In an article about Brian Eno in the most recent New Yorker, I found this passage: “With the disappearance of the central home stereo, and the rise of earbuds, MP3s, and the mobile, around-the-clock work cycle, music is used, more often than not, as background music.” One could say that the point of posting about songs in the way I’ve been doing is to resist this trend. Though I could also add that I’ve used most of the music I’ve posted about as “background music”—particularly in the form of mix tapes or what would now be called playlists. The difference, and it's not a minor one, is that my background music comes to me via a central home stereo. And yet. When writing Song of the Day posts, I listen to the song on the computer because a) I want to find the song online, and b) I want to hear it as the computer jockey of our time would most likely hear it.
For most of the songs, my memory of the song, and my own preferred listening, offers a rather different experience. I can’t stress enough how different, in most cases, though admittedly some songs managed to grab me via the radio, and car radio at that. I’ve yet to discover any music via spotify or iTunes. I only use those systems to search for songs I already know and am sometimes annoyed by what’s unavailable. But my own collection isn’t complete either and some of the songs I post about I don’t actually own a copy of, though with spotify and YouTube I can hear them in the form that has become most common for music listeners of the 21st century.
Today’s song is a case in point because in the spring of 1978 when Television’s Adventure was released, I was able to listen to it on the best stereo I’ve heard and, in particular, my favorite speakers. Consequently, today’s song always takes me back to when I first experienced it aurally—not simply as the music that you can hear on your computer speakers or your earbuds or your cheesy external speakers, but as music fully realized in Belle Klipsch speakers. The sound of those speakers is very warm, very natural, and everything played through them has a remarkable presence in the room. There was no such thing as “background music” when playing my friend Paul’s Klipsch speakers. In fact, the closing line of today’s song—“We took our house in the fire”—became, to my mind, synonymous with the act of making the entire house ring with sound. Music was king then, and there was no “around-the-clock work cycle,” no. There were afternoons and evenings of nothing but listening. Well, not “nothing but”—there were frequently also enhancers of a certain kind. And that too fit into the “our house in the fire” idea. The range of abuse of substances indicated by the song’s lyrics is anyone’s guess, I suppose, but in 1978 the range available to me was not so great and yet the quality was very good, for the most part. “Sleep is not sleep, my eyes repeat / You take the voltage that watches you weep.”
Which is to introduce today’s song by virtue of its status as no doubt the song of the spring of 1978. If you’ve never heard it or of it, I weep for you. If you’re the type that will try to silence my comments by opining that the album version is as nothing compared to some memorable night when you heard Tom Verlaine and company—when Richard Lloyd was there—tear it up in person, I can only say, “flame on!” Others of us must content ourselves with the LP release. The advantage there is that I know those solos note for note and so they never disappoint and they still can knock me out.
On the two albums—Marquee Moon and Adventure—that Television released before disbanding (and a get-together in the early Nineties) there are guitar thrills enough, but it’s not just that, with this song (about Marquee Moon I’ve already posted here). Here Verlaine comes close to the kind of poetics that were becoming familiar to me round about that golden year of 1978 due to a paperback I’d picked up, Modern European Poetry in translation, edited by Willis Barnstone. Symbolist poetry was floating my boat—made out of ocean—at the time and Verlaine (he took the name of a French Symbolist poet—his real name is Miller) was right up that alley.
Storms, all that summer we lived in the wind / Out in some room in the wind. A room in the wind, picking up on the heat and the voltage, living out on the edge of the storms from within as well. The things that get unleashed by the right mix of music and substances, we might assume. We leaned in the cold, holding our breath / Watching the corners turn corners. One of my favorite bits. Verlaine likes imagery of the outdoors—the streets, the storms, the wind, the summer, the winter—commenting on the internal combustion happening, or not happening. His look is one of deadpan indifference while his voice chortles and trembles and delivers blade-flicks of irony. And yet the stance is soooo romantic, caught up in a loss of self that staggers what’s left of identity. My tongue it clattered like tin. Trying to find words for what can’t possibly be contained or shaped by them.
And that bit about “the face at the window kept smiling.” Haunted by absences, by glimpses of where we might have been, or who might have come. I see a scene a bit like a poker game on a stake out, or while waiting for someone to show (“waiting for my man” style). We’re here and time keeps circling us, keeping us on edge. The symbolist verse bit surfaces strongest at the end: Praise emptiness / Her rose-colored dress / Her circling motions / Praise emptiness / Everything scattered, nothing was missed / We took our house in the fire. This after an intricate guitar solo that keeps climbing, backed by an eerie electronic keyboard sound. The harsh chords that intrude before the near ecstatic climb only serve to ground the figure in a sense of tension that never quite ignites. It’s a slowburn that mounts to the verse that seems to take it all away, with emptiness and the image of her dress and her motions—either her arrival not being what it might have been or simply more of that absence making itself present, but in any case the line about “everything scattered” was one that I heard at the time as a kind of “the jig is up” realization. We’ve been poised here for some time, “Waiting. Watching. Falling.” And now we know it’s empty, a lost cause.
You caught the voice, I listened close / All that I heard was the echoes. A great line that already suggested that the poetics of this scene will forever elude expression, possibly comprehension. The echoes are all that’s left this vault to brag of, we might say. It’s a song of tragic dimension and it sounds it, from that haunting intro that sounds wind-swept and eerie (a bit like the opening of the Dark Shadows theme, which was played on a theremin), to that contorted guitar solo that keeps expecting dawn to break but it never comes.
You, you ran with it / I wish I could