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Television’s Refined Tuning

The New York punk-guitar godfathers pick up where they left off

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 647 from January 7, 1993. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Though they have just reunited for their first record together in nearly fifteen years, the members of Television aren’t in the mood to talk — at least, not about the past. Marquee Moon (1977) and Adventure (1978) — the albums singer-guitarist Tom Verlaine, guitarist Richard Lloyd, bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca released at the height of the punk-rock heyday in New York — may have spellbound a generation of alternative rockers from U2 and R.E.M. to Siouxsie and the Banshees. But a question about how the band itself feels about those albums meets seven seconds of stone silence followed by an explosion of laughter.

“You’re questioning us about the past without realizing how bored we are with it and how bad our memory is about it, how disinterested we are in talking about it,” says Verlaine, who is smoking while lying on his stomach on the floor of a rehearsal studio in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, with the other band members seated around him. “So, no offense, but it is really tough.”

You’re telling me. The band has clearly chosen to lighten the psychic weight of its gloried history by playing it down. Even the title of the new album, simply Television, seems an almost desperate plea for a new beginning. By the time Verlaine dismisses the band’s groundbreaking origins with Patti Smith, the Ramones and Talking Heads as “all the blah-blah, CBGB, blah-blah stuff,” Lloyd recoils.

“Well, we did start the damn thing,” Lloyd says, referring to the downtown club scene Television pioneered in 1973, when the equally legendary Richard Hell was the group’s bassist.

“Yeah,” says Verlaine, yawning in agreement. “Yeah.”

“No one else started that,” says Lloyd.

“Yeah, I know.”

Lloyd continues: “I mean, CBGB was a biker bar that [club owner] Hilly Kristal was going to have Irish music in.”

“He did have Irish music in.”

“Until we started playing there,” says Lloyd. “And all those other bands sought it out because there was literally no place else to play. So we did create that”.

“We didn’t create it,” Verlaine says absently, as if disputing a fact about something that had taken place on the moon. “We found the opportunity before somebody else did. I would even say that there isn’t any real myth about this group.”

“Oh, come on,” I finally say, nearing exasperation.

“I’m serious,” Verlaine insists.

“He’s serious,” Lloyd assures me. Lloyd then tries to describe Television’s uniqueness: “How many two-guitar bands are there with such weird guitarists?”

“You’re not such a weird guitarist,” says Verlaine.

“Everything I say … you don’t have to agree with,” says Lloyd.

“No,” Verlaine responds philosophically. “We agree to disagree.”

Can this (second) marriage be saved? Whatever its ultimate fate — and the band members are noncommittal about the future — Television has produced a new album that is long on the virtues that earned the band its reputation: adventurousness, wit, variety and sheer sonic beauty. If the group is uncomfortable being interviewed, perhaps that’s because both Verlaine’s surreal lyrics and the band’s music, which bursts out of complex entanglements into soaring flight, seek to communicate at a level deeper than consciousness. Songs like “Shane, She Wrote This,” “1880 or So” and “This Tune” lift off from their accessible pop arrangements into atmospheres rife with suggested but never strictly defined meanings.

When our talk ends, the group is visibly relieved and readies for rehearsal. “Now we go back to not thinking,” Lloyd says happily, eager to stop making sense.

“More Questions?” asks Verlaine with the exaggerated charm of Count Dracula the next day, when he and I meet for a follow-up chat in the studio’s grungy lounge. “More things to avoid.”

Verlaine, who is now forty-two, seems more relaxed by himself. Wearing the same black jeans and T-shirt he had on the day before, he inhabits his tall, lean body with an otherworldly grace. His skin is fair to the point of translucency, and he would seem altogether ethereal but for his instinctive contrariness and the vestigial New Jersey accent that roughens the edges of his speech. As we talk, he is stringing his guitar and, as always, smoking. With odd appropriateness, Lou Reed walks in and out of the room to make phone calls. He briefly nods to us. I can’t tell if he knows who Verlaine is.

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