I Wanted My MTV

When was the last time you could honestly describe a 600-page nonfiction book as a thoroughly absorbing page-turner? Such length is usually the province of academic works requiring an investment of patience and concentration from the reader. Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (Dutton, 2011) makes no such demands, at least not if you are of the generation that witnessed the rise and fall of Music Television. You  will recognize the names of the artists, videos, and VJs, and you may find yourself as riveted to this sizable oral history as you once were captivated by untold hours of MTV.

Like its subject – the first decade of MTV – Marks and Tannenbaum’s weighty tome unfolds as a series of easily digestible segments. The authors eschew editorializing in favor of letting people speak for themselves. Each of its 53 chapters begins with a brief introduction followed by artfully intercut interview transcriptions. The effect echoes the pace of vintage MTV, when the fledgling network actually aired music videos and the mesmerizing imagery turned over with the regularity of a kaleidoscope. Read More

The Troubling Truths Of Huckleberry Finn

By the end of this post, you will never again be able to look at this illustration with innocent eyes.

In 1885, one hundred twenty-six years ago today, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was finally published for the first time in the United States. The U.S. debut arrived two months after publication of the first Canadian and British editions, a curious arrangement that was not a calculated promotional strategy but rather the unfortunate consequence of sabotage. The first printing run was deemed unsuitable until a slyly added obscenity was removed. It was an oddly appropriate beginning for a novel that has been subject to censorship ever since.

This year has brought us news of a forthcoming edition of Huck Finn that aims to resolve the controversy that has kept an American classic off the shelves of many a school library. Newsouth Books, under the editorship of Auburn University English professor and Twain scholar Alan Gribben, is attempting to make Huck Finn palatable to a much broader audience by simply replacing the words nigger and injun with slave and indian. While the change may indeed spark a Twain renaissance among institutions that have hitherto banned the work, does making such an edition available make much sense? Read More

Still Standing Tall


Street Player, the new autobiography from former Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine, immediately grabs the reader’s attention with a riveting introduction:  the frantic musician’s arrival at the tragic aftermath of bandmate Terry Kath’s self-inflicted, fatal gunshot.  Following the conventions of modern memoir, this fascinating glimpse is only a snapshot of what is to come, and the clock accordingly winds backward to the author’s birth so that we may get all the details of his formative years.  Many autobiographies stall out almost as soon as they begin by using this familiar template, and the reader is left fighting the urge to flip through the pages until the story becomes interesting.  Not so with Seraphine.  Focusing on his upbringing is not a personal indulgence but rather a necessary exploration in order to understand the man.  By the time he helps found the band that will bring him international success, he has cemented a confrontational philosophy that will ultimately lead to his devastating downfall.

“From the time my parents brought me home from Oak Park Hospital in the late summer of 1948, I was a wild child with a constant need for movement,” Seraphine begins.  “I had a tendency to run toward the flame.”  And so he did, evolving into a defiant delinquent who once pushed an aggressive nun with such force that she staggered down a small stairway.  At the age of 15, he became a father, and soon afterward he was getting into violent street fights as the member of a gang.  Seraphine’s Chicago was an urban nightmare ruled by mob mentality (literally, as it was customary for members of Seraphine’s gang to work their way up to the local Mafia).  His talent for drumming and a dogged persistence helped him escape from an existence that had a strong likelihood of ending early and violently.  Yet to paraphrase an old axiom, you can take the kid out of the streets, but you can’t take the streets out of the kid.  Seraphine’s past would cast a long shadow. Read More

The Bigger Picture Emerges As A Mad Life Unfolds


Al Jaffee is 89 years old.  It is likely that you have seen his work, even if his name is unfamiliar to you.  The 2008 Reuben Awards Cartoonist of the Year has been steadily contributing to MAD magazine for over half a century now, most notably as the creator of the MAD Fold-In, a regular feature on the inside back cover that delivers its interactive punchline when the page is folded over to reveal a hidden image.  MAD fans will recall the acid wit that permeated his recurring Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.   Aficionados recognize his sophomoric humor and the precise draftsmanship with which he presented a long series of wild yet seemingly practical inventions.  Jaffee has influenced and inspired generations of creative people.

That’s enough of a legacy to warrant a serious biography, yet it is the convoluted backstory of this innovative cartoonist that is the focus of Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, released last week by HarperCollins imprint ItBooks.  More than two-thirds of Mary-Lou Weisman’s 226-page portrait elapses before Jaffee submits his first article to MAD, and the remainder places his professional achievements within the context of his haunting, inescapable past.  For Weisman, the key to Jaffee’s success can be found by examining the tenacious self-reliance he developed during his earliest years.

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