Going to see any band 25 years past their heyday seems a dangerous proposition. After so long a break one might question their motives, wondering if their touring has more to do with additions they’d like to put on their houses or children they’d like to put through college than any reinvigorated interest in their music. We worry that the performance will be entirely perfunctory, and we will be left feeling faintly like suckers, having bought into hype and nostalgia. Part of what we pay entertainers for is the illusion that they enjoy entertaining us, that they enjoy what they do. We pay them to be convinced they would have done it for nothing.
Theoretically, going to see Television play Irving Plaza at this point isn’t much different than seeing Blue Öyster Cult play some county fairground. After all, both are somewhat difficult ‘70s art rock bands, exploring esoteric lyrical concerns while showcasing phenomenal guitar work (both worked with Patti Smith, too). The difference lies in reputation: because of their late ‘70s New York provenance and the critical hyperbole that credits them with reinventing the guitar solo and revolutionizing instrumental interplay on their essential album Marquee Moon, Television retain a cache of cool and an aura of relevance.
Now there’s no reason to believe that Television have reunited for anything but the opportunity to finally reap some financial rewards for their brilliant ‘70s work, whose influence and reputation continues to grow. While there might be some justice in our literally paying Television their respect by seeing them play now, there is reason to fear that is all we are doing: that we are attending not their revival but their wake, and all we will see is the moribund shell of a band beloved for their lively, dynamic idiosyncrasy. A band on a reunion tour has always already been ossified by reams of critical opinion; they have been reified by their own reputation, and it becomes almost impossible to see their performance as anything but a rote enactment of those well-ingrained expectations. When a band cashes in on their reputation the audience’s reaction is largely predetermined by the band’s legend. At least when one sees Blue Öyster Cult, one has a sincere, spontaneous impression of what’s happening, for better or for worse. But regardless of what Television actually played, it was hard to hear anything but the critical pieties—the guitar work was magical, startling; the soloing was breathtaking, revelatory. Such declarations have lost their descriptive value; they have been so often repeated that their relation to the truth has become unverifiable.
Whatever conclusions we can draw from what we saw at Irving Plaza are bound to be haunted by critical clichés. The familiar claim that Richard Lloyd is the more technical, conventional player, while Tom Verlaine the more ambitious and challenging soloist, was borne out, though it’s clear once you remove them from the CBGBs context how much they both owe to British folk-rocker Richard Thompson, in their rich tone and their fluidity up and down the fret board and across the strings. The two occasionally traded licks, but thankfully this was rare, as these hackneyed call and response sessions seemed more an obligatory effort to live up to their own press than to generate any authentic musical excitement.
More typically the songs were structured to give them each their moments in the spotlight. Throughout, Lloyd contributed the melodic hooks that define their most well-known songs (“See No Evil”, “Venus”, “Marquee Moon”) and was granted occasional opportunities to rifle through scales dexterously during his solos. Verlaine, on the other hand, worked more with space, silence, harmonics and other various accidentals, pursuing a kind of bowed instrument sound effect as he controlled his guitar more with the volume knob than with a pick. He seemed to be searching for a swelling, vibrato-less sound that he didn’t always find. Unlike Lloyd’s, Verlaine’s solos were unpredictable—for every time they surprised with their beauty there was another where they startled with their clumsiness. His finest moments occurred during “Little Johnny Jewel”, where the improvisational reaches he made were consistently rewarding. Verlaine’s singing remains the same, preserving his unusual inflections and intonations, but the backup vocals croaked out by Lloyd and bassist Fred Smith were off-handed and way off-key. This mattered little; it seemed to stress the point that as far as the band was concerned, guitar playing was paramount, everything else merely the necessary bridges to their extended instrumental excursions.
The extended songs worked, too. They never seemed indulgent; they seemed genuinely compelling, though I can’t say how absorbing I would have found them if they were an unknown band. Part of what made their meanderings so interesting was watching how they dealt with the foregone conclusion of their brilliance. For their encores they played “Glory”, an underwhelming track from their inferior Adventure album, and a surprisingly conventional version of the Count Five’s garage rock standard “Psychotic Reaction”. This conclusion might have been unsatisfying if the band’s apparent exhaustion wasn’t matched by the audience’s, who by that time, after nearly 90 minutes of relentless virtuosity, had probably heard enough.
Seeing Television perform ultimately felt like going to the museum. What we saw was undeniably excellent, but somewhat stultifying nonetheless. All the expectations we had were inexorably confirmed without surprise or provocation. And even had they wanted to provoke or confound us, such is their reputation that it might not have been possible, so willing were we to forgive or reinterpret what we heard in the aura of their storied greatness. Valéry wrote that the museum was where our culture put the art of the past to death. One might say now that the reunion tour is where great bands of the past put themselves to death, re-enacting the closed book of their achievements for a crowd delighted and comforted by the safety of a sure thing.