The New York punk-guitar godfathers pick up where they left
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
``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
``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
``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,''
``No,'' Verlaine responds philosophically. ``We agree to
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.''