Thursday, October 3, 2013

Classic Albums: Television, Marquee Moon

There is nothing like the thrill of revisiting an old favorite album after too much time apart, and realizing it was just as good, or even better than you always thought it to be.  That experience happened to me yesterday during my commute home.  I was waiting for the subway and scrolling through my old, 2007 vintage iPod, and decided to give Television's Marquee Moon a spin.  I'd been listening to a lot of Velvet Underground, so I guess I was in the mood for something New York punky.

"See No Evil" got off to its rollicking start as I hopped on the 1 train, and the combination of its exhilarating push and the subway train's rushing down the track brought the glory of this song home to me in a way I'd never felt before.  I first heard the song as part of the storied Rhino records punk compilation series (sadly out of print) as was completely floored.  I thought of punk as basic three chords heavy music, but these guys had chops, and the guitar solo that the song builds up to in a frenzied climax has got to be one of the most sublime things I've ever heard in my life.  Jimi Hendrix's epic introduction to "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" is the only rock guitar moment that beats it, for my money.

Hearing that song in high school on a New York punk compilation intrigued me, but considering I lived in rural Nebraska before the internet age, I couldn't get my hands on any Television albums.  That changed on my German class trip the summer after I graduated, where I found myself buying up obscure punk records with every spare moment.  I bought Marquee Moon for 120 kroner on a day trip to Malmo, Sweden.  (I bought Jimi Hendrix's Life at Monterey the same day, so I guess I hit paydirt on that trip.)  I didn't get a chance to hear it until I got back home to the states.  After the blazing "See No Evil" finished, I didn't know what I was going to hear next.  The unexpectedly mid-tempo and gorgeous "Venus" followed, and I think that's where I really got hooked on Television.  The guitars have a wondrous, ringing tone to them, echoing the classic beauty of the Venus de Milo referenced in the song.

The third song, "Friction," goes back to the punky, nervy edginess of "See No Evil," but it's a smooth transition.  Just as Television broke from the punk pack with their guitar heroics, they also had a much more sophisticated grasp of rhythm than their CBGBs peers.  In a lot of ways, they took the good elements from prog rock (musicianship, complex rhythms) and filtered them through the gritty punk aesthetic.  Punks were supposed to hate prog rock and its frippery, but Television managed to have a touch of Genesis without losing their street cred.

And speaking of prog rock, Television followed "Friction" with an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer worthy epic, the eponymous title track.  Stretched out longer than ten minutes, it starts of sounding like the Cadillac of the lyrics, slinking through the dark city streets, before being transformed into a flying saucer soaring the stars.  There are few ten minute songs that are so intense that they sound like five minute songs, and this is among them.  It also weirdly showcases Tom Verlaine's voice, which can be described most charitably as "unorthodox."  His slightly quacking tone actually seems to work here, adding to the macabre sense of midnight dread.  Thus closes out what might be the best side one of any record in my collection.

Even if side two can't match such heights, it's still really, really damn good.  The guitars on "Elevation" end up burning like magnesium flares after beginning the song casting the subtler light of tapered candles.  "Guiding Light" breaks from the punk script with some piano at the center of a tender, lovely ballad, which still has room for an absolutely soul stirring solo at the end.  "Prove It" artfully brings back the New York nerves, and "Torn Curtain" begins with an epically sublime guitar figure that sounds, well, like the curtain guarding the holy of holies being ripped.

There just isn't much out there better than this.  Marquee Moon also has a sentimental spot in my heart, since I was listening to it intensely at a time -age eighteen- when I was finally coming into my own as a human being.  It was the start of a journey of self-understanding that led me to be standing on a subway platform in the heart of New York City, engaged in silent musical reverie with the same album almost twenty years later.

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