Television Goes Prime-Time

Circus, April 14 1977

By Toby Goldstein

Tom Verlaine is cold. He’s dressed in a sweater and overcoat, lighting up one cigarette after the next, hunched against a radiator, but Verlaine is cold. His is the type of cold that appears permanent, more suited to another time, when artists dressed in rags and starved in garrets all to insure the purity of their art. Considering that Verlaine’s group, Television, has been signed to Elektra Records fir a rather hefty sum, his believable squalor is even more astonishing. Television is just beginning to get off the club treadmill and onto the concert circuit, but it’s going to be a long hard climb. When they opened for Patti Smith at New York’s Palladium, “Patti let us borrow her equipment, thank God,” Verlaine sighs. “It’s a matter of money.”

Money and Television, unlike the industry from which Verlaine took their name, do not have a lot in common. Television has been for the past years what is known in New York as “a CBGB’s group”, playing the half dozen punk rock venues in lower Manhattan for door money. They played at CBGB’s opening for Patti Smith, and started to build a reputation for their lengthy, doomy-shadowed compositions which many called reminiscent of the Velvet Underground. “We’re not very similar,” he urges. “Only in mood, definitely not in sound. I find it surprising that people idolize that sound.”

Verlaine is a rough-edged mix of contemporary scene observer and 19th-century mystic French poet, Paul Verlaine, whose visions of “drunken boats” suit his namesake very well. Verlaine’s stick-straight dirty-blonde hair falls across his face as he puzzles out the ironies of writing seriously for a quick-buck world. “I read a review of us once that said we were the worst band, in a national magazine. That was written by a guy who auditioned for us a year and a half ago and who I told no. It’s meeting a quota or making a living. No offence to writers, but some people write for paycheck and some write without regard to whether they’re gonna get paid at all, which is my approach to any kind of work. But we got offered deals that were a complete insult. Absolute shyster deals!”

He continues in a voice that is precise, almost clipped. “I suppose all the labels are signing bands from New York now. I guess all those CBGB’s groups are signed. One record company executive told me that with companies, it’s like they shoot 100 arrows in the dark, hoping one will be a bull’s-eye. There’s no regard to the content at all – it’s product.”

Verlaine would rather cut his own disc than be someone’s chance shot, and in fact, Television recorded and released a private single, “Little Johnny Jewel, Parts 1&2” about a year ago. A collector’s item from the moment it was pressed, the song has sold 6,000 copies in the US and Europe. “We did it on a 4-track machine in a couple of hours,” Verlaine recalls. “Just a few mikes and checkin’ to see that the machine worked, which it didn’t; it was supposed to be in stereo but it was out of sync, so we had to put it out in mono. It doesn’t really cost as much as you think to cut a record. We used to keep 10% of each gig in an account and press copies as they sold out.” Elektra’s sizeable offer to get Television on the label has pretty well guaranteed Verlaine and Co. won’t be forced to use their gig money pressing records. “Marquee Moon” captures the band’s well thought out, but somehow primeval sound on tracks with titles like “Torn Curtain”, “See No Evil” and “Friction”. Like the character of Tom Verlaine, who implies deep thoughts behind his “portrait of the artist as a young man” exterior, Television’s songs point to hidden feelings from other dimensions, all the stuff that lurks in the most powerful kind of rock and roll like Dylan’s or Lou Reed’s.

Elektra may be best known today for the Eagles-Linda Ronstadt types, but Tom Verlaine’s heart is in their storeroom, keeping company with the Doors, Love and the Stooges, visionaries of bygone years.