Guitar refugees

Television's reissue of "The Blow Up" opens the book on "street rock" circa 1978.

Published April 6, 1999 6:35PM (EDT)

The soundtrack to post-World War II America is a chugging electric guitar. The electric guitar -- invented for the most part in garages during the 1930s and '40s by Rube Goldberg-types -- is the sound of television. Sizzling hamburgers. Hula hoops. Rockets on launch pads. Rockets blasting off. Rockets in orbit. The voice of electricity itself.

The electric guitar possesses a tangible physique that contributes to its
twang and buzz. For this reason, old guitars are worshipped, while old toasters are not. Speaking of worship, the totem pole of guitar gods has many, many heads. Hendrix peers from the top. A little lower, Clapton. Then Garcia. You can guess the rest. But there are also other guitar gods who remain hidden. Ghosts. Rumors. Certainly no guitarist is as culturally elusive as Tom Verlaine, the guitarist/singer/leader of the '70s group Television. Twenty-five years ago, on March 31, 1974, the group debuted at CBGB in New York. Television was the first "punk" band; the first "new wave" band. Although Hilly Kristal, the owner of CBGB, says that in 1974, everyone called this form of music "street rock."

Because there are plenty of punk-era histories (such as Clinton Heylin's
"From the Velvets to the Voidoids," and Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's
"Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk"), I'll stress
Television's place in the history of the electric guitar. When duo guitarists
Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd played their gorgeous 10-minute solos, they emphasized the fluidity of the electric guitar over its blare.
Verlaine and Lloyd didn't avoid feedback as much as they made their occasional squawks or squeaks sound tasteful. Verlaine once told Robert Palmer of the New York Times, "I always liked those short, concise, melodic saxophone solos, rather than the kind of guitar stuff where the guy would be racing all up and down the fret board." This lyricism made Television Manhattan's sophisticated (or uptight) version of the Grateful Dead.

But unlike the Dead, Television recorded only two studio albums,
"Marquee Moon" and "Adventure." They broke up in 1978, regrouping in
1991 for a single album (a mistake). It is Television's two 1970s albums that are seminal releases -- not so much for the music you hear, but as sonic powder burns which suggest the band's potential. Television was one of those groups that never really captured its genius in the studio. In 1982 - four years after they broke up -- the small cassette-only music company Roir paid off a bootlegger and officially released a live Television recording culled from its 1978 swan song tour, "The Blow Up."

Seventeen years later, "The Blow Up" is being re-released as a double CD. It is simultaneously the most essential re-release of the past year while
being the most problematic. It's a lousy introduction to Television. Tom
Verlaine's vocals -- a high-register choke thats an acquired taste in the
best of recorded circumstances -- sounds particularly strangled for the first
few numbers. Seminal songs like "Venus De Milo" and "Foxhole" have inescapable moments of sloppiness. The version of "Marquee Moon", however, could make you sallow your tongue. The 15-minute "Little Johnny Jewel" -- a song Television never released on an album -- is to guitar music what "Moby Dick" is to both literature and fishing. And then "The Blow Up" contains two covers, a great "anti-fuzz" version of the Rolling Stone's fuzz box classic, "Satisfaction," and a chilly, electric version of Dylans "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Hilly Kristal mentioned to me that back in 1974, if a band wasn't signed, it could only play covers. No one wanted to hear original music by unsigned bands in the mid-1970s -- except at CBGB. Kristal only allowed musicians to play two covers per set as way to encourage original compositions. As noble as that was, connoisseurs of bootlegs know that there's no greater pleasure than hearing a seminal band cover a great song.

Just as Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in Minnesota and took his stage name from renowned poet, Welshman Dylan Thomas, Tom Verlaine was born Thomas Miller in Morris, New Jersey and took his moniker from the notorious Frog poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). Since this piece began by discussing mythology, I might as well evoke the history of that original Verlaine. Among other adventures, Monsieur Verlaine left his wife to become the lover of teen poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1872, although a year later, the elder poet got pissed off and shot the kid with a gun. Rimbaud's wound was slight, but Parisian authorities still stuck Verlaine in the clink for two years. None of this has much to do with guitarist Thomas Miller, overtly. But Rimbaud is in the air. Last week the University of Chicago Press released Charles Nicholl's "Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, 1889-91" in paperback. Rimbaud, as you probably know, gave up both poetry and Paris to run guns in Ethiopia. It may push the boundaries of metaphor to suggest that Verlaine's ostracism from pop music as the leader of Television is similar to Rimbaud's African exile, but there's always been a spooky vibe of exile about the guitarist. Starting with an interview he gave in Rolling Stone in 1980, he spent a decade denying to the press that he was a "hermit."

Verlaine became more visible in the 1990s. A few years back, he joined ex-lover Patti Smith on a national tour. He even began producing Jeff Buckley, work that Buckley later denounced just before he went for his fatal dip in the Mississippi. I reviewed Buckley's posthumous
"Sketches for My Sweetheart, the Drunk"
last May for Salon. While working on the piece, I -- a Manhattan resident -- walked passed the Strand Book Store on East 12th Street on morning and spotted Verlaine pawing the books in the outside stalls. Now the Strand doesn't generate the same cosmopolitan Paris-in-spring vibe the outdoor book stalls along the Seine do. Verlaine looked guilty when I introduced myself (he was looking at a 19th-century book on tulip bulbs -- go figure). After a 15-minute conversation, Verlaine seem to me more like a haunted male Sylvia Plath than any fancy French poet, but maybe the guitarist had a lot on his mind. I later found this mid-90s quote from Verlaine in the Los Angeles Times and I'd like to share it because it seems as thoughtful and as far from rock 'n' roll as you can get: "I hit moods where I want to learn about how somebody thought things that could be so foreign to me," Verlaine says. "It could be a poet, a theorist, a linguist or a composer that grabs you. I was reading some letters by Liszt, and this guy's outlook is just so totally different from anything you could imagine for yourself, very courteous but ferocious, a strong character."

Tom Verlaine could be describing himself, of course. So while this guitarist will probably remain a cult hero forever, how strong a character is his old partner, Richard Lloyd? Punk histories claim Lloyd was a little nuts (a la "ready for the bug house") as well having a drug problem which he cured in 1980s. He released a few ho-hum solo albums, but it seems that Lloyd was only put on earth to play electric guitar with Verlaine. After all neither man has played as magnificent apart as they did together. In 1978, John Rockwell described their interaction in the New York Times: "Of the two, Mr. Verlaine is the more pointed and mystically rapturous player, and Mr. Lloyd the more explosively exciting. Mr. Lloyd is for the most part nearly catatonic on stage, a frozen zombie who erupts during his solos in concentrated contortions, his left hand flying up and down along the neck of his instrument for dramatic octave and double-octave jumps."

So the books are closed on Verlaine and Lloyd, and yet they're not. There are hundreds of hours of Television concert tapes available. It would be overly dramatic to suggest we actually pray that some musical archaeologist search the archives and gather a definitive Television concept tape that might bless us with rapture on every cut. But until such a thing exists, "The Blow Up" will do just fine.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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