Appreciating the Music of Television

TelevisionHeartonastick Tom Verlaine performing at Central Park Summerstage, 2007.

There are certain artists one wishes one could outgrow. They belong to one’s youth, after all, and perhaps they should remain there, along with all the other youthful things one is relieved to have outgrown. But for me, the music of the CBGB’s-era band Television, and in particular its singer and songwriter, Tom Verlaine, is one of those youthful enthusiasms which (so far, anyway) threads its way through my life with embarrassing persistence. Occasionally it disappears for long periods while other, more novel interests take hold, but then, like mosquitoes in Spring, back it comes, nipping at the senses as tenaciously as always, only in this case the result is intense pleasure rather than irritation and blood marks.

Television was, or is — no one seems to be sure of its exact current status — the band best known for inaugurating the CBGB’s scene in the mid-1970’s; for having to this day a small but ferociously loyal group of devotees; and for having been eclipsed, at least in terms of popularity, by other bands of that era such as Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones, et al. Even by the monstrously egotistical standards set by most rock stars, they seemed weirdly indifferent to fame and record sales, but like the Velvet Underground their musical influence remains pervasive and lives on in a variety of formats which now include amateurishly filmed but invaluable concert clips put up on YouTube.

YouTube Television Screen shotClick the image above to view the performance.

The video at right is one of them, filmed during a performance on Dec. 3, 1992 at the Academy, across from the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street. The stage lighting is so dim you’ll have to turn the screen to “Bright” to make much of it out, but the music — at least to the ears of this besotted admirer — is heavenly and immune to age. It so happens I had a painful time of it over the last couple of weeks — family trauma, deep and probably lasting wounds inflicted on the psyche — and it was this obscure bit of footage, newly discovered, to which I kept returning in order to snatch moments of calm and joy.

The song – “No Glamour for Willi” — is not one of Television’s best known (it’s from their wonderful third album, “Television,” released in 1992), but this delicately plangent, mid-tempo number has always been a personal favorite. Because of its founding role at CBGB’s and massively influential debut record, “Marquee Moon,” Television will always be part of the mythology of the East Village punk scene, and to my mind one of the reasons the neighborhood’s history can justly be celebrated. Verlaine used to live in the East Village — I once saw him exiting Commodities on First Avenue clutching the stalk of a single vine-ripened tomato as if he were holding a rose — and he could often be spotted searching through particularly obscure tomes at the used-books racks outside The Strand. He now lives on the West side, and such local sightings are no more.

Television was remarkable, perhaps even unique, for having two genuinely great lead guitarists — Verlaine (who is the one singing) and the scintillating Richard Lloyd. One wouldn’t call Verlaine a good singer by any stretch of the imagination, but watch for his fingers in mesmeric, fluttering display as he launches into his solo around the 3:15 minute mark, and the interplay between his guitar and Lloyd’s. Aspiring musicians could learn a lot from them both. In fact, they did; they do; they will.

Television Marquee Moon Album CoverTelevision’s debut album “Marquee Moon.”

Verlaine’s lyrics to the opening verse are:

Willi told me…

“I have some wishes, you could say.

Sometimes they go, sometimes they stay.

Don’t get me wrong, my friend,

I think this world is grand,

But certain things get in the way…”

During an intensely unhappy fortnight, those words brought me almost as much comfort as the music itself. “Certain things get in the way” — don’t they, though? Verlaine, born Thomas Miller in 1949, was ballsy enough to borrow his surname from the great 19th century French poet Paul Verlaine, and occasionally he comes close to justifying the conceit. His songs, most of them probably composed in this part of town, have taken up permanent residence in both my brain and heart, and show no signs of ever leaving. Why exactly, I don’t know. As Verlaine sang in “Prove It,” a song about a Private Detective faced with a mystery as baffling as life itself, “It’s ‘too too too’ to put a finger on.”

Tom Verlaine of Television with Jimmy RipKurt Christensen Tom Verlaine (left) performs with Jimmy Rip at the Fender Jazzmaster 50th anniversary show at the Knitting Factory, 2008.