pseudopodium
. . . Tom Verlaine

. . .

Boy Band, 1977
I don't write about music as much as I used to, but as I was reminded yesterday by one of my fraternal quadruplets, everyone should always write about Television, so here's one of the things I used to write:

If they'd stuck together, Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine might've headed THE band of the late '70s. As singer, Hell was the loosest and most natural sounding of a new breed of screech-and-gulp-ers. As frontman, Hell invented punk fashion. (Malcolm McLaren, having failed to cut a lasting deal with him or with the New York Dolls, took the Dolls' sound and Hell's look [and lack of interest in bass] back to England for his pick-up band.) And Verlaine could take care of the remaining little chores like writing and playing music.

But they were jerks who hated each other. Hell left, ultimately deciding that a musical career took seriously uncool amounts of exertion. Verlaine thereafter leaned on a whiter-shade-of-pale imitation of Hell's phlegmatic vocalese, coming off like Barney Fife next to the Lawrence Olivier instruments.

I read where Verlaine and Hell were childhood pals who escaped from the orphanage together. Yeah, right; and those are their real names, and Bob Dylan was a freight-hopping Okie. But I believe the story about them finding Richard Lloyd through the Village Voice ad: "Fender guitarist wanted for all-Fender band." There's one guitar lineage for the pliant and slippery Gibson, starting around Chuck Berry and leading to both heavy metal and L.A. AOR, and another for the clanky cranky jangle of the Fender, starting around Buddy Holly and leading nowhere by the mid-'70s. Smooth excess vs. rhythmic constraint. (Which is why a first time Television listener can feel let down after all the hype: "I thought this was a guitar band?" It's a different language of guitar.) Lloyd, a classic pop musician, plays classical Fender -- clean lines with a clear structure -- and makes a perfect friendly adversary to Verlaine's soul-trapped-in-wood-by-an-evil-spell....

Ooh la, Verlaine's guitar. As weak as his solo studio work can be, I'd never pass up a chance to hear Verlaine in concert, wringing an incredible double-back-on-a-dime range seemingly out of his bare hands. Keith Allison is right to use the word danger so often. It seems like a physical transformation is going on: a centaur with Verlaine's spindly upper body shoved on a Siegfried-sized bucking horse, or a guitar Little Mermaid (book not movie) who wished for a human voice and now feels knives in its throat every time it breathes.

Add the jagged drumming of Billy Ficca, and although the band runs like clockwork, it's with glass gears and a lot of sharp edges. Luckily, Television was rounded out by the bass of "Nonsonic" Fred Smith, the only non-virtuoso in the band and the only nice guy -- nice enough to help keep the band together for the course of two albums and a couple of tours, and nice enought to show up on both Verlaine's and Lloyd's post-breakup albums.

"But I love disaster. And I love what comes after...."

Something went wrong after 1981 (see sidebar). With Lloyd's solo work, the problem is easy enough to figure out -- he writes tuneful pop rock but has a completely tuneless voice. With Verlaine's studio recordings, I don't know. There's a pervasive lack of motive force, an absence of "danger," though that seems an awfully melodramatic way of putting it.... ENERVATION, DON'T GO TO MY HEAD. But all the live shows I've seen over the last twenty years, including the recent silent film accompaniments, have been a different matter. And spirit.
 
The Neon Boys - "That's All I Know Right Now" and "Love Comes in Spurts" 7-inch
Hell yodels, Verlaine mimics the 13th Floor Elevators jug burble, and "Love Comes in Spurts" is quite a bit different from the Blank Generation song.

Television - "Little Johnny Jewel" 7-inch
Odd choice for a first single, since it's so long they have to put the solo on the B-side and it has some of Verlaine's silliest lyrics. Guess they did it just 'cause it's so good.

Marquee Moon
Most popular cut among neophytes is "Marquee Moon" itself, whose pair of solos scrawls a big magic-marker outline around the contrasting styles of Lloyd and Verlaine, but every song has been my favorite at some point. Special 1977 Secret: Marquee Moon is danceable all the way through.

Arrow bootleg LP, later expanded into The Blow-Up cassette and CD
Wherein "Fire Engine," "Marquee Moon," and "Knocking on Heaven's Door" are smacked hard against the stage and revealed as geodes.

Adventure
Very Verlaine, very studio; the lyrics are a Mystic Fire Video remix of The Thin Man, with Verlaine's muse as Nora and guitar as Nick.

Tom Verlaine - Tom Verlaine
Kind of Adventure II, minus the band and, on the first side, his muse. She comes back on the second side and, man, does she sound annoyed.

Dreamtime
Continued decline from songs into concepts, but worth it for Verlaine's two best pretty-boy pop singles, "Fragile" and "Mary Marie."

Words from the Front
Nadir, honey, is that you?

Cover
Keyboard-heavy Anglopop.

Flash Light
Verlaine picks up his guitar again but it doesn't matter much. The bitch is gone.

Warm and Cool
I.e., Tepid. Dusty flat-arched brown shoes trek through Peter Gunn's bars, the saloons on the Streets of Loredo, and Twin Peaks' hotel lobbies. The perfect score for the first surf noir movie. Where is that movie, though? Where is it?

Reformed Television - Television
You can't go home again.
Well, you can't go home to a studio, anyway. But you can kinda go home to a club or concert hall. This has serious implications for urban planning!

. . .

He could play guitar like ringing a bell

Even during live stretches, Television's guitars seemed more sing-the-damn-song than look-ma-I'm-expressing-myself. But I wonder if Tom Verlaine moved away from extended solos partly to avoid the misunderstanding.

... just a bunch of cats who didn't know how to improvise playing scales basically ...
Lester Bangs

Odd for a Troggs fan, but Bangs made the same mistake here as Shaw made on Shakes. Although their structures may seem arbitrary or trite, those plots are just to grab the groundlings. The poetry's in the timbre of the lines.

Responses

It only took me four clicks from the Bangs quote to find out Bob Quine was dead. What a brave new world we live in when bad news bleeds over via free association. Renfrew.

. . .

Nothing Personal, 6

Pop music makes a horrifically misleading comparison point. English song and poetry in English have diverged too much since Campion's day, and as much as I love the lyrics of Chuck Berry, Lord Melody, Smokey Robinson, Tom Verlaine, the Coup, Mos Def, and Slug, none would fit a little magazine or chapbook.

A closer demotic relative of contemporary lyric is stand-up comedy, with its definitional dictions, its canonical revolutionaries, and its School of Quietude.... They're different forms with different capabilities, but there are examples from both who'd fit either.

Responses

Ask Ron Silliman about the Russian edition yoking him with Louis Zukofsky and Woody Allen.
"a something along these veins .."
And while we have for decades been told that the lyrics of Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith et al (rarely however is this said about Slug) can be read without music as standalone poems, the same is never claimed for the work of Richard Pryor or Eddie Izzard.

Ah, but Steven Wright...?

Peli writes:

First thing they teach you in Narratology school is in the face of a literary theory scrutinize the selection of evidence. I counter with: Brian Eno, John Cale, 'Berlin' David Bowie, Early and mid Beck, Destroyer, Jonathan Richman, Pavement, MF Doom, Li'l Wayne, Ghostface Killah, and a bunch of Israeli stuff. Not that their lyrics are in anyway better or more interesting than your batch, just that they're all both a) very good, b) modern poetry is a somewhat relevant frame of reference to their work either historically or theoretically or both.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2013 Ray Davis.