Perfect Sound Forever


Photo from the Wonder website

by Jim Rader
(February 2009)

I was there, man--CBGB. Television, man. Heavy scene, man.

You can already tell by my use of the term "man" instead of "dude" or the adjective "heavy" instead of "serious" that this narrative takes place in another time: the 1970's.

I stumbled into Television in November '74. My residence: a 6th-floor walk-up on East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and the Bowery, just a switchblade's toss from CBGB. The apartment included all the amenities: three locks on the door; a windowgate on the fire-escape window; a half- empty box of mouse-killer powder under the kitchen sink. The rent: seventy-five dollars a month--and that rate included a thirty-dollar off- the-books fee to a shady subletter.

A fire broke out my first day there, only damaging a 4th-floor apartment but mangling my nerves for weeks. Tenants evacuated through smoke-filled hallways. The fire's origin: a junkie nodding out with a lit cigarette.

Shortly thereafter, my place got broken into by an extremely small strong person who bent back the top prongs of the windowgate and squeezed through. There wasn't much to steal.

My first exposure to fellow Lower East Siders Television didn't occur at CBGB but at an even more convenient venue: The Truck and Warehouse Theater, only a few doors down from my bleak gray building.

The venue's locale attracted me--how could I get mugged just walking half a block--but this ultracool band name really got me: Television. Why hadn't anyone thought of that before? A support band with another intriguing name, The Ramones, would share the bill.

A last-minute replacement took the stage first, fronted by a svelte blonde woman who wore shades and a silver construction helmet: "we're not the Ramones," she announced.

Blondie often opened for Television in that nascent period. I liked them, especially their talented bassist, Fred Smith, but the song that stood out in their short set was a Television cover: "(The Arms of) Venus De Milo." That one song evoked the Velvet Underground, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Kinks, and Love--yet the frequent chord changes, unexpected stops, and odd shifts in tempo held undeniable freshness.

After a break Television walked on, four tall skinny lads with military- erect postures. Drummer Billy Ficca dressed simply in T-shirt and jeans, but his bandmates' clothes flashed despite their thrift-shop shabbiness. Positioned center-stage: guitarist Tom Verlaine, a hollow-eyed blonde scarecrow, sported a delinquent's black Banlon-knit shirt. Bassist Richard Hell grinned behind a baggy wrinkled suit and a tab-collar shirt, his rectangular sunglasses and teased-out hair completing a sardonic 1965 Bob Dylan look. Soupbowl-blonde guitarist Richard Lloyd wore a brazen black T-shirt that bore the crimson legend "PLEASE KILL ME."

I laughed, not in derision but in astonishment over Television's ridiculous rightness. Wild-eyed Verlaine announced their first number: "We're gonna start off with a little ride," and the boys lunged into a frenzied rendition of the 13th Floor Elevators' "Fire Engine," so incendiary I feared the Truck and Warehouse might burst into flames.

Their choice of guitars bucked the usual predictable Gibson Les Pauls or SGs; they played Fenders, Lloyd on a vintage maple Telecaster; Hell on a baby-blue Mustang bass, hilariously small on his lanky frame; Verlaine on an old Jazzmaster, a discontinued model. The brittle, sparkling guitar sounds shocked.

"This is a song about a statue," invoked Verlaine for the original "Venus De Milo." Chills shot through me at the intro, blunt rhythm guitars suddenly switching to twinkling upper-fret counterpoint. The break in this primal arrangement consisted of nothing but strummed open chords from both guitars, the guitar team glaring at the audience as if to say: "Were you expecting maybe a dazzling Jeff Beck-type solo?"

But some dazzling Beckish guitar solos popped up later in the set, from fleet-fingered Lloyd; Verlaine usually confined himself to rhythm that night, except on the great lost song "Bluebirds," a lazy "country" tune mutated by dissonant wacky bends, adding free jazzmen like Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler to the mellifluous rock influences. Likewise Billy Ficca's complex drumming indicated exposure to free percussionists Sunny Murray and Ed Blackwell.

Hell's bass playing sounded... well, basic. But he compensated for his technical limitation with hip campy showmanship that outdid the Dolls and matched Jonathan Richman. During "Venus," he shook his head with gaping open mouth, like a drowning man coming up for air. For the up-tempo "Hard On Love," he jumped a la Townsend, but it came off hilariously (and deliberately?) like a self-conscious teenager posing before a mirror.

Hell split vocals with Verlaine almost evenly, a "second banana." In mid-set, he came out front for his best song, "Blank Generation." His vocal sounded like a teenage Dylan wannabe, flat, bizarre, and dynamic. His partner Verlaine was no Paul McCartney or Elvis either; he owed his deadpan talky delivery partly to Lou Reed, more obscurely to tough guy '50's movie stars like Richard Widmark, whom he somewhat resembled (don't get me wrong here--"nice" singing would've killed Television).

The band lightened up for another great lost song, one of Verlaine's prettiest ballads: "We have time for just one, 'Close-Up,'" he announced, and the band slipped into a sleepwalk groove, laced with arresting lyrics: "If I had night vision," "I need you close-up/closing up on me." ("Close-Up" turned up several years ago on Punk Vault CD comp Poor Circulation, albeit in a blurry rehearsal-tape version.)

Perhaps this song got axed as it shared territory with the more accessible "Prove It," a stew of doo-wop ballad/reggae that led into the cosmic jams "Marquee Moon," "Horizontal Ascension" (a title lifted from an Elevators album's esoteric notes), the Velvetsy "Breakin' In My Heart," and the closing Hell-fronted "Change Channels," a relentlessly churning excursion that inspired Richard Lloyd to rotate and jerk like a toy mechanical soldier armed to the teeth with Telecaster and offensive T-shirt (A street source claimed later that Devo swiped this very occasional move--quite possible, as Television played Cleveland not much later).

This first glimpse of Television paralleled my first sexual experience: strange and sloppy but transforming and magical... and I got no sleep that night.

Television didn't play again until January '75, at CBGB's. At the Theater, they'd drawn a respectable-sized crowd of hipsters; now business got slow.

Again Blondie opened; Television treated this gig more casually, like a rehearsal, except for the stage-driven Richard Hell. I rapped with another Television freak.

"Television are my favorite ugly-beautiful band," she rhapsodized.

"Yeah, they're something else," I responded. "But I'm afraid they'll never get a deal. They're just too weird for today's 'music industry.'"

"No, not really," she said. "They're supposed to record with Eno soon."

This news item disconcerted me; I saw T.V. falling into the same premature-deal trap as the New York Dolls or the Modern Lovers. The Eno sessions, however, never got past a demo phase; the six-song demo likely unveiled Hell's limitations on bass.

The boys soldiered on that bitter winter, playing now and then at CBGB's, Max's Kansas City, and more-obscure, transient spots (Mothers, in Chelsea, comes to mind). I talked an old high school buddy into checking them out; the guy exploded into laughter when Hell took the mike: "I was sayin' / let me outa here / it's such a gamble / when you get a face."

"Oh Jesus, oh God," the friend gushed as he removed his glasses to wipe the tears from his face.

"What's up?" I inquired. "Look, I know this cat hasn't got the greatest voice, but--"

"Don't worry, man," he assured me. "I like it."

Spring 1975 blossomed for Television when they landed a six-week residency at the Bowery Bistro, opening for the already popular Patti Smith, then Verlaine's constant companion. Bands played two sets a night; their first set often floundered. Sometimes, the opening-slot stigma got to them; other times they suffered broken strings, faulty amps, endless (sometimes fruitless) tuning and Verlaine's peculiar habit of wiping sweat from his face and neck with a bath towel after every song.

The second set always took off. Anyone who hung out for both sets saw two different Television's.

Shortly after this residency, Hell split the band or was thrown out by Verlaine or both. When real bassist and non-showman Fred Smith came on board soon afterward, Television traded (or sacrificed) a "show" for music. Danny Fields' column in The Soho Weekly News described Hell's departure as "shockeroo"; about a week before the rift, I witnessed the two partners face off silently in a duel of bad vibes.

However, the good vibes outweighed the bad. I became friendly with the band, even with rugged individualist Tom Verlaine, who let me borrow his Jazzmaster so I could sit in with Billy Ficca, Tommy Ramone (on piano) and Patti's bassist, Ivan Kral, for an after-hours blues jam. Other good times: Tom dancing with Patti to the jukebox (the Who's "Call Me Lightning"); Richard Lloyd and his friend Judy inviting me and Fred Smith into the ladies room to share a cigarette (times were tough); a solo Jonathan Richman opening for T.V., captivating the audience with lost gems like "Kiss Me, Martianella" and "Archie the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

New Verlaine-penned songs broke into their sets: the confessional "Torn Curtain," the ebullient "O Mi Oh My Amore," and the dementedly funky jam "Little Johnny Jewel," which became a "part one/part two" single on manager Terry Ork's tiny label. The single garnered good press in Penthouse magazine, exposing Television to wider public notice.

In the year that followed, Television grew from "New York's latest punk flash" (Creem magazine) into a singular unit, influential yet inimitable. Verlaine lightened up onstage as journalists warmed up; concurrently, he found something he'd been seeking for months and years- the "certain feeling" he mentioned in interviews.

The outcome of a set depended on Verlaine's mindset. By late '75, they headlined to bigger crowds; many in the new audience looked rapt if slightly bewildered. The band got tighter but more musically complex; I missed Verlaine's spacey intros and Lloyd's wacked toy-soldier moves; the new Television simply got on stage and focused on the music.

They still had trouble in the first set. Television's music gravitated between disorienting, psychedelic, and good ole rock 'n' roll, a hat trick to pull off on stage, complicated further by a '60's sensibility: things had to "happen."

The First Set Curse broke one humid Saturday night when something "happened." As Verlaine sang "Venus," a young woman yelled out: "You're so good!"

The spontaneous kudo literally turned his head, perhaps affecting him more than the positive press or growing attendance. Verlaine and Lloyd looked at each other, Fender sparks flew and the First Set Curse vanished. For the second set, they opened with their fuzz-free version of Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction" with the stage lights off; it worked. A revamping of the old intense jam "Change Channels," renamed "Kingdom Come," closed the set with transcendent Wagnerian overtones, cascading otherworldly guitar lines living up to the song's title. Verlaine grinned and tapped his foot vigorously, Lloyd's mad toy soldier returned to life, Billy flailed away deftly, and Fred maintained the groove. The new Television had finally arrived.

Television folded in 1978, after only two albums. At the time, I fretted that they couldn't go further. dB's frontman Chris Stamey articulately bemoaned their break-up: "They were my favorite band. I may never have another."

However, all the members continued playing in other formidable configurations. The eponymous reunion disc, of '92, stands up easily alongside Marquee Moon and Adventure; Verlaine's and Lloyd's solo efforts hold their own; Fred and Billy contributed to good bands like Kristi Rose and The Waitresses.

I returned to New York City for the 2004 reunion concert, even though T.V. would be playing my recent home of Boston a week later. I had to see them in New York. Characteristically, the band's presence evaded nostalgia; more eerily, the gig felt as though I'd seen them the week before, when they looked much younger.

One nostalgic note, picked incidentally by Richard Lloyd, sneaked into "Venus"' stark starry intro; Lloyd sounded like he had just learned the part. Verlaine heard it and smiled as his old song became a new song.

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