The first thing I ever read about the New York rock scene in the mid-70s was an article in Rolling Stone about a festival of unsigned bands at some place called CBGB. I hated what was on the radio and was looking for something, SOMETHING, I could get behind. I had never heard or heard of The New York Dolls or the Velvet Underground. The movie "Serpico" had made me want to move to New York City in the worst way. It just looked so cool to my 17-year-old eyes, especially compared to the shopping malls that surrounded me on Riverdale Road in West Springfield, Mass., where I had just seen the film.
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.