On Television: Under a Marquee Moon

Of all the bands that made CBGB the legend that it is today, Television just doesn’t fit the proverbial bill. Unlike other genre-defining CBGB alums of the mid to late seventies — the punk rock that was the Ramones, the pop rock that was Blondie, or art pop that was Talking Heads — Television was, and still is, a tough band to categorize. With chromatic rock guitars, a tinge of jazz, avant-garde approach to arrangements, a bit of late sixties pop, and sometimes surreal lyrics, Television never approached the level of success of many of their peers. Still, their influence is undeniable.

THE BAND
Tom Verlaine with Patti Smith, 1975 by Anton Perich
Tom Verlaine with Patti Smith at CBGB in 1975 (photo by Anton Perich)

Founded in late 1973 by Tom Verlaine (vocalist and guitarist) and Richard Hell (vocalist and bassist), with Richard Lloyd (as second guitarist), and Billy Ficca (on drums), they performed their first gig in March, 1974. Soon thereafter, they became regulars at CBGB. Arguably, they were the club’s first “rock” band. By 1975, they had developed a cult following. Richard Hell (he of punk anthem “Blank Generation” fame) left, and Fred Smith, briefly of Blondie, joined.

THE ALBUM

In early 1977, they released their first album, Marquee Moon. The critics loved it. Bands that came after them (most notably, R.E.M) were heavily influenced by it. And many a list compiled by magazines includes it among the best albums of all time.

In a review in April 1977’s Rolling Stone, critic Ken Tucker — comparing Marquee Moon to the Ramones’ second album and Blondie’s self-titled debut — called it the “most interesting and audacious of [the three], and the most unsettling.” Indeed a bit unsettling, Verlaine’s voice is distinctly angular. The lyrics are oblique. And the interlocking guitar stylings are at once captivating and jarring. But it all works to serve a sound that is unlike any other.

Standout tracks include the opening “See No Evil,” “Friction,” and the titular “Marquee Moon.”

Anyone unaware or not convinced of Tom Verlaine’s gift for lyricism need only look at these scant few lines from “Friction” to appreciate his knack for catchy, cryptic, and sometimes outright crazy lyrics:

My eyes are like telescopes
I see it all backwards: but who wants hope?
If I ever catch that ventriloquist
I’ll squeeze his head right into my fist.

And then there are lines so poetic — like the end of the titular track — that they stick with you long after they’re sung.

I remember
How the darkness doubled
I recall
Lightning struck itself
I was listening
Listening to the rain
I was hearing
Hearing something else

“They are one in a million,” wrote British music journalist Nick Kent in NME (New Musical Express) [excerpted from the 2003 Rhino re-release of the album]. “The songs are some of the greatest ever. The album is Marquee Moon.”

Television would break up in 1978 after only producing one more album. Although they would reform in 1992 and release an eponymous LP, the band never again attained the level of innovation that is Marquee Moon.

Consumption, Cholera, and Creativity: How a Pandemic Can Inspire Art

As much of the world is behind closed doors, and practicing social distancing, one wonders how COVID-19 will affect 21st century culture. Beyond, perhaps, the permanent cessation of the needless handshake, how will artists come to describe and illustrate the fear, isolation, the heroism — and, yes, even the boredom — of this terrible time? Over two hundred years ago, cholera and consumption were similarly on the minds of many. Outbreaks in the nineteenth century were constant reminders of the frailty of life, and the ever-present threat of death. While a consideration of how writers of that period dealt with disease may not necessarily shed light on what’s to come from us (in this quite different, digital age), it’s undeniable that creativity can come from all kinds of calamity. Even a pandemic.

By the dawn of the 19th century, tuberculosis, or consumption, had killed one in seven people. And severe outbreaks of cholera occured seven times over that span of one-hundred years. John Keats died from tuberculosis in 1820. Tchaikovsky, of cholera, in 1893 (though some say suicide). Poets, musicians, painters, sculptors. The lists of famous people who have died from tuberculosis, and those who succumbed to cholera, are lengthy. The Brontë sisters. Anton Chekhov, and many others. Pandemics kill artists, but a pandemic can inspire art.

Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) was written as the poet became increasingly aware that he was afflicted with consumption. Key symptoms of it, like “the weariness, the fever and the fret” has only one outcome:

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies

Henry Kirke White painted by Thomas Barber
Henry Kirke White painted by Thomas Barber

Even more direct, a lesser known poet of the Romantic period, Henry Kirke White (1785 –1806), who suffered the same fate as Keats years earlier, went so far as to come out and directly dedicate a poem “To Consumption.” There, he addresses the disease, accepting its embrace as he realizes he soon will succumb to the affliction.

Gently, most gently, on thy victim’s head
Consumption, lay thine hand! Let me decay
Like the expiring lamp, unseen away,
And softly go to slumber with the dead.

Which he did. On October 19, 1806.

Edward Munch's "The Sick Child"
Edvard Munch’s “The Sick Child”

One scholar, Clark Lawlor, has written a whole treatise on the subject of “Consumption and Literature.” Then there’s Roger Platizky’s journal article on “Tennyson and Cholera.” It would seem there’s no shortage of critical essays on ways both consumption and cholera affected artists of the nineteenth century.

And beyond poetry, one need only look at Edvard Munch’s series of works begun in 1885 marking the death of his sister from tuberculosis to understand that the only way some people can deal with grief following great affliction is to capture those feelings in art.

Need all feelings in times of disease, however, be those of sadness and grief? Those who lost their lives, or lost family and friends to consumption and cholera, certainly felt terrible sorrow. Yet even among those who lost, like Edgar Allan Poe, death (of his wife Virginia to consuption in 1847) inspired beauty; with Poe, it’s in the form of his Annabel Lee (written in 1849). An idealized woman. Beauty personified. Verdi, in his La traviata (1853), sees beauty in the death of its heroine, Violetta, who — in the final stages of TB — sacrifices all for love. And the aforementioned Keats, with his brother Tom dying of the disease in 1817, writes  “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.” There, the poet celebrates the permanence of beauty and art in the face of frail humanity.  Upon seeing the classical Greek marble sculptures, Keats is inspired that their wonder…

…mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

Something great, like art, can be celebrate beauty, even in the “wasting” of life.

What will artists of this third decade of the twenty-first century produce during — and after — this coronoavirus pandemic? Will we see great art, music, and literature addressing our planet’s collective hopes and fears? Are there those stuck at home, in self-quarantine or practicing social distancing right now that will turn their experience — our experience — into something special? Will it be sad, or hopeful?

Some artists, like former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, have already begun to address our pandemic. In “No Time for Love Like Now,” Stipe sings:

Where did this all begin to change?
the lockdown memories can’t sustain

lyrics that make us consider our situation and question if our memories of what was normal can survive the lockdown of our own self-isolation.

To our artists, we ask for help in figuring out what will be the new normal. Within their work, perhaps we can find release from — even make our peace with — anxiety about what is, and grieving for what used to be. Even during a pandemic, creativity can thrive. It is undeniable that human beings can find hope and beauty everywhere, even in the face of depression and death.

Let us hope that our trying times find us with more of the former, and less of the latter.

And not just thousands of TikToks.

By Christopher Michael Davis