Category Archives: musings

Musings. Brain dump. Uncategorized.

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.

No Slave to Man: Delphine Seyrig and Daughters of Darkness

Delphine Seyrig as The Countess in Daughters of Darkness
Delphine Seyrig as The Countess in Daughters of Darkness

Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) — starring Lebanese-born French actress, director and feminist Delphine Seyrig — is arguably the best of several early nineteen seventies’ revisionist vampire films that either subtly suggest or outwardly depict unabashed lesbianisn. Along with films like Roy Ward Baker’s Vampire Lovers (a 1970 Hammer film with the amazing Ingrid Pitt) and José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres (a joint Fox / Rank production from 1974), Daughters of Darkness has been dissected by critics and scholars alike that see in the vampire myth evidence of both misogyny and female empowerment. But the strength of this particular film is, without question, the magnetism of its star.

THE ACTRESS

Growing up in an intellectual environment (her father was director of Beirut’s Archaeological Institute and later became France’s cultural attaché in New York during WWII), Delphine Seyrig was an actress of some reknown in Europe. After attending the famed Actor’s Studio in 1958, she went on to work with directors like François Truffaut and Luis Buñuel in the 1960’s. In her late thirties when she appeared in Daughters of Darkness, Seyrig was ideal for the part of the Countess — a character requiring beauty, mystery, culture, and maturity. But Seyrig brought to the role one additional, essential element: her political attitudes toward’s women and what it means to be feminine. “I think when my happiness depends on a man, I am a slave and I am not not free,” Seyrig said in an interview with the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel in 1972 (my translation). Such a view was necessary to successfully embody the strong, independent character of Daughter’s Elizabeth Bathory.

THE FILM
Delphine Seyrig as Countess Elizabeth Bathory in glorious silver lamé
Delphine Seyrig as Countess Elizabeth Bathory in glorious silver lamé

An aristocrat in furs and silver lamé gowns, Seyrig’s Elizabeth Báthory (based, at least in name, on the historical late 16th century countess of whom I have written about before) is a mysterious Hungarian countess who — as we learn early in the film — has lived a long life and traveled extensively (leaving bodies in her wake!).  She arrives at a seaside resort, the hotel Ostend in Belgium, accompanied by her “secretary” Ilona (Andrea Rau). There, she immediately becomes enamoured with newlyweds who themselves have just checked into the hotel. The Countess is instantly taken with buxom blonde Valerie (Danielle Ouimet); much of the film builds to the seduction, ruin and ultimately, the empowerment, of this all too innocent bride.

Daughters of Darkness (Belgian poster)
Daughters of Darkness (Belgian poster)

“One must never be afraid to look deep down into the darkest depths of oneself. Where the light never reaches,” Bathory tells Valerie as the girl begins to free herself from her abusive husband and form a bond with the Countess. Their journey together into the darkness of vampirism is at the very heart of the movie. (SPOILER ALERT!) By film’s end, Valerie becomes a substitue for Ilona, and ultimately, an heiress to the metaphorical throne of the Countess herself. A husband is not needed. And no man, ultimately, is a threat. It is the hand of fate, and not a vampire killer, that does the Countess in.

Its story and feminist overtones aside, Daughters of Darkness is just a beautiful movie to watch. Its sets and character design are a mix of old world and new — very European, yet oddly enough old Hollywood at the same time. Kumel, interviewed for the BBC documentary Horror Europa has said that he intentionally styled Delphine Seyrig’s character after Marlene Dietrich, and Andrea Rau’s after Louise Brooks. The two are gorgeously “made up,” and a sense of yesteryear in their characters plays brilliantly to their mysterious (and deadly) intentions.

THE LEGACY
Lady Gaga as The Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel
Lady Gaga as The Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel

Both cult classic and artistic achievement, the film is one of the few of its kind to eschew exploitation in favor of atmosphere and style. It has been praised by Camille Paglia in her landmark work of scholarship Sexual Personaeand has influenced many vampires on screen since — most recently (and notably) Lady Gaga’s turn as “The Countess” in television’s American Horror Story: Hotel (2015).

In the end, it is Seyrig’s performance that pulls everything together — style and substance. Often overlooked among those films that should be considered the best of the vampire genre, Daughters of Darkness is currently streaming free for subscribers to Amazon Prime Video.