Let’s start with a disclaimer. My first-ever published music review was on Television’s first album, “Marquee Moon,” which appeared in March 1977, in the critic-seeder that was the Soho Weekly News. I was paid $5 to write it. Forty years later, some things never change, and that goes for Television torch-bearer Tom Verlaine and company, too, who played two nights at Los Angeles’ Teragram Ballroom on Sept. 29 and 30.
A rock poet who was Patti Smith’s significant other sometime between Sam Shepard, Robert Mapplethorpe on the one side, and Allen Lanier and Fred “Sonic” Smith on the other, Verlaine and fellow schoolmate Richard Hell formed the Neon Boys, which eventually evolved into Television.
As legend has it, Verlaine and cohorts convinced Hilly Krystal to turn his biker’s bar CBGB on the Bowery into a new music venue. The band, while highly influential, only recorded a pair of albums for Elektra, following “Marquee Moon” a year later with “Adventure,” then disappeared for 14 years before resurfacing with a self-titled third album for Capitol in 1992.
Television replaced original member Richard Lloyd in 2007 with N.Y. guitar whiz Jimmy Rip and the band – with original bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca — returned to the road several years ago, and performed at the Teragram Ballroom a month after the downtown venue opened in July 2015.
After a fine opening set from fellow ‘70s legend (and former Alex Chilton collaborator) Chris Stamey, backed by a violinist and cellist, including dBs songs like “From a Window to a Screen” and “Happenstance” as well as solo chestnuts such as “Astronomy” and the original Ork Records 45, “Summer Sun,” it was time for Television, proving both a lot tighter and much more expansive than I’d remembered them.
On Friday night, they were the former, opening with the martial rhythms of “Prove It,” and doing just that over the course of a taut, 90-minute, nine-song, two-number encore set that paused midway through for their sprawling, newly added “Persia,” a Middle Eastern-flavored nod to the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic “Drums/Space” interlude. The second evening was more up-and-down, starting with a shimmering intro into “1880 or So,” from the band’s self-titled 1992 album, before an unbroken string of four “Marquee Moon” smashes – “Venus,” “Elevation,” “Prove It” and “Friction.”
Belying his reputation as a musical tyrant, Verlaine is notably generous, letting Jimmy Rip front-and-center for the distinctive Morse code solos on “Elevation,” and while Rip may be more conventional than Lloyd in his approach, he also manages to keep Verlaine grounded, even if the night two proved Television capable of being a world-class jam band, too. The new surprise set piece is “I’m Gonna Find You,” a previously unreleased song Verlaine calls “one of our oldest, most ancient songs,” originally intended for, but left off of, “Marquee Moon.” An insinuating blues-country plaint that channels the Stones of “Wild Horses,” the song shows the band’s hitherto well-concealed R&B roots, and both evenings, led into elongated takes on “Marquee Moon,” with a second-night extrapolation that turned it into an epic, wide-screen soundscape.
“Guiding Light” and “Friction” closed out the first night, with the former doing the honors on Saturday night, a one-song encore that proved anti-climactic after the full-blown pyrotechnics of “Marquee Moon,” Verlaine taking center stage to emote his ass off, peeling off notes as he peels off layers to the skin.
Of course, Television is a vehicle for Tom Verlaine’s chordal, scale-based notion of guitar soloing – mostly gleaned from listening to jazz musicians like John Coltrane. Among New York punk and post-punk guitarists, perhaps only Lou Reed, Johnny Thunders, Johnny Ramone, Thurston Moore and Bob Quine challenge Television for fret supremacy. Still Television is a lot more than just Verlaine – without Fred Smith’s warmly melodic bass lines and Billy Ficca’s light-fingered jazz drumming, the band would simply disappear into the ether.
Forty years ago, I wrote about the band, “Forget everything you’ve heard about Television; forget punk, forget New York, forget CBGBs… hell forget rock and roll — this is the real item.” That quote is now immortalized in the band’s Wikipedia entry. Now, I look around and see kids half my age digging on a sound that has only deepened and resonated with age. Tom Verlaine and Television have nothing left to prove.