Last night, I went to The Moth to tell a story with the theme "Duped." My name didn't get picked from the hat, so I couldn't share my tale with the crowd at Zanzibar in Santa Monica. I share it here instead.
In the summer of 1983, I worked in New York at Billboard covering MTV in its heyday. Back then, MTV held amazing contests – they actually gave away a little pink house to promote John Mellencamp! Houses were cheaper then, but still…a house! We’re talking BIG.
MTV had a corporate PR person I dealt with all the time – I’ll call her Cheryl. Cheryl invited me to go along on the Police Party Plane. In this contest, a winner got to take 25 friends on a private plane – with an MTV veejay – to see the Police anywhere in North America and meet the band. They advertised it as a party in the sky, better than first class. On the plane, they would watch the new movie National Lampoon’s Vacation – and they’d all go home with a Colecovision video game system.
The contest winner was an engineer at the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia. He was married, around 30. He chose to see the Police at a festival in Montreal that also featured Talking Heads, English Beat and Peter Tosh.
The plan was that VJ Martha Quinn, some MTV executives including Cheryl, someone from the Police’s management office, a couple others and I would go to Philly in two limos to join the winners on their flight to Montreal. None of us were paying attention – and apparently neither were the drivers – because at one point someone looked out the window and noticed we were well into Delaware. We got off at a rest stop, where Martha Quinn was mobbed at the Burger King. The drivers got new directions. It turned out we were about 100 miles off course.
We got to the airfield more than three hours after the contest “winner,” who had been trapped on the plane with his 25 friends the entire time, unfortunately without any food other than pretzels, but with a full bar. They were all drunk, and they were all pissed at having to wait for us. Apparently an MTV lawyer was afraid that if they took off without a veejay, the guy might sue for not getting the full value of his prize. So they were stuck until we got there, and that meant the winner missed a big chunk of the festival that was his prize.
It was a short and unpleasant flight to Montreal. Sure, we were all given cool jackets merging the MTV and Police Synchronicity logos, and there was a huge round bed that slept about five, with a giant seatbelt, but otherwise there wasn’t much to enjoy. I interviewed the winner, who complained that he had to pay a fortune in taxes for the value of the prize: renting and staffing a plane, concert tickets, the movie, 26 Colecovisions…it all added up. His friends had chipped in, spending hundreds of dollars apiece on, so far, just a lot of waiting around for a bunch of unnecessary strangers. No offense taken – I’d have been a raving lunatic in his position.
When we landed we were herded into a bus and taken to Montreal’s Olympic stadium. We’d missed two out of the four acts, and were rushed past the band with no time for pleasantries. When we got to our seats, they were…crappy. I mean, there aren’t a lot of good seats in a stadium, but these were pretty damn far away from the stage. To make matters worse, MTV had put its executives and guests right IN FRONT of the winner’s group. It was like one more slap in their faces. Some of us decided to go the concession to get some food, but guess what – they didn’t accept American dollars or credit cards!
While Talking Heads played some Tom Tom Club material that I never felt was their best work, the winner and his wife, who were sitting directly behind me, started fighting about what a waste of time and money this was, how they’d been duped by MTV. It escalated, until she said “Go fuck yourself,” and he responded, “If I could do that, I wouldn’t have had to marry you!” Silence fell over our group.
The Police put on a great show in those days, but honestly, I don’t remember any of it. In part that’s because – believe it or not – we had to leave early to get back to the plane! Yes, we missed the end just like we had the beginning. I think Cheryl was afraid we’d get stuck in the crowd if we stayed to the end. We trudged to the bus during the encore, not even objecting at this point, and back to the airport, where the private airfield was, yes, locked. We ended up waiting more than an hour in the bus, behind a chain link fence, while Cheryl argued with somebody. Let’s just say no one suggested singing a few songs. By the time we got on the plane, it was probably 2AM.
The flight back was much longer than the flight there. Why? Because the MTV lawyer insisted National Lampoon’s Vacation be shown in its entirety, to avoid a potential lawsuit. We circled the airport for an hour, Chevy Chase occasionally waking us up. Just to make the night complete, we were harassed by Philadelphia Customs agents suspicious of a private plane coming in from a rock festival in the middle of the night. I can still see the prison matron-type taking Cheryl's mascara apart looking for drugs.
I got home in time to change clothes and turn around to go out again to work, where my phone was ringing as I got to my cubicle. It was Cheryl, begging me not to write anything, or even tell anyone else what had happened. She promised to reward me with another trip if I kept quiet. I was immediately reminded of that W.C. Fields joke where first prize is a week in Philadelphia and second prize is two weeks in Philadelphia. I said another trip wasn’t necessary - really! And I never did tell or write the story – until now.