Symbolist Coffee Break: A Dream Date With T.V.

The Music Gig – September 76

By Wesley Strick

If it can boast nothing more, Television bears the distinction of being Manhattan’s most written-up, unrecorded band. Given the availability of press hype, you don’t need a Woodstein to ferret the facts.

Let’s start with teenage Tom Miller’s 1968 odyssey from Wilmington, Delaware to New York, New York. “I came here to start a group.” Tom recalls, “and it took me six years to do it.”

1972 saw the stillbirth of an avantgardist, would-be assault called the Neon Boys. The lineup: Tom on guitar, old Wilmington buddies Richard Hell (bass) and Billy Ficca (drums). “Billy’d been drumming fourteen years, Hell was playing bass two weeks, and I was in the middle, trying to mediate the whole thing.”

The Boys’ swift demise taught Tom a lesson in conceptualisation and musical minimalism. “It just got so boring so quick. If you work from a single idea it gets stale, fast.”

Tom came off the Neon Boys’ breakup with a series of unheralded solo gigs. “I played a loud electric guitar at Reno Sweeney’s. Figured people would show up and say, “I know what you’re doing. I play, too.” That’s how Richard Lloyd first saw me.”

Guitarist Lloyd’s opportune entrée sparked the reformation of a new, improved Neon Boys. Tom traded “Miller” for the surname of the 19th century French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. Richard Hell thought up the symbolic sobriquet “Television”. Was he punning on Tom’s adopted initials? “Maybe, I dunno,” Verlaine hedges. He’s clearly bored with the joke.

The infant Television found a patron in Terry Ork, who provided a sustenance and rehearsal space. The extra dimension of Lloyd’s guitar gave Verlaine the freedom to develop his “sui generis”, six-string stylings. The oft-cited early inspiration of jazzman Albert Ayler provided a clue to Verlaine’s eccentric attack: “Downbeat would review his albums with, like, zero stars. Said he was complete noise. He’d play those little melodies that sounded like a kid in kindergarten singing. But there was a real strong feeling behind it, it wasn’t just like going crazy…”

Television rehearsed for several months before stumbling on steady work, in a farcical encounter that’s now rock history. “I was walking down the Bowery one night and I saw this place,” Verlaine remembers. “I said, “Who plays here?” He said, “Well, we got this Irish band comin’ in…”. “I said, “Why doncha let us audition?”. He said, “Yeah, come by sometime…” .

“He” is Hilly Krystal, the “place” is CBGB’s currently coasting on an underground rep as New York’s Bicentennial Cavern Club. Sentient scene-watchers tuned in to Patti Smith’s extended engagement, spring of 74. Television opened the show.

“We weren’t very good back then,” Verlaine concedes. “We were real loud, and extremely…loose.” So loose, in fact, that Richard Hell’s legs rarely supported his torso the length of a set. Somewhere between “Love Comes In Spurts” and “The Blank Generation”, he’d collapse in a mock/rock epileptic fit.

Visually, the tension between Verlaine’s taut visionary and Hell’s soporific spastic was riveting. Musically, the distance proved to be distracting. “I didn’t try to talk Richard into staying when he left (to join the Heartbreakers), because I knew we needed a really bass player. So we got Fred (Smith) and he’s real solid.”

Brian Eno, captivated by Verlaine’s “(Arms of) Venus de Milo”, was suddenly interested in Television. “We could’ve signed with Island Records at that point. We did a demo with Eno, but he’s not as good a producer as he is an artist himself. He gets a little carried away…” Verlaine was unhappy with Eno’s mix. “He recorded us very cold and brittle, no resonance. The guitars sounded so remote. We’re oriented toward really strong guitar music…sort of expressionistic.”

Expressionistic describes the guitar harmonics that grace Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel”: the frets tintinabulate like tubular bells left out in an electrical storm. Expressionistic also describes the band’s opener, a fierce re-working of the 13th Floor Elevator’s “Fire Engine”. “I re-wrote the lyrics, “Verlaine explains, “because I couldn’t understand what the guy was saying.”
Television also covers Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (“…we needed a slow song, and if you’re out of tune on that one, it sort of fits…”) and there’s the occasional rave-up on “Psychotic Reaction”.

The rest of the set is vintage Verlaine. Standouts include the syncopated, Raymond Chandler-ish “Prove It” (“just the facts…confidential”) and the laconic, exposed “Torn Curtain”. “The songs are usually about someone who’s both outside a situation and inside it at the same time,” Verlaine shrugs. “It’s some kinda way of life.”

Verlaine onstage is a paradox of ethereal desperation. Straining at the mike with pain and poetry, his nervous tenuousness stands in stark contrast to the indifferent pretty-boy persona of Richard Lloyd.

Verlaine in person is a slow dance of dissolution. The John-Boy facial affinity is incidental. Tom Verlaine’s cheekbones are pure rock ‘n roll. He chainsmokes Luckies. If there’s a mountain metaphor here, it’s not Walton’s Mountain, but Mann’s Magic Mountain. Verlaine’s presence is tubercular, and transcendent.

His outsized, skeletal hands support a coffee cup. The air is moist with coffee steam and myth. “We’ve always had support from other artists,” he says, between sips. “Bowie came backstage, Lennon had some nice words for us in the British press. Patti Smith, Lou Reed, John Cale…makes you feel like you’re part of something, not like you’re some isolated thing off the wall.”

I’m watching a local legend squirm on the razor-edge between Bowery obscurity and imminent celebrity. “I don’t think we’re an inaccessible New York band. I think we’ve got a lot of commercial potential, given the right company support.” As I type this, Television is “huddling” (love that word) with a major label.

“If everything goes right, we should have an album out by October, November.” Production? “A thick, well-arranged sound, getting the maximum out of two guitars without crowding the vocals or moving into jazz. A lot of craziness with a lot of order at the same time.” He stops short. “I’ve got a quote for you, a good quote to describe Television,” Verlaine grins, shyly. “In madness there is order.” His eyes twinkle with paranoid whimsy. “In madness there is order,” he repeats, entranced.
We shake on it.