Playing Television, thinking about Tom Verlaine. Was privileged enough to see the band play Vicar Street, Dublin, almost 22 years ago. Here’s the review I filed for Hot Press. (Pic: Robert Mapplethorpe’s inner sleeve portrait for Marquee Moon.)
Television, Vicar St, Dublin, April 16, 2001
“It was tight toy night/Streets were so bright . . .”
Tom Verlaine cranes that famously swan-like neck, and in a thin, wrung-out voice, delivers the opening lines of possibly the most phantasmagorical song in rock ‘n’ roll – Television’s ‘Venus De Milo’. Less than 24 hours after Joey Ramone’s passing, one couldn’t have wished for a more appropriate wake.
Despite the sense of occasion though, the band seemed intent on playing down their own legacy, shambling onstage and warming up with an oceanic improv that sounded for all the world like Mogwai imitating Crazy Horse covering In A Silent Way. This quartet might be steeped in the high arts – from free jazz to French Symbolism – but tonight they often played the garage band, indulging in lengthy tuning up interludes between every song.
But if Verlaine, Richard Lloyd and Fred Smith now look like a bunch of chemistry professors (only Billy Ficca remains eerily unchanged) their trademark sounds have been preserved like the sacred artefacts they are. Bob Dylan’s description of Blonde on Blonde’s “thin, wild, high mercury sound” actually suits Television better. During ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ we got to see the supplest of post-punk rhythm sections, with Smith’s poker-faced bass lines anchoring Ficca’s daringly scatty fills, the latter a jazzman down to his orthodox grip, elevating the offbeat to an art form.
‘See No Evil’ meanwhile, blistered a hole through the set’s midway mark – that these players can stretch the fabric of a song out of shape and still sound as tight and economic seems to contradict some fundamental law of physics. Several times Lloyd in particular let loose violent clusters of diamond-hard notes that seemed to redefine the parameters of his instrument. Just as often, Verlaine responded with his own jagged and nagging melodies, ‘Call Mr Lee’ from the band’s third album being a case in point.
What happened next is something you can tell your grandchildren about. Verlaine chopped out that hypnotic two-note intro, Lloyd answered it with his equally hallowed motif, and time stood still under the spell of ‘Marquee Moon’, replete with slight phrasing variations and even a fluffed chord change just to let you know you weren’t imagining it all.
“I remember how the darkness doubled,” Verlaine sang, as if luring his listeners into some unnerving dream: “I recall, lightning struck itself”. Then, as Lloyd took over the central riff, his partner set off into the symphonic extemporisation of the middle section, building up through the frets into a glistening, cascading finale. But instead of proceeding with the first verse reprise of the recorded version, the four players then went freestyling into the uncharted blue, increasing the tempo and intensity a la ‘Heroin’. Folk were pinching themselves.
Television couldn’t top that, nor did they try to, electing instead to encore with a ragged medley which culminated in ‘Psychotic Reaction’, a tribute not just to their Nuggets roots but perhaps also that unsung hero of Irish rock ‘n’ roll, Count Five singer Sean Byrne.
Like another CBGB graduate said: once in a lifetime.
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