“Of all the epic stories, both factual and fictional, that we have passed down through history, I identify most strongly with the journey of the Bee Girl in Blind Melon’s ‘No Rain’ video.”
This is the first sentence in “Party of One,” the hilarious delight of a memoir by Dave Holmes, former host of various TV shows and a current writer-at-large for Esquire. If you’re anything like the author — a 40-something who ingested the pop culture of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s while coming of age and attempting to find a place in society — that first sentence will pack a certain power. You will open this book, you will read that reference to a classic 1992 music video about a girl in a bumblebee costume, and you will think: Dave Holmes, you had me at Blind Melon.
The number of memoirs and blatantly autobiographical novels that have been written by nostalgic dudes who express their feelings through the prism of pop music could fill an entire library . What makes “Party of One” such a standout in this overcrowded genre is Holmes’s voice, which is conversational, insightful about how the entertainment we consume informs our memories and, most important, really, really funny. I have written for some of the same publications as Holmes and worked with some of the same editors, but do not know him personally. Yet reading this memoir feels like he’s been a friend of mine for years. I suspect I am not alone in that feeling.
“Party of One” enables Holmes to share his opinions about extremely important matters, like the Simple Minds song “Don’t You Forget About Me”: “I heard it the way I imagine the people of 1971 heard ‘What’s Going On’ for the first time, except the cause of our generation was getting teenagers to see the new Molly Ringwald movie.”
But it also focuses extensively on Holmes’s struggle to come to terms with being gay as a young Catholic boy in St. Louis and, later, to live as an out and proud adult. He writes about that struggle with candor, sensitivity and his trademark self-deprecating humor. (There’s a story in the book that involves the Indigo Girls and his frustration about openly expressing his sexuality that is just gangbusters.) All of that will resonate deeply with people who have wrestled with their own homosexuality, but really, it will strike a chord with anyone who has ever felt inhibited or insecure. Which is to say, it will resonate with everyone.
Memoirs, by their nature, are prone to self-indulgence and narcissism, but Holmes manages to avoid both. He lays his own insecurities so bare and shares personal anecdotes in such an engaging manner that the reader’s eyes never glaze over in response to excess bragging or name-dropping.
But, of course, he does eventually get to the part of his life that involved working at MTV in the late ’90s and early 2000s. That period followed the moment he lost the network’s “Wanna Be a VJ” contest to Jesse Camp . “For years after Wanna Be a VJ, every single day of my life, I was asked about Jesse Camp,” Holmes writes, noting that the questions have never gone away and usually tend to manifest themselves in the following order: “Was that contest real? Are you angry you lost to that guy? Is he really like that? The answers are: Yes, not really, and still, after all this time, I honestly have no idea.”
Holmes recalls his days of hosting MTV shows like “Eye Spy Video” and “Say What, Karaoke?” with bemused wonder: “I just had to pretend that it was totally normal that I was suddenly wearing makeup and getting my clothes picked out for me and talking about 98 Degrees into a camera that was recording images that would get played in people’s living rooms.” He revisits these moments and others — including a completely ridiculous interview for a job as the gay sidekick to Tori Spelling on a daytime talk show — in a manner that never suggests any self-importance; he’s just inviting us into the moment so that we experience the absurdity together.
Holmes remembers that the first time he saw that Blind Melon video, he looked at his television and said out loud: “I [expletive] get you, Bee Girl.” By the time you reach the last page of “Party of One,” there’s a good chance you’ll look at this book and say, out loud: “I get you, Dave Holmes.”
Jen Chaney is the TV columnist for New York magazine’s Vulture.
By Dave Holmes
Crown Archetype. 274 pp. $26