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Negative charge: sparks fly from rebuilt Television

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Television never fit in too comfortably with its fellows in the 70s New York punk scene. The Ramones, Talking Heads, and Blondie had a common ethic of simplicity, economy, irony, while Television's taste was more elastic and mysterious. Their peers covered bubble-gum hits and beach music. Television played Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." What Television did share with the rest of the New York new wave, apart from the same stage at CBGB's, was a sense of possibility, a willingness to make rock and roll that was personal and expressive at a time when "lightweight" equaled commercially successful, and Frampton Comes Alive was setting a new standard for vapidity.

The only New York punk who inhabited common ground with Television was Patti Smith. Smith and Television leader and songwriter Tom Verlaine shared an unabashed reverence for rock's icons and an appreciation for the unsentimental lyricism of 19th-century French poetry. (When he was growing up in Delaware Verlaine was called Tom Miller, but when he moved to New York he took the surname of Rimbaud's drinking buddy Paul Verlaine.) And like Smith, Television embraced sensual euphoria as a route to a less tangible ecstasy. The urban characters in Verlaine's songs might be powerfully rooted in place, time, and experience, but as often as not they were thinking about being somewhere else. In "Marquee Moon," the title song of the band's 1977 debut, Verlaine took care to define the song's landscape of urban graveyards and train tracks, but the protagonist isn't bound to the setting:

I remember

How the darkness doubled

I recall

Lightning struck itself

I was listening

Listening to the rain

I was hearing

Hearing something else

Now, lyrics don't say anything if the music doesn't back them up, and ultimately it was Television's music that was transporting. Drummer Billy Ficca's busily martial rhythms and the steady pulse provided by bassist Fred Smith (who defected from Blondie) drove a twin lead-guitar attack that affected the vocabulary of rock so broadly that bands as stylistically opposed as the dBs and Sonic Youth have payed homage to it. In place of the sterile technical display that was de rigueur in the 70s, Television's guitar interplay was an ecstatic release. Verlaine's extended forays expressed the songs' supernal yearning, while second guitarist Richard Lloyd alternated between defining the songs' melodic structures and violently undermining them. The creative tension between them, captured vividly on Marquee Moon and a lo-fi live release, The Blowup, was explosive.

But onstage tension often reflects offstage conflict, and by the time Marquee Moon was released the band, though only three years old, was already headed for collapse. Disagreements fueled by Verlaine's controlling perfectionism and Lloyd's heroin addiction resulted in Television's breakup only months after it released its second album, Adventure, in 1978.

Verlaine, with Fred Smith in tow, pursued a solo career that never lived up to Television's promise. His new songs settled for cuteness, substituting precious whimsy for transcendence. By the time he released 1990's The Wonder he was in danger of becoming a cartoon--an artiste in a beret, spouting cafe society foolishness. Lloyd, on the other hand, made sporadic releases that revealed him to be a guitarist in search of songs. He occasionally found them when he guested on records for other performers like Matthew Sweet and John Doe. Ficca, presumably working off some bad karma, played bongos for those ersatz beatniks, the Washington Squares.

Sometime in the late 80s the old new wave became nostalgia bait and an ignoble train of aging punks lined up to make hay. Given the circumstances of their solo careers, Television's 1991 reformation offered little reason to expect anything better than what the reunions of Pere Ubu, Buzzcocks, or Gang of Four offered. So Television, the band's return to the studio, was a pleasant surprise. With its attractively glassy guitar textures, elegant melodies, and self-consciously poetic lyrics, it sounded like the best Tom Verlaine solo album in at least half a decade; Television's tension and urgency had been replaced by an icy control. In fact, the record's carefully constructed arrangements offered little evidence that Verlaine and Lloyd had been playing in the same room.

Television's first three songs on stage at the Cabaret Metro did little to contradict the impression that the group was really just a distinguished Tom Verlaine backup band. Verlaine's playing dominated the Marquee Moon-vintage songs that opened the set, and only Ficca's irrepressible percussion offered any hint of unpredictability or adventure. Lloyd, playing mechanical rhythms, staring anywhere but in Verlaine's direction, looked as though he'd rather be anywhere else but on that stage.

But when the band discarded the chestnuts in favor of songs from their new album, the guitarists' long-dormant chemistry reappeared. On Television "Beauty Trip" is a swinging romp with a hint of the blues in Lloyd's slide guitar, but on stage Lloyd tore straight from the lead theme into a bitter, disgusted-sounding solo. Verlaine responded not with rhythmic support but with contradictory, challenging chords that Lloyd then incorporated into his solo, furnishing the first real excitement of the evening. Then Lloyd faded back, but two songs later he reasserted himself on Television's radio hit, "Call Mr. Lee," riding his lead on the chorus into a flurry of arrestingly gritty notes. The galvanizing effect on Verlaine was immediate. He began the next song, "The Rocket," with some unearthly bent tones, then he and Lloyd traded brief solos. Someone observed to me that while most guitarists step closer to one another when they duel onstage, these two moved farther apart. Verlaine's attempts to inject levity into his playing by quoting from "London Bridge Is Falling Down" were met with gales of bitter aggression from Lloyd; by song's end their sparring took on the dimensions of an aerial dogfight, frightening but spellbinding to watch.

Verlaine played for the rest of the night with renewed passion, exploiting the holes that Lloyd tore in the songs' fabric to embark on flights of fancy. The sparks flying from the negative energy onstage heralded the authentic resurrection that the band's comeback album had not, scattering brilliant sounds from the shadows of uncertainty.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Telfer.

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