#130: Television, "Marquee Moon" (1977)

130 Marquee Moon.jpg

There are points in Wyoming at which few, if any, signs of the human exist. A road, maybe. A fence. The railroad more often than not. Of what I remember—maybe too much—I remember significant sky, clear as hell at night. And the out-of-place pelicans on Lake Hattie Reservoir before the day was over and we were subsumed by stars. Our last summer in Wyoming. How do I say I was born there, left, returned, left again.

How do I say I woke up and it’s yesterday?

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Television’s Marquee Moon, the band’s first record, was released in 1977. Also released that year were Aja, American Stars ‘n Bars, Before and After Science, The Clash, Hard Again, My Aim Is True, Low, Rocket to Russia, Rumours, Talking Heads: ’77, and Trans-Europe Express (among many great others).

On February 8, three days after Rumours, now one of the best-selling records of all time, Marquee Moon entered the world. The record, now 41 years old and considered one of the greatest debuts of all time, has aged only in the sense that it’s been here for a certain duration. It remains otherworldly, new, taut somehow, and—yes!—playful. When Tom Verlaine sings “Fantastic! You lose your sense of human” in “Prove It,” you thrill and you do. At the outset of “Friction” when Billy Ficca fires off a drumroll fit for the most gleefully warped magic show you can conjure, you don’t hesitate. And 3:08 into “Guiding Light,” everything in the song becomes the waves of the sea the song’s arrived at, and there are your goosebumps.

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Aquarians, born January 20 to February 18, aren’t known for their warmth, or at least that’s the going line. Something about aloofness always manages to work its way into the discussion. Curious, observant, distant idealists the lot.

I’m not sure how much of this I believe. Some?

I remember being told to smile often as a child.

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Start looking and it doesn't take long to find interviews with Verlaine that don’t go well for the interviewers; he answers only the questions he feels like answering. In a 2006 interview with Ben Sisario for The New York Times, Verlaine is asked how his life should appear in a biography. He responds, “Struggling not to have a professional career.”

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At its worst, work as in “professional career” has left me feeling musicless and stupid, withering. At its best, it’s allowed me the day, promising little else. What's there to say that hasn't already been said about industry's penchant for quantification, the overall’s lack of joy.

How do I say I went for a walk and saw a couple pink packing peanuts winding down the street, heard a group of women hollering for the feel of it in someone’s backyard, held eye contact with an animal and counted to ten as a way to measure living.

How do I say I know these things matter as much as data.

How do I say I know these things matter so much more than data.

There’s too much contradiction.

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Whenever I hear It’s too “too too” to put a finger on in "Prove It," I think of the final line of Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump”: Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the. Those lines are sonic siblings. The song and the poem work through their own respective tensions on the way to some kind of resolve.

To me, the space a listener inhabits, the space made by instrumentation and words in Television’s music, parallels the space a reader inhabits in a poem, the shapes to which words arranged on a page give way.

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The run time on Marquee Moon is about 46 minutes (45:54 to be exact). The title track takes up 10 of those minutes, almost 1/4 of the whole record. The songs that orbit "Marquee Moon" are three- to four-ish minutes, then five, and finally seven. Hearing the record in its entirety feels much longer than 46 minutes, and that's not tedium at work. I want to say it's imagination at work. How else does one come to disregard time and just sit with a record on, listening? Imagination. And wanting to feel something

I've become so hesitant to say and write words like imagination, beauty, terrific—a side effect, I think, of feeling unheard for a long time. Those words border on grandeur, and grandeur can be exhausting. For now, though, in this instance, those three words apply to Marquee Moon.

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In a 2007 interview with Dave Segal for The Stranger, ex-Television guitarist Richard Lloyd is asked what he provided Television that Tom Verlaine couldn't. Lloyd answers, "The fleshing out of all the songs. All the filigrees and arabesques on Marquee Moon are all mine.…I brought a rock-and-roll heart. Tom has some strange tastes. He likes cowboy music—I don't mean country & western; I mean cowboy music, and county fair music and TV theme songs and crap like that. He comes in and says, "Look what I got for 99 cents!" I'll look at it and think, 'Oh my god. Thank god I don't have a record player.'"

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On a recent visit to Gillette, Wyoming, the town where I grew up, I found a compilation of cowboy songs and frontier ballads at a library book sale. On the compilation is "Tumbleweed Trail," a Sons of the Pioneers song. The group's "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" is used to great effect in The Big Lebowski.

I drove around Laramie, where I lived at the time, listening to "Tumbleweed Trail" on repeat, allowing myself an all-new level of hokum. I couldn't ignore Where is the gal I knew in Wyomin'? Where are the songs she sang in the gloamin'?

Not long after that, I moved to Colorado.

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In "Elevation," Verlaine sings The last word is the lost word with agony. Every element of the song is perfectly in place: sinisterly driven guitars, monolithic drums, and a deft bass line. It's the sound of someone beginning to know something will soon be over, might already be.

It's hard to explain how you begin to know such a thing, even when reasons accrue.

Or how, after being spectacularly lost, you find that the place you started from isn't for you.

—Shannon Tharp