Marquee Moon was one of those records that, upon first hearing it, stopped you dead in your tracks. Despite the comparisons to Velvet Underground, it really didn’t have a specific musical reference point. Sure, it had loads of influences — a borrowed idea here, a lyrical nod there — but they were all wrapped up into a singular musical statement — and one totally at odds with the rest of the music emanating from the CBGB’s scene it sprang from.
For those seeking strictly a critique of the album — as many of the books in the 33 1/3 series provide — be forewarned: the actual breakdown of Marquee Moon, the album, doesn’t even begin until page 156, and the book is only 211 pages long. However, in this critically important time period that helped shape Television — and vice versa — Waterman provides an incredibly nuanced and detailed history of the band and it’s co-dependencies — musically, romantically and otherwise. He punctures a few of the widely-held and self-serving mythologies and nicely steers some of the band member’s dueling versions of those stories towards a more likely port. Why did Richard Hell leave the band? Why were the infamous Eno-produced demos aborted? What’s behind the Lester Bangs/Tom Verlaine “friction?” Dig in…
Indeed, the first half of the book deals mostly with this burgeoning scene before it implodes, while interspersing the personal histories of Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Richard Lloyd, Patti Smith and one Hilly Kristal, amongst others. Waterman sketches one of the best pictures of the early ’70s Lower East Side and CBGB’s music scenes that I’ve read. In fact, I’ve never wanted to be transported back to a hellishly hot toilet of a club in a dirty, bankrupt and broken city so badly.
So what does the author say about Television’s debut album? Well…he sure can talk about cascading and descending scales and string together explanations, metaphors, and sense of place when it comes to lyrics and not bore you. Usually, I have a hard time having someone other than the songwriter discuss the “meaning” of songs. It’s one of the reasons I loathe music videos. But, to Waterman’s credit, his observations and conclusions are as oblique as the lyrics; in fact, most offer several interpretations and almost all end in a question mark, suggesting it’s only a possibility — providing a “what do you think” prompt. More importantly, it made me want to immediately put Marquee Moon on the turntable. And what I heard was as vague, oblique, romantic and full of mystery as it was when I first head the album thirty-plus(!) years ago. If the test of time is the mark of true “art,” this album has it in spades. It is an incredible — and incredibly timeless — document.
Waterman provides my favorite line(s) of the book in summing up the lyrics to “Venus” and, to me, crystallizes why I love this album: “What we’ve fallen into, then, is love. Or emptiness. Or imagination. Which could mean nothing, or everything.”
Like many great LPs and other works of art, Marquee Moon must be listened to and appreciated as a piece…a singular body of work. And while I enjoy some parts of Mr. Waterman’s book more than others, I think that rule of thumb also applies here. Read and enjoy. And then listen to the album.
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