You can’t not associate it with MTV. That era was a really magical time. It started to change in the 90s. The videos were still there, and MTV was still doing game shows, but the music was changing. I liked grunge music, but that was really when the last new rock came out. All peacemeal. But it was a colorful era. You had the videos, and they were addictive. A gentleman recently told me that when he had first moved to New York, he’d sit there and watch the videos on MTV. He’d try to leave, but ended up watching just one more video, and then another, wondering what the next new video would be. The 80s was fun. Even though it was a time when people thought greed was good, and some other things were happening, too, for the most part the 80s was a true feel-good era, more so than any other decade.
Alan: Oh my god…80s music is part of the formative years of my life, just like it is for everybody else. I was a young man who got a good gig and I was experiencing the music at the same time everybody else was. It was a very special time. There was a certain innocent quality about it, and there were a lot of new styles of music that came into being. I think what I liked most about the decade was it was very eclectic. You had music from all over the place – all genres – and it was all packed into this thing called MTV, and everybody got along… a beautiful rainbow of colors under one tent.
Who are your favorite 80s artists (living or deceased)?
Mark: Artists that I love and still listen to –Prince, for sure. He didn’t start in the 80s, but certainly came of age then. Peter Gabriel – he wasn’t an 80s artist, but he had some of his most successful solos in the 80s. His videos also were among my favorites. He was one of the few artists who invested in them. They were pieces of art. He would create a song, and he was very meticulous about it… and he was the same with his video creations. I love him and still listen to him and respect him. He’s still relevant to me. I also love Depeche Mode who also came of age in the 80s. Mostly I’m a current guy and want to know what’s happening [in music] next week.
Nina: This is almost impossible to answer. I loved Tom Petty. He was one of my absolute favorites. I also love Fleetwood Mac, U2, Was (Not Was), Traveling Wilburys, Eddie Van Halen… amazing… David Bowie, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Pretenders, Journey…. Rolling Stones are my favorite all-time band. Of course, they started in the 60s, but they did create some new music in the 80s, so I suppose that would count, ha ha! I also love Bruce Springsteen, Cheap Trick, John Mellencamp, Depeche Mode, Eurythmics…. I could go on and on, ha ha! Like I said, too many to name!
Alan: David Byrne of Talking Heads is one of my favorites. “Once in a Lifetime” is probably my favorite video. I really related to it. Peter Gabriel was a great artist with a long career. He’s got a lot of integrity, but he also made songs that we love, that became iconic. He made great videos as well. To me he was the whole package, and still, to this day, I think Peter Gabriel is relevant –he’s got his hands in so many things around the world. I like it when an artist continues to grow, even if they don’t sell a lot of records – nobody is doing that anymore. I think U2 was one of the most important bands around that time and it’s still relevant today. I like Bono and the band’s ethos, and they make great songs you love singing, but they’re also songs of integrity and are about something. We all like party songs like “Girls, Girls, Girls” by Motley Crue, too, but there’s not a whole lot of sustenance there. But I really like the bands that had sustenance, that had a little meat behind their songs. Midnight Oil is a good example of a band that was talking about politics and social issues. “Beds are Burning” is a great song that meant something. If I were to write a long list of my favorite artists, it would include INXS, Duran Duran – that’s a band I love that was so important to the early new wave movement, to the fashion of the times. Plus, they produced great music as well. Those are at the top of my list, but I could go on with twenty more…
What role does music play in your current life (professional and private)?
Mark: I use Spotify a ton. The nature of what I do requires that I consume music, but I would anyway and that is, these days, the easiest way. I search for things – and on the talk show I do for Sirius every Friday, which is when new music comes out (we do New Music Fridays), we go through what’s coming out and I pick things I want to play and Spotify makes it easy to do. However, having said that, up until I started that channel, I was working on a channel on Spectrum which was an adult rock station. And by that, I mean we played the classic stuff. But we also played current bands who adults might enjoy. And a lot of what I listen to comes from Spectrum. I miss doing that channel a lot because it was a really cool station where we played current music by so many great artists, music we played before anybody else in the country. I would discover them along with everyone else. A lot of what I listen to also comes from doing what I’m paid to do – to pay attention to what’s going on and who’s releasing what and finding music I think is valid and cool.
Nina: Well, I do my radio show. It’s music driven, so I’m always doing research on the artists. As far as when I listen to music, it’s usually in the car. If I listen to music, it’s more CDs or online music. I’ll look something up for research and come across something like a recent Blondie cover I loved or Dave Stewart’s project, Stewart Lindsey, and send it to someone. I won’t sit down and listen to songs back to back to back online, but when I’m programming one of my Facebook pages I’ll come across something I love that I hadn’t heard before. So, what I listen to now is more picking and choosing – generally I prefer rock and roll and artists like the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, David Bowie, and Prince. I’m not a huge fan of pop stuff that’s happening now. I’m not into the writing of songs by committee, and I find the way a lot of new music is overly produced to be quite annoying… kind of messy with no definition. There’s a lot of wallpaper out there, I’m sorry to say. And I think most of it is not organic. But Adele is organic, Sam Smith is organic, John Legend is organic. Pink is awesome. I love Jack White. I love the Foo Fighters and Beck. And Lady Gaga is a phenomenal artist, to name a few.
Alan: Music has been the oxygen in my blood, really. I’ve been a music fan my entire life. I come from kind of a musical family – my father sang, though he didn’t pursue music as a singer, and my older brother is a musician. The first record I ever bought was James Taylor’s first album on Apple Records. I loved singer/songwriters. I grew up listening to my older brothers listening to Chicago and Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, so, by osmosis, I listened to some of that music as well. I also loved Joe Cocker. My favorite stuff in my formative years was Earth, Wind and Fire, the Brothers Johnson, and Herbie Hancock. I loved jazz and jazz fusion. So, my palate of musical taste was really eclectic. My dad loved opera, so I also liked Pavarotti. When I came to the table in the 80s, I was a music lover. But I had to adapt and learn a little bit more about the music my brothers were listening to like The Who and the Rolling Stones because I was perhaps more into the wave that was coming… U2, Duran Duran, The Stray Cats, and The Fixx’s of the world. So, alternative music was certainly something I was more attuned to in the 80s more than anything else. But eclectic to me is an important word, and to me the 80s brought it.
How did life – and your time at MTV – prepare you for such a long and successful career in the music/hosting space?
Mark: What I learned technically at MTV was television stuff. Because TV is a team sport, I learned how to work in a team. Radio is really a solo sport. I learned that kind of thing. And because we were the center of the musical universe I wound up coming in contact and doing business with people that, even as a programmer in radio, I probably wouldn’t have. And that prepared me in a business sense for things I could do afterwards… production things and other projects. It also ramped up my interview skills. I came to MTV in 1981 from 70s radio that, stylistically, was freeform and a lot more laid back and FM rockish. But in television, you can’t do that… you gotta keep it moving. When I got to MTV I had to ramp it up a lot. I would talk really fast and was much more animated. We all had to be, because otherwise we’d come out of these incredible video clips and the segments would come to a grinding halt. We really had to ramp it up, and that was something that, when I went back to radio years later, stayed with me.
Nina: Recently, my manager Anthony and I were talking about a guitarist who was playing with a very well-known superstar. The guitarist had the opportunity to get a solo deal, but he didn’t want it. It’s not that he didn’t have the talent, but he didn’t have the fire that you have to have inside. But it’s not something you can create; you either have it or you don’t. You have to have that laser focus that says this is what you’re going to do. I have had that ever since I was a little girl. The way I was raised had a lot to do with it, too. My parents always gave me support in what I wanted to do. When I was four, they took me to pick out my own piano. And when I wanted to play harp, and do theater, they supported me. I think I got the fire of survival from my mom. She was quite a character. She wasn’t able to live out her dreams to be a dancer, but she nurtured me and helped me live out my dreams. And she wasn’t a stage mom whatsoever. She always said god had given me talent and did whatever she could to support me in pursuing my passions.
Alan: Nothing could have prepared me. We had six years of cable iconography… I call myself a major cable celebrity. We all had very odd high-profile jobs. We were ubiquitous in people’s lives for a long period of time as evidenced by this kind of event [the 80s cruise]. People have terribly fond memories of the time, and it’s not just about us… Mark, Nina, Martha and I are just conduits to people who grew up back then. But we’re burned into their memories and hopefully mostly in a good way. It was always freaky to know that people listened to what we said and responded – some negatively. People liked each of us for different reasons. They liked us for who they thought we were, they keyed into the vibe of who we were. I probably don’t feel like I’ve learned a craft yet. I’m still kind of working it. I think it’s more pragmatic, and not just a cliché, that you learn till you die, but I truly do. I continue to get better at my Sirius job, talking on the radio, gathering my thoughts. I’m better than I was ten years ago. I only did the MTV gig for six years, but that was a big enough job to set me on a course for other things. The biggest thing I think I’ve learned is that jobs are fleeting, that life moves on, and that you’re gonna do a lot of different things and have a lot of ups and downs. It’s a little bit of the arts and entertainment tale – it’s a rollercoaster. Every artist will tell you that. I’ve learned that you better prepare for when times are tough. So, if you make a buck on a boat [on the 80s cruise], put it in a CD because you never know when things are gonna be taken away from you. I’m much wiser about that now, not like I was when I blew my very first check on a sofa and cocaine!
What was your best takeaway/memory from your time at MTV?
Mark: This is something I’ve reflected on since the book came out. I think the best takeaway is I have these people [the other VJs]. They are really like family to me. And even though we’re radically different and always have been, it’s sort of like the Vietnam vet syndrome – we went through this terrible thing together and came out on the other side. The gift that keeps on giving is the fact that, like I said before, the nostalgia for the 80s is lasting longer than the decade, and it’s keeping me employed. It helped me to pay for college for my daughter. That is a big takeaway from that job, a job that I had no idea was coming.
Nina: Being at the forefront of what at the time was a game changer in pop culture… an experience to this day I am very grateful for. Also, being an only child I learned what it is like to have brothers and a sister. To this day we refer to it as our VJ Family.
Alan: The camaraderie with my fellow VJs, being a part of the original crew is probably the most special thing for us. It’s like being the first Saturday Night Live group – as much as that group disbanded, they were still the original Saturday Night Live people and you will always remember them. I was awfully proud that we were the only five people on the planet to do what we did for seven years. Right or wrong, love us or hate us, we wrote the handbook for being a VJ. I wanted to be a Broadway actor, I wanted to sing in musicals, to be Hugh Jackman (even though I didn’t know him back then). I wanted to be a triple threat, but wasn’t as tall and muscular as Hugh Jackman. I didn’t know I was going to fall into the MTV job, and it was the best job anybody could ever get. We were the envy of every rocker, and I tended to foster the image that we were partying with all the rock stars. I was good with having people believe that. I think knowing that we were the first makes me the happiest.
What’s the best experience you’ve had with a fan/fans on the 80s cruise?
Mark: I’ve gotten compliments – even here, on board – about things that I do. People are interested in the stupid crap I say about a song before I play it. And when I relay a person’s story, people seem to enjoy it. That is really the best thing you can say to me. I want people to be interested in the things that I’m saying. I don’t want to be that guy who, all he talks about is the current hit single and he doesn’t know very much or care about the artist. The fact that people tune in to that is always surprising to me, and it’s always flattering.
Nina: You know I do my radio show and live in the country. Sometimes I don’t talk to a human for a week except during the show (though I always talk to my animals). On the cruise, there are all these people who are really nice. It’s overwhelming, but in a good way. I remember last August, I lost the closest person to me in my life. The cruise [my second 80s cruise] was the following March. To be quite honest, I didn’t want to do anything and wasn’t looking forward to anything. My light was gone. But I’ll never forget coming on the cruise. One time, Anthony (my manager) and I were waiting for the glass elevator door to open. When it did, everyone was in costume. And, just like in a movie, everyone shouted, “Nina.” It was overwhelming, but in a positive way. It was touching and so cathartic and therapeutic. It really helped me heal. I also remember what Dane, the amazing cruise director, had said. He knew about my loss, and said, “Wait till you get on board, it’s gonna help.” And it did.
Alan: I can get irreverent about everything, but the sincerity of people in these kinds of intense environments continues to surprise me. They sincerely loved that time. They loved Mark and Nina and all of us being a part of their lives. A woman on this cruise said she had just gotten cleared from stage 4 cancer and that her coming on this trip and being around Rick Springfield and us VJs was the one thing that kept her alive and going through her chemotherapy. So, it was like, immediately, I asked myself how I was able to make such a difference in someone’s life? Because I only play music for people. I don’t underrate the power of playing music – it is curative and healing. If I didn’t believe music was great for you, I wouldn’t be involved in it. But people love the music and the whole package – who we are and what we do. I hugged the woman and told her I appreciated what she said more than anything. I have to be reminded of the difference we made consistently because I’m a humble southern boy. But I’m still surprised by it and don’t ever take it for granted.
Which artist(s), living or deceased, would you most like to interview?
Mark: I’ve never interviewed Bob Dylan. I wouldn’t mind sitting down with him. But I’d be terrified… he’s a tough interview. At the beginning of the book [VJ], Martha Quinn runs off the England to interview Bob Dylan. I remember fighting with her about it because I wanted it. She was 21-years-old and had no business interviewing the voice of my generation. But she went, and Dylan ended up inviting her to all these shows. I’d also love to interview Otis Redding. He died before I was in the business. I grew up listening to soul music, so artists like him were really big for me.
Nina: George Harrison.
Alan: I loved interviewing rockers/famous people, but unlike some other journalists, my life did not revolve around doing the next great interview with someone like Paul McCartney. I never sat around thinking about who I could interview. I will say that someone who meant a lot to me but had nothing to do with MTV was James Taylor. He meant so much to me in my young life – when I was 11 or 12, I’d cry to his early music like “Sweet Baby James” and “You’ve Got a Friend.” I had a chance to meet him one time at a festival, but I didn’t want to. I was too scared. I’ve met a lot of famous people, but if I met James Taylor, I might curl up in the fetal position. If I ever were to meet him, I might not want to interview him, but I would like to talk to him, to hang out with him.
Which artist(s) would you most like to have a meal or hang out with?
Mark: I would love to sit down and have a meal with Paul McCartney and just be casual with him – he was pretty fun*.
Nina: Keith Richards.
Alan: I don’t want to have a meal with any of my idols. They’d have stuff in their teeth, and I’d be concerned only with the aesthetics of eating!
Which artist(s) would you most like to work or perform with?
Mark: I think Robbie Robertson is a pretty fascinating guy, and I would love to do something with him. He’s really creative, not only a great musician but a great writer and has a visual sense. Also, I hear he’s a bastard to work with. He’s produced with other people, and done movies with Martin Scorsese – he did The Last Waltz. He’s an amazing guy, a record executive with a lot of talents. Also, now that I’m thinking about it, Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics. I’ve met and chatted with him and interviewed him for shorter segments. That guy is unreal. He’s brilliant and into so many different things –not just music, but art, architecture, technology. And he does Ted Talks, and has an entertainment company and does documentaries – he’s interested in so many things. He seems to be popping with ideas all the time. It would be great to do something with him.
Nina: George Harrison. I play a lot of his music on my harp, and the instrument lends itself very well to his music.
Alan: I’d like to be in a Broadway musical with Mandy Patinkin, to work with Patty Lupone and some other greats of the Broadway stage. I went to acting school at Circle in the Square in New York and really wanted to be an actor and Broadway star. I’m still waiting for my agent to snag me a Broadway gig. I don’t want to be in Grease 3, but I’d be in Rent or some other new production. If I could do it all over again or live another life, I’d have a different persona… I wouldn’t be afraid to go out on auditions. But age and wisdom make me think I’d probably be really good as a serial killer in a film.
Favorite ways to stay fit and active?
Mark: I am blessed and feel very lucky to be alive. This talk show [on SiriusXM] has been kicking my ass, so I’m not working out as much as I should. I was heavily into Tae Bo with Billy Blanks. I started with him when he had this little room in a shopping mall. I just signed up for kick boxing – I just have to get there. I need to do some sort of activity. I do the elliptical, but I like classes, something that keeps me interested. And my wife trains me in Pilates.
Nina: I take care of my five cats, one dog, and two parrots. Many are rescue or special needs pets. I also heat my house with a wood stove, so my workout is running up and down to get wood, and bending and stretching with the animals. I spend a lot of time being out in nature, gardening and walking. So, it’s more organic stuff and lifestyle activities.
Alan: I’ve done yoga and aerobics, but for the last two years I’ve been doing karate. I won’t preach about it to anyone, but it’s perfect for me now because it’s about body and mind. It helps me stay in good health and in good shape and gives me a mission and a goal. And I’m getting my black belt in April, so people are finally gonna respect me.
Describe your perfect day.
Mark: I usually like sleeping late. I relish that whenever I get the chance. When you have a dog that likes to be fed at seven in the morning, it doesn’t always happen. My perfect day would start with sleeping late. I love going with my wife to a great place in Manhattan to have brunch. I also love going to the movies – I adore movies.
Nina: I absolutely love to read. I have a hammock underneath this tamarack tree and love to be in it, reading a book while the birds are singing and the squirrels and chipmunks and my dog are running around, and the cats are in the house. It’s so peaceful on the hammock, especially when the sun peeks through the needles. I like to read and meditate there.
Alan: So far, the perfect day is waking up and going to the back of a cruise ship and having a cup of coffee and looking at the endless ocean. That’s pretty groovy. I’m not as zen as I’d like to be, living in the now, in the moment, because I worry about the past and the future like everybody else. But a perfect day to me would probably involve my two youngest kids – they’re 6 and 9 – crawling into my lap. It’s something I get sentimental about. A mundane day with the family is really what means the most to me.
About the Veejays
You can hear Mark Goodman, a music fanatic, on SiriusXM’s Volume – the world’s first talk channel about music. He hosts a live call-in show weekdays between 4-7 P.M. EST on the channel and continues to interview everyone from big stars to up-and-coming talent in many different genres. Follow him on twitter (@goodymade).
You can hear Nina Blackwood as she hosts two syndicated shows through United Stations Radio Network: Nina Blackwood’s New Wave Nation, a 3-hour weekly show with alternative classics and 80’s rock you forgot about, and Absolutely 80s, a 3-hour weekly program featuring mainstream 80s music and news about the artists. She also hosts 80s on 8 and co-hosts The Big 80s Top 40 Countdown on SiriusXM radio. Follow her on twitter (@NinaBlackwood), and stay tuned for the launch of The Loving Earth Foundation which will raise awareness and funding for various animal rescue organizations.
You can hear Alan Hunter, a sneakerhead, proud dad, and soon-to-be Shotokan black belt on SiriusXM Radio’s Big 80s on 8 and Classic Rewind (a classic rock radio station). Follow him on twitter (@AlanHunterMTV).
*If you’re a Paul McCartney fan – and who isn’t?! – here’s Mark’s take on meeting him. I interviewed him in London. It was my first time there. We went to Air Studios where Paul McCartney was recording. We were booked for 15 minutes. As we were talking, I’m looking past him to his publicist who’s running back and forth behind him giving me the cut signal. And I just said, “Paul, they’re asking me to cut.” And he said, “Let’s not.” When Paul McCartney said I’m having a good enough time talking to you, let’s go on, that was phenomenal. We talked for an hour. Once the interview was done, he asked if it was my first time in London. He started recommending restaurants, and actually made a reservation for me. He was well aware of who he was and how people regarded him – and it felt like he went out of his way to make people feel comfortable which is very menschy.
Thanks: Special thanks to the veejays for their time and amazing responses. Thanks to SiriusXM’s Russell Labiner for connecting me with Andrew Mendelsohn who so graciously set up my interviews. And thanks to the 80s cruise for creating an incredible experience, giving me (and so many others) a week we will never forget.
Disclaimer: No goods or services of any kind were received in exchange for any mention in this post.
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