Television: Knock, Knock, Knocking

Boston Phoenix, June 6, 1978

by Deborah Frost

He's the kid in the back of every high school classroom -- the one you never thought could talk. The one you try to remember (and can't) when you see his face in the newspaper because he's had a tragic accident or committed some shocking crime. You'd least expect to find him a rock cult hero, purveying terminal romanticism to an amplified beat. But Tom Verlaine isn't your run-of-the-mill rock hero. He refuses to swagger; he couldn't strike a pose if he tried. If he's the Jesus of Cool, it's because, as he says, "I don't care."

His drab T-shirt hanging limply over beltless Levis, he shuffled onto stage at the Paradise last Sunday, looking like John-boy of the Waltons after a close encounter. His singing sobbed and stuttered; his guitar leads sputtered. He even wiped the neck of his Fender Jazzmaster with a ratty sweater - but he wasn't trying to be coy. Every move, every note, every syllable was marked by a humility, that's almost shocking in the context of performance. The very ordinariness of the offhand gestures is what makes Tom Verlaine so incredibly strange. There's nothing arrogant, nothing spiteful about him. Unlike every angry young man from Dylan to Costello, Verlaine knows who's responsible for his frustration. He is constantly struggling to surmount his own imperfections, his inability to attain the glory as he describes it on Television's second album for Elektra, Adventure.

Verlaine's 'glory' has nothing to do with the traditional trappings of success. He isn't looking for fame or fortune ("that ain't nothin' " as he might say) but for spiritual exaltation. Although his peers among the New York underground (Blondie, Mink DeVille, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, et al) scramble toward terra firma of hit records and slick production, Verlaine and Television remain primitive purists, defiantly resisting anything that would make them accessible to a mass audience.

It isn't that the band hasn't developed and improved - they have; Adventure makes that obvious. The music has more crunch, more muscle than its predecessor Marquee Moon. Perhaps this is because of former Blondie bassist Fred Smith's increasing assurance. As he has become an integral part of the band, Smith's playing has become more assertive. But he is never obtrusive - he simply provides a steady rhythmic anchor for Verlaine's wandering guitar. Unlike Richard Hell, whom he replaced, Smith complements rather than clashes with the leader. And Television is, after all, Verlaine's vision.

Verlaine's dictatorship could have become self-defeating, but his single-mindedness has resulted in the group's new cohesion and overall refinement of technique. Adventure's songs may not have the emotional clarity of "See No Evil", "Venus", or "Elevation", but they are sparked by a spontaneity that Marquee Moon lacked. Verlaine has been able to let out the sails without the fear hinted at in "Carried Away" - that the "old ropes will grow slack." "Foxhole" may sound like a Deep Purple outtake, but its raw power points to Television's unfulfilled potential. The guitar interplay of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd is still serrated, the vocals often eat away at the listener's nerve endings - but in the Byrds-meet-Albert Ayler tonalities of "Days" and "Carried Away", is the haunting beauty Verlaine has incessantly strived for. Verlaine has been unflaggingly uncompromising in his quest - he refuses to utilize a producer who will polish the band's sound or burnish the arrangement.

Both Andy Johns, who was partially responsible for the first album, and John Jansen, who co-produced Adventure, functioned as little more than engineers. It's easy to see why Patti Smith was attracted to him - without bluster, he manages to achieve the higher consciousness she only toys with. Ironically, Verlaine's goals are better expressed by "Knocking On Heaven's Door", the Dylan song included in live performance - than by anything on either of Television's albums. And if Verlaine keeps a-knockin' he just might get in.