Welcome to Life Review, a live review section on Aux.Out that looks to expand beyond the access provided by a concert ticket. Today, veteran music writer and critic Allen Rabinowitz embarks on a personal study between the young Television of 1975, and the critically-acclaimed legends of 2014. His answer may surprise you.
Part One: Then
It was your basic late autumn New York evening: a slight chill enveloping the pedestrians walking through the streets of a sketchy downtown neighborhood. The eeriness of the evening compounded by the spooky illumination caused by street lights bathed in the frosty air and the full moon glowing as fiercely as a movie theater marquee.
The visitors made their way cautiously to the doorway of the club on the Bowery, a part of the city that carried a notorious reputation for close to two centuries; they weren’t looking for trouble, just entertainment. The out-of-place white awning announced the club’s name: CBGB&OMFUG.
The club’s interior was dark and foreboding, as was the clientele—unknown to the visitors to consist primarily of other musicians on the New York Rock scene and bridge-and-tunnel kids from the outer boroughs, Jersey, and the Island curious about the rumors they’ve heard of the night’s headliners and their guitar duo.
In this late autumn of 1975, the musical movement known as New York Rock (soon to be tagged “punk rock”) was unknown outside of a few clubs (along with CBGB, there was also Max’s Kansas City a short walk uptown near Union Square, and the soon-to-be defunct Mother’s across from the legendary Chelsea Hotel). Within the walls of these music emporiums, however, these otherwise obscure bands were as big as any being played on popular radio. And, few were more beloved by the scenesters than Television, the quartet heading the bill.
Ever since the band’s inception in the early 1970s, Television had been tough to characterize. Led by masterful lead guitarist Tom Verlaine, Television had gone against trends by instead creating a unique sound that combined elements of jazz, folk, and rock & roll, spiced up with flavorings from the Middle East and Caribbean. At a time when the other bands on the New York Rock scene eschewed long-form guitar solos, Television indulged in lengthy six-string adventures that nonetheless stayed true to the spirit and force of “Punk” in performances that challenged the audience with the tight sound of a four-piece band more interested in exploring the limits of the electric guitar than posing as practitioners of the next big thing.
Along with the Ramones, Television started the scene by discovering CBGB, and Verlaine‘s crew (then called the Neon Boys and consisting of Verlaine; Richard Lloyd, guitar and vocals; Billy Ficca, drums; and Richard Hell, bass and vocals) held down the Sunday night spot for several months. With totally different approaches to music — the Ramones with 20 songs in 30 minutes and Television’s mystic odysseys — the bands nevertheless brought in fans who, in turn, formed their own bands after seeing the freedom of the players onstage. And so, if your personal favorites from that era include Blondie, Mink DeVille, and Talking Heads, you can thank Television for giving them a place to begin.
Verlaine’s unexpected virtuosity captured kudos not only from the true believers downtown, but also from the uptown establishment. His explosive guitar performance and Dylanesque vocals led The New York Times pop music columnist John Rockwell to write: “There really isn’t anything quite like it around and it’s definitely worth hearing.” Other critics were more excited, dubbing Verlaine the “finest rock guitarist around.”
Terry Ork, who booked the bands at CBGB, signed a deal with the band and released a 45 rpm single titled “Little Johnny Jewel” on his Ork Records label in 1975, and though the club jukebox was the only place to hear it, it was a soundtrack for the early days of the scene, in constant rotation it seemed between every band’s sets.
On this particular night, the set included “Little Johnny Jewel”, the first of the New York Rock songs committed to vinyl, and the bulk of what was to become Marquee Moon, their debut album on Elektra Records in 1977. The band’s personnel had changed, with Hell leaving the band to form The Heartbreakers with former New York Dolls’ guitarist Johnny Thunders before leaving that outfit to form Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Replacing him on bass was Fred Smith, not a self-defined poet/rock star like Hell, but rather a workmanlike, steady bass player who provided the platform for Verlaine and Lloyd to blast off into the upper limits of the atmosphere.
The crowd moved up to the stage apron, and because no one sat, it was a difficult line of vision from the back tables of the narrow club, but that was not a problem since on this night, CBGB’s sound system was more than adequate. Verlaine and Lloyds’ guitars battled like scorpions in a box, or danced like two swans in the middle of an elaborate courting ritual, as Ficca and Smith laid down a free-flowing bottom. Dressed in tee-shirts, flannels, and blue jeans, the lean and rangy Verlaine and the short-haired, blonde ragamuffin Lloyd resembled college students at a dorm party gig more than up-and-coming guitar heroes. The lighting was minimal, forcing the standing audience to concentrate on the band.
Other than the six-string wizardry, there wasn’t much to highlight in the band’s stage presence. Both Verlaine and Lloyd avoided the mic stand as if it was a medieval torture device, not sharing conversations or even song titles with the enraptured audience. Neither man engaged in onstage pyrotechnics except when it involved a guitar. Verlaine’s Dylan-like lyrics were delivered in a high raspy voice, which gave them a timeless, mystical quality. Even though he took his stage name from the French poet Paul Verlaine, the Television frontman’s emphasis was on the music, not on the words.
Though the album wasn’t released at this point, a spark of recognition heartily greeted the choppy, stuttering introduction to “Marquee Moon”. For the next 20 minutes, the audience was transported from a sleazy bar in a bad part of town to the surface of a distant planet lit by a flashing, electric satellite. The guides were the twisting and turning guitars of Verlaine and Lloyd. The performance was as magical as the setting was minimal.
At the end of the set, the audience left CBGB transfixed and waiting for the debut album and the other classic excursions that were sure to follow. Though they dared not utter the words, the visitors knew in their hearts that this was a privileged moment, that in a short matter of time Tom Verlaine would be in the pantheon of exalted guitarists and the band would be playing in venues whose main purpose was housing athletic events and other spectacles. This had to happen. We were all certain of it.
Part Two: In Between
Over the next four decades, the road taken by Television contained the following events:
•Elektra releases Marquee Moon in 1977 to great critical acclaim but lackluster commercial response. Though a number of music critics proclaim it as Album of the Year, Album of the Decade, and similar honors, the public in overwhelming numbers ignore it, as they do Adventure, the band’s second album.
•The band breaks up.
•Verlaine and Lloyd release solo efforts, which join the Television albums in oblivion.
•The band re-forms. Tours draw ecstatic, but not huge audiences. Band does not release third album. Television breaks up.
•Billy Ficca enjoys a taste of success as drummer for the Waitresses, a new wave group that produces a handful of pop hits.
•Teens inspired and influenced by Television go out and form bands, which leads to the “shoegazer” phase in English rock. Shoegazing never catches on big in the U.S.
•Verlaine maintains solo career, plays without longtime collaborator Lloyd. Jimmy Rip fills in.
•Rolling Stone names Verlaine as one of the Greatest 100 Guitarists of All Time.
•Band gets back together to tour worldwide. Doesn’t release third album or get elected to Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
•Lloyd rejoins band. The third album still not released.
•Television plays worldwide tour. Lloyd quits band, Rip fills in. Third album is rumored to see the light of day the day after hell freezes over.
•Global warming affects quality of life on Planet Earth.
Part Three: Now
Some four decades after helping create the downtown New York Rock sound that came to be called “Punk rock,” Television dazzled an audience of true believers at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood on April 2nd. The nearly sold-out venue wasn’t as intimate as the New York City clubs where the band built its reputation, a veteran follower could close his eyes and imagine Television playing the second set of a long night’s gig at CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City circa 1976.
Verlaine was surrounded by longtime rhythm section of drummer Billy Ficca and Fred Smith on bass as he hit the stage to loud applause by the faithful. Second guitarist Richard Lloyd declined to join this incarnation of the band, but his usual role of Verlaine’s partner in exploration was more than filled by Jimmy Rip, who has collaborated with Verlaine on solo projects.
Photo by Amy Price
As beloved as a band can be by its ardent followers, Television has, in its years of existence, managed to inhabit a niche that allows them to tour, sell a few albums here and there, and see the world. Any place they play, the longtime fans—and in some instances their children—will show up to hear “Little Johnny Jewel”, “See No Evil”, “Elevation”, and of course, “Marquee Moon”. The followers may know the titles of the songs, but because it’s Television, they know the number will be different than the last time they heard it.
The band has aged a bit over the years: Verlaine is still gaunt, but his hair is receding and graying, in his slacks and tee-shirt he could be mistaken for a literature professor at some small liberal arts college. Smith has put on some weight and lost some hair, and Ficca’s once curly crop of hair has grayed. The only exception was newcomer Rip, who with his shaven pate, sunglasses, and cowpuncher-style hat could have played a gunslinger in a spaghetti Western.
The look of the band may have changed, but their stage presence is unchanged. Verlaine still avoids the mic stand as if it’s Satan’s torture tool, but given the sound problems plaguing the performance, he chose wisely. The snap, crackle, pop of unintentional feedback probably informed his choice of whether or not to be electrocuted.
Photo by Amy Price
Verlaine & Co. were warmly greeted when they entered the stage and were off and running with “Guiding Light”, the players each taking a solo in the song. Rip and Verlaine handled their roles expertly — guitar slingers facing off with dueling Fenders on Main Street at High Noon. Before the second tune, a hot version of “Venus”, the audience surged into the gap between the stage and the first row of seats, carefully watching the fretboards on the guitars to catch the nuances of the notes raging out of the amplifiers.
During the course of the show, the vast majority of the songs were from Marquee Moon, with no songs from their other album or from Verlaine’s solo albums. No hint of the mythic third album. It takes guts to expect the audience to be satisfied hearing selections from a debut album almost 40 years old, but the audience didn’t care; this was the music they came to shake their balding, waistline-expanded, middle-aged bodies over.
The true art of Television came in a trio of songs including “Elevation” and “Friction” along with “Little Johnny Jewel.” The band took these almost half-century-old tunes and breathed life into them, especially Rip’s thermonuclear solo on “Friction” and Verlaine’s reading on “Jewel”.
Photo by Amy Price
The highlight of the evening came with the closing two numbers of the set. On “Persia”, a demo song from back in the day, Verlaine led the band and the audience on a ’round-the-world expedition during the 15-minute song, which allowed Verlaine to incorporate influences ranging from gypsy guitar to reggae to Middle Eastern motifs in a dazzling display of technique, passion, and glorious riffing. The extravaganza led into another long jam on “Marquee Moon”, with Verlaine and Rip once again trading off each other’s fiery solos to blast off on a voyage to a faraway planet first glimpsed on a chilly Manhattan night — but this time, seen with the eyes of an experienced explorer.
The two numbers took up almost a third of the near 90-minute show, before the audience called Television back for a two-song encore highlighted by their take on a one-hit wonder by a California band called Count Five. In its first incarnation, “Psychotic Reaction” was a Yardbirds-style psychedelic rave-up, but in Television’s hands, it took on a slower, blues feel closer to jazz than punk.
Part Four: After
No rock band has ever put on a perfect show. By its very nature — from a garage band rehearsal to halftime at the Super Bowl — live performance is fraught with peril. Balky amps, halls with horrible acoustics, temperamental players, and disappointed audience members who, no matter how loud they screamed, did not hear their favorites. In fact, it’s a miracle that any show is not a total and complete disaster.
The Television gig at Variety Playhouse was excellent, but it did have its technical problems, along with the fans who claimed if Richard Lloyd was not present, then it just wasn’t a Television performance. That can all be brushed away by saying the show itself was top notch and a success despite the horrid sound system.
In this show, however, there was a sense of something historic. Two gigs by the same band, with the same set list separated by almost 40 years. But that’s where hairs must be split. Even if Lloyd had appeared, this was a different band, one 40 years older and hopefully wiser, one tested by the heartless music business and the killing aspects of life on the road.
Photo by Amy Price
One band — and its fans — are the young guys, full of piss and vinegar and the urgent need to come alive in the stage lights night after night. Their hearts are filled with great expectations of stardom, and their eyes are fixed on the prize. There is no doubt of success, only rocket-fueled ambition.
The other band consists of savvy veterans who have seen and experienced all that the rock and roll life can throw at you. Their youthful ambition has turned into an insider’s knowledge of being showmen, of playing your best no matter what the venue, of how to find joy in the way a particular riff sounds on a given night. It’s the difference between being a cocky, young man looking to blow away the competition or an older man who can find satisfaction in the knowledge that he is still able to strap on his guitar and bring pleasure to people who know his repertoire by heart.
So, it comes down to which show was better: the young guys of 1975 or the been-there, done-that veterans of 2014? It all depends on where you find yourself on the line that divides the past from the present. Whether you prefer the vitality of the youthful Television or the craftsmanship of today’s band, there is joy to be found in either version and comfort in knowing there is no wrong answer.
Allen Rabinowitz has been a professional writer for over three decades. His work has appeared in everywhere from People Magazine to Soho Weekly News to Creative Loafing. He currently lives in Atlanta, GA.