Monday, February 19, 2007
THROUGH THE YEARS, 7
30 years ago: Feb. 1977
Marquee Moon was Television's first album, and Television was the first band that was "mine." Everyone else I listened to had begun their recording careers in my childhood (some, like The Doors or Hendrix, were already history). A debut album released in the last half of my last year of HS (though I didn't hear it till the following fall) inaugurated Tom Verlaine's band as "of the moment" (and "the moment" was my coming-of-age).
Verlaine's contemporaries, like Springsteen and Waits, began their careers in '73, during the singer-songwriter glut of my adolescence, and were molded by an older sensibility. Verlaine and company were "new wave," which meant they had a post-glam moxie and a rock club-edge that seeped into the music and gave it its non-mainstream bite. Two guitars, bass, drums, and Verlaine's strangled vocals. Lyrics that recalled the minimal lyricism of some of Jim Morrison's best -- a poetic sensibility refined to attitude, expressed in oracular phrases, eschewing the expansive word-pourings of Dylan, Springsteen, Patti Smith.
The latter was the herald of this sound on her debut Horses (1975): call it New York art rock. But what made Television more attractive to me was the lack of "I'm a poet and I know it" posturing that Smith indulged in. Television was leaner, tenser, offering an aesthetic stance that, in 1977, seemed to invoke a future for serious rock. I was induced to buy this album after becoming familiar with some of John Cale's Island recordings on the comp album Guts, released in Fall '77, and the possibilities of this kind of music, dating from '75 to '79, would be taken up to some extent in some early '80s bands of my g-g-generation such as Psychedelic Furs, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure, Bauhaus, R.E.M., and Dream Syndicate.
The main thing about Television -- for ears that began to appreciate the satori-through-electricity states induced by hearing Jerry Garcia play live (my first Dead show was in Sept. '77, in Englishtown, NJ, outdoors, enhanced in ways I won't elaborate here but which, contrary to received wisdom about memory impairment risks, were and are quite memorable) -- was that, unlike punk which would shortly be assaulting our shores, Verlaine and Richard Lloyd were guitarists. Verlaine was new wave's answer to the guitar heroes still going strong on the Philly airwaves of my immediate orbit. Like Talking Heads, who debuted later this same year, Television was a band that seemed to know the music I knew and were interested in going somewhere with that knowledge. And that meant finding a way of playing live, not of hiding out in some never-neverland recording studio.
What punk gave to all this was the willingness to make it fast and dirty and ugly, to eschew the sensual professional sound-doctoring that bands like Steely Dan, The Eagles, and The Doobie Brothers had taken as far as it could go. The hedonism of such music (saturated in CA sun) was its own reward, no doubt, but it was a far cry from winter in NYC in the closing years of the '70s, and that difference made all the difference. It meant lighting a candle for the Velvet Underground instead of The Beach Boys as the Creator of "the Sound." Guitars in dialogue, paired down rhythm section, minimal use of keyboards. Chords! Raw playing that could be set beside Neil Young's incarnations with Crazy Horse: fuck-you-in-the-gut guitar work that at times weeps and sings and choirs like bells.
I wasn't part of the CBGB scene, but it seemed important at the time to know about it. And so when I hear this album I hear a kind of call-to-arms. So many parts of it are intrinsic to whatever turning 18 meant, at the time (and, for a bookish nerd, it was refreshing to find poetry cool in a streetwise way, and to see Rimbaud name-dropped in music mag copy): "I understand all destructive urges / It seems so perfect / I see no evil"; "You know it's all like some new kind of drug / My senses are sharp and my hands are like gloves"; "I want a nice little boat / made out of ocean"; "Elevation -- don't go to my head"; "I sleep light / on these shores tonight"; "I remember / how the darkness doubled / I recall / lightning struck itself / I was listening / listening to the rain / I was hearing / hearing something else'; "Tell me who sends these / infamous gifts. / To make such a promise / and make such a slip"; "It's warm and it's calm and it's perfect / It's too 'too too' to put a finger on."
Pull down the future with the one you love
--Tom Verlaine, "See No Evil" (1977)