I recently read Bryan Waterman's Marquee Moon
, one of those books in the "33 1/3" series about pop albums. I've been aware of this book series for decades, I suppose, but Marquee Moon
is the only volume I've read. I picked it up because Mighty Reader and I were waiting at Easy Street Records for a table to open up in their cafe side, and as I wandered past the very large display of "33 1/3" publications, the book caught my eye. "Marquee Moon," I thought. "That was a pretty good album."
The book--and I propose the single-case theory that all of the books in this series follow the same formula--gives a history of the band Television, situates them within their contemporary cultural and musical world, and then discusses the album "Marquee Moon", track by track. Waterman, who seems like a nice guy, is not a musician (as far as I can tell), nor is he a music critic. He teaches American literature and culture at NYU. Waterman was not part of the New York scene that gave rise to Television; he was about five years old and living in Arizona when Marquee Moon
I mention this because I became interested while reading Waterman's book in the idea that some historians, possibly especially cultural historians (if there is such a thing, and if it's a different sort of historian than, say, Edward Gibbon or Tacitus), seem to be following the lure of false nostalgia, seduced by the idea of an era they did not witness, and driven to chronicle that era in what appears, at least in Waterman's book, to be an attempt to create a sort of prehistory of themselves. Waterman, after all, occasionally writes himself into the Television narrative (inserting a passage of himself cycling through lower Manhattan, and later recommending wandering through the Bowery while listening to "Marquee Moon" on headphones). Waterman states in his introduction that "The authentic past eludes us precisely because we ritually sacrifice memory to create mythical accounts of origins--and endings." Waterman's book is a ritual sacrifice of memory, though he has no memories of his own; the book is a quilt of interview excerpts from the rock press of the mid-1970s. Waterman picks through what he's read about the early days of the NY punk scene in order to create an origin myth. And also, as he hints at in the passage I just quoted, a myth of the End of Time. I have noticed that many cultural historians seem to be convinced that the end of something they love (the cancellation of a TV show, the death of a rap singer, the closing of a theater, etc) must be a tragedy, which makes the telling of histories a form of grieving as well as myth-making. Perhaps myth-making, I wonder, is after all a kind of grief? A grand form of false nostalgia, where what could've
been is positioned as what should've
been, had the world been a better place. The band Television, in Waterman's showing, was the historical locus that led to the birth of punk rock, and also new wave and post-punk music. Television should've been famous, man. So a yearning not only for an imagined past, but also for an imagined present in which the author's heroes have attained widespread legendary status.
But I am too hard on Waterman, because I understand this sort of nostalgia, and reading Marquee Moon
carried me back to my own days in bands. Which remembering led me to my second observation about this book and books like it: whenever I read a description of an art scene as written about by someone who has never been in an art scene, the resulting writing never feels
like a scene. Mighty Reader, over lunch today, asked me what the hell I mean by that. What I mean, I think, is that there is no passion, no idea that anyone was pursuing ideas that really interested them; there is neither drive nor desire of any form. There is merely a sequence of events and commentary made by participants at the time. There is no aboutness
; only a list of characters and sets. Maybe this is a problem with journalism; I don't know. Maybe it's a problem with language itself.
I will say that Waterman's subject, the Television album "Marquee Moon," is a work with which I'm pretty familiar. I've been listening to some of those songs for decades. I could probably grab my guitar right now and play "See No Evil" for you. Not that I will, but I will say that Television's debut album is uneven, but it still kills. Go listen to "See No Evil," "Friction," and especially "Marquee Moon." Terrific stuff, and timeless. It's hard to believe this was all written in the mid-70s. Someone should get Franz Ferdinand to cover a Television song.
Though I was a fan of Television, I probably only ever knew all the lyrics to a handful of their songs. There's a variety of reasons for this, not the least being Verlaine's singing, but in general I've listened to rock primarily for the guitars, the beat, and the arrangements rather than for the words. Once I learned how to write rock songs--once, that is, I learned that there are forms or templates, fill-in-the-blank structures--I really only heard a song's first lines, the chorus, and how the sounds of the words (not the words themselves or any alleged meaning behind them) fit with the sounds of the music. I was not one of those young men who sat up until dawn, listening over and over to one track on a record, trying to figure out what the singer meant
, what it was all about. The sound itself was the meaning, to me. Television had a great sound, both on and beneath the surface.
Most good rock songs have an interesting first couplet or verse, a catchy chorus, and a whole lot of filler by way of bad rhymes and incoherent argy-bargy to pad for length. You may disagree, but in my opinion, the lyrics to a rock song don't much matter. And Television, for me, was always about the guitars, the intertwined riffs and melodies that eventually informed bands like Throwing Muses, possibly the Belew/Fripp incarnation of King Crimson, and my own little bands. Two electric guitars and a bass playing counterpoint over solid but shifting drums, some asshole shouting over the top of it: my kind of music. Even with my first primitive trio, I tired to make my one guitar sound like more than a single instrument. A lot of the time that meant playing long lines against drones as in this piece.
Sometimes it meant playing suspended chords over moving bass lines, as in this other piece
. Sometimes it just meant a lot of arpeggios and as much digital delay as the atmosphere could bear.
I wore out the grooves (as they say) in my copy of "Marquee Moon," but I never got very familiar with the rest of Television's catalogue aside from the song "Little Johnny Jewel" (the live version of which I listened to as I typed this post, and O my God but what a terrific extended tapestry of guitar noise in the middle of an innocent pop tune). Over the years I bought four of Verlaine's solo albums, which are good but they did not move me the way "Marquee Moon" did. I won't be writing any books about those records.