Posted September, 2011
Before the days of YouTube, cable TV, DVD players or, heck, even VCR’s, if one wanted to see their favorite artist or band of any genre, they would have to know what time and what show they would happen to be appearing on. In the 50’s and 60’s, The Ed Sullivan Show was the go-to TV show to catch Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, Buddy Holly, the Doors, or the Dave Clark Five, to name but a historic few.
Other landmark shows like the Louisiana Hayride, Shindig! or Dick Clark’s two shows, American Band Stand and Where The Action Is were on the scene and catered to specific genres of music which not only carved out a healthy niche of dedicated viewers but a permanent spot in music history, as well.
As the seventies rolled around, teenagers like me had our own arsenal of shows from which to get our live musical fix. Who can forget Alice Cooper performing Gutter Cats vs. The Jets on ABC’s In Concert or Johnny Winter’s version of Jumpin’ Jack Flash on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert or Fleetwood Mac performing Rhiannon on Burt Sugarman’s Midnight Special?
All of these shows and historic performances are forever etched on the tablets of rock and roll history. However, thirty years ago, on August 1st, 1981, there was a seismic change that hit America through the growing avenue of cable television. Five VJ’s (“video jockey’s”), Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn, the late J.J. Jackson and Alan Hunter became fixtures on a bold, new cable network called MTV. The channel provided a continuous feed of record industry supplied promotional videos as well as a growing supply of concert clips. Before too long, “I want my MTV!” became a popular mantra among America’s youth and was captured forever in Dire Strait’s hit (and video, of course), Money For Nothing.
It’s hard to imagine that thirty years has passed since MTV hit the airwaves and changed music forever. It just doesn’t seem possible. Neither did it seem possible that the opportunity to interview one of the MTV pioneers, Nina Blackwood, would ever happen but it did.
The perennially beautiful Blackwood called me from her home in Maine while between having just returned from vacation and the start of another round of personal appearances commemorating the 30th anniversary of MTV’s launch. Naturally, that was the subject we started with.
“It’s been quite crazy, actually, but in a good way. It’s so nice that people are reaching out and remembering us. It’s wonderful, actually. We’ve done a lot of promotion. We did a VJ special through Sirius/XM on our Big 80’s on 8 channel. I’ve been hosting Absolutely 80’s Presents Freemont Street’s Experience in Vegas every other weekend, flying there to host a show. I live in Maine so it’s not just down the road!” she said with her infectious laugh that immediate endears those privileged to hear it.
Often, reunions of any type can be quite emotional for the participants. I asked Nina if it had been emotional for her to recollect those years in such a compressed time while being the focus of a lot of attention.
“Very good question. Very good question because, to be quite honest, when it started, I’d say, back in May, things started gearing up – when I do my shows and we’re talking about eighties music, I don’t go around thinking about the early days of MTV. I mean, it was thirty years ago! Around May, things started kind of ratcheting up a bit. I had a couple of real intense interviews right off the bat. I had to go to New York for a VJ special with Mark (Goodman), Alan (Hunter), and Martha (Quinn) and all of a sudden I’m back here in New York where we did the shows and we’re talking about the old days – it was kind of freaky, I tell you, at first. I was trying to go to sleep (the night before) but I kept reliving all these memories that the people were asking us about. Really, initially, it was quite unsettling! I mean, maybe on the 25th (anniversary) we recollected some thoughts but, for some reason, this one really did have an emotional effect and has carried on throughout the entire summer which has been really odd!
“It’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong! But, all of a sudden, your head is back in those days and you’re remembering this and that – wow! – like it was . . . well, I can’t say like it was thirty years ago but, maybe at the most, twenty years ago – the most! It does not feel like thirty years ago – especially when we had this dinner when we were in New York with some of the old crew from the original studio which each of us, respectively, are still friends with. We each have our people that we’re still friends with. And for all of us to be back together sitting at this gigantic table in this restaurant in New York was like ‘Oh my god!’. Everybody’s personalities are pretty much the same, only older! And that was so trippy. It really was! Even though each of us are in contact with certain people over the years and have seen them personally – like, one of the cameramen – a friend of mine – came up to visit me in Maine and we’re always e-mailing; but it was exactly like it was! It was really weird! Yes, it was emotion in the fact that you realize how fast time has gone.”
When I asked if there was anything bittersweet about the whole thing, Ms. Blackwood’s response was immediate.
“Well, J.J., of course. You know that J.J. passed away a long time ago – six years ago, something like that (in 2004 of a heart attack in L.A.). Of course, J.J.’s absence is very bittersweet – especially for the four of us who are left. But he was loved very much by the crew and the producers that worked with us on a day-to-day basis. So that, if anything, that was the main ‘bittersweetness’ because we would all say, ‘Ah, J.J. would like that!’.
“J.J. was the guy who had all the stories. He was like our elder statesman but he was also the guy who really partook the most in the quote/unquote rock ‘n roll lifestyle. I mean, he was hanging out with Robert Plant, Rod Stewart, going to all the clubs. In fact, his nick name was ‘Club Man’. So he was the guy that was – if you want to say – not wild because I would classify him as a wild man but he really embraced everything there was to embrace about New York and being in the entertainment business. He really lived a full life. So, that’s missed. He’s just missed!”
And what about any of the artists who dominated much of MTV’s screen time back in the day?
“Well, I mean, that’s kind of a daily thing. I’ll be introducing a song like, say, Robert Palmer and Addicted To Love – I interviewed him a lot over the years. That was sad. I was particularly devastated by Michael Hutchence’s death. I had just seen him, actually, about a month or so before he died. Again, in a professional sense – not a personal sense – I was close to that band (INXS). When they came by for an interview, I was always the one who interviewed them or met them on the road so there was definitely a professional relationship and I thought the world of Michael. I really, really liked him. I still, sometimes, go, ‘I can’t believe he’s gone’ and in such a horrible way. It was so tragic and just awful. So, Michael’s one that I do think of in that regard.
“I was on vacation so I didn’t even know about Jani Lane of Warrant! That’s pathetic – so pathetic! I wasn’t close to him as a person, either. It was all professional. It’s just so sad because here’s this guy – platinum – multiplatinum selling artist and the band kicks him out and he just could not kick his drug habit. And, to be found in some Comfort Inn in Woodland Hills, California, for crying out loud! It’s just horrid! That was the most recent.”
The perpetually positive Blackwood instinctively turns the conversation to more a more positive vein.
“Somebody who is an example of overcoming and thriving and helping others is Slash. I read his biography and I was going, ‘Is he gonna make it?!’ and now the guy is doing so well – beyond well! He’s actually a really cool mentor, in a way, for kids. He’s got that cartoony kind of look and he helps animals. He helps young addicts and has a whole foundation (to help).
“Look at Steven Tyler, for crying out loud! I mean, Steven Tyler was on the brink! I actually met him right before he got sober and, I mean, he was still ‘Steven Tyler’ but you knew that the guy was just out there at warp speed. Look at how he’s turned around. They all became more successful after they became sober!
“So, along with the horrible deaths, there are a lot of people who have . . .” and then, as she often does, Nina interrupts herself with another related thought, “Look at Joe Walsh! Oh my god! He’s an old friend of mine because I grew up in Ohio. I remember getting a call one night. I can’t remember what concert it was – I think it was Stevie Nicks. I had just seen him backstage at that event. By the time I got home, there was a phone call from a mutual friend of ours saying, ‘Joe’s in the hospital. He has passed out’ and I’m going, ‘Oh, no! He’s dying!’ He turned his life around. He got through it and looks better than ever! He looks all healthy and ‘California-ized’.
“So, yeah, along with the tragedies there are successes. And, with Michael – god! That one made me sad because he took his own life. To be pushed to that degree and not feeling that he could turn to anybody and to do that, that’s what made it, I think, hardest for me. It wasn’t like a drug overdose, which is bad enough, but it was like he killed himself by his own hand. That’s painful. The guy was so charismatic. Like I said, I had just seen the band and was marveling at the fact that the guy could arch his back and the most powerful notes would come out. It sucks! What can I say? It sucks! Still, obviously, after all these years later it does bother me.”
To say that Blackwood is a workaholic would be a bit of an understatement. She hosts two syndicated radio shows, Nina Blackwood’s Absolutely 80’s and Nina Blackwood’s New Wave Nation. He can also be found on her Sirius XM show, 80’s on 8, at various days and times throughout the week. And, as if that’s not enough, this summer she was flying back and forth to Las Vegas for appearances at Absolutely 80’s Summer Concert Series. I asked her how does she do it all.
“Yeah, I am bit of a workaholic. Four and a half years ago, I was living in L.A. and I realized that all the companies that I worked for were actually in New York. So, I’m going, ‘Why am I in L.A.? It’s hot. I don’t do well in the heat. It’s crowded. I don’t really like it anymore. It’s gotten nasty. Why am I living here?’ I always loved Maine since I was a little girl. I was born in Massachusetts and just always loved Maine. I thought about moving there on a number of occasions and I thought, ‘You know? I’m just gonna check it out and see if I love as much as I think I love it” and I did. I ended up buying a house and, luckily, selling my house (in L.A.) right as the market was crashing – got out of there literally by a hair – by a hair! The housing market was tanking as the house was up for sale.
“So, I moved to Maine and, like yourself, because of technology, I’ve got a studio in my home and I can do my shows and all my work (from home) – with the exception of going to Vegas and personal appearances. And, I love nature and that’s been my saving grace.
“I was just back in L.A. last week, doing my shows from there so I was in the traffic and all that and my whole body, seriously, went into like an anxiety attack. I was shaking! I love to drive. I’m not a scaredy cat driver so it had nothing to do with that. It was just so intense and so much – I go, ‘I don’t know how I lived here!’ I probably would have had a very different answer for you if I was still in L.A.”
Nina loves to gush about her life in Maine.
“I have a lot of animals. I have dogs and cats and parrots and there are so many wild animals here. Chipmunks and squirrels and osprey and raccoons and the occasional moose and mink, otter, beaver. I find solace and peace with nature and only when I’m removed from it for a certain period of time do I get kind of tweaked. I start shaking like I did in L.A. Nature has always been my solace and it remains to be. That’s the balance. Now, it’s critical, actually. I have to have it. I’m so hyper and that’s something I haven’t been able to conquer my whole life. I’ve been hyper since I little kid. Still hyper!
“The peace calms me down and it makes me realize, especially in a place like Maine where the people are so wonderful. They’re workaday people. They’re really down to earth. They’re really honest. They’re lobstermen, farmers - that type of thing. And I realized that there’s more to the world than the entertainment business and they don’t care what you do. They don’t care if you’re Brad Pitt. If you’re a good person, that’s fine. If not, they don’t care, they’re not going bother with you. It’s really a grounding and I thrive in that.
“I love my postmen. We have a two-person post office and ‘Tiny’ – who is not; he’s a very big guy – we don’t even have regular mail trucks! He (Tiny) drives his own vehicle. He sits in the passenger seat and he drives with a stick! He has the stick working the steering wheel and, because he’s big enough, he can work the foot pedals.
“I found, the day before I was leaving for vacation, a little handwritten note saying, ‘Have a wonderful vacation. Be safe and we look forward to you coming back”. It almost made me cry. I got choked up. I carried that little note with me the whole time I was gone. He didn’t have to do that. He wasn’t doing that for any reason other than a sweet gesture. I lived twenty years in L.A. and I never even knew my mail man’s name and he probably didn’t know mine except for the fact that he stuck the mail in the box.
“It’s a very long answer to your question but those are the things that help and keep me grounded and also make me enjoy my work more because I gotta work to stay where I am and I love it so much, you know what I mean?”
In preparing for this interview, I wasn’t sure what Nina’s opinion was of MTV today as compared to when she VJ’d for them. I was relieved to read an interview posted on her website, NinaBlackwood.net, wherein she says that she doesn’t like the current format there. With that already established, I asked Nina what she thought would “work” for MTV and what changes would she implement if she were in charge.
“Well, the thing is, unfortunately for people like us who don’t like what they’re doing, that (MTV’s current format) is working for them. Jersey Shore has made more money for MTV Networks than any show they’ve ever had. So, the bottom-line is that it is working. I don’t know who watches this stuff. I don’t get it but that’s what’s happening.
“As far as MTV itself, what I would do is start another channel and forget MTV! Or, VH1 Classic – put the music oriented stuff over them; keep MTV – whatever it is now – over there. Just keep it. It has nothing to do with music . . . or very little to do with music. Just implement more music programming for people who enjoy it because I hear this all the time! ‘Where are the videos? Where are the music shows?’
“So, there is an audience out there that wants to see – maybe not 24 hours a day – but maybe, like, three hours to show videos, two hours, whatever, separated throughout the day. Have music like Storytellers that was a great show or Behind The Music - wonderful shows! Have more of that.”
It’s been said, to borrow from the Buggles tune, TV Killed The Radio Star, that video killed radio. I asked Blackwood what she thought killed video?
“Well, first of all, I don’t think video killed radio. That song was written before MTV was even on. It was written in ’78. It wasn’t specifically about MTV and I actually think video enhanced radio at the time because it (radio) had been in the doldrums. In fact, radio was opened up to all these new bands that I wouldn’t have played in a million years, like Duran Duran, The Flock of Seagulls – for better or for worse. Video is not what killed the radio star. But the internet is what, I think, killed – or it has been helping to kill – radio, the videos on TV and the record industry across the board. That has been the biggest threat, at least in my lifetime, to the music industry in general.”
When I asked Blackwood if she thought that the MTV’s format change was driven by the record labels’ lack of support for acts, including the financing of videos, she responded by saying, “That’s a good question, also. I don’t know. I think it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing. It really is because things started tanking all around the same time. The record labels. All the mergers. Then you have radio going through the same thing. These big companies came in and bought up as many channels in one city as they possibly were allowed to. They restricted the formats. I hate to use a trite phrase but it’s all be kind of the perfect storm.”
I asked Nina what videos from back in the day epitomized the best and worst of video on MTV. Her answer was both honest and diplomatic.
“Well, it’s a really hard question as to which ones epitomize but the first one that comes to mind when you ask that, I think, Money For Nothing, obviously, because it was about MTV. So that kind of epitomized it. As far as the worst, I can’t really say because there’s not one that sticks out in my mind that’s cringe-worthy. There’s nothing that I could specifically answer. I’m sorry. I can’t go, ‘Yeah! That one sucked!’
“Also, whether they hold up to the test of time. I would have to go back and look at some of these and go, “Uh, that one doesn’t work anymore”. So, I’m sorry to be so evasive about that.”
With a long, distinguished, history making career such as hers, I naturally wondered if she would be coming out with a book anytime in the near future. Her response was coy, to say the least.
“Oh, those things could be in the works. Maybe . . . maybe . . .”
Well, until that darn book that may or may not be in the works comes out, I had to ask Nina how she wanted to be remembered after she’s gone to that great VJ studio in the sky.
“Oh, boy! You know, we’ve often joked about our epitaphs – Mark, Allan, Martha, and myself and J.J., God bless him, - that they would probably would say, ‘Here lies America’s first MTV VJ’ would probably be how I would be remembered. But, I don’t know, I would like to be remembered as somebody who really strove to keep her credibility and loved animals and nature – along with rock ‘n roll!”
Check out all that’s happening in the world of the lovely and talented Nina Blackwood at NinaBlackwood.net. Also, if you have Sirius XM radio (and, if not, why not?), be sure and catch Nina’s show throughout the week on channel 8 of your satellite radio dial. You’ll love it!