In 1992, Television basically wrote the book on how to make a reunion work. Draw from your past without being a slave to it, appear on the scene with little expectation or fanfare, and quietly blow everyone away. This is exactly what they did with their ‘92 self-titled “reunion” album, which, while certainly not equaling the brilliance of their timeless debut, Marquee Moon, went pretty far towards trumping the band’s sophomore effort, ‘78’s comparatively lukewarm Adventure. Not too shabby for a band who hadn’t played together in over ten years. Handily crafting an indelible batch of songs that gave a cheerful nod towards their past, but kept their eyes staunchly on the task at hand (crafting yet another timeless batch of angular indie guitar anthems), the Television of 1992 was the band that any sane rock n’ roller would want to be a part of at that stage in their career.
30 Jul 2002: The Experience Music Project Seattle, Washington
That reunion was short-lived—the band played just enough shows to whet folks’ appetites that they might actually stick around for awhile, and then promptly broke up again in early ‘93. So, here it is, another ten years on, and the boys have, presumably, decided to give it another go for ol’ times sake—which is exactly emblematic of what’s wrong with Television Mk. III. They’re not touring behind a new record, they don’t really even have any new songs; at this point, they seem to be pounding the pavement for lack of anything better to do. Like Big Star, whose reunion shows were initially thrilling events for everyone involved, but have subsequently devolved into a tired-looking Alex Chilton crooning “Thirteen” for the eight-hundredth time, backed up by a not-nearly-as-excited-about-the-whole-thing-as-they-used-to-be Jon and Ken Posie, the Television of 2002 is, unfortunately, seems a bit of an exercise in futility.
The band took the stage looking, for the most part, exactly how you would expect them to, had someone shown you a copy of Marquee Moon and said “picture these guys 25 years down the road”. Tom Verlaine still looks like he’s desperately in need of a good hot meal, and Billy Ficca’s hair is still the first thing you notice about him. Bassist Fred Smith, in putting on a few pounds, is really the only one of the four who looks altered in the slightest.
Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end. Of course, I was far too young to ever have seen Television in their prime, considering that I was born all of one year before Marquee Moon came out. However, I can’t help but believe that they were incendiary—not only from what I’ve read from people who did see them, but hell, just listen to Marquee Moon, and somehow imagine how the band who had just recently written and recorded these amazing songs could not kick complete and utter ass onstage. However, it was 25 years ago that those songs were new and fresh, and although the record sounds as good today as it did on the day of its release, the guys who made it aren’t nearly so elastic.
The main problem with this show was that the band simply looked bored. On record, these songs are full of passion, tension, and, well, friction…er….F-R-I-C-T-I-O-N. However, tonight, it seemed like they were more interested in indulging in interminable jams and guitar solos than working together to create a tight, visceral performance.
Richard Lloyd was especially guilty of this. Yes, he’s a fantastic, extremely talented and influential guitarist. However, this does not give him the right to riddle every other Television song with extraneous, wank-a-riffic solos that make him out to be more a frustrated classic rocker than a post-punk innovator. Sure, even in their heyday, Television was all about guitar heroics and virtuosity. However, it was all about how Verlaine and Lloyd’s guitars worked off each other, not about how many notes Lloyd could cram into his third solo of a given song. Sure, it was a pleasure to see him effortlessly worry the lead line to “Venus” out of his guitar, as if it was as natural to him as brushing his teeth. Unfortunately, these pleasures were diminished significantly by the band’s generally lackluster performance. They gamely plugged away at the classics (“See No Evil”, “Prove It”) and traded licks semi-convincingly on the tight, wiry workouts “Call Mr. Lee” and “1880 or So” from the reunion album, but it just felt like there hearts weren’t really in it.
Perhaps I wouldn’t be so down in the mouth about Television’s shortcomings had I not witnessed another band of 40-somethings, Mission of Burma, play one of the most amazing, inspiring sets a band could hope for barely a week before. Every note that Burma played seemed essential, passionate, and necessary, like they were a bunch of 20-year-olds with something to prove, goddammit, whereas Verlaine, Lloyd & company just looked like they were up there ‘cause they were being paid to be there, not because they needed to be.
Of course, Burma is the exception rather than the rule. For a band to get together after not having played for almost twenty years, and still be as exciting and vital as they were in their heyday is nothing short of a miracle. Television’s tale, then, is all the more typical. They look old and tired. Sure, they can still play the songs, but it doesn’t really look like they’re feeling them anymore. There was a visceral energy—necessary at some level for any rock show to succeed—which was simply absent from their performance. While this doesn’t make me appreciate their recorded material any less, and while I still have hope that Verlaine and Lloyd will, at some point, make good music together again rather than simply rehashing past glories, this evening’s performance did not exactly point towards that direction.