Today begins my sixth year as editorial director of VH1. I told myself when I started in 1995, “Even if this is a disaster, I have to stick it out for one year. If it’s great, I’ll stay for two.” At the time, VH1 was a sad flanker brand for MTV, a way to hold onto cable space and make it tougher for anyone else to start a music channel. Tom Freston, the boss of all MTV networks, believed that a music channel for adults was a good idea—it just needed the right people. The only person who agreed with him was John Sykes, who had been part of the team that started MTV and who went on to work as an artist manager and record-company president. Tom tapped John to come in and take over VH1. John assembled a crew of other ambitious people from music, TV, and independent film. People with a lot of ideas and a lack of preconceived notions about “the way it’s always been done.”
I was up for an adventure. The week I started at VH1, my book U2 at the End of the World was being published. I’d spent a year following the Irish rock band through Europe, America, Australia, and Asia, and another year writing the book. It made me enough money that I could make plans to live out a lifelong ambition—to move my family to Ireland and devote the next couple of years to writing a novel. When the VH1 offer came up, it knocked me off those plans. I liked Sykes and Freston, I believed in their vision. And as they said, “When else in your life is someone going to offer you a TV network to play with?” So I signed on. For a year if it was bad, two if it was great.
Unfortunately, it was more fun than I ever imagined. We came up with Storytellers, in which great singer-songwriters tell the stories behind their songs, and everyone from David Bowie to Garth Brooks to REM came on. The impossible had happened—VH1 was hip. A couple of jokers brought in Pop-Up Video and our ratings went through the roof, programming chief Jeff Gaspin came up with Behind the Music and suddenly we were all geniuses. People said, “When did you know you made it? When Divas hit? The first time you were invited to the White House?” No. It was when we started getting parodied on Saturday Night Live. MTV Networks was generous. We were all well rewarded. I started stretching that two years to three, to four, to five.
But there was still a bug in my conscience, reminding me that I started out to be a novelist. I began working nights and weekends on the book I had intended to write in Ireland. After a week of producing television, it was great fun to unwind by writing. My story was about a civil war in a record company. Dealing all week with managers, record executives, and rock stars kept the ideas coming. Random House bought the book. I called it A&R. It’s being published next week.
So I begin this week with one foot on the boat and the other on the dock. There’s plenty going on at VH1, as always. There’s a Don Henley Storytellers to finish editing, a Neil Young Legends documentary to get out to press, and the problem that two of the bands we’re supposed to shoot next—Oasis and Smashing Pumpkins—seem to be breaking up. I’m in charge of assembling “The 100 Most Important Moments in Rock & Roll” (there’s a broad mandate), and we are developing a project with the Beatles.
At the same time, I just got the first finished copies of the novel, and I am trying to write notes and mail books to people who helped me with it. The first couple of reviews are coming in and look real good. I’m getting calls that this important buyer loved it, this chain has ordered a thousand and wants to do a front-of-store display, can I fly to Portland, Ore.? Austin, Texas? San Francisco?
I know there are going to be mistakes, bad reviews, and disappointments ahead. But for this morning, everything is going great. I better enjoy it while it lasts.