From the Frequency of Television | The New Engagement

From the Frequency of Television

By Melissa Barrow
From the Frequency of Television essay art

Rialto Theatre, Tucson, 10/18/2016

There was no preamble; no busy swarm of roadies, tuning and mic-checks. They didn't hurry onto stage with fanfare. They ambled on naturally, with relaxed, amiable poise. Two words entered my head together:

Unassuming. Serious.

They noodled calmly for a few minutes, exchanging friendly banter with the audience, then, with a brief caesura and a slight head nod, they power-strummed into "Glory" and an impressive synergy that captured the crowd in about a second, enthralling us for the duration of the show.  With 5 to 8 minute songs, this was no rote performance of a multi-city tour. This was the fine brewing of technical prowess with improvisation bordering on the level of fine jazz. Television's collaborative precision is deliberate, and ultimately transcendent.

"...Time may freeze,
A world could cry."

This snippet from Guiding Light is a glimpse into what I experienced at this show:  I prepared with a half dose of medical Sativa candy (for its ability to center me in the present of the sound) and in this fine melding of herbal enhancement with sonic onslaught, my mind was lit with a psychedelic-sized flood of big-picture musings:

 What I am finally experiencing – LIVE  is one fierce example in a repeating trope: from the din of a music wave will surface a blazing tangent - a voice too specific and strident to be categorized.  Television did and continue to exist in a Bermuda Triangle at the center of swirling rapids The contrary eye in the typhoon of a split personality musical coup. Typically lumped in with the 1970's NYC punk explosion, Television are, in fact, something altogether apart. I can try to pin them down with the archeology of their influencers and influencees, but, as I heard Robert Anton Wilson say (fondly and frequently quoting Korzybski, "The map is not the territory."  When I reflect on the territory, I see a complex weave - a web of interconnecting, overlapping, luminescent strands that are separate but equal in signal:

The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, T Rex, Iggy and the Stooges, Modern Lovers, New York Dolls, Devo, Swell maps, Television, Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, Pere Ubu, Throbbing Gristle... the stepping stones are infinite.

Each of these live wires came from a different stream: Glam Rock, Garage Rock, Art Rock, Nowave, Punk Rock, Industrial and Noise.  There are traces of Bowie, Marc Bolen and Velvet Underground in Television's testy, jangly sound and complex themes. There are distinct flavors of Television in the brainy spice of Talking Heads, the incisive mania of Devo, and the self-reflective free spirit of Patti Smith. It goes on and on - all of these concurrent artists rubbing off on each other. None of these acts can accurately be labeled with the same musical genre, so why are they so co-associated in our minds?

Because they share a common spirit: a vehement revolt against normalcy; an insistence on self-expression without dictation. Collectively, they were an edgy, amplified signal of intelligent life outside the mainstream real and raw, articulate people with informed opinions, attitude, and instruments. They were all distinct currents in a tidal wave of currents across the globe at a specific, crucial time. They resemble each other by association, having swum in the same super-charged waters. As in chemistry, when two unique chemical compounds meet, each will be changed...


This was the effect of the show on my synapses – the bend my mind took while immersed in the enormity and trying to record cell phone videos of the brilliant songs (all of which recorded way too hot and distorted, to my dismay). Ah well, some phenomena – like Tibetan sand mandalas – are meant to be appreciated in the moment, not captured permanently.

As for the performance: 3 out of 4 original (nearly) band members is impressive in such an old group, and the longevity of their intimacy is evident: Fred Smith and Billy Ficca together possess a sensitivity to dynamics much envied in a rock rhythm section. Their foundation lends stability to the idiosyncratic meanderings of the 2 lead guitars. Many people (including Richard Lloyd himself) have written about the near-telepathic symbiosis of the guitar interplay between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. Some say that since Lloyd left, a sense of virtuosity is absent. Lloyd, in an interview, referred to Jimmy Rip–Lloyd's replacement since 2007 – as a "...brown-nosed hired hand". He also said that he '' is a marvelous guitar player. He's not ME, but it'll suffice. He's playing all my parts. He can't help it." 1)  Admittedly my opinion lacks technical credibility, but from what I heard with my long-term-listener’s ear, Jimmy Rip may have been playing Richard Lloyd's original riffs, but he built on them. He is a phenomenal soloist in his own right and inspired regular gasps and chuckles of unabashed appreciation from musicians in the crowd, my guitarist boyfriend among them. Verlaine's voice is as fretful and insistent as ever, his signature, unorthodox guitar style of tremolo mixed with noisy, punctuated pounding, have been refined and perfected over 43 years. Both with the Television discography and his solo music, he expresses caustic intensity side-by-side with melodic tenderness.

The set list did not disappoint. They played perennial favorites like Elevation, Guiding Light, and Marquee Moon among others. Their longer journeys – Persia, and 1880 Or So – were gorgeous examples of Verlaine's penchant for delicate explorations that are elegiac and narrative, inspiring me to comment to a friend in the crowd that they were on a par with the Grateful Dead for length and trippiness of jams. Later I read, with a laugh,"… long songs and meticulous soloing which earned Television the unwanted title, Grateful Dead of punk." (2)

I was at The Rialto the week prior for another band that I've loved for almost as long: Echo and the Bunnymen. Their performance was excellent, wonderful, delightful! But Television – Television was on an entirely different plane. It was not just music, it was epic poetry, and judging by the reactions around me, every person there found themselves – like I did – transported to a different realm.

It's a beautiful thing when a band of such lofty history and maturity can still blow our minds.


~ Melissa Barrow
music reviewer and obsessive listener




Melissa Barrow is a writer and mixed-media artist. She has been journaling (Anais-Nin-style) and writing poetry since age 7. She was a DJ and music reviewer at KALX 90.7 FM Berkeley from 1996-2012. Her essays, music reviews, collages, and photographs have appeared in various obscure underground ‘zines since the 1980’s. The daughter of innovative, mixed-media art photographer Thomas Barrow, she was surrounded by art and artists all her life, which gave her an appreciation of all forms of media. Her exposure - at age 15 - to the early ‘80’s Tempe/Phoenix punk scene, taught her to question everything and think outside the box, and she has avidly explored the many streams of counter-culture art ever since. Melissa has also spent 25 years devoted to natural healing and environmentalism. She is especially interested in the intersection between art and ecology. She holds a BA in English Literature with an unofficial minor in Photography from ASU, and a Masters in Sustainable Enterprise from Dominican University of California. After 18 years in the San Francisco Bay Area, she returned to the desert 2 ½ years ago. She has fallen in love with Tucson and is honored to work for local nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH.

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