Television inspires this kind of devotion and speculation. Since forming in New York some 25 years ago, the band's seminal first record, 1977's Marquee Moon, has become a staple in the collections of discriminating rock fans everywhere. The most loyal followers have even tracked down bootleg copies of the first recording sessions the band did with famed producer Brian Eno. For a group that put out only two albums before splitting up in 1982, Television has left behind a surprisingly durable legacy, making the reunion show all the more intriguing.
The floor in front of the stage at the sold-out Metro is cramped and hot. Upstairs in a VIP area, there's a host of Chicago celebrities, including Urge Overkill's Nash Kato, Shellac's Steve Albini, and two of the city's noted rock scribes, Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot. The show gets off to a shaky start, as Verlaine and Lloyd spend what seems like an eternity tuning their guitars.
Once they commence, the songs from Marquee Moon get the best response. Tracks such as "See No Evil," "Prove It," and "Venus" receive immediate applause. When the band launches into the frenzied jam that concludes "Marquee Moon," it's designed to be the climax of the show. Unfortunately, it's cut short, as Lloyd breaks a string and can't finish his part of the song. Verlaine just glares at him, and the energy of the entire set slowly collapses like air from a balloon. ("It was sad to strand my friend in mid-air," Lloyd says afterward. "But how could anybody be angry at something like that?") For an encore, the band sounds loose and comfortable as it rolls through the Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction," but it still can't fix a less-than-perfect concert.
The morning after is a cold, rainy, and dismal day. "This weather must be following us," Lloyd muses as he walks through downtown Chicago. Just a couple of days ago, the band was in London for its one other reunion gig, and the weather was similar. But if last night's concert was a taxing, emotionally draining affair, you wouldn't know it from Lloyd's demeanor. The guitarist, who now eschews the rock and roll lifestyle, has spent the entire morning holed up in his hotel room at the posh Omni, waiting for a fax that never came. He takes a methodical, workman-like approach to performing; in fact, his performances are so deliberate, he never deviates from the set list.
Tomorrow, he'll return to New York to start rehearsals for a tour in support of his new solo album, The Cover Doesn't Matter. He estimates it will be his first run through the Midwest in eight years. It's a far less glorious, less anticipated event than the Television reunion, but Lloyd says he's ready to head back to the clubs.
"I look forward to it," he says over a mid-afternoon lunch. "It's like a wave. For the first two weeks, I'm delighted to be there. Then I wonder what the hell I'm doing with my life, spending my time waiting around in dark basements and smelling like an ashtray every morning, playing places where the walls are painted black and there's no windows. Then, when it's over and they plop you down in front of your house, that's when you really go stir crazy. If you've been away awhile, you get used to the movement and the excitement. Ninety minutes out of an entire day is your whole obligation. It's a very strange life, but I enjoy it."
It's clear that Lloyd doesn't like reminiscing about his early days with Television. He says he "doesn't remember" why the band broke up in the first place and refuses to explain why he left the group for a short period in the beginning. "To be harping on a period of three weeks in a band that lasted six years doesn't make any sense to me," he says. He also downplays the tension between him and Verlaine, and denies the rumor that Peter Laughner, the guitarist from Cleveland's Rocket From the Tombs, was ever in the running as his replacement. He does remember the first time Television ever played outside of New York. That was in Cleveland, where the band opened for Rocket From the Tombs. He's hazy about the rest of the details concerning that concert, which is now a sought-after bootleg.
But ask him about his early influences, and you'll get a rambling account of how he heard the Beatles, Hendrix, and the Stones, and then traced their influences back to Buddy Guy and other blues players. And he remembers his first experience onstage as if it were yesterday.
"The first person I ever stood onstage with was John Lee Hooker, when I was like 17 in Boston," he says. "I was just talking to him, and he got wind that I was a guitar player. He said, 'You've got to come up and sit in with the band, right?' I was like 'Mr. Hooker, I don't play very well. You don't really want me on the stage.' He said, 'No, young man, we've got to support the young people. I call for you, you better be coming up.' I'm sitting there, and my knees are shaking. He called me up and then threw me a big guitar solo, and I didn't know what to do with it. It was hilarious. I was ready to collapse. But it was a good test. I actually got onstage and clacked my knees together and played."
By the time Television formed in 1973, Lloyd had mastered the guitar. So had Tom Verlaine, who was playing solo gigs at small New York clubs. Lloyd was friends with Terry Ork, an Andy Warhol protégé who was an aspiring patron of the arts, willing to finance a band that would be "some kind of cultural revolution." Ork and Lloyd went to see Verlaine play one night, and Television formed shortly afterward.
"I told Terry, forget about putting a band together for me," Lloyd says. "Put Tom and me together, and you'll have that band you're looking for. I can augment what he's doing perfectly. He approached Tom, and I think one of the ways he convinced him to do it was that he was willing to fund the whole thing. He would let us rehearse in his huge loft, would buy equipment, pay for advertising, and book us into a club and make sure the place is full. Who could turn that down?"
The band recorded some early demos with Eno that Lloyd now considers "crappy." Still, some songs from those sessions were rerecorded for Marquee Moon. And even if Marquee Moon yielded only one hit in the U.S. -- "Prove It" -- it made an undeniable impression, in part because, while its attitude was punk, the playing was as good as any of the prog rock that was more popular at the time.
"Well, I think it's held up like [Hendrix's] Are You Experienced? has held up," Lloyd says. "It's a piece of rock history, like the first Doors record. There's no sense of false humility or false pride in saying that. It's a record that's a thorough statement. You get the same thing in literature. You get a book that's written in whatever year, and it just is."
Television would go on to record one more album, the lesser Adventure, before calling it quits. The group reconvened in 1992 to release a self-titled album, but broke up once again after a short tour. Verlaine has issued several solo records and played with Patti Smith; Lloyd has several solo records of his own and played for several years with Matthew Sweet. The Cover Doesn't Matter is his first venture in 14 years, and even he can't believe the amount of time that has elapsed between projects.
"It really sounds horrible," he says of the span. "It doesn't feel like that much time, because I was working as a guitarist. There was a point when it became much easier to work as a guitarist. I would be hired to give some kind of cachet. It was very easy, and it still is."
Lloyd also cut demos for several record labels and says that the time it took for the label to realize that he doesn't "write young, dance-oriented pornographic pop music" before dropping him also was responsible for the gap in his solo career. He finally decided to fund The Cover Doesn't Matter on his own, rather than wait for "a knight in shining armor" to come along and finance it. He recorded it in his home studio and released it independently.
"I am more comfortable in the role of singing and playing than in the craft of songwriting, which is still kind of difficult," he admits. "I don't have a Tin Pan Alley approach, where I sit in a room and write songs. I think of myself as a guitarist first, and the singing and the songs are kind of like the clothes hangers. They're the skeletons which I can use as support for the instrumental work."
And while Lloyd says that there's been some talk of a full-scale Television reunion in the fall, nothing definite is planned. In the meantime, he's got his own record to tour behind and will likely return to teaching guitar lessons after the tour is over.
"I guess the best thing that I can say about the people in Television is that we have our own inner dynamic," he says. "It's not like we're forced into playing together. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't, and to me that makes it more precious. When it does, it's authentic. It's not a money machine. It's not a product machine. It's something more real."
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