Television Is Watching You
Hit Parader May or March 77
By James Wolcott
On the albino-white walls of my apartment I’ve tacked up some CBGB mementoes: a photograph of Jonathan Richman ducking a flying bottle, a small Talking Heads poster, a picture of Patti Smith in a virginal white dress and anklet socks, and a Xerox of a Patti Smith / Television poster, in which Patti looks …um, abused…like a battered runaway in an Odyssey House ad, and Television – Well, Television in this early photograph looks like something which slithered out of a witch’s womb. Richard Lloyd (guitar) has scratchy cream-blond dyed hair, Tom Verlaine (guitar) is holding on a portable TV with Richard Hell (bass), and Hell, with his piss-tired eyes and electroshock hair looks like escapee from Creedmoor; to the right of the image Billy Ficca (percussion) stands tough, with drumsticks stuck in his pants. In this photo, Television doesn’t look like a rock band, they look like a squad of droogies who would ransack your apartment and leave crayoned graffiti on the walls.|
And yet there literally would be no CBGB scene in New York if it weren’t for Television: it was Verlaine and Lloyd who originally conned – I mean persuaded – Hilly Krystal to let a rock band play there, and TV played when the bar was nothing but dog dung, broken bottles, and reeling, vomiting winos. When I first saw Television in performance, they were playing a weekend gig with a semi-notorious skinny raven-haired singer named Patti Smith, who causes palpitations with just a toss of her head. Richard Hell snarled and pounced, Verlaine ripped through his solos like a bat with flaming wings, and the songs had provocative titles – “(The Arms of) Venus de Milo”, “Love Comes in Spurts” – but I was so spellbound by Patti S. that Television stayed at the periphery of my vision. It wasn’t until a night at a 23rd Street bar named Mother’s that their image came in crisp and clear.
Lou Reed and his constant companion Rachel sat at a table with Richard Robinson and myself, and throughout the evening Lou grumbled and bitched about everything and nothing, like a sailor with a sore case of the clap. When Television did its version of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, Lou finally made a grouchy exit, but some loose voltage of rancor hung in the air, and when TV concluded with its anthem “Kingdom Come”, the song surged with angry force. Towards the end of the song, Verlaine broke a string, then methodically broke every string, snapping them with stern malicious delight; he then laid his guitar down, and went to his amplifier and began slamming it against the wall, slamming it hard and obsessively, with the manic cool of Steve McQueen assaulting a pillbox in “Hell Is For Heroes”. The band kept playing, Verlaine kept pummelling the amplifier, and, finally, Verlaine abandoned the battered amplifier and sauntered off stage and the kingdom come was spent.
After that, every performance became a must-see event: when Television played a weekend with la belle, la real swell Talking Heads (by this time Fred Smith replaced Richard Hell, who had gone on to the Heartbreakers); when they played CBGB’s on New Year’s Eve and Patti Smith joined in on “Psychotic Reaction”; when TV played a college gig at Hofstra and held forth on that large stage with a stark, imperial vulnerability. During this ascent, Television released a 45, “Little Johnny Jewel” which is watery compared to the live version, but sounds unforgettable on the CBGB jukebox; with quarter after quarter pumped into the juke, “Little Johnny Jewel” served as an invaluable advertisement for the band.
Now, happy occasion, Television has released its first album on Elektra-Asylum, tentatively titled “Marquee Moon” or, more likely, “Elevation.” (My favorite title is the one they rejected – “See No Evil.”) With eight songs, it’s a lengthy album – about 45 minutes – but it never sags into boringness or stretches itself strainfully. As sound, the album is a fine steel mesh: the guitars have a tense, tight clarity and Ficca’s drumming (which is often muffled on the CBGB stage) is quick and crisp.
Though a number of legendary Television songs are not here – hopefully “O Mi Amore”, “I Don’t Care”, “Kingdom Come” and abandoned beauties like “Bluebird”, “Double Exposure” and “Judy Says” will appear on forthcoming LPs – the songs included are stainless selections. They are: “Friction”, “Prove It”, “Torn Curtain”, “Guiding Light”, “See No Evil”, “Venus de Milo”, “Elevation” and “Marquee Moon.”
Of them, at least four are New York rock classics. “See No Evil” has propulsion, a beautiful solo by Richard Lloyd, some nifty lyrics (“I get your point”, sings Verlaine sarcastically, “You’re real sharp”), and I love the way Verlaine’s voice does a soaring screech at the fadeout. The wistful, passionate “Guiding Light” is the most moving elegy since Hank Williams was so lonesome he could cry. And hardcore Televisionaries will be pleased that “Venus de Milo” is on the album; it’s to Television what “The Lady Is A Tramp” is to Sinatra – a signature song. Like “Tramp” it wears well: I’ve heard “Venus de Milo” at least 70 times and have yet to tire of it.
But the LP’s masterwork is “Marquee Moon”. It begins with guitars calling to each other like voices across the railroad tracks; there’s a long serpentine solo by Verlaine and near the end the guitars shimmer and cry like dolphins at play. As for the lyrics, in a slightly sizzled interview with Verlaine and Lloyd in Punk, Verlaine says, “They’re just an atmosphere. That’s the whole thing. I mean, you don’t have to say what you mean to get across.” And Lloyd says: “It’s like you say five words and you only mean the sixth.” Verlaine: “Right.”
Except for “Venus”, “Marquee Moon”, has the best lyrics on the album, particularly when Verlaine, teetering on the edge of the inexpressible, sings, “I was listening, listening to the rain/ I was hearing something else.” Those words may look prosaic on the page but when sung, it’s as if a landscape is being stretched out before the listener – a landscape hidden in a mist. The song fades on Verlaine’s vocal but even as the needle lifts from the groove, the song plays on, unfolding endlessly in silent space.
A sensational album, maybe even a great one: too early to tell right now. As this is being written, I’ve only heard the album twice on tape when Tom and Fred played it for Lisa, Richard and myself at the Robinsons’ sprawling Xanadu apartment. When it’s finally on record – and by the time you read this sentence, it will be – it will have a fuller presence, and speculation can commence on whether the album is a dwarf star, a star, a nova or a supernova. Of course, there will be those will say none of the above, that TV’s LP represents yet another diabolical attempt by New York rock writers to foist an underground band down the wallets of unsuspecting teenies. Ignore such people. They’re just slurks who should be doing something useful with their lives, like digging for earth-worms. No, it’s best to approach the band without preconceptions, without expectations. Act as if you’ve just tuned in and don’t have a TV Guide handy: spin the dial until you get the image you want; let the light fill the room. I hope the album is finally called “Elevation” because in the 19th century, elevation was another term for opium, and Television at its ferocious best – when Verlaine and Lloyd with their eyes closed are driving the guitars into the stratosphere – has the same soaring euphoria.
“The patience of a poppy,” wrote Jean Cocteau. “He who has smoked will smoke. Opium knows how to wait.” So does Television; and right now Television is in the shadows, waiting for you.