Off Again, On Again

When musicians are asked to “curate” All Tomorrow’s Parties, a weekend-long music festival held annually at the Camber Sands seaside resort in East Sussex, England, they’re basically encouraged to make a wish list for the organizers to work from–if you could have anybody, anybody at all, sing songs around your own personal campfire, who would you pick? When Chicago’s Tortoise, like Belle & Sebastian and Mogwai before them, were asked to pick their dream lineup for last month’s fest, they weren’t afraid to be ambitious or even silly, suggesting not only the acts you’d expect–Calexico, the Ex, and Autechre all performed–but also a few beloved bands that didn’t even exist anymore, including Devo and Television.

A Devo reunion was prohibitively priced, but to Tortoise’s delight Television agreed to play. “Barry [Hogan], the promoter, went through [Yo La Tengo’s] Ira Kaplan to Tom Verlaine–as far as we know they might’ve planned a reunion anyway,” says Tortoise bassist Doug McCombs. “Ira went to Tom and told him what the festival was about, and then he wanted to do it. They’re doing a lot more shows now. We didn’t really have that much to do with it.” But Richard Lloyd, one of the band’s two guitarists, says nothing was planned before the call came. “I don’t think it would have happened if someone had just said ‘Let’s do Television shows’ and waved a lot of money,” he says. “I think it was more interesting to us because the idea came from artists, and it was a festival.”

For a band that put out three studio albums in 20 years, Television is remarkably well ensconced in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon. With their manager, Terry Ork, they persuaded the owner of a bluegrass bar with the cumbersome name of CBGB-OMFUG to let rock bands–specifically Television–play, catalyzing the New York punk scene. After New York Dolls manager Malcolm McLaren failed to politicize the glam punk band, he stole original Television bassist Richard Hell’s ripped and safety-pinned antifashion statement and took it home to the Sex Pistols. Bands from the Clash to U2 have cited Television’s distinctive sound–surging, interlaced guitars that gave velocity to Verlaine’s sharp poetry–as an influence. Yet the band’s two late-70s recordings for Elektra, Marquee Moon and Adventure, still haven’t sold well enough to save Lloyd from various day jobs over the years: according to his Web site, he’s tended bar, cleaned slides, and even made telephone survey calls. The band reunited briefly, in 1992, recording another commercially disappointing album, Television, for Capitol, and touring the U.S. and UK. One critic wrote of their show at Metro that winter that the fans were passive, but I was there and my impression was that they were speechless.

Since the band broke up the first time, in 1978, Lloyd has released a few albums of his own and contributed to other people’s records, most notably Matthew Sweet’s–he says the largest crowd he ever played to was with Sweet at Taste of Chicago a few years back, a show that turned up later as an Italian bootleg. Drummer Billy Ficca went on to the Waitresses (the new-wave band responsible for the early MTV hit “I Know What Boys Like”), while bassist Fred Smith continued to play with guitarist and singer Verlaine on his solo work, which early on sounded the most like Television. Verlaine hasn’t released a record since 1992’s Warm and Cool–an atmospheric all-instrumental album whose influence can clearly be heard in Brokeback, the side project of Tortoise’s Doug McCombs. While Lloyd keeps in close contact with his public–running his own Web site, sending transcriptions to fans who ask nicely, and even giving guitar lessons–Verlaine keeps a frustratingly low profile, performing infrequently (most recently on a short tour accompanying silent films by Man Ray, Fernand Leger, Carl Dreyer, and the like) and declining interview requests.

No doubt Verlaine’s mystique feeds fans’ hunger to hear more. The All Tomorrow’s Parties gig was originally a one-off (which Lloyd admits he thought was a bit of a shame), but then more offers came in. The band played four shows the week after the festival in the UK, Ireland, and Spain. So far their show at the Metro on May 10, part of the Noise Pop festival, is their only scheduled U.S. appearance, though rumors are circulating on the Web about a New York show. Lloyd doesn’t specifically remember agreeing to play here–“It was slipped in as a line item,” he jokes–but says he has fond memories of Chicago from Television’s 1978 tour opening for the newly solo Peter Gabriel: “Tom spent the whole trip from the airport singing ‘My Kind of Town’ hanging half out of the car. I nearly peed my pants from laughing.”

Unlike the 1992 reunion gig, this show is just a show, with nothing to plug–though Lloyd says there’s a slight possibility that things will “start to happen” when they play together. But he likes the lack of pressure in playing just to play, with the reputation already secured. “Everyone else, when they go on tour, is just so driven by promoting a new record, having something to sell,” he explains. “We just like playing and traveling, and that’s what’s so refreshing. It’s like the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, when no one knew what bands looked like and when someone came to town you’d buy a ticket and just sit around looking at the ticket. You didn’t know if they were ever coming back, so if you missed it, you missed it. Now everyone’s got a digital camera under their coat, everything’s filmed and recorded, and everyone demands a copy, but they’re holding themselves at arm’s length from the actual experience, so that experience is far less precious. We have nothing to sell but the experience.”

At press time Television’s show was not yet sold-out; the opening act is the Preston School of Industry, a new band with ex-Pavement guitarist Scott Kannberg. Richard Lloyd will return to Chicago in June for a show at the Empty Bottle to–yes–promote his new solo record, The Cover Doesn’t Matter (Upsetter Music), which was released in Europe just as Television was coming through. His band features New York singer-songwriter Bibi Farber on guitar, Farber’s bandmate Peter Stuart on bass, and former Waitresses guitarist Chris Butler on drums.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eva Vermandel-The Wire.