Television's Refined Tuning

Source: Rolling Stone, 1/7/93

by Anthony DeCurtis

The New York punk-guitar godfathers pick up where they left off

THOUGH THEY HAVE JUST REUNITED for their first record together in nearly fifteen years, the members of Television aren't in the mood to talk - at least, not about the past. Marquee Moon (1977) and Adventure (1978) - the albums singer-guitarist Tom Verlaine, guitarist Richard Lloyd, bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca released at the height of the punk-rock heyday in New York - may have spellbound a generation of alternative rockers from U2 and R.E.M. to Siouxsie and the Banshees. But a question about how the band itself feels about those albums meets seven seconds of stone silence followed by an explosion of laughter.

``You're questioning us about the past without realizing how bored we are with it and how bad our memory is about it, how disinterested we are in talking about it,'' says Verlaine, who is smoking while lying on his stomach on the floor of a rehearsal studio in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, with the other band members seated around him. ``So, no offense, but it is really tough.''

You're telling me. The band has clearly chosen to lighten the psychic weight of its gloried history by playing it down. Even the title of the new album, simply Television, seems an almost desperate plea for a new beginning. By the time Verlaine dismisses the band's groundbreaking origins with Patti Smith, the Ramones and Talking Heads as ``all the blah-blah, CBGB, blah-blah stuff,'' Lloyd recoils.

``Well, we did start the damn thing,'' Lloyd says, referring to the downtown club scene Television pioneered in 1973, when the equally legendary Richard Hell was the group's bassist.

``Yeah,'' says Verlaine, yawning in agreement. ``Yeah.''

``No one else started that,'' says Lloyd.

``Yeah, I know.''
Lloyd continues: ``I mean, CBGB was a biker bar that [club owner] Hilly Kristal was going to have Irish music in.''

``He did have Irish music in.''

``Until we started playing there,'' says Lloyd. ``And all those other bands sought it out because there was literally no place else to play. So we did create that.''

``We didn't create it,'' Verlaine says absently, as if disputing a fact about something that had taken place on the moon. ``We found the opportunity before somebody else did. I would even say that there isn't any real myth about this group.''

``Oh, come on,'' I finally say, nearing exasperation.

``I'm serious,'' Verlaine insists.

``He's serious,'' Lloyd assures me. Lloyd then tries to describe Television's uniqueness: ``How many two-guitar bands are there with such weird guitarists?''

``You're not such a weird guitarist,'' says Verlaine.

``Everything I say . . . you don't have to agree with,'' says Lloyd.

``No,'' Verlaine responds philosophically. ``We agree to disagree.''

Can this (second) marriage be saved? Whatever its ultimate fate - and the band members are noncommittal about the future - Television has produced a new album that is long on the virtues that earned the band its reputation: adventurousness, wit, variety and sheer sonic beauty. If the group is uncomfortable being interviewed, perhaps that's because both Verlaine's surreal lyrics and the band's music, which bursts out of complex entanglements into soaring flight, seek to communicate at a level deeper than consciousness. Songs like ``Shane, She Wrote This,'' ``1880 or So'' and ``This Tune'' lift off from their accessible pop arrangements into atmospheres rife with suggested but never strictly defined meanings.

When our talk ends, the group is visibly relieved and readies for rehearsal. ``Now we go back to not thinking,'' Lloyd says happily, eager to stop making sense.

``MORE QUESTIONS?'' ASKS VERLAINE with the exaggerated charm of Count Dracula the next day, when he and I meet for a follow-up chat in the studio's grungy lounge. ``More things to avoid.''

Verlaine, who is now forty-two, seems more relaxed by himself. Wearing the same black jeans and T-shirt he had on the day before, he inhabits his tall, lean body with an otherworldly grace. His skin is fair to the point of translucency, and he would seem altogether ethereal but for his instinctive contrariness and the vestigial New Jersey accent that roughens the edges of his speech. As we talk, he is stringing his guitar and, as always, smoking. With odd appropriateness, Lou Reed walks in and out of the room to make phone calls. He briefly nods to us. I can't tell if he knows who Verlaine is.

Regarded equally for his bold, idiosyncratic playing and his jarring words, the former Tom Miller (he took his surname from the nineteenth-century French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine) says: ``I always thought even of lead guitar as accompaniment - the main thing is the voice and what it's saying, the melody. When me and Billy started out years ago, I would play something that was never thought out or anything, and that would be the guitar solo. This continued for years, until when we did a record, it was the same thing. And then people started to talk about the guitar all the time.

``It's not that it's unimportant,'' Verlaine continues. ``It's real important - but in terms of the solos, I don't come at it from an instrumentalist's point of view. I can't imagine why anybody would want to learn how to play somebody else's solo, but I guess that's how a lot of guitar players come to it. Whereas I had - maybe it was the misfortune - of taking piano and saxophone for years.''

Verlaine's distinctive vision accounts for the strange emotional consistencies among the three Television albums as well as his six solo outings. Moods vary and styles shift on those albums - from shimmering folk rock to clangorous twin-guitar improvisation, from dreamy ballad to loopy film noir fantasy - but his touch is unmistakable.

``Maybe it's seeing everything as one giant song that you can take pieces out of, which then also become songs,'' Verlaine explains in his elliptical way. ``Like taking a piece out of a puzzle and making that into a puzzle. Let's say you had a puzzle of a Jackson Pollock painting. If you took one of those pieces out, it might be three red drips and a white stripe. And if you took another one out, it might be a blotch of gold. But it's all the same thing.''

Verlaine stops to think for a moment, then turns back to his work on the guitar. ``You know, there is something I'm looking for when I'm writing,'' he says, almost sheepish now. ``But I couldn't tell you what that is.''