Down In The Scuzz With The Heavy Cult Figures

Source: NME (June 7, 1975)

by Charles Shaar Murray

C.B.G.B. is a toilet. An impossibly scuzzy little club buried somewhere in the sections of the Village that the cab-drivers don't like to drive through.

It looks as if the proprietors kick holes in the walls and piss in the corners before they let the customers in; fo' the atmosphere, you dig. None of the low-budget would-be elegance of Max's Kansas City in the final agonies of its death throes but carefully-choreographed movie-set sleaze.

The audience, who consist mainly of nondescript urban hippies, a smattering of heav-vy street bro's, rock intelligentsia and the occasional confused tourist, are revelling in the tack and basking in their own hipness just for being there.

Tonight, y'see, is Patti Smith and Television, two of the most droppable names of the New York rock circuit.

Patti Smith is a Heavy Cult Figure, who attracts the Cool Four Hundred, and Television are still on the verge of becoming Heavy Cult Figures, which is even more attractive.

The fastest and most concise way to describe Television is that they're New York's equivalent to the Feelgoods.

They're a lot younger, perform original material and Tom Verlaine, the leader, was evidently severely traumatised by Lou Reed at an impressionable age; but, outside of the obvious cultural differences between the Manhattan and Canvey Islands, the similarities are astounding.

Both bands play chopped-down, hard-edged, no-bullshit rock and roll, totally eschewing the preening Mickey-Mouse decadence that poleaxed the previous new wave of N.Y. bands.

Television don't dress up and they don't even move much.

The rhythm guitarist is spraddle-legged and blank-eyed, chopping at his Telecaster like some deranged piece of machinery, braced so that he can lurch in any direction without falling over. He's wearing Fillmore East T-shirt, which is the ultimate in dressing down.

The bass player wears his shades on every other number, and Verlaine, frozen-faced and zombie-eyed, alternately clutches his mic stand with both hands and blazes away at off-balance methedrine speed-fingers lead guitar marathons on a gold-topped Les Paul.

Television are a total product of New York, but like the Feelgoods they embody both the traditional and the revolutionary, and they represent an escape from the roller-coaster to oblivion into which rock is currently strait-jacketed - i.e, an imaginative return to basics - and what they lose to the Feelgoods in energy and pacing, they gain in imagination.

That a band like Television are currently happening and that people are listening to them is indisputable proof that rock is a hardier beast than much of the more depressing evidence would suggest.

Which brings us, quite logically, to Patti Smith, who has Just Signed A Big Contract and is therefore about to be massively publicised and fed into the start machine.

Right now though she and Television are still on display fairly regularly to anybody with three or four dollars to hand over as C.B.G.B.'s price of admission.

Her performing environment is a stage smaller than Greg Lake's carpet, which places her less than two feet away from the nearest customer and gives her less than a foot's height advantage. The lighting is, to say the least, elementary.

Which means that, in a club the size of C.B.G.B, the tricks of the trade that the big guys use to duplicate or replace real charisma are technically impossible, and so the act has to either do it all by themselves or else it doesn't get done at all.

Patti Smith has an aura that'd probably show up under ultra violet-light. She can generate more intensity with a single movement of one hand than most rock performers can produce in an entire set.

On the face of it, it's an unlikely act to team with a chopped-hog, hell-driven band like Television. A lady poet, backed by a band who doesn't even have a drummer sounds like an improbable expression for any kind of definitive rock consciousness. But Patti Smith is in the rock and roll marketplace and she knows the ground rules. More important, she knows how it works.

She's an odd little waif figure in a grubby black suit and black satin shirt, so skinny that her clothes hang baggily all over her, with chopped-off black hair and a face like Keith Richard's kid sister would have if she'd gotten as wasted by age seventeen as Keith is now.

Her band (Richard Sohl on guitar and bass, Lenny Kaye on guitar and a kid known as D.N.V.- an abbreviation of "Death In Venice")play like a garage band who've learned a few '30s licks to go with the mutated AM rock.

She stands there machine-gunning out her lines, singing a bit and talking a bit, in total control, riding it and steering it with a twist of a shoulder here, a flick of a wrist there - scaled down bird-like movements that carry an almost unbelievable degree of power, an instinctive grasp of the principles of mime that teach that the quality and timing of a gesture is infinitely more important than its size.

Her closing tour de force, an inspired juxtaposition of "Land of 1000 Dances" with a rock-poem about a kid getting beaten up in a locker room, was undoubtedly the most gripping performance that I've seen by a white act since the last time I saw The Who.

For the duration of her set that night, Patti Smith embodied and equalled everybody that I've ever dug on a rock and roll stage.

Whether her records will be any good or not (or for that matter, whether Television will be able to get it down on record) is another kettle of swordfish altogether.

All that really needs to be said is that watching Television and Patti Smith that evening was one of the most exciting rock experiences I've had for a long, long time, and that both acts have something that rock and roll desperately needs.

One more thing. In the audience at the Alice Cooper gig in Detroit was a kid done up exactly like Patti Smith. Something's happening.