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Music Consumption: Television
05/10/2001 Television: Live in Chicago!

So. We've seen Television--amazing, and for a while I wasn't sure it would be.

A quick summary: Promising, energetic, and at times...not quite focused, or something. The band would get pumped up, play tight, interact, and then something would dissipate the energy. It's always hard to enjoy a show for what it is when you're expecting something, and--even though I should have resisted the urge, I kept waiting for the transcendent moment which was approached several times, and not fully embraced. But that moment did come, and it was during "Marquee Moon." (More on that below.)

Why the dissipation? One of the fellow fans we hooked up with predicted that the three-week layoff might suck some energy out of the band, which is indeed possible. Could be unfamiliar equipment, since Tom's guitar seemed new, and Richard played two guitars we hadn't seen before. I also somehow picked up the impression that Tom was fighting a cold or something. Now that I think about it, I can't pin down where I got the idea from, but...I did get that impression.

Overall, the older material seemed to gel a bit better, but the material from the third album definitely took on a life of its own, particularly "The Rocket" and "Rhyme." Billy was as inventive as one would hope; Fred was steady and cool; and Richard and Tom played very well. Paradoxically, however, it seemed from time to time that the band had lost its edge, or wasn't as tight as it could have been, quite possibly a result of the downtime.

There could also be some question of how relations are within the band--Richard stood way off to stage left, on his own. Everyone's facial expressions seemed disengaged or even slightly annoyed when playing, but Richard laughed at Tom's "We bought new clooooothes for this gig" joke, and Tom seemed to be enjoying himself from time to time in these asides (like the "Yuh, right" response to requests for "Fire Engine" and "Elevation"). Who knows, it might have been the effect of concentrating on their actual playing. I'm not complaining, though--it was indeed a thrill to see and hear them live, and it was great to hook up with "Marquee Moon mailing list" folks, all of them very cool and different.

Now for the loads-of-detail version:

The Metro is a once-grand theatre that seems to have endured some long-ago psychic trauma, followed by decades of casual abuse as it bumps slowly toward decay. Still, some grandeur lingers in the ornaments about the high ceiling and around the proscenium. No seating, as we'd learned (for the likes of us, anyway). One of us had done some advance reconnaissance the night before, and found that the best view was from the floor, as close to the stage as one could push. The place was packed, though. Most of our little group was off to the left, what clearly looked to be Tom's side.

I found the openers, Preston School of Industry (Scott Kannberg), quite likeable. Amusingly, one of our friends leaned over at one point during their set, and said, "If I know you, you're writing a review in your head: nice rhythm guitar, not enough soloing." Which was pretty accurate. Kannberg has that steady post-Velvets pop-strumming thing down cold. It's good in its way, but tends toward sameyness. Fortunately, the arrangements (keys/flugelhorn, bass, drums, guitar/vocals) varied a bit, although at times seemed, I dunno, Springsteeny or something. When Kannberg soloed or contributed feedback noise, or when the flugelhorn came out, those moments revealed the real promise of the band. Mostly, Kannberg was content to hold down rhythm and let the bassist do the solos. Fine, but I would have liked more guitar soloing and melodic playing, since he has a nice sense of texture.

Television. First off, it was a thrill to see Billy onstage, setting up his drums--we're seeing Television! Really! Gear: Tom's red hardtail strat, which a fellow audience member observed might have still had the price tag hanging from it (looked very new), miscellaneous effects (which I couldn't see), and that Matchless amp--not the same one from Columbus, which I know was borrowed; anyway, the Columbus one was burgundy-covered, and this one was black. If it's his, maybe that's what he's into now. It'd be interesting if the amp he borrowed in Columbus got him into these guys.

Fred was playing...I remember it as a Jazz bass, which surprised me. That into an amp I can't recall (G-K?), and a Hartke cabinet. You'll find in the review that I don't mention Fred much, mainly because...he was hard to hear from where I was. Bass waves don't fully resolve for several feet out from the stage, so I've heard, and I may have been too close for the waves to fully resolve. Or maybe I was in a null. Or I may have just cruelly neglected Fred in paying attention to Tom and Richard. <Insert dope-slap>

Richard played mostly a sunburst Strat with a deeply disturbed finish and a humbucker in the bridge. He was quite busy with the pickup switch, so it seemed to me. I'm not sure what pedals he used, either. (Both Richard and Tom seemed to have electronic tuners among their effects.)

During the plugging-in-and-tuning part, Tom was met with shouts of "Where's the Jazzmaster?" (wasn't me, honest) and "Tom, we love you no matter what!" which wasn't me either, but was heartening to hear. (I've heard an awful story involving one of his acoustic tours, and man, if Tom's come to hate performing, that'd explain it. But the crowd in Chicago was happy to see him.)

Having heard about "Swells" from reviews of the UK shows, I was able to enjoy it for what it was, a sort of ambient, dramatic overture. The drum rolls and the mode Tom was playing in had some similarities to the "overture" part of "Seneca" from Tortoise's Standards, with a touch of "Sor Juanna" from Warm and Cool.

As this intro slowly died away, Tom picked out the riff of "1880 or So," perhaps a tentative, delicate tune to start with, it was still proof that this was really the band we came to see, after waiting all this time. I was on Tom's side of the stage, where he was clustered with Fred and Billy, with Richard off on his own to the right. (What's up with that?) I was back from the stage a bit--no room to push up front--and found that I could hear Tom's voice and guitar quite well (not surprising), Billy's drums just fine, and Richard with some difficulty. (Not helped by the weird midrange choky quality to his tone in the solo here.) Richard seemed to be playing his ass off, but from where I stood, it was buried in the mix. At the time, it seemed that it should have been the moment when the band took off, but there was a kind of cognitive dissonance between Richard's fretboard attack and the laid-back quality over on stage right. Interestingly, Tom's solo was a lot more engaged and aggressive live than the sparse, pedal-steel-ish solo we know from the studio version--a good sign indeed.

"This Tune" came next, my least-favorite track from the third album. ("Mars" would have killed the momentum, but I do like it better than "This Tune.") The energy seemed to slip a bit here, but it might have been my lack of engagement with the song. Tom delivered some of the lines (like "you touched my knee") in a dissonant moan that added a likably creepy dimension. The interplay between Richard and Tom got tighter, and they had a groove going toward the end.

When they slammed into "Venus" next, as others have observed, a charge went through the audience. Hearing and seeing them play this was the realization of a dream we'd had for many years. This was also my first real education in how Tom and Richard split up the playing--Richard handled the complex riff (his parts much more audible now, with a less choked tone), and took over the rhythm playing during the Tom's solo. The solo itself showed great spirit, and was another truly thrilling moment of the evening (for me, anyway). Billy's drumming was also dramatic on this one, and we got to see Tom bending at the knees as of legend, leaning over his guitar, pumping the notes out. The band was very tight on this one, which says a lot for playing old tunes.

"Beauty Trip" was pleasant enough, but some of the energy seemed to dissipate. Perhaps it's because the arrangements aren't as intricate as the older tunes or something--there's more space in them, more flexibility maybe, but it can create a big hole to fill. Richard exhibited a fine solo, however, and the tradeoff of the main riff between Tom and Richard was a treat to see, which contradicts what I began this paragraph complaining about. (It'd have been nice to see Richard play slide on this one, but such was not to be.)

Some sparse, creepy atmospherics were next, with Tom exhibiting the pinky-on-the-volume-knob Roy Buchanan swells that he does so well. It seemed like the beginning of some new tune, something like "Swells." It was cool, with Tom and Richard responding to each other playfully, seemingly unrehearsed. Then Billy started the drum part, and--it was "Little Johnny Jewel"! Another thriller. Tight, engaged, and mighty, particularly Richard, Fred, and Billy, who all seemed to be spurring Tom on. "And then he loses his senses..." The solo started strong, and Tom followed his inspiration outward...dissipating into those sparse volume swells again. A much shorter solo than I would have expected from this usually epic tune.

"See No Evil" pumped some life back into the band, with another smoking solo by Richard. Also good to see was Tom's playing during Richard's solos--I was vividly reminded of one of Tom's comments about there not being any personality stuff onstage, but that when Richard played, Tom's only concern was to push him as hard as he could. This was quite visible. Richard's playing all evening was very note-dense, sometimes verging on shredding territory, as if he was trying to wrench the band into life, to light a fire under everyone. The same was true for "Call Mr. Lee," in which Richard's playing struck me as almost twisted in this setting, and put me in mind of Ernie Henry's first phrases in his solo on Monk's "Brilliant Corners"--the dissonance was beautifully jarring and noirish. Tom's playing, as if in response, became again more aggressive than on the studio version, and the tune ended hard and wonderful.

Next came "Prove It," yet another lesson in how the old tunes were arranged. Again, many of the parts I'd thought were Tom's were in fact Richard's. As Philip noted, the audience sung along on the chorus, and Billy's glorious drum fills were right there in the verses (kind of made me wish they'd done "Torn Curtain"). Tom's solo was even better than his others so far, and I got the impression that things were getting fun for him.

"Rocket" and "Rhyme" were next in the set, and really did come to life. "Rocket," their Sonic Youth tune, began with Richard's gorgeous Hendrixian cascading waves of feedback. I'd have been happy to hear the whole tune played that way. While I dug the ping-ponging between Tom and Richard in the trading of lines, more of that feedback would have pushed it over the top. Still, a joyful noise was made, and phased into "Rhyme." Tom's vocals were significantly improvised, and he played with the delivery a lot, getting into the character of (as Milo Miles put it) "a man so inarticulate with lust" that he was reduced to random disconnected phrases. It was cool to hear him digging around and finding the poetry in the words--hey, a Live Event! As it trailed on, though, there was something disturbing about the "blue dress" monologue--that "heaviness" or "sense of crisis" in the light stuff that Tom's talked about, an example of this tune done well. Finally, in the middle of it, the band fell silent, and I thought for sure everything had fallen apart. But no--there was the "scream and shout" crescendo, and the band blasted out the long coda. Way more enjoyable than on record.

"Rhyme" faded into..."Marquee Moon," of course, mighty, confident, just as one would want (another who-played-what lesson!). Richard kicked out the jams on his solo, and Tom's solo had great spirit as well. Finally, during the ascending figure near the end, Richard dropped out to change guitars and tune the replacement. Tom took over both guitar parts for the atmospheric resolution, and...led Fred and Billy back into the ascending figure, repeatedly, with greater intensity each time.

My memory at this point is sketchy (anyone who's heard a recording of the show may be able to verify one way or another)--I recall that right before Richard joined back in (after what was probably just a couple of minutes, but seemed much longer), Tom had stretched out the atmospheric part again, into a supple, pure noisemaking, waving the guitar back and forth for the RFI hum, in a thrilling example of an expert at play. When Richard joined for the last iteration of the figure and the ending of the tune (without the reiteration of the theme as on record), the noise was loud, overpowering, and glorious--it was as if the band had slyly pulled victory from the jaws of chaos. What would have completely derailed lesser players (equipment screwup at the climax of the signature tune) became proof of their mastery.

What I want from a band is for them to show me something new, and Television did here, just as they did the first time I heard them on record. I'd go so far as to say that this version of Marquee Moon is the best I'd ever heard. One of our group observed that we should have had to pay extra for that mistake, and I have to agree. At that point, the evening was made for me.

That the encore began with "Glory" was yet another pleasure. It smoked appropriately gently, while the covers "Don't Need Your Lovin' Anymore" and "Psychotic Reaction" burned full on. Chaos reared its head again at the beginning of the latter--Tom's call for the segue seemed to take Richard by surprise, or something, and they ended up a fraction of a beat out of sync on the riff. This seemed to amuse Tom. They synched back up, and played all the harder for it, Tom memorably attacking his Strat with wire cutters for a chaotic slide in his solo. And then they were gone.

They'd rocked, played "out," let the tunes breathe, showed us something new, and struggled against chaos. A truly great, dramatic evening.

12/18/1999 Television: live

Television and Tom Verlaine unreleased recordings. Nobody made money off this. And if any of these came out officailly, I'd buy 'em again--I hope they do come out officially. Some of these recordings are astonishing: San Francisco '78, the 1981 Tom Verlaine show from the Ritz, the Island demos, the last CBGB shows.... It would be nice for the band to be able to make some money on these after all this time.

09/10/1999 Television: live

Lately, I've also been listening to a nontrivial number of unreleased Television performances. Some of these shows should have been put out--San Francisco '78 and the Tom Verlaine show at the Ritz in '81 have been consistently blowing me away. (Although I wonder if SF78 wasn't sped up--the tempo's really aggressive and sounds right, but Tom's voice is a lot higher than I've usually heard it.)

07/15/1999 Television: The Blow-Up

I've been listening intensively to the re-issued semi-official Television bootleg, The Blow-Up. Extremely impressive performances--"Little Johnny Jewel" is the most engaging version I've heard, and the playing is red-hot throughout, with perhaps a few moments of uncertainty. Richard Lloyd shines in several tunes, particularly the famous moment during the cover of "Satisfaction" when he detunes his low E all the way and wraps it around the back of the neck. Tom Verlaine's playing is excellent on these tunes, and perhaps the only complaints I can think of are the omission of "Poor Circulation," which was played at the show, and the odd sound quality--sure, it was originally a bootleg, but couldn't they have done something about the random tape his dropping in and out of "Elevation"? In any event, you won't be disappointed. You can get it "here".

04/25/1999 Television

Still listening to the live Television stuff.

04/25/1999 Television: The Blow-Up

ROIR has definitely released "The Blow-Up," live Television recordings from 1978. I haven't yet picked up my copy, but as each day passes, I feel somewhat more diminished for not having it. Don't let this happen to you.

03/07/1999 Television: live

I've been listening a lot to some live recordings of Television from 1976, which are fantastic. It's not quite official-release quality, but it's not much noisier than the Velvet Underground's Live at Max's. I'll note up front that these weren't authorized, but I didn't purchase them anywhere--they were sent to me through the kindness of someone who had them. I wouldn't recommend trying to buy any bootlegs, but The Blow-Up, a now-official live set, has just been rereleased by ROIR, so f you buy it, your money does go to the band, where it should. According to Steve Rovner's bootleg discography, this performance is the same one from a bunch of different bootlegs, so you're best off buying this one. I don't have it yet, but I've consistently heard that it's amazing.

05/12/1998 Television

Still listening to Tim Berne's Paraphrase. And Television's Marquee Moon

A friend and I were talking the other night about cross-pollination, which these two recordings exemplify. Tom Verlaine's guitar phrasings have some relation to the saxophone, which he played before he took up guitar. Sax phrasing depends on the performer having to breathe (or depends upon the performer having mastered circular breathing; either way there's a relation to the breath) which isn't the same necessity on guitar. To bring a saxophone mindset (of any kind) to the guitar extends the guitar's vocabulary, and gives it (and whatever musical idiom the guitar's being used for) a new set of techniques, of sounds, of things to say, and it opens up the possibility for new kinds of responses to the music. Cross-pollination makes the way clear for something new. (I'm reminded of Salman Rushdie's observation in his essay "In Good Faith" that "Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world." [Imaginary Homelands, Granta Books, London, 1991, p. 394.])

We talked a bit about this, and recalled that distortion as a guitar effect originated--or became popular--as a way for a guitar to sound like a saxophone. I also recall a story about a guitar player dropping his amp, causing one of its tubes to come halfway out of its socket and distort the sound. As the story goes, he reseated the tube, but thought it sounded kind of cool distorted, and pulled it back out. In any case, even if its invention was an accident, distortion was widely adopted for aesthetic reasons, because it increased the guitar's sonic vocabulary.

In various places in Tim Berne's playing, he's making noises with the saxophone that resemble nothing so much as guitar feedback. The cross-pollination works the other way, too, and our vocabulary keeps getting larger.

03/16/1998 Television: Marquee Moon

Still listening to Television's Marquee Moon

03/09/1998 Television: Marquee Moon

What can I possibly say about this? It's absolutely essential. (Do you sense a 70's vibe to my current listening habits?) Buy it, buy it now. Listen to the solos. Listen to the interplay. Listen to the whole damn thing over and over. It's been listed on enough "best guitar album" and "classic" lists, that--if you at all like music made with guitars--you pretty much have no excuse for not having listened to this.

Well, actually, you do. Television and Tom Verlaine never got the representation they could have from their various record companies. They tried, I guess, but it didn't seem smart--not enough copies were pressed, promo copies weren't sent to the right radio stations. I've seen evidence of this in a promo copy of Cover with the sticker of a local radio station that played, at the time Cover was released, adult mush-pop and/or lite dance music. Bad call.

But back to Marquee Moon. Maybe the only flaw on this is the way Andy Johns recorded Tom Verlaine's vocals--there's almost no bottom end to them at all, just treble. His later vocals have a bit more of a chest-voice sound to them. I don't know, maybe he did sound this trebly in the '70s, when his voice was several thousand packs of Gitanes fresher. In any case, the guitars lock and spar, pivot around different distinctive points, and the songs go from here to there in the most unlikely and (after several listens) inevitable ways. It beats most of its descendants hands-down, and it still sounds fresh after (is it really?) 21 years. And who/what else can you say that about?

Of course, it's got to be depressing for an artist to have a venerated debut work. Where do you go from there? Try Dreamtime, recently reissued, and, if you can find it, Words from the Front. Flash Light is also a masterpiece, but I haven't listened to it in quite a while--for about a year and a half I listened to it almost every day. Maybe I should take it out again. Also check out Warm and Cool. It's instrumental, and (as far as I know) the most recent thing he's released, apart from the Miller's Tale collection.