I wanna wake up in a city
That doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill
Top of the heap
“If I can make it there
I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you
New York, New York
–John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics)
(Frank Sinatra version)
I’m pretty sure that the members of Television would agree with my take on this iconic song: the heap in question is a heap of bullshit.
The initiators of the CBGB scene certainly made it in New York, receiving rave reviews from Christgau and other New York music critics. But while Marquee Moon made it to the UK Top 30, the album barely charted in the United States, selling less than eighty thousand copies.
I’ll take a wild guess that most of those copies were sold in a narrow geographical area centered around Manhattan.
There are many reasons why the record failed to excite the average ‘merkin back in 1977 (we’ll get to those in the moment), but one possibility we can eliminate from the get-go is the quality of the music and the musicianship. Marquee Moon is a fascinating, innovative work by a talented and committed band, a record that defies genre classification and would eventually influence a generation of artists in the emerging alternative rock field.
The sheer originality of Marquee Moon was likely part of the problem. Americans are into “new and improved” when it comes to consumer goods, but tend to stick to the tried-and-true when considering music purchases. A look at the albums that made it to #1 on the Billboard charts in 1977 tells us that your average yank wasn’t particularly interested in shiny new music: Songs in the Key of Life, Hotel California, Wings Over America, A Star Is Born (soundtrack), Rumours, Barry Manilow Live, Simple Dreams. The old stand-bys and pop-friendly hitmakers owned the market.
However, when you consider that none of the CBGB artists wowed the masses with their maiden releases, a pattern begins to emerge (Patti Smith’s Horses did the best, sneaking into the Top 50; the rest languished at the bottom of the charts or missed out entirely). The pattern becomes clearer when you step backwards in the timeline: The Velvet Underground and Nico completely bombed with the listening audience and the New York Dolls failed miserably in their quest to conquer the heartland. Looking outside the music scene for additional clues, we learn that New York, New York—a film primarily remembered for its title track—proved to be a box office turkey that temporarily pushed Martin Scorsese down the black hole of depression.
Hmm. It sure sounds like there’s a coherent theme in there somewhere. Start spreading the news . . .
I firmly believe that to really appreciate Marquee Moon and understand the reasons for its middling commercial performance, you have to have some understanding of the environment in which it was created—specifically lower Manhattan within the larger context of New York City in the 70s and the larger picture of how Americans of that era perceived the Big Apple. To assist my readers in gaining such understanding, I intend to quote heavily from Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning: Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler, a marvelous book featuring parallel narratives of the contemporary socio-political history of New York and the Billy Martin-Reggie Jackson-George Steinbrenner soap opera that miraculously led to the first championship for the men in pinstripes in fifteen years.
Mahler makes the case that the heap New Yorkers experienced in the 70s was one long heap of trouble with numerous sub-chapters, and as far as the average American was concerned, it was their own damn fault. Heartland perceptions of New York City had begun to turn sour as early as the Kitty Genovese rape-and-murder back in 1964 (bitterly chronicled in Phil Ochs’ “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”) and things would go from bad to worse in the years that followed. Early in his book, Mahler describes his first trip to the Big Apple with his parents:
In the summer of 1977 we visited the city. I was only eight, but it didn’t take long to figure out that this wasn’t the place I had imagined. Whenever we climbed into a taxi, my parents promptly rolled up the windows and locked the doors. When I drifted toward a group of men dealing three-card monte, my mother quickly yanked me away.
Mahler, Jonathan. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
During the period when Television developed most of the songs that appear on Marquee Moon through live performance, the city’s long-brewing fiscal crisis came to a head, punctuated by the famous Daily News headline, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”
New York reacted to all this with predictable indignation, the rest of the country with just as predictable glee. The syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak understated the matter considerably when they wrote, “Americans do not much like, admire, respect, trust, or believe in New York.” In political cartoons across the nation, New York became a sinking ship, a zoo where the apes were employed as zookeepers, a naughty puppy being swatted by a rolled-up newspaper, a stage littered with overturned props.
Mahler, Kindle Edition.
Mahler adds that New York became one of Johnny Carson’s favorite targets after he relocated The Tonight Show to Beautiful Downtown Burbank in the early 70s: “Central Park was Johnny’s favorite punch line (‘Some Martians landed in Central Park today … and were mugged’).” Carson’s huge audience ate it all up and canceled their Broadway/Lady Liberty vacations.
The much-befuddled Mayor Beame responded to the federal rejection of assistance by firing 38,000 employees, “including librarians, garbage collectors, firemen and cops.”
In anticipation of the layoffs, the police union had already distributed WELCOME TO FEAR CITY brochures at Kennedy Airport, Grand Central Station, and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which came complete with a “survival guide” advising arriving tourists not to leave their hotels after dark or to ride the subways at any hour.
Mahler, Kindle Edition.
Believe it or not, it gets worse. Tom Verlaine’s semi-apocalyptic image of New York would gain another dimension beyond sight and sound . . . a certain . . . aroma:
Fear City also became Stink City when ten thousand sanitation workers walked off the job to protest the layoffs. The piles rose quickly, and ripe refuse was soon oozing from burst garbage bags and overstuffed trash cans, making it difficult for pedestrians to negotiate many of the city’s sidewalks. Within a matter of days some fifty-eight thousand tons of uncollected garbage were roasting in New York’s summer sun. Sanitation workers ensured that private collectors wouldn’t be able to provide relief from the unremitting stench by sealing off the various dumps in the city’s outlying areas.
Mahler, Kindle Edition.
In 1976, the city experienced a well-earned respite from the vitriol thanks to the bicentennial and its tall ships and fireworks. Meanwhile, something else had been cooking down on the Bowery . . .
. . . Television, a rock band fronted by two teenagers who’d run away to New York to become poets, had talked their way into a Lower East Side biker bar whose name, CBGB, stood for country, bluegrass, and blues. Other protopunk acts including Blondie, Patti Smith, and the Ramones, soon followed. At a time when rock ‘n’ roll connoted suburban stadiums, a rock scene was born on, of all places, the Bowery. “Broken youth stumbling into the home of broken age,” wrote Frank Rose, noting the irony in The Village Voice in the summer of ’76.
One by one, New York’s new bands signed record contracts. The Ramones, of Forest Hills, Queens, released their first album in the spring of 1976. “Their music swept the Bowery,” read the accompanying ads in music magazines. “Now it’s gonna sweep the nation.” It never quite did; the record peaked at 111 on the Billboard charts. The Talking Heads, another one of the most popular bands at CBGB, wasn’t doing much better. Their 1977 album, Talking Heads ’77, barely broke 100. Touring the country that summer in the wake of its release, the band found itself playing mostly at pizza parlors. But even if these bands weren’t catching on in the heartland, they were at least taking their rightful place on the sound track for 1970s New York, ensuring that punk rock would forever evoke the dirty downtown streets where it had been born.
Mahler, Kindle Edition
It’s important to note that Television had been approached by big labels as far back as 1974 (actually recording some demos at Island with Brian Eno), but Tom Verlaine rejected their overtures because he wanted to produce the album himself (despite a complete lack of experience in production). This delay would come back to bite them in the ass, for by releasing Marquee Moon in February 1977, they would come up against a new and insidious fad that would soon dominate the music market—underscored by the opening of Studio 51 two months after Marquee Moon hit the shelves:
“NOW is the summer of our discotheques,” wrote night-crawling journalist Anthony Haden-Guest in New York magazine in June 1977. “And every night is party night.”
Mahler, Kindle Edition
A month after that article appeared, New York would confirm its standing as Apocalypse Central with the Great Blackout (in the middle of a brutal heatwave) and the extensive city-wide looting that followed (excluding the more well-heeled areas). Needless to say, their American compatriots remained firmly convinced that New Yorkers deserved every bit of the nasty karma thrown their way:
The rest of the country was hardly sympathetic. In the late sixties the rioting in Detroit and Newark had served to draw attention to the plight of America’s ghettos. The 1977 blackout looting in New York only seemed to confirm everyone’s worst suspicions about the city. To go with the fictional portrayals of the dangerous, dystopian metropolis in recent movies such as Taxi Driver, there was now documentary footage. The Washington Post set the tone, calling the looting “an indictment of the state of the city, its government, and its people.” A spokesman for Miami’s Chamber of Commerce pointed out that America had expected the worst, and New York had not let it down. Even Christianity Today weighed in, suggesting that God had sent his judgment on a city that had turned away from him. “The lack of electricity lit up the reality of people’s minds and hearts,” the magazine wrote. “That’s what people are like when separated from light and the light.” Writing in The New Yorker, Andy Logan summed up the popular sentiment thus: “Instead of comfort, what New York received in the first days after the disaster was often the punitive judgment that it had just got what it deserved, considering the kind of place it was.”
Mahler, Kindle Edition.
And oh yeah! I forgot about Son of Sam!
As a marketing professional, I was absolutely blown away by the jingle Sire Records used to promote Ramones, likely the result of “only in New York” thinking embraced by those New Yorkers who firmly believe that their metropolis is the center of the universe. The people in the marketing department at Sire certainly never tuned in to Johnny Carson and/or did no environmental research whatsoever, for “Their music swept the Bowery” was the absolute worst marketing theme they could have selected at that point in history. Selling New York music outside of New York in the mid-70s was the equivalent of the old ice-to-eskimos trope: Americans wanted nothing to do with that crumbling, creepy, crime-ridden dump of a city.
New Yorkers of the time argued that the negative perception of the city was overblown and unfair. After all, New York City wasn’t the only American metropolis in steep decline: the impact of white flight turned several cities in the Northeast and Midwest into fear-coated shitholes. My parents will attest to the fact that even San Francisco was a frigging awful place in the 70s and early 80s, a horror story that culminated in the assassinations of Moscone and Milk and the Jonestown tragedy (all horrifically captured in David Talbot’s Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love). New York took the reputational hit because . . . well, because it’s New York! Gotham has always been the convenient punching bag for the resentful, the envious and the unsurprisingly large numbers of baseball fans who love to hate the damn Yankees.
So let’s summarize. Tom Verlaine wrote the songs on Marquee Moon while living in a city careening towards collapse. Youth is advertised as a time of unlimited possibility, and as an artistically inclined young man with a passion for poetry and rock ‘n’ roll, Verlaine couldn’t have picked a better place to land than the Lower East Side, one of the few places in New York that was long overdue for rebirth (and it was probably the only neighborhood he and eventual ex-pal Richard Hell could afford). While most of New York was in free fall during the 70s, the Lower East Side had been there/done that for most of the century—an enviroment described by Kenneth T. Jackson in The Encyclopedia of New York as one of “persistent poverty, crime, drugs, and abandoned housing.” It was a place lit in vivid darkness, filled with atypical characters who had no place in polite society and young bohemians searching for meaning in a meaning-averse world. When cultures lose cohesion, rules and norms go out the window, providing unlimited opportunities for artists who couldn’t give a flying fuck about the rules anyway. In this environment, Verlaine and his mates created something new and different—punk in attitude but not limited to a formula; guitar duets that opened new musical pathways within the context of rock ‘n’ roll; and lyrics marked by clever wordplay and memorable imagery. Sadly, they released their maiden album in the face of numerous headwinds. It would seem that most of the country thought Television was just plain weird (the manipulated Mapplethorpe cover didn’t help), and the fact that they hailed from New York gave potential buyers in the heartland and beyond plenty of reasons to flip through the stacks for something by Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles or K. C. and the Sunshine Band.
Tom Verlaine finally had his wish come true when the band signed with Elektra and the label agreed to his demand that he produce the album . . . with the stipulation that he work with a top-notch engineer. Verlaine chose Andy Johns, largely because he liked Andy’s work on the Stones’ Goats Head Soup.
In trying to process that tidbit of information I have to admit to a bout of befuddlement. I can’t stand that fucking record. Still, I had a responsibility as a music critic to keep an open mind, so I forced myself to pop over to my parents’ house and listen to Goats Head Soup in its entirety. I’m happy to report that: a.) I survived the experience; b.) I still hate that fucking album; and c.) I managed to hear what Tom Verlaine must have heard. Andy Johns really understood how to record guitar—the tones are generally clean and panned to perfection in the mix . . . and the sounds of the guitars are what attracted me to Marquee Moon in the first place. But while Verlaine and Richard Lloyd draw most of the attention due to their ear-catching guitar duets, those duets wouldn’t stand out as well as they do if it weren’t for the tight and versatile rhythm section of Billy Ficca on drums and Fred Smith on the bass.
The other aspect of Marquee Moon that has drawn a fair share of attention is Tom Verlaine’s lyrical ability. I can’t enthusiastically recommend the 33 1/3 volume on Marquee Moon because the author, Bryan Waterman, is an Associate Professor of English at NYU and tends to interpret everything through either “only-in-New-York” or “English major” lenses. Nonetheless, he does provide some helpful clues to interpretation once you get past the classic New York elitism and the unconvincing attempts to link Tom Verlaine to Melville, Whitman, Baudelaire and the real Verlaine:
Making sense of Verlaine’s lyrics as always been a bit of a dangerous proposition: their obscurity is a good part of Television’s mystique . . .
Asked by Punk magazine about the lyrics, Verlaine called them atmospheric: ‘I mean, you don’t have to say what you mean to get across.’ Lloyd chimed in: ‘It’s like you say five words and you mean the sixth. Verlaine: “Right.”
Waterman, Bryan. Television’s Marquee Moon (33 1/3) p. 160-161. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.)
It’s like you say five words and you mean the sixth. Hmm. I think John Lennon did just that on “Strawberry Fields Forever,” so we’re not talking about a particularly original approach. Many of Kurt Cobain’s songs are equally suggestive (“Well, whatever, never mind.”), so it would seem that elusive lyrics have a long history in rock ‘n’ roll. What did Little Richard mean when he so poetically exclaimed, “Wop bop a loo bop a lop bom bom?”
Here’s the deal: unfinished thoughts and unprocessed emotions have always found a place in rock ‘n’ roll because one of the greatest challenges of youth is the struggle to say what you fucking mean when your hormones are ablaze. Such an approach does not work in literary poetry. Let’s try it out on the works of a few famous English language poets:
Shakespeare: “It is a tale told by . . . “
Eliot: “Do I dare to eat a . . . “
Keats: “Truth is . . . “
Tennyson: “Tis better to have loved and lost than . . . “
Ginsberg: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by . . .”
Waterman’s best defense of Tom Verlaine’s lyrical approach is succinct and to the point: “Verlaine’s project is compatible with a post-Cagean conceptualism that would bring audiences to some awareness of ways they participate in meaning-making . . .” It’s like this: I don’t know what Little Richard literally means, but I get it. Now, my getting it may not be your getting it, but if we both feel the emotional impact of that line, the poet (or songsmith) can put that line in the plus column.
The first track on any album plays the crucial role of capturing the listener’s attention well enough so they’ll want to listen to the rest. To give you an example of the flip side of the coin, as soon as I heard “Mumbo,” the opening track on the Wings album Wild Life, I knew immediately that I’d rather do my nails in silence.
But I put my personal grooming aside the second I hear Verlaine’s guitar in my left ear playing a straight power chord triplet in G (3-5-5) with a rest between the second and third note . . . and I can feel my diddle twiddle the second Billy Ficca and Fred Smith cue Richard Lloyd (in my right ear) with a cymbal crash and a tickly high note bass run. When Lloyd enters with his spot-on complement to Verlaine’s rhythm guitar, I’m ready to explode in fit of orgasmic release (which I manage to hold until they come on strong with the crashing C7 chord that completes the verse chord pattern). Verlaine’s opening lyrics, sung with a clear “I’ve had it with this shit” edge in his voice, rings true for me when I’m in the throes of passion. I WANT NOW!
What I want
I want now
And it’s a whole lot more
Sex, music and baseball . . . this is the first review I’ve ever written that covers all three of my life priorities.
My take on “anyhow” is that it represents an attack on the notion of settling for less than what you want—the pernicious tendency that leads us to crummy relationships and jobs that only pay the bills. Then you have to ask, “Why did Tom feel the need to share this perspective?” I think it’s because there is an underlying implication that persons or persons unknown don’t want Tom to have what he wants; the lines seem to echo the eternal struggle between youth brimming with unlimited possibilities and the old farts who tell them, “You’ll grow up some day.” I think Greta Thunberg could have closed any of her justifiable harangues at the powers-that-be with this verse—because settling for “anyhow” keeps politicians in power to serve their billionnaire masters while the planet goes to hell.
As the song progresses, the band rocks with palpable energy and killer rhythms while we learn that Tom wants to do seemingly impossible things, like “fly a fountain,” “jump a mountain” and find “a nice little boat made out of ocean.” Of the three on his wish list, the one that speaks most to me is the boat, as it implies no separation from nature, an immersion in the source of all life. Tom then shifts out of possibility mode to deliver a witty dig at poseurs (“I get your point/You’re so sharp”), expressing his disdain of those who don’t get that “being hip” is just a form of surrender to conformity—another case of “anyhow.” Right after the second chorus, we get Richard Lloyd’s first guitar solo. There are few guitarists who do crescendos as well as Richard Lloyd—I just love it when he climbs the fretboard with such grace, precision and intent.
Next we find Tom Verlaine of Fear-and-Stink City telling his unseen companion that he doesn’t want to hear any doom-and-gloom crap:
Don’t say unconscious
No don’t say doom
If you got to say it
Let me leave this room
He then repeats the “anyhow” opening verse, adding the aside “get it?” Something in the way he tosses off that appendage tells me two things—one, that he really doesn’t think his companion will get it; and two, that he really couldn’t give a fuck anyway. What he wants HE WANTS NOW. End of discussion.
Now it’s time to ponder the chorus. If you cut out the “I see no” response from the boys in the band, you’re left with a somewhat cryptic message: “I understand all destructive urges/It seems so perfect/I see/I see no/I see no evil”. I’m comfortable with the idea that the first two lines are about the creative-destructive cycle and the urge to demolish what’s out of sync in the pursuit of perfection. The claim “I see no evil” appears to be somewhat problematic given the “persistent poverty, crime, drugs, and abandoned housing” in his neighborhood. Fortunately, Waterman refers to a Creem interview with Tom where he shares his personal definition of evil: “I do think in terms of good and evil,” he said. “Evil is an attitude that comes over a person who refuses to discriminate. There was a California expression ‘It’s all the same.’ Drinking a glass of water or cutting a leg off. ‘Oh, it’s all the same.'” From that bit of intelligence, I’ve formed the opinion that “I see no evil” is a conscious choice to avoid contact with the “whatever” crowd. Let me leave this room. Get me the fuck out of here. Take your bad juju and shove it up your ass.
I’m good with that. I’m also good with the fade, where Tom embraces one of the most enduring themes of rock: relationship as refuge. “I’m runnin’ wild with the one I love . . . Pull down the future with the one you love,” sings Tom. In between those two lines he’s “runnin’ wild with one-eyed ones,” and I haven’t a clue what the hell that means (nor his earlier reference to “BeBo talk”). Well, you don’t have to get it all, and I get “See No Evil” enough to label it one of the most exciting opening tracks in rock. I WANT MORE!
“Venus” heralds open season on song interpretation, but before we go there, I’d like to compliment Tom Verlaine for his use of the European “i” when he sings of Venus de Milo. I’m kind of anal about pronunciation and grammar (among other things) and it drives me nuts when Americans pronounce it as “de my-lo.” I always correct people when I hear mispronunciations like that—even if the people are total strangers. This is a habit has earned me recognition by both parents as “the person most likely to get punched out in public.”
Confession: I’ve always wanted to write a piece on the misuse of relative pronouns in rock ‘n’ roll. Let’s hope a few therapy sessions rid me of that urge.
Back to “Venus.” The song’s existence dates back to pre-Television days but though the band had probably played it a zillion times in different forms, the album version sounds bright and fresh. While the chords are pretty standard rock fare (the intro is all I-IV-V), the pleasantly melodic riffs add plenty of interest. I love the call-and-response in the choruses, where the boys slip out of their musician roles engage in some very effective voice acting:
How I fell…
(Didja feel low?)
I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo.
Trying to interpret the lyrics is something of a Gordian Knot. Images of a New York night are entwined with the curious fantasy of falling into the arms of a statue with no arms. Grumpy me says that Verlaine could have made it easier for us by using Venus de’ Medici (who still has her arms), but we have to work with what the author gave us.
Verlaine left us one clue (from Waterman): “The arms of Venus de Milo are everywhere. It’s a term for a state of feeling. They’re loving arms.” Okay . . . I’ll run with that and assert that the love in question involves the magic of a night in New York City. The first verse opens with the lines, “It was a tight toy night, streets so bright/The world was so thin between my bones and skin,” lines that completely elude me—but the last three lines hit home:
There stood another person
Who was a little surprised
To be face to face with a world so alive.
That could have been me on every trip I’ve taken to New York—the energy of the place is infectious and empowering. I remember walking down Broadway one night, taking in all the lights and the action and smiling with delight when I made eye contact with an older man who was walking alongside, smiling at me. “It’s life,” he said. And though New York was going through some tough times when Verlaine wrote the song, I can’t believe that there is anything on earth could rob New York of all of its magic.
The second verse continues with the New York experience, which Verlaine likens to “some new kind of drug.” The first two verses both end with Verlaine falling into the arms of Venus de Milo, but the chorus following the third verse ends with “I stood up, walked out of the arms of Venus de Milo.” Sounds like dreary reality interfered with his magical experience:
Suddenly my eyes went so soft and shaky
I knew there was pain, but pain is not aching
Then Richie, Richie said
Hey man let’s dress up like cops
Think of what we could do
But something, something, it said, You better not
Verlaine was likely recalling an experience with Richard Hell, but I hate it when New Yorkers name-check other New Yorkers and make me feel like I’m not invited to the party. Let’s just sum up by saying Tom’s magical experience ended when his buddy thought up some stupid shit that brought him back to the petty world of the mundane. I don’t know if I “get” Venus, but I certainly like listening to the song.
“Friction” is the only song on Marquee Moon that turns me off. I rather like the guitar solos and counterpoints that feature a feel somewhere between a horror film scored by Dick Dale and a B-movie soundtrack (kudos to the aural snakeskin shedding), but the disjointed lyrics fall short of creating a cohesive theme surrounding the contradictory nature of youth. And really . . . Tom’s delivery of the word DICK-shun may appeal to adolescent misogynists who can’t get laid, but I find it hardly worth a snicker. Sorry!
Good luck translating the title track, because Verlaine has steadfastly refused to say anything about it other than it’s “just atmosphere” and “You don’t have to say what you mean to get across” (from Songfacts). I suggest that listeners take him at his word and immerse themselves in that atmosphere. “Marquee Moon” is best classified as “aural cinema,” so just sit back, close your eyes and take in the imagery in the words and music.
The “overture” is a fascinating piece of composition, as the three guitarists (Tom, Richard and Fred, in order of appearance) create a compelling musical theme by combining a series of simple two-note riffs (Tom plays the notes simultaneously while Richard and Fred play tiny runs). The Tom-Richard interplay catches your ear from the get-go—Tom’s piece sounds like those incredibly annoying car alarms while Richard’s more fluid attack calls to mind uncertainty, confusion, apprehension. This anxiety-laden bit of craftsmanship feels unnerving—like we’re headed into the darkness and aren’t sure we can find our way out. Fortunately, Billy Ficca’s nicely executed drum riff has a stabilizing, grounding effect, especially when he settles into the beat, and though the alarms are still going off in the background, we get the sense that we can handle whatever lies ahead.
Tom corrects us of that notion in the first two verses:
Ooh, how the darkness doubled
Lightning struck itself
I was listening
Listening to the rain
I was hearing
Hearing something else
The adjective “ominous” is the first word that comes to mind, “giving the impression that something bad or unpleasant is going to happen” (Oxford Languages). Some people would react to such a hellish environment by expressing the desire to “get me the hell out of here,” but the human addiction to horror films tells us that there’s something terribly compelling about confronting possible doom. The effect of the verses is to ramp up the anxiety levels again, and this is a pattern that holds throughout “Marquee Moon”: tension/relief, tension/relief.
The first full experience of relief immediately follows these two verses in the form of a Richard Lloyd guitar solo where SOMEONE FINALLY TURNED OFF THAT FUCKING ALARM. Lloyd’s solo melts into the chorus, where Verlaine delivers one of his best vocal performances on the album—commanding, tough, sassy, you don’t scare me, motherfucker:
Life in the hive puckered up my night
A kiss of death, the embrace of life
Ooh, there I stand neath the Marquee Moon
The first two lines are two of his best—gorgeous poetic economy that captures the yin/yang tensions of a night in the big city. As far as “marquee moon” is concerned, I’m pretty sure that it’s more alliterative than meaningful, but in its odd fashion captures two essential features of New York—the prevalence of entertainment options advertised in bright neon and the cliché “dark underbelly.”
Ah, we get to take a little breather with a nice little drum and bass duet . . . Fuck! The alarms are going off again!
I spoke to a man
Down at the tracks
And I ask him
How he don’t go mad
He said, “look here, junior, don’t you be so happy
And for heaven’s sake, don’t you be so sad”
Hmm. Another yin/yang dilemma. The philosophy espoused by the hobo is age-old advice: avoid the emotional extremes. It’s an easy link from that advice to Gautama’s Four Noble Truths, which tell us that the key to minimizing suffering in the mortal coil requires the elimination of craving and attachment. While that orientation may bring one peace of mind, it sounds frigging boring to me. I like life’s challenges and the fact that I can be happy and sad makes me feel like I’m part of the human race. Given the overriding musical and lyrical tensions in “Marquee Moon,” I don’t think Verlaine is likely to take the man’s advice to heart.
After another splendid rendition of the chorus and a quick but delightful Lloyd solo, the alarms return to mark the third verse, where things get pretty creepy:
Well, the Cadillac
It pulled out of the graveyard
Pulled up to me
All they said, “get in, get in”
Then the Cadillac
It puttered back into the graveyard
Me, I got out again
Sounds like some of the boys from Little Italy wanted to have some fun with Tom, and Tom was willing to play along, accepting the risk of death as part of life. But as we learned in “Venus,” Tom’s a smart guy and got out before the Reaper made his appearance. Daring fate and doing stupid shit is an essential aspect of life as a young person—when we’re young, healthy and full of piss-and-vinegar, we’re more willing to take more risks because we can’t believe we’re going to die. “You and I, we’re gonna live forever,” sang Liam Gallagher, and that belief combined with insatiable curiosity makes us want to find out if our overly cautious parents were full of shit when they warned us of life’s dangers. Tom is obviously curious about death, but he knows when he’s had enough and it’s time to go.
After one more turn at the chorus, Tom gets his shot at an extended lead solo while Richard Lloyd takes a supporting role. Fans of 60s music will hear echoes of some of the bands who influenced Verlaine and Lloyd’s approach to guitar duets—definitely Buffalo Springfield with echoes of Love and Moby Grape (Mike Duffy of Fender hears Jerry Garcia). Verlaine’s Fender Jazzmaster, free of the distortion that dominated rock records in the 70s and any pedal effects whatsoever, sounds unusually fresh and primal, reminding us of the beauty that can be produced by doubled, unfiltered guitar and amp. Tom keeps things pretty simple (see tab), flirting with Mixolydian mode (blues mode) while gradually and deliberately building a pattern with Lloyd’s rhythmic support that rises up the fretboard until Tom’s guitar begins to weep in dissonance. At that point, the twain meet in rising pow-pow-pow! unison glide up the major scale with strong support from bass and drums, taking the tension to the max until Fred Smith breaks free into double-time then . . . wow . . . it’s as if a fairy waved her magic wand and transported us to paradise. We enter a lush soundscape of glistening piano and gentle high-fret guitar that mimics songbirds, a piece of musical magic somewhere between sweet and melancholy . . . for the human experience is a delicate mixture of those opposites. I can’t listen to that passage without tearing up . . . the movement from the harsh to the beautiful is stunningly absorbing.
The sound fades into the faint taps of Billy Vicca on the cymbal bell . . . then we’re back to real life under a marquee moon. The cycle goes on forever—we have to work our way through the ugliness to get to the beauty but the ugliness makes the beauty all the more precious. There were a lot of long-form songs in the 70s, most of which can be filed under the label of “pointless jams.” Not “Marquee Moon.” It’s on another plane entirely.
I don’t know who was responsible for the track order on Marquee Moon, but I’m calling for a criminal investigation.
There are three options when selecting a closing track. One: place a “closing song” that either wraps up a theme or has a “nighty-night” feeling to it (“Goodnight” from the White Album or the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile” from Sticky Fingers). Two: Use the closing track to give listeners an idea where the artist is headed next (Radiohead likes that approach, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” certainly made way for Sgt. Pepper). Three: end the album with the song that can’t possibly be followed by anything else (“A Day in the Life” or “Brothers in Arms” serving as prime examples).
There isn’t a song in the universe that can follow “Marquee Moon,” so it should have appeared in the final slot. Had that happened, the album would have become a series of vignettes leading to an overwhelmingly powerful conclusion.
As it is, there is a bit of a letdown when we get to side two. Part of the reason why this review took so damn long is that I decided to stop listening to side two in the context of the full track order and wait a couple of weeks before re-engaging so I could give the side a fair shot.
“Elevation” kicks things off, and the opening passage bears some similarities to Pink Floyd’s then recently-released “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” from Animals, namely the bass run and the chord pattern (Floyd uses Em-C, Television Am-F, same mathematical relationship). The guitar in that passage isn’t a duplicate of the alarm sound in “Marquee Moon” but it’s close enough to be disappointing. Once we’re past the intro, the guitars and Billy Ficca’s drums certainly do their part, but Verlaine’s lyrics fail to make much of an impression at all. Waterman cited music historian Tim Mitchell’s opinion that Verlaine’s lyric resembles the Baudelaire poem “Élévation,” but that’s such a stretch that it earns a big oh-for-fuck’s sake from yours truly. Let’s compare how each poet describes the experience of elevation:
Mon esprit, tu te meus avec agilité,
Et, comme un bon nageur qui se pâme dans l’onde,
Tu sillonnes gaiement l’immensité profonde
Avec une indicible et mâle volupté.
My soul, you move with ease,
And like a strong swimmer in rapture in the wave
You wing your way blithely through boundless space
With unspeakably virile joy,
Elevation don’t go to my head
Okay, I think we’re done here.
“Guiding Light” is the first of two new songs on Marquee Moon (the only Verlaine-Lloyd joint composition) and easily qualifies as the prettiest song on the album. It may not be as daring as the other tracks (and might have fit well on the less cutting-edge follow-up album, Adventure), but the majestic chordal build in the verses is deeply engaging and the gentle chorus a calming delight. Lloyd’s guitar solo is more along the lines of 70s rock as he develops a complementary melody that cements the overall theme.
The lyrics are once again on the obscure side, but they evoke a combination of uncertainty and stuckness centered around Verlaine’s relationship to the night.
Do I, do I?
Belong to the night?
Only tonight . . .
All this night running loud
I hear the whispers I hear the shouts
And tho they never cry for help . . .
But tell me how do I say?
I woke up and it was yesterday.
Do I again face this night?
Verlaine never clarifies the nature of the guiding light, only implying that he’s in search of some kind of beacon to guide him through his feelings of doubt. Again, the song may not be clear from a literal perspective, but for many of us (self included), nightfall does tend to trigger feelings of uncertainty far more often than dawn.
I was surprised to learn that “Prove It” was chosen as one of two singles from the album (“Marquee Moon” was the other) until Waterman informed me that it had been a favorite with the fans since the early days at CGBG. I really don’t think nostalgia is a particularly effective method for choosing a single, but given that part of the motivation behind Marquee Moon was to record some of the songs popularized through their live performances, I definitely would have gone with “See No Evil,” a song with a stronger hook and more va-va voom. On the plus side, the latinate rhythms in “Prove It” herald a certain playfulness, the primary guitar riff is very catchy and the stop time lines in the chorus add that sense of drama that often tickles a live audience.
The lyrics are once again problematic. Tom is apparently trying to “solve a case,” but since we don’t have any specifics about what the case involved, we’re kind of left hanging when he announces “this case is closed” at the end of the song. I can patch together a narrative of sorts: a man wakes up near the docks, experiences disorientation (“That flat curving/Of a room”), creeps around, jumps up, notices some birds, contrasts his shabby appearance with the loveliness of a rose and in the end, finds it’s “too too to put a finger on.” If that’s the “case,” I’ll use the opening provided by Waterman’s suggestion that I’m a participant in creating the meaning by describing “Prove It” as a character sketch of a guy in desperate search of something real (the Joe Friday request for “just the facts”) after a night of sex, drugs and rock & roll (which gives YOU, the reader, a clue about my next review).
The album closes with “Torn Curtain,” the second new song on the album and one that has nothing to do with the unsatisfying Hitchcock film of the same name. Waterman refers to this as a controversial choice for inclusion because “It drags. It’s melodramatic. It certainly could have been sacrificed in order to make room for other, more popular songs from Television’s live set . . . ” Still, he concludes that “there’s something thematically appropriate about finishing the album with a funeral dirge.”
Getting past my strong bias in favor of “Marquee Moon” as the album’s closer, I do agree with Waterman’s conclusion . . . in part. I don’t find the song melodramatic in the least and while the slow, stately rhythm may evoke images of a funeral dirge, there is no hint of death in the song. To my ears, it’s a song about coming to grips with the dark images from one’s past—the actions you regret, the trauma you suffered, the always difficult realization that you might have made different choices if you were who you are now and dammit, you can’t go back in time and make amends. That’s not melodrama—that’s the human experience.
Torn curtain reveals another play
Torn curtain, such an expose
I’m uncertain when beauty meets abuse
Torn curtain loves all ridicule
(Tears, tears) rolling back the years
(Years, years) flowing by like tears
(Tears, tears) holding back the years
(Years, years) The years I’ve seen before
In the second round of the chorus, Verlaine replaces “The years I’ve seen before” with “The tears I never shed,” indicating an emotional dam that is ready to burst. Towards the end he makes the choice to “burn it down” (the torn curtain exposing his past), which, though a difficult choice, is a moment of triumph: he’s going to face those demons and deal with them.
From a musical perspective, “Torn Curtain” is one of the most interesting and complex pieces on the album. The opening drum roll (borrowed from Tony Williams’ “Emergency,” according to Waterman) is a ruse of sorts because it creates the expectation of tear-it-down rock-and-roll that is immediately and suddenly crushed by the slow, measured rhythms. The sudden key change from Am to Bm in the chorus is surprisingly satisfying (and the call-and-response vocals are absolutely superb). Where things get really interesting is in the guitar solo, a lyrically-complementing burst of delightful dissonance. When I read the chord pattern and saw the juxtaposition of Bbm7 and E, I thought, “Oh, you naughty boys—go for it!” While I think “Torn Curtain” and “Marquee Moon” should have changed places, there is no doubt in my mind that the former is one of the stronger pieces on the album.
Television’s second album, Adventure, extended the narrative of critical acclaim and commercial failure in the USA. The combination of mass consumer resistance, artistic differences and the usual drug problems led the band to call it quits only two months after the release.
Personally, I think they should have hung on a little longer, for the CBGB artists who kept plugging away eventually made a commercial splash and/or earned recognition as significant influences . . . kinda like Lou Reed, the patron saint of persistence. New York would also start to get its shit together (maybe a little too together during the Giuliani-Bloomberg regimes) and Americans would slowly shift their perceptions toward the positive.
The shift was already underway in deep background before 1977 and even gained some steam in that dreadful year. Saturday Night Live’s opening credits showed young people having the time of their lives in the alleged city from hell, encouraging a key demographic to view New York in a different light. Rolling Stone moved to New York City in January 1977, a good-news/bad-news thing to be sure, but in the minds of the masses a validation that New York could still attract hipsters. The Big Apple got a big boost that October when the madly dysfunctional Yankees won the October classic, in part because Americans are suckers for soap operas that dish out the dirt.
My dad swears that San Francisco’s turnaround began when the 49ers won their first Super Bowl in the 1981-82 season. I point out that the 49ers began their journey to greatness right after I was born on August 2, 1981, so I should receive some credit. Still, I think he might be onto something there: fans all over the world identify strongly with their sports teams and athletes, and a championship or a gold medal can serve as a confidence booster that turns dark pessimism into sunny optimism.
And just like magic, a few months after Reggie destroyed the Dodgers on a cool October night, an album featuring several songs about life in New York, made by a guy from the Bronx whose label was about to dump his sorry ass, slipped into the bottom slot of the Billboard charts. Within a few weeks, Billy Joel’s The Stranger made it all the way to the #2 slot, where it remained for six weeks.
Billy Joel made New York more palatable to the masses, unwittingly opening the door for the CGBG bands in 1978. Later that year Blondie’s Parallel Lines would enter the top ten and Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food the top thirty. Sadly, Television had called it quits in July of that year, and though I think their journey to commercial validation would have taken a bit longer due to their originality, I think they would made it. They were clearly the most talented of the CBGB bunch and their diverse genre-bending repertoire marked them as the band with the greatest potential.
Then again, it’s just as likely that my opinion is skewed by my desire to live in a world where artists like Television are celebrated and duly rewarded.