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[whitespace] 'Marquee Moon'
Photograph by John Telfer

It takes an East Village band to create 'Marquee Moon.'

Another Country

The punk-rock power of New York's Television is now but a nostalgic echo

By Gina Arnold

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, my brother and I spent an Easter Sunday wandering around the East Village in New York City in the rain. We wound up at dusk at the Lakeside Lounge just off Tompkins Square Park, where we sipped beer with two other patrons and a dog, and listened, rapt, to the jukebox play Television's Marquee Moon in entirety. None of us said a word for 40-plus minutes, and after it was over my brother gave a deep sigh of satisfaction and said, "This is the best Easter I ever had."

I thought of that gentle evening as I waited for Television to take the stage at the Great American Music Hall the other night, one of two rare appearances by the legendary New York band in this area--and the first in many years. For me, that night in New York with my brother might not have been the best Easter ever, but it was certainly the best consumption of Marquee Moon I ever experienced--and that in a lifetime of playing Marquee Moon.

The magical album, which was released in 1977, just hasn't dated like everything else from that era. Impossible to believe that it came out a year before Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town and two years before Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff": those things now seem like campy mid-20th-century relics of musical naiveté, on a par with Glenn Miller and the can-can song, while Television still sounds fresh and relevant. Is it only because Marquee Moon hasn't been overplayed on radio or is Television really one of the finest acts of the period?

Either way, the prospect of seeing the band that wrote it perform live was compelling, not just to me but to the sold-out crowd of bespectacled men in their late '40s who filled the club. But old though the crowd seemed (to me, anyway), it wasn't even old enough to have "seen them when."

Anyway, in addition to the lifers, there were some young fans, too--of the type I'd call jam-band followers, Phish-people, complete with taping devices and nanny goat beards. That seemed wrong until Television took the stage and began tuning up and noodling. Although the group is associated with the late-'70s CBGB's scene and, thus, proto-punk, Television's musical idiom--the fractured, dueling guitars twining in and out of one another, the strangulated vocals, even singer Tom Verlaine's assumed name, for God's sake--has a lot more in common with jazz than it does with rock & roll.

That fact in itself was a revelation I'd never have thought of, having only known the members of Television from the album cover: gaunt, sad-eyed, junkie-looking guys in punky pants. Obviously, they were more than that, and it was great to find that out. Yet the show was a big disappointment. They were going through the motions, playing as if the music was being beamed to them from far, far away, as indeed it was: the East Village hurtles through space, a million light years from here, and the days when Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd were the coolest axmen on the planet--so cool hardly anyone even knew about them--hurtles with it.

Back in the future, at the Great American last Sunday night, Tom broke a G string just before the crucial chord progression that climaxes the song "Marquee Moon," and I felt a terrible pang as he began charging up the scale. Ping! He reached the place where he could go no farther and kind of let things go to pieces. Disgusted, Lloyd handed him a new guitar; the band started the progression over. This time, Verlaine reached the top of the scale, but instead of deliquescing into the watery and relaxed consummation of the piece, the song just kind of ... lapsed. So much for the most wonderful moment in all of punk music: hearing it that long-ago night at the Lakeside Lounge, it was far more wonderful. That's the problem with older acts like Television--there's almost no way to avoid them being more about nostalgia than about the here and now, and nostalgia isn't very edifying. The past, as someone once said, should be a springboard and not a hammock. I think that Marquee Moon was a springboard of sorts to a sonic future for numerous band members, but seeing Television now is sinking into the old hammock big time.

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From the August 1-7, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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