I Understand Destructive Urges
So you say you want a revolution? Two rearguard beatniks banded together on the anything-goes streets of Manhattan in the early ’70s, at the height of its postapocalyptic glamour, when taxi cabs hated to venture below 14th Street but the see-and-be-seen crowd couldn’t resist it.
Those who came from elsewhere came to define the scene. Richard Meyers and Tom Miller were two gifted reprobates who fled to New York from a well-to-do Delaware boarding school. They knocked around the stylish wilderness of the Lower East Side and the more civilized clubs and coffee houses of Greenwich Village. Grasping at the potential for the full-scale reinvention that New York had provided Robert Zimmerman roughly a decade previous, they changed their surnames to Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine in an unsubtle nod to the 19th-century French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Those two had engaged in a tumultuous, tormented love affair rife with overweening passion, disastrous emotional reversals, and eventual gun violence. This was all forensically recorded in Rimbaud’s 1873 bloodletting A Season in Hell—the antidote to anyone who imagines that the concept of oversharing is an invention of the modern age.
Hell and Verlaine consciously fashioned themselves after Verlaine and Rimbaud in just about every possible way, with the exception of actually shooting each other. They weren’t lovers, but they were best friends. They wrote together and they plotted their particular type of world domination. Both young men were exquisitely beautiful: Verlaine tall and languid with haunting, dramatic, hollowed-out eyes and Hell with the square-jawed matinee idol looks and sullen vulnerability of Montgomery Clift. Verlaine was quiet, tense, and reserved. Hell was horny, consumptive, and gregarious. They published chapbooks and faux biographies and various literary acts of vandalism of the Burroughs-inspired sort. They called their first band the Neon Boys. It was sorta trash rock and sorta poetry. They were good, but too bookish for the Dolls crowd and too glam for the lit scene. If the New York intelligentsia wouldn’t have them, then they would just have to change the calculus. They’d have to program a channel all their own.
Richard Lloyd was an unusual child. By way of expunging any fact-checking doubts around this assertion, I direct you toward his prismatically unhinged 2017 memoir Everything Is Combustible, in which he recounts a childhood memory from his second year of life wherein he concerningly teaches himself not to breathe. Things get stranger from there. He learns guitar as a teenager, but also mysterious mind-control strategies. He postulates things that are hard to understand. “People usually blink about 15 times a minute with brief visual interruptions. I wondered what it would look like if the blinks were backwards.” He came to New York from Pittsburgh, like Warhol 20 years previous. He was too weird and too beautiful not to fit in.
Lloyd’s first years in New York were lived on the margins. He found work as a sex worker and bookstore employee and gradually embroidered himself into the downtown scene. He lived with the Warhol Factory–adjacent factotum Terry Ork. Ork wanted to patronize a band featuring Lloyd as the frontman. But despite being a magnetically compelling presence and transformative talent, Lloyd resisted. In Everything Is Combustible, he explains this decision in terms of the biblical Parable of the Talents, wherein a master gives three servants money and tests their faithfulness. But Lloyd’s decision to describe it in these terms is somehow revealing in and of itself. Ecstatic belief in both licentiousness and liturgy overlapped in Lloyd’s life. He was heaven-bound to be a rock star. Ork introduced Lloyd to Hell and Verlaine and the circuit was complete. They created carnivorous music, always challenging its own reason to exist.
Hell, an expert at naming things, named their band Television. It was part aspirational reclaiming of the dominant media of the age and part druggy-clever play on words: tell a vision. When they finally found each other, the initial results were, strictly speaking, narrowly competent, but some crucial manner of match had been struck. The portent of this moment is such that pains were taken to record the first Television rehearsals, held in Ork’s loft. Along with drummer Billy Ficca, they sometimes sounded like the Stooges following a Yes bender, they sometimes sounded like the Kingsmen covering Procol Harum; none of it is precisely listenable, but all of it is perfect. They must have been the best band in the world.
Half Asleep at Night
There are as many stories about the birth of CBGB as there are gnostic gospels. One goes like this: Hilly Kristal, the space’s owner and a longtime fixture on the Manhattan club scene, is up on a step ladder in 1974, painting the now iconic logo first drawn by his wife, Karen. Verlaine and Hell approached unbidden and prevailed upon him to give their nascent band Television a gig at what was supposed to be a country and bluegrass bar. In this version, Kristal was initially skeptical, but Ork followed up and sealed the deal. Others say it was Verlaine and Lloyd who approached Kristal, while Hell hung back at their practice space drinking whiskey. You can make yourself crazy with debating this stuff—so many versions of something so prosaic. All about one decrepit downtown bar on the Bowery.
The full name CBGB OMFUG originally stood for “Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers.” In later years, after the club had become synonymous with the gestation and birth of punk rock, many interpreted the name as an ironic wink. But it wasn’t. Before it was folklore, CB’s had to turn a profit, and there was genuine money to be made off the overflow of West Village tourists who couldn’t make it into Kettle of Fish. The Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1974 remained far more the terrain of Phil Ochs and Dave Van Ronk than David Johansen or Wayne County. The local Hell’s Angels chapter was next door. They preferred their music twangy. It was fair to say that Kristal no more imagined he was providing the staging ground for a tectonic shifting movement then he was building a military base.
A professional gambler once said: “You can make more money in New York City by accident than you can anywhere else on purpose.” That’s the short version of CBGB. Kristal’s ad hoc punk gambit made him a millionaire. He died in 2007 at the age of 75 and he was wealthier than he ever could have possibly imagined, and CBGB was to rock iconography what Coca-Cola is to soda.
Too Much Friction
A band is often a grueling promenade of insecure, marginal personalities forced into close proximity for countless, often pressure-packed hours of travel, performance, and practice. Famously, bands have a tendency toward entropy, growing apart as their profile rises.
Television elided this destiny in the most efficient way possible: by never being able to stand one another in the first place. As Verlaine and Hell’s doomed symbiosis ground to its preordained conclusion, the two of them could not agree on much, but they both definitely agreed that they didn’t remotely care for Lloyd. Early on Verlaine and Hell prevailed upon Lloyd endlessly to change his name—they thought having two Richards was weird. To which Lloyd responded, sensibly enough, “No, I’ve already got a perfectly suitable name for rock ’n’ roll —go fuck yourself.” The subject never came up again, but the circular firing squad of the group’s nature was already in place.
As their peers at CBGB got signed one after the next—Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, Talking Heads—Television remained unmoored without a recording contract or income. Island was interested enough to have Brian Eno record an infamously half-baked demo, but the group eventually turned down their contract offer. The years ticked by. They attracted the backing of the influential and notoriously fickle English press and then lost it again. Shows became more and more Verlaine-heavy. Hell had once been featured on vocals on three of 10 songs in a given set, but now he wasn’t featured at all. Soon, Hell’s deepening addiction to hard drugs and Verlaine’s increasing desire to be the main focus led to Hell’s departure from the group altogether; he was replaced on bass by Blondie’s Fred Smith.
Whereas the first version of Television had been stupendously chaotic, the group’s sound became streamlined and reserved as Verlaine consolidated control. Increasingly the songs would center themselves on his uniquely lyrical and liquid guitar playing, with its quicksilver digressions owing more to Jerry Garcia or jazz stalwarts like Grant Green than the blues-based raunch of the scene’s previous go-to guitar hero, Johnny Thunders. With Lloyd doubling his parts, the effect was noir-cool as opposed to exploitation-flick-thrilling. Verlaine told the other members of the band to stop moving around on stage so as not to distract from his solos. They signed with Elektra. It was time for Marquee Moon.
The Darkness Doubled
Is there a better first side to any rock ’n’ roll album in history? From the head-caving reverse-Yardbirds riff on the existential garage classic “See No Evil” to the chiming declaration of eternal supplication “Venus.” And then there is the title track.
Four notes repeated over 30 slow-building seconds. That perfect alarm-clock-anxiety riff—as evocative of its subject matter as “Satisfaction” or “Layla” or “Bastards of Young.” The ominous chiming of the Byrds meets the unsettling creep of CCR meets the too-numb-to-care excess of Exile on Main St. There is chaos and meditative placidity and a general sense that the album’s boat-made-out-of-ocean is navigating its way by dark stars.
Andy Johns, the veteran producer of Led Zeppelin and the Stones, was well known to the band members when sessions first commenced at A&R Studios in Manhattan. That familiarity ran in only one direction. When Verlaine saw Johns setting up the drums in a manner more befitting John Bonham than a tensely coiled proto-punk act, he made Johns break them down and start over again. The ’70s had become both the failed actualization of the hippie dream and the full expression of its quaalude potential. Verlaine, in contrast with nearly everyone on the scene, was straight as an arrow.
There is a lot to unpack here, which I want to tread on lightly. Verlaine’s twin brother, John—perhaps the inspiration for the Television classic “Little Johnny Jewel”—was addicted to heroin and eventually died from the disease in the ’80s. Verlaine’s de facto replacement twin brother, Hell, battled addiction when the two parted company. Lloyd was using drugs to excess at the time and soon was also addicted to heroin. If Verlaine became a control freak, well—just look at the chaos around him. Look at his friends and family being taken away from him. What would you do?
Went to See the Gypsy
One night, early on in Television’s long CBGB run, Lou Reed, the undisputed godfather of the downtown scene, went to check them out. Every band in New York—from the Heartbreakers to the Dead Boys to the Dictators—was meaningfully influenced by Reed’s work as a solo artist and with the Velvet Underground. His attendance was essentially like a teacher evaluation. That night, Reed arrived with a cassette recorder.
Upon hearing this information, Verlaine, with wispy Lloyd as his muscle, resolved to confiscate the tape recorder before any of their ideas could be appropriated. Per Lloyd: “Lou said: ‘I don’t have a tape recorder.’ We both chimed in: ‘We’ve been told that you do and we have to search you.’ Lou replied by saying: ‘Well, I do have a tape recorder but it doesn’t have any batteries in it and there’s no tape to record with.’ We asked him to show us the tape and recorder and lo and behold it had tape and batteries in it, all ready to record. We said, ‘Lou, we’re sorry, we don’t allow taping. We will give you back the tape recorder at the end of the night.’”
It’s a silly anecdote replete with questions: Why did Lou have a tape recorder? Was he really going to surreptitiously record them, and for what purpose? Who tipped Verlaine off in the first place? What difference does it make? But Verlaine had begun to wonder if people in the scene were biting from his act. Weren’t David Byrne’s sardonic vocal stylings more than comfortably close to his own? Wasn’t his onetime girlfriend Patti Smith now being praised to the high heavens by channeling his rock ’n’ roll–meets–Hart Crane aesthetics? A few months later, Lou Reed introduced his new stage act, with a background of ceiling-to-floor televisions.
Upon its February 1977 release, Marquee Moon was rhapsodically received by critics on both coasts and in London, but was slow to gain traction in other markets. Television had long been associated with “punk rock” on dubious musical grounds; their debut LP sounds more like King Crimson than the Sex Pistols. But the characterization made sense in other ways: Their outsider stance, preternatural cool, and impeccable fashion aesthetics had reinvigorated lower Manhattan and clearly paved the way for the U.K.’s ascendant response to the CBGB scene. Up until this point, they had benefited from their reputation as punk godfathers and the attendant bonanza of cachet that the tastemaking bohemian press had bestowed upon them.
But this became a boomerang. Verlaine had already begun to weary of New York’s insider-provincialism and was aspiring to a wider audience, and the slow sales accompanying Marquee Moon seemed to validate the anxiety that the band was thinking too small. They toured the States supporting Peter Gabriel, then still at his proggiest, which sowed more confusion. They played three valedictory CBGB gigs and then vowed never to play there again. Radio programmers throughout most of the country failed to add them to playlists, electing instead to cast their lot with Elektra’s other new signing, the Cars. Though it would reach no. 28 in the U.K., Marquee Moon sank like a stone commercially in the U.S., stalling out at 80,000 sales and failing to break into the Billboard 200.
Nursing hurt feelings, the group would record the hasty follow-up Adventure in the fall of 1977, a beautifully jangly collection of tunes. That album essentially codified the vernacular for an entire subgenre of American independent music that would be exemplified by the dB’s, the Dream Syndicate, and especially R.E.M.—arguably Television’s most accomplished and culturally accepted descendants. By this time, however, Elektra had lost the appetite for exerting much promotional muscle in the States, and while the record made it to no. 7 in the U.K., a malaise had set in. Having swung and missed twice at the stardom the group reasonably believed they deserved, they broke up with little ceremony in the summer of 1978. It was a startlingly ignominious ending to a project that once seemed destined to shake the firmament to its very core.
After being fired from Television, Hell’s ambitions continued to burn as brightly as his lust for life. He briefly joined a makeshift edition of Johnny Thunders’s Heartbreakers before decamping to start his own band, the Voidoids, featuring lead guitarist Robert Quine. Through intuition or luck or simply knowing what he liked, it represented the second time that Hell formed a partnership with one of the pantheonic instrumentalists of the 20th century. The Voidoids’ two LPs—1977’s Blank Generation and 1982’s Destiny Street—were brawling aggro-poetic classics that serve as a kind of mirror image of the two Television records. After that, Hell quit music to focus on sobriety and went back to being a writer, a magazine bon vivant, and a man about town.
Verlaine and Lloyd embarked on solo careers, each creating a substantial catalog of excellent music that never found a mass audience. Lloyd started teaching music and has become one of the most respected authorities on the guitar in any academic circle. Verlaine mostly keeps his own company. Verlaine and Lloyd have periodically regrouped for one-off shows, like the exemplary 1992 live set Live At the Academy NYC 12.4.92 without ever establishing a genuine personal rapport. “I’ve been to Tom’s house maybe four times,” Lloyd writes in his memoir. “He’s never been to mine.”
Legacy is a difficult thing to parse. Musically and aesthetically, Television created more than their share of contemporary culture from whole cloth, but Marquee Moon can sometimes feel like a fading signal. Blondie’s hits still blast from the speakers of classic rock radio, and the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” is a get-pumped staple of stadium events the world over. Talking Heads and David Byrne did indeed fill the art-punk vacuum left by Television and took it all the way to cultural ubiquity.
In the postscript to his 2012 memoir I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, Richard Hell tells an anecdote about he and Verlaine meeting up by accident as old men, on the Lower East Side, not so far from their first sin-stomping-ground. Bustling out of a restaurant, Hell spots his long-estranged partner digging through the dollar bin of a used book store. He confronts him and they fall into a strange and familiar inquisition.
“Finding out anything about flying saucers?” Hell calls out to him, a perfect non sequitur.
“Yes, this is the Greek edition,” Verlaine nonsensically replies, completing the circuit.
“We were like two monsters confiding,” Hell writes. “But that wasn’t what shocked me. It was that my feeling was love.”
You say you want a revolution. Seasons in heaven, seasons in hell. All you need is love.
The revolution was televised.
Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.