Album: Marquee Moon
. . .
One thing that I know I didn’t know when I bought Marquee Moon in 1978 was that Richard Hell was the co-founder of Television. I’m sure I’d seen ads if not reviews for Richard Hell & The Voidoids Blank Generation album — hard to miss, given how visceral that album cover was, and how much Hell looked like the bands from England like The Sex Pistols or the Clash — but I hadn’t read anything that put it all together for me. Not yet.
Now, of course, anybody just walking down the street knows that Hell and Tom Verlaine moved to New York together and changed their names from the humdrum Meyers and Miller while writing poetry and prose and starting bands, the first of which was Neon Boys and the last of which was Television. Over time, Verlaine, who was (arguably) a better songwriter, and (definitely) a superior musician, took over the band and Hell was basically sacked.
However, prior to that happening, a couple of things happened: first, Television went into the studio and recorded the fabled “Eno Demos,” which — depending on the source — weren’t even produced by Brian Eno, but rather Richard Williams. Verlaine famously hated those demos — they never even showed up as bonus tracks on the reissues of Marquee Moon — but historians at least get a glimpse of what Television sounded like with Richard Hell, even if none of his songs were recorded, not even “Blank Generation.” Those demos sound about what you’d expect: Verlaine, Lloyd & Ficca are killing it, but the songs just aren’t as tight as they would be on Marquee Moon, as Hell stuck with his garage-rock roots.
Which Television would do live, covering the 13th Floor Elevators “Fire Engine” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” throughout their initial run, but in the studio, Verlaine wanted icy perfection, which Hell was both musically and tempermentally not able to do. So he left Television and formed the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders & Jerry Nolan of the New York Dolls, and at some point during all of this, Malcolm McLaren — who was managing the Dolls during their final days saw Hell’s spiky hair, torn shirts and self-mutilation and thought “I should form a band filled with guys like that.”
Meanwhile, Television stole Blondie’s bassist, Fred Smith — there was famously tension between the thick-as-thieves Tom Verlaine & Patti Smith and the Blondie camp — and the Television who would record Marquee Moon were formed.
And on a song like “Venus,” you could just hear Smith’s basslines bringing it all together in a way that Hell wouldn’t even have tried. It’s right there on the confident, strutting twin-guitar blast that opens the song, Verlaine and Lloyd in complete lockstep, Ficca playing a martial beat and Smith connecting the dots, especially on the fanfare that sets up the first verse where the guitars are going up and down and Ficca is playing an utterly awesome “crash-crash-snare-snare crash-crash-snare-snare crash-crash-snare-snare crash-crash-snare-snare” beat around those guitars and Smith’s connective tissue bass.
It was a tight toy night, streets so bright
The room was so thin between my bones and skin
There stood another person who was a little surprised
To be face to face with a world so alive
You know how it’s a cliche to say that New York City is a character in a film or a TV show? Well, it’s definitely a character in “Venus,” which seems like it’s about wandering around the streets of New York City while high on drugs, or high on love, or high on life, or high on youth, or high on new experiences, or some combination of the aforementioned ways to be fucked-up and seeing the world anew. Helping to see the world: the guitars of Verlaine and Lloyd, which spend the first half of the verse waltzing around the rhythm section like tiny ballerinas and the second half swirling around the vocals like tiny whirlwinds, riding the drums into another call-and-response chorus in as many songs.
How I fell (Did you feel low?)
I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo
For 45 years, Lloyd and Smith’s bewildered “huh?” has cracked me up, which now I think about it, is a proper response to the entire lyrics of this song. Huh? You fell into the arms of Venus de Milo? Huh? It’s so surreal that you almost miss the liquid guitar lines that precede it — in his autobiography, Richard Lloyd describes how he freaked everyone up by doubling his parts exactly — or the grand way they fall back into the march as he sings “I fell right into the arrrrrmmmmmmmms of Venus de Milo,” because they slip back into the guitars going up and down and Ficca doing the “crash-crash-snare-snare,” which I’m a 1000% sure that Janet Weiss listened to a 1000 times before using her drumming to officiate between the guitars of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker.
You know it’s all like some new kind of drug
My senses are sharp and my hands are like gloves
Broadway looked so medieval
It seemed to flap, like little pages
And I fell sideways laughing
With a friend from many stages
One could wonder if that “friend from many stages” is Patti Smith, but it could also be Richard Hell, of course, who gets a shoutout in the final verse, but before that, I should probably point out that the second chorus is slightly different from the first chorus: instead of singing “How I fell,” he sings “How we felt,” which makes the “Didja feel low?” question more sensible, but the “Huh?” no less funny after Verlaine answers the question with a definitive “not at all.”
After the second chorus comes Verlaine’s first solo on the album, and it’s kinda counterintuitive, giving all of the guitar fireworks bursting in the rest of the song: it’s more impressionistic and thoughtful, breaking down the momentum of the song like they decided to stop and have a smoke before continuing to wander the streets of New York City during the most dangerous time ever to just be wandering the streets of New York City, which isn’t a thing even remotely addressed by “Venus,” even during its final verse.
Suddenly, my eyes went so soft and shaky
I knew there was pain, but pain is not aching
Then Richie, Richie said:
“Hey man, let’s dress up like cops, think of what we could do”
But something, something
It said, “You’d better not”
That last verse epitomizes the mix of reality and surreality that dominates “Venus,” it’s hard to imagine Richard Hell not proposing that he and Tom dress up like cops, but we never know what that something is thank kept them from doing it. Either way, Verlaine ends the song with, “I stood up, and walked out of the arrrrrrr-harrrrrms of Venus de Milo.”
That’s right: not even the arms of Venus de Milo could hold Tom Verlaine.
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