The Big Sleep

Source: Select (September 1992)

by David Cavanagh

It's 1977 and you've just made the original wired neurotic masterpiece 'Marquee Moon'. You are acclaimed as geniuses. Then suddenly it's 1992, you're onstage at Glastonbury and it's triumphant return time. What happened tothe last 14 years? "It was like, uh, Rip VanTelevision..."

Television can't agree on anything. They can't agree on where they first met; how long they've known each other; how they came to be one of the most intuitively god-like rock bands on the planet; how they lit up the late '70s with art, poety and ten-minute guitar duels; how they split in disillusion in 1978; or how they got back together amid vague promises of "fun" 14 years later.

They argue about the name of their old lawyer. They argue about what year David Byrne first turned up at CBGB's. They even argue about what songs were in the Television set at their re-formation gig at Glastonbury, and that was only the other week.

"I have a very good memory," insists Richard Lloytd, one of their incendiary guitar pioneers.

"See, that's not my recollection at all," says Tom Verlaine, their other incendiary guitar pioneer.

Time plays uncanny tricks on a man, and these four men here in the EMI building have had more than a few dealings with time. Here—oh Lord, here comes total fan worship gulping to the surface with a bad case of the bends—sit Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Fred Smith and Billy Ficca in a haze of cigarette smoke, laconic reminiscences and Beck's. Fourteen years after their last album, 'Adventure', the emaciated foursome from the cover of 'Marquee Moon' are together once again.

First the surprise Glastonbury date (Verlaine: "I don't remember it") and now there's a new album, called simply 'Television', out on September 14. It seems a long way off, admittedly, bjut hang on in there: It's superb. It's like the bones of Verlaine's '87 classic 'Flash Light' crossed with the soul of 'Marquee Moon', plus some weird film noir swingin' stuff, and it's so crammed full of what Richard Lloyd calls "differentness" that it can only be the work of one band.

On the subject of why they got it together again the four Television members are flippant, nonchalant and clearly unwilling to look like the one member of the band that really wanted it to happen. Slight needle is apparent in exchanges between Verlaine and Lloiyd, who together cooked up the idea of reactivating the band. Individual managers were involved, it seems. Not an easy process.

Television officially plugged in together for a three-hour jam one day in December 1990 (Verlaine, of course, thinks it was December 1991 but is soon out-voted). And, well, here they are.

"We jnust show up every 11 or so years, and cause Aurora Borealis," says Lloyd, his face cracking. "Sorta like a comet."

"We'd always held on to the name," points out bassist Fred Smith.

Lloyd: "Or a harmonic convergence."

"We've actually been very active in South America selling contraband," says Ficca.

"It's an experimental approach, as it always was," Verlaine notes. "It's like when we started, all falling together from different angles."

All of them subscribe to the "like riding a bike" theory, lobbing words like "vibration", "pulsation" and "Billy's high hat" into the ring as examples of perennial Television trademarks that made the gap of 14 years irrelevant.

LLOYD: "Although a number of years had passed, for me personally it was like the next day. Or a week later. It didn't have any sense of temporal time to it. There was no discontinuity. It was just what it was, always."

SMITH: "Like waking from a great sleep."

"Yeah!" laughs Lloyd. "Rip VanTelevision!"

Ficca looks identical to his '77 image, perhaps a little more tanned. Smith is now balding and portly, like an amiable tennis ball. Verlaine, who three separate encyclopaedias state categorically to be 42, looks 23. Not a wrinkle on the man. If they ever need a stand-in for "John Boy Walton: The High School Years", there's only one name to call.

Lloyd has been affected most by the interim 14 years. Drug problems in the late '70s and '80s have taken their toll. He's now filled out, receded and basically matured to the point where he's virtually unrecognizable from the sensitive-looking youth on the old album covers. He's an intense, awkward character these days. Nothing he remembers about Television can be vouched for by anybody else, and it annoys him.

"When we split, we all went to a Chinese restaurant, got drunk and threw food around, and, y'know, basically said au revoir," he recalls. "You know that restaurant in what we always used to call Poor Alley."

Verlaine can't remember it. He can remember being sick of the music business, managers and deals, wondering how come this supposedly "seminal" and influential and inspirational group never seemed to be getting anywhere, of how come such a widely accepted wired masterpiece as 'Marquee Moon' couldn't be found in any shops. He can remember feeling depression and rejection. He can't remember any Chinese restaurant.

And so, as Lloyd testily embarks on a detailed recollection of what they all had to eat that night, let's back-track to a time when disco sucked. David Bowie was mental as hell and Television were the holy modal tops in psyche-frazzling, kaleidoscopin', telescopin' guitar rock.

If Television's 1992 re-formation seems a little up-in-the-air, out-of-the-blue, open-ended, and lots of other things with hyphens in them, spare a thought for what it must have been like for them in 1974. It was the year of Kiss, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt; a year when Pink Floyd did nothing and were still crap.

Verlaine (born Tom Miller) formed Television in New York with bassist Richard Hell (né Myers), Ficca and Lloyd. (Smith replaced Hell in '75 and is not the Fred Smith who played guitar in the MC5 and later married Patti Smith.)

Verlaine was a jazz fan who readily name-checked John Coltrane and Albert Ayler and took his nom de guerre from a French poet. Lloyd was a blues fan who to this day rolls his eyes when Coltrane is mentioned. Out of this record-collection attrition came some of the most feverish, mind-blowing guitar music ever: Hear 'Marquee Moon', side two of 'Adventure' and the live bootleg 'The Blow-Up' for details. Those spats were genuine.

In the mid-'70s, Television's endless guitar duels became a regular fixture the just-starting CBGB's club, and romance and legend still have it that the whole New York new-wave scene started right there, with Television—ideally in the middle of some song like 'Friction'—set up onstage.

"So me and this friend are walking down the Bowery," recalls Verlaine, "and we saw this club, with this sign saying CBGB OMFUG. Walked over..."

"Country, Bluegrass & Blues and Other Music For Undernourished Gourmendizers," explains Lloyd.

"Wasn't he literally putting up the sign?" asks Smith.

VERLAINE: "No, that's something else entirely."

LLOYD: "That's my recollection. He was halfway through painting the M in OMFUG. But go ahead."

VERLAINE: "And we got hired to play a Sunday night, which over a period of years developed from playing to—the first gig was maybe 15 paying people, and the second gig was 30 and we built it up."

LLOYD: "That first gig we earned a dollar each."

They were managed at the time by a Marxist entrepreneur called Terry Ork, an old ally of Andy Warhol's who was looking to do something similar to what Warhol had done with The Velvet Underground. He'd hire little theatres and put Television on. One, the Dragon Warehouse on West 4th Street, had a stage that sloped so much the band had to lean back at about 25 degrees while they played. They would buy their own crates of beer to sell at gigs; according to Lloyd, they invested in 40 cases of beer for one show that attracted only 15 people and were left to drink their own beer "for months". Verlaine doesn't remember that.

"CBGB's had a pool table in the middle," Lloyd gesticulates, "and a dog running around. And the dog would shit on the stage. They had a flophouse overhead, where bums could stay the night for 60 cents, and urine would leak down through the ceiling. And I remember wine dripping down on the microphone and sparking. And we'd be playing and the dog would come up and crap up against your leg and you'd be kicking it offstage. Very funny."

Into this hellhole strolled the Ramones, Patti Smith and Blondie (with Fred Smith on bass), Mink deVille and Tuff Darts. A scene was forming. New York's Village Voice wrote about it, and students started coming from hundreds of miles away to check it out. One was David Byrne. Verlaine can remember a madly impressed David Bowie putting in an appearance toward the end of '74, and advising them to play a show "in a boxing ring, with lots of white light". Verlaine giggles.

And when they weren't playing live they rehearsed. Up to five hours a day, in their manager's apartment. That's where the black and white inner sleeve shot on 'Marquee Moon' was taken, with Verlaine and Lloyd seated facing each other, fingers splayed on guitar necks, in one of the classic rock-n-roll images of the '70s.

Patti Smith may have had the attitude of the New Wave scene; The Ramones the ripped jeans; Talking Heads the commercially viable neuroses; and Debbie Harry the face. But dammit Television had the guitars, and it's their music that has aged least. 'Marquee Moon' still sounds awesome, even if Verlaine does spit something preposterous and uncharitable about it being "only liked by writers".

"All the bands were different," says Ficca. "The Ramones were different from Talking Heads, who were different from Blondie.

"Everything was really new and original. And I guess even though we were famous for taking long solos..."

VERLAINE: (sniggering) "...and forgetting where we were..."

FICCA: " was recognisably a Television guitar style, and it was new and different. It had an edge."

"We were a sort of conceptualist eruption that worked," says Verlaine.

LLOYD: "It was kind of a giddy explosiveness we had. The video of our first show reminded me of 'Anarchy In The UK". We used to knock down all the mikes and lay on the floor and writhe in laughter while we were playing."

VERLAINE: "There's a wonderful video where we're kicking each other and Richard Hell's falling on the floor..."

LLOYD: (excitedly) "...and then he knocks over the mike stand and follows it to the floor and keeps singing into it, ha ha!

VERLAINE: "There's a bit in that where he looks like I'm kicking him to death."

They also had this extraordinary idea of stacking up loads ot TV sets behind them as they played. Tchah. A ludicrous notion. You'd never catch anyone doing that these days.

Dare these guys talk of the future? Is Television built to last any more than it was in 1978?

"Probably not," shrugs Verlaine, giggling. "We never were. We're a band of the present. We're an eternal present kind of vibe. As peculiar as it sounds, I've always thought that we were a pop band. You know, I always thought Marquee Moon was a bunch of cool singles. And then I'd realize, Christ, this song is ten minutes long with two guitar solos.

"But this album is surprisingly very interesting and just as eccentric, probably more, than I remember. When I heard all the songs together I thought, What the fuck is this? Which, incidentally, is the same feeling I had when I first heard Marquee Moon."

There are nods all around. Hey. At last Television are agreeing on something.

"Can I just say," says Lloyd intently, "that if you asked me, I'd say Television was a lousy fuckin' name for a rock group."