Album: Live at the Old Waldorf
. . .
I never saw Television in concert.
I mean, my original excuse was that they broke up in 1978 before I’d even heard their music, which is a pretty good one, especially since I didn’t leave Fresno for a concert until me, Larry, Craig & Tim saw The Who in the summer of 1980.
That said, I don’t really have an excuse for missing them in 1992, except that I was kinda broke and my head wasn’t really right when then did the reunion tour on behalf of the self-titled album. After that, I have no idea, and now of course with Tom Verlaine’s passing, I never will. I did see get to see Richard Lloyd play with Matthew Sweet and Tom Verlaine play with Patti Smith in the 1990s, but it’s not the same.
And that sucks because Television were a legendary live band, to the point where they could get away with covering a pair of hoar old warhorses like “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in concert and no one would blink an eye.
And so when ROIR put out the somewhat sanctioned The Blow Up cassette-only release in the early 1980s, I dutifully bought it, not for those aforementioned covers, or even the live versions of “Marquee Moon” and “Ain’t That Nothin’” I also bought it to finally hear a version of Television’s legendary first single, “Little Johnny Jewel.”
I’m gonna admit: I was bumped by the sound of The Blow-Up, and over the years the other Television bootlegs that I came across: I know that the Portland show is also pretty legendary, but I’ve never heard a version of that which broke through the static.
Anyways, “Little Johnny Jewel” itself was kind of a legend in and of itself: released on Ork records in 1975, it was a seven-minute song stretched over two sides of a 7″ 45RPM single, it was such a counterintuitive choice for their first single, Richard Lloyd quit the the band over it. For awhile, because he knew they still had Marquee Moon to make, and honestly, the first time I heard the studio version of “Little Johnny Jewel”, I was kinda underwhelmed, though I’ve come to appreciate the almost free-jazz aspects of it, while still questioning the choice of making the guitars sound almost acoustic. There’s some great playing on it, but there’s no real bite.
Which isn’t remotely the problem on the version they kicked out at the Old Waldorf three years later. On that version, which opens with Fred Smith’s bass playing the three-note riff over Verlaine’s trying to figure out how to play his guitar, and soon kicks in with Lloyd fuzzing out that same three-note riff while Verlaine responds, “Little Johnny Jewel” is all bite, taking its sweet time before Verlaine plays the ascending riff that leads directly into the lyrics.
And I say “lyrics,” because “Little Johnny Jewel” doesn’t really have verses or chorus, but rather a long stream-of-consciousness rap under which the band is loud during the first part and quiet during second part, with the demarcation point being Verlaine singing “I want my little wing-head.”
Now Little Johnny Jewel
Oh, he’s so cool
He had no decision
He’s just trying to tell a vision
But some thought that this was sad
And others thought it mad
They just scratching the surface
J.J., he could do the floor kiss
Oh, was he on display?
No, no, not today
All that guy ever said
He said, “I want my little wing-head”
Even live, the quiet part is exceptionally quiet, Lloyd sitting it out, and Ficca nearly so, as they’re all straining for Verlaine to signal his guitar solo by almost whispering “Then, he loses his senses.”
And what a solo it is, too, starting off slowly, but as Smith, Ficca and Lloyd get noisier and more intense, Verlaine tosses cluster after cluster of supersonic fireworks from his guitar reaching higher and higher and higher, making it up as he goes along, which is fine because everybody else is, as well, because they’re all caught up in the moment of Little Johnny Jewel’s loss of his senses, and they’re letting us know that he probably isn’t going to get them back.
Eventually, though, Verlaine goes back into the “hey I’m gonna sing again” riff, leading back into the three-note riff and one last verse, Verlaine taking his sweet time between each line.
Oh, Little Johnny Jewel
He’s real cool
But if you see him looking lost
You ain’t gotta come on so b-boss
Paid the price
You see that little guy
Wink your eye
At that point, “Little Johnny Jewel” crases to its — and presumably, his — end.
“Little Johnny Jewel (San Francisco 06-29-1978)”
“Little Johnny Jewel” Original single
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