Television's Marquee Moon Paperback – Jun 9 2011
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?The New York punk scene of the 1970s doesn't lack for documentation ... That Bryan Waterman still finds something new to say is impressive enough, but he expertly expands the context for Television's debut album and for the Bowery punk movement within New York's larger arts scene. At more than 200 pages, it's one of the longest titles in the series, but each page seems to contain some new idea or discovery.? ?Stephen M. Deusner, Pitchfork
About the Author
Bryan Waterman teaches American literature and culture at New York University. His previous books include, with Cyrus R. K. Patell, The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York City.
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I waited and waited until these bands I had read about came out with records. The first one I bought was the first one by Blondie on Private Stock Records. I liked "Rip Her to Shreds" and the band's somehow retro viewpoint (although I could not have verbalized this at the time). The second one I found was the "Live at CBGBs" on Atlantic. The only cuts that I truly took to on that disc were "Let Me Dream If I Want To" by Mink DeVille and "I Need a Million" by The Laughing Dogs. I listened to the few crowd noises and stage banter within the grooves and dreamed of what it must be like in this bar with these people, especially compared to the dives in shopping malls that I hung out in with friends where "Dream Weaver" would play from the juke box (of 45 rpm records).
When I finally found "Marquee Moon" by Television that was it. It gave me a feeling of being in a city, even though I had never even lived in what could be called an urban environment before. It, more than anything else, made me finally move to NYC in the summer of 1978 when I was 22. I had no money, worked in a record store in Manhattan (Sam Goody at 43rd and 3rd - we were near the UN and I remember selling a copy of "Marquee Moon" to a Russian that wanted "something new that is good.") I lived in what was then a dangerous part of Brooklyn but had never felt better in my life. I had zero dollars, but managed to see Television in June and July of 1978 at the Bottom Line, taking the GG and the A train to West 4th. I still have the ticket stubs (a whopping $5 to get in). I am not going to lie and say I remember much about the shows. I was right under the stage during the July show and retrieved part of a string Lloyd broke from the stage floor after the show was over. I remember being surprised that Television would play a Dylan song ("Knocking of Heaven's Door") and a Stones song ("Satisfaction") as I thought they were beyond covering a song by anybody else. It was loud. I since I found a bootleg of the last show and I know it does not sound like it did being there.
What I take away from Bryan Waterman's book is how I had forgotten how overly self conscious these bands were. I never saw any of the other New York bands except the Ramones in Connecticut in 1977 and 1978 and Patti Smith in Central Park in the summer of '78. I just did not have the money to go to these clubs and by then nobody I wanted to see was playing at CBGB. (I did run into Smith at Washington Square where she got into an altercation with John Peel. "CBGB, CBGB, that's all I ever hear out of you!" he said at one point, a point Waterman makes himself in the book. I spoke to her briefly, gushingly. I was not smart enough to realize how self-mythologizing many of these bands were and how adoringly they were written about in the local music press who now seem like cheerleaders. (I usually just read the Voice. I bought a few issues of Punk, which did not appeal to me, and the New York Rocker only a few times) and I never had even heard of these French poets I kept running into when I read about this music. I did buy a copy of Smith's book of poems, "Babel," which, frankly, I didn't get. I walked around the Village with it. A friend in Brooklyn said she got into it while stoned.
Waterman's 33 1/3 entry on "Marquee Moon" is heavy on setting the scene from where this great record came from. I know quite a bit about the history of CBGBs (but never got into there until the mid-`80s and then later in 2001 when I saw David Byrne get into a cab right in front of the club), but he makes the story new again. Only later did I come to understand the importance of the New York Dolls, and Waterman gives them their due. But what I liked about Television was their distinctly non-glam look. Richard Lloyd looks like he could have been one of the cops in "Serpico" with his plaid shirt on the cover of "Marquee Moon." They looked like normal guys - but in New York City! And that was an important part. And I completely understand Verlaine's opinion, that Waterman relates, in that the band's association with the New York scene kept them from any kind of mainstream success. I remember what the people I went to school with were like (UConn) - Fleetwood Mac, "Hotel California" by the Eagles and Steely Dan's "Aja" was all they wanted or needed. They could not relate to anything that was going on in `the city' in the first place and then when you throw in the cartoonish and deviant image a number of these bands projected, forget about it. This was the cuddly `70s, the mellow decade, remember? I, frankly, have a hard time believing that Verlaine could ever think that Television could have broken through to the mainstream. Just look at the back cover of the first Boston album or the Little River Band or the Doobie Brothers. Are you kidding me?
I would have liked to know more about the recording of "Marquee Moon." Like why does Fred Smith's bass sound so bad? (To me, Smith's bass playing is what makes the album. I know how greatly Lloyd and Verlaine are playing and I, personally thought Ficca's drumming fit this music perfectly. But it is Fred Smith's bass, especially in "Guiding Light," that floors me. It is just so perfect, beautiful. And, Bryan, it ain't `funky.' James Jamerson was funky. Charles Sherrell was funky. Smith's playing here is just a thing of beauty, a wonderful architecture inside a slow guitar song that is a thing of beauty itself.) Another great bass line of his, to my ears, is on "Without a Word" from Verlaine's "Dreamtime" a few years later.
I cannot divorce "Marquee Moon" from other things that were going on in the city at that time - like the Yankees radio broadcasts with Phil Rizutto and Reggie Bars, and how scary the city was at that time, catching a bus at Port Authority at night back then - and it got a lot scarier after the presidential election of 1980, believe me). Waterman is entirely spot on when he calls "Marquee Moon" the quintessential album of the New York night," but I always pictured the Broadway that `flapped like little pages' in "Venus" to be the one of Times Square, not downtown. I could have done without the song-by-song analysis, but that is what a guy who teaches American literature and culture at NYU does, isn't it? I have never cared what Verlaine's lyrics meant, just as I have listened to the Pixies "Bossanova" for over 20 years now and never gave the words a second thought. They are crucial, but to me the meaning just doesn't matter. There is a photo of Television in the Rhino re-release of "Marquee Moon," the one in the centerfold of the booklet, that, to me, captures what the light of the New York night looked like around Houston St. at 2 a.m. This is what I think Waterman nails.
I am glad I lived in the NYC of the late `70s and early `80s, and, believe it or not, hearing Television do their sound check with the beginning of "The Dream's Dream" while I was walking outside the Bottom Line hours before the show I saw in July of '78, is one of the highlights of my life.
Since I first heard the album in 1991, I've been perplexed how such a sound was born out of the same scene that gave us The Ramones. TV's motives remain obscure, but I feel much more informed about their influences (socially and artistically), how they were perceived in the scene, how they were received by the public, and why an album as glorious as Marquee Moon has languished barely above cult status. Such a close investigation into "just the facts" does nothing to tarnish the gleam of the Television sound. Just the opposite - I now have a deeper appreciation for the band and a renewed endearment to the album.
One small complaint - the book's copy editors do need to review the text, as I found a number of grammatical errors, and one factual: The Cars were a Boston band, not Canadian.
OK, done complaining - go buy this book!
I picked up Marquee Moon a couple of days after it was released, as soon as it made it the a local Indianapolis record shop. I had never heard the band, but had followed them at distance through NYC-centric publications like Rock Scene magazine. The record had a significant influence on 16-year-old me, just beginning to play in bands and write songs. Listening to our Swirls Away album again after so many years made me realize how significantly Television influenced and informed the stuff I was playing and writing. But way beyond that, the album and the band became touchstones for me, life in general department. I mourned when the band broken up and followed the careers of the justly-celebrated Verlaine and the criminally-overlooked Richard Lloyd down to this day. I would be hard pressed to name my favorite album of all time, but Marquee Moon in certainly in the top 2 or 3. Enough background.
Okay then, the book. Waterman writes well and the book is very readable, coherent and enjoyable as a read. However, he spends 2/3 of the book rehashing in great detail information and history that most fans of the band are going to be familiar with. He balances his sources (virtually all secondary ) to the extent of presenting different sides of the story to the point of muddying rather than clarifying contested versions of that history. Readers of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk or From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock, or any number of other books dealing with 0's NYC music scene will have gone through all of this before. Nothing really much new is presented other than Waterman's desire to link the scene, including television to Pop Art, Warhol and various strains of French poetry. Not that these are specious arguments, but at the end, they really don't illuminate all that much.
I also confess to an annoyance at the overt fixation on the Tom Verlaine - Richard Hell relationship and the overall infatuation with Verlaine at the expense of the other members of the band. Lloyd, who receives at least a little text here, is presented mostly as a sort of junky/gigolo/sex symbol, his considerable gifts as a guitarist and counterpoint to Verlaine's own great talents given extremely short-shrift. Fred Smith appears as little more than a story of how he was poached from Blondie. Billy Ficca gets less than that. The overriding view of the band as a backdrop for Verlaine's brilliance sells this band very, very short.
Once he finally gets around to talking about the album, ostensibly the reason for the book, very little attention is given to the mechanics of how the album was written, rehearsed and recorded. We find out that the band spent several weeks rehearsing and shaping the songs prior to going into the studio, but no information or insight into how those rehearsals shaped the way they emerge on the record as opposed to how they had previously been performed on stage. Once in the studio, well, apparently the record got recorded, but that's about it.
And once the record is talked about, you would almost think that it is a spoken word album. The lyrics are analyzed, pulled apart, scrutinized at length - first this way, then that. What ultimately comes out is: well, maybe he meant this, maybe he meant that, maybe he meant something else. It gets a little annoying. Of course, Guiding Light, in which the lyrics were credited to Verlaine and Lloyd, rather than Tom alone, gets glossed over quickly. Apparently Richard's input dilutes the poet's vision or some such. Now, I like and enjoy Verlaine's lyrics - elliptical, full of puns and word-play, fleeting images and plaintive longing. They are good, evocative lyrics. But to analyze Marquee Moon by focusing more or less exclusively by the song lyrics is, to me, to kinda seriously misguided. Lit Crit 401 - Senior Seminar is not the approach I, personally, would take to this record.
Of course, life is full of books that aren't written the way I might write them, and the world is probably all the better for it. However, this goes beyond it "not being what I hoped it would be." I simply don't feel that the book really tells me much about the album, or presents much, be it fact or insight, that opens it up for me in ways that help me see it anew.
I am glad this book exists. I am glad I read it. But, to quote, as Waterman does: What I want / I want now. And this isn't quite it.
I've read several books in this collection and this is my observation about all of them....The authors of all these books seem to overly analyze every lyric to every song. I agree that Verlaine's lyrics are "deeper" than your average rock lyrics. But not every line to a song has a hidden biblical or poetic reference. I bet some of those lyrics were put in the song simply because they rhymed. Sometimes when I feel the authors of these books are over-analyzing every line to a song, I tend to think of the simplest but most meaningful rock lyric ever written: "It's only rock n' roll".
Most importantly, though, this book did what it's supposed to do: it sent me back to my CD collection, and *Marquee Moon* ended up in heavy rotation for the next two months.
With reference to another review here @ amazon: In terms of whether Mr. W. had the responsibility of finding Tom Verlaine before he wrote the book is open to question. When there's a wealth of primary sources, especially solid interviews with the protagonists from back in the day, those materials are -- as a rule -- considerably more reliable than those same characters today. If the author of the review has had good luck in this regard, he should thank his good karma (and keep fostering it).
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