Graded on a Curve: Television,

Remembering Tom Verlaine.Ed.

Sometimes I flabbergast myself. I think I know what I like and what I don’t like, only to find out I don’t know a damn thing about anything, least of all my likes and dislikes. Take KC and the Sunshine Band. I hated them with a passion for like 30 years and now I think they’re great. Or Elton John’s Caribou, which I liked for like 80 years only to realize just yesterday it only has two good songs on it, although to Captain Fantastic’s credit they’re two really great songs.

But occasionally I get it right the first time, as with Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” which I hated when it came out and still hate to this day. And the same goes for Television’s sophomore LP, 1978’s Adventure. People—as in every sentient human breathing air the year it came out—wrote Adventure off as a lackluster follow-up to the band’s 1977 debut, Marquee Moon. Everybody but me, that is. Because I had never heard of Marquee Moon. I didn’t even know it existed. Hell, I can’t even remember how or why I came to buy Adventure, because I had no clue as to who Television was and absolutely no inkling that they were an integral part of a musical revolution in progress at a ratty club in New York City called CBGBs.

But buy it I did, just as I bought Kill City without having ever heard the Stooges, which just goes to show you how isolating rural living was back in the days before the internet gave you access to all kinds of information, including who was who on the rock circuit. About all you got exposed to back in those days were hoof and mouth disease and square dancing, which is why I spent my teen years doing my level best to do as many drugs as I could get my greedy paws on, while trying to wrap my vehicle around a utility pole, which I finally accomplished on March 1, 1980. You’ve got to have goals, even in the boondocks, or life isn’t worth a damn.

But back to Adventure, which got treated like a redheaded stepchild to Marquee Moon. When in my opinion, it’s a great album. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying the impossible by arguing that it’s superior to Marquee Moon. It isn’t. “Friction” and “See No Evil” and the LP’s title track are all classics. I’m simply arguing that Adventure is underrated, and has been consigned to permanent second-class status due to invidious comparisons to the LP that came before it.

Sure, Adventure has a couple of weak songs on it, and isn’t as adventurous (there’s an irony for you) on the guitar front as Marquee Moon, but then I’ve never been a fan of a couple of tunes off Marquee Moon (yes, “Guiding Light,” I’m talking about you, and “Prove It” has always sounded like an Eagles song to me) either. And while Adventure may not have anything as urgent sounding as “See No Evil” on it, it has its own pleasures.

Television, of course, appeared on the New York scene at about the same time as the Ramones, the Patti Smith Group, Talking Heads, and Blondie. (Hard to believe a scene coalesced around a bunch of bands so different sounding. The Talking Heads and Television I get, but the Ramones? And Blondie?) Television’s distinctive sound was based around Tom Verlaine’s unique vocals and the twin guitars of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. Rock crits have compared Verlaine’s sinuous yet razor-sharp guitar playing to that of everybody from John Cipolina of Quicksilver Messenger Service to Jerry Garcia, but to me he sounds a lot like a guy named Tom Verlaine, and not so much like anybody else.

A quick history: Verlaine steals name from brilliant but really ugly French poet famous for shooting fellow French poet and lover Arthur Rimbaud, meets Richard Hell at exclusive private school in Delaware from which they both run away only to cross paths again in NYC, and there form a band with drummer Billy Ficca called first Neon Boys, and then Television. They recruit Richard Lloyd as a second guitarist, talk their way into a CBGBs gig, and then Verlaine tosses Hell out of band because he thinks Hell is spending too much time jumping around on stage and not enough time becoming proficient on the his instrument, and replaces him with Fred Smith. Oh, and Verlaine refuses to play any of Hell’s songs.

This new iteration of Television wins praise for ingenious interlocking guitar parts, while Verlaine wins plaudits for his lyrics, which in my humble opinion are exactly 3,000 times better than those of cringingly slavish Rimbaud suck-up Patti Smith. (Really, somebody should write a piece on how the whole New York scene can be divided into Rimbaud lovers and Verlaine lovers.) The rest I’ve already mentioned. Music crits bowed before Marquee Moon, then dumped on Adventure like it was something unrecognizable in their cat’s litter box. Television broke up in 1978 due to “artistic differences” between Verlaine and Lloyd, as well as the latter’s drug addiction, only to reform in 1992. But let’s forget about that, okay?

Overall, Adventure is more dream-like and less furiously guitar-oriented than Marquee Moon, and this is evident just by listening to the opening cuts of both LPs. Unlike Marquee Moon opener “See No Evil,” Adventure opens with a far less jagged and deliriously feral number, namely “Glory.” The barbwire guitars are lacking, and what really makes “Glory” work are its great melody, Verlaine’s lyrics and vocals, and a chorus worth a million bucks. In short, it’s a wimpier but prettier tune and I love it, especially when you throw in great and funny absurdist lyrics like “I was out stumbling in the rain staring at your lips so red/You said, “‘Blah, blah, blah” you got a pillow stuck in your head” and “She said, “There’s a halo on that truck, won’t you please get it for me?”/I said, ‘Of course my little swan, if ever and ever you adore me.’”

And the same goes for “Days.” It’s more laid back—and has a lovelier melody—than the tunes on Marquee Moon, and makes me think of the Velvet Underground’s third LP, which sacrificed aural savagery (goodbye “I Heard Her Call My Name,” hello “Pale Blue Eyes”) for a sweetness that will make you swoon. “Days” is practically a lullaby—especially with its lush vocals on the choruses—and to go back to those French poets of the 19th century, Marquee Moon is Television’s furious and mysterious Rimbaud album, while Adventure is Television’s take on Verlaine, who wrote prettier, more sublime, and sadder and more dream-like poems.

Television finally reveals its harder side on “Foxhole,” which is all power and jagged edges from its opening guitar chords. Verlaine does more snarling than singing, the chorus (“Foxhole foxhole”) is simple but tough, and the band’s famous twin guitars are unleashed. Verlaine plays a sinuous solo as well as lots of feral guitar—some of the most vicious and keening guitar he would ever play, as a matter of fact—as the song heads towards its end.

I love the way Verlaine sings, “You showed me the war/But that war is such a bore” and “Moonlight web/Goodbye arms/So long head.” “Careful,” meanwhile, is a sprightlier, playful tune—hell, bouncy even—and chockfull of cool guitar riffs, as well as a chorus (“I don’t care/It doesn’t matter to me/I don’t care/I never think about it”) that on paper reads like Richard Hell nihilism. But the guys doing the singing don’t sound too pissed—there isn’t an iota of punk rage in the tune. Verlaine sings, “I jump outta bed and pull down the shade/I used to have such sweet dreams, now it’s more like an air raid” and “Your wine is just sour grapes/Pour me a glass anytime I’m not there,” which is a tremendous line if ever I’ve heard one.

“Carried Away” is a slow number featuring an organ playing a riff that sounds like it came straight out of the Bruce Springsteen Academy of Music. “Carried Away” is the aural equivalent of a lonely walk along the docks, which is what Verlaine sings about, and if it doesn’t boast the catchiest melody you’ll ever hear it makes up for it in sheer atmospherics. Verlaine’s singing on the chorus especially sounds hard won, and I love the way he sings “I get so carried away” in a voice that couldn’t sound less excited.

At around the midpoint the song breaks for an understated guitar solo, and then the organ and piano return to play a long closing passage that evokes Robert Frost’s boast about having outwalked the furthest city light. As for “The Fire,” it’s my least favorite track on Adventure. Another slow one—beware of putting them back to back, fellas—it boasts some really weird guitar effects, and in general is too lugubrious for its own good. “The Fire” doesn’t really come to life until around the four-minute mark, when Verlaine plays a long and astounding guitar solo, but a song should be more than a life-support unit for a great guitar solo, and most of what comes before and after Verlaine’s needle sharp guitar work doesn’t move me at all.

“Ain’t That Nothin’” is more like it—a bona fide rocker, it features a hard riff, a great chorus, and some cool and oblique lyrics along the lines of “I love disaster and I love what comes after” and “You’re pushin’ a furnace/You’re workin’ too hard/You’re setting things off all over the yard.” The rhythm section is great and Verlaine plays a brief but gnarly solo, but it isn’t really until the 3-minute mark or so that the tune really takes off, with Verlaine spewing words and the band singing “Ain’t that nothin’” while Verlaine and Lloyd go about the business of playing some truly wonderful intertwined guitars. The end of “Ain’t That Nothin’” underscores the tragedy of the band’s break-up; Verlaine and Lloyd may have gotten on like, well, Verlaine and Rimbaud, but they sure as fuck knew how to play alongside one another so tightly you’d think you were only hearing one guitar, not two.

“The Dream’s Dream” is a slow starter—the band comes in tentatively, then plays a pretty but rather plodding melody, which Verlaine saves with some great lyrics (“The elevator called me up/She said you’d better start making sense”). Then the guitars and a stray organ take over, playing the riff over and over until Verlaine’s guitar rises above the band and he proceeds to play a sustained and twisting solo that reaches a climax but just keeps going, until all the instruments—including an organ—come back in. Unfortunately all they do is plod, plod, plod, killing what little momentum the song possessed in the first place, and “The Dream’s Dream” is in my opinion a failure of nerve, and proof positive that while Adventure is one fabulous LP, it wasn’t as good as Marquee Moon.

Shit: Looking back over what I’ve written, I feel obligated to take back every single thing I said. I got it wrong again. Adventure, despite its highlights, simply doesn’t measure up to Television’s legendary 1977 debut. In fact, it’s not even close. Still, I wouldn’t call it lackluster. “Glory,” “Days,” and “Ain’t That Nothin’” are just as good in their own way as the better songs off Marquee Moon, and I would recommend the album to anyone, but it simply has too many weak moments, when the band lacks forward momentum and it’s electric chemistry is lacking.

I will say this, however. The more subdued and atmospheric Adventure opened up new sonic vistas that Television, due to its early demise, never got the opportunity to explore. Adventure was a blueprint for a third way, one that would have achieved a synthesis of the first two albums—i.e., a sound that was more dream-like without sacrificing the band’s remarkable abilities to create crackling and sinuous sounds via the electric guitar. Had Verlaine and Lloyd been able to achieve said synthesis, who knows what LP number three would have sounded like. Like Rimbaud and Verlaine together at last, I suspect, and that would have been truly astounding.


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