Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

The Big Lookback: Tom Verlaine

On the glory of Marquee Moon, from Going Into the City.

There was only one way to respond to the unexpected death of 73-year-old Tom Verlaine, who for a long while we'd occasionally glimpse ghosting around the hood but not recently that we can recall--both Fred Smith and Richard Hell have been somewhat more visible for five years at least. So as we drank our tea we of course put on Marquee Moon, easily our most played punk-era album including The Clash and Parallel Lines, and marveled again as we always do even though we heard it a little differently ditto. "It really was a punk sensibility," Carola said. "B movies, comic-strip dialogue balloons, all that stuff." So whatever Big Lookback I was contemplating for the coming week got blown of the water by these six grafs from my memoir, Going Into the City. I've long considered it one of the best pieces of criticism I've ever come up with.

"Punk was a musical movement that reacted against the pastoral sentimentality, expressionistic excess, and superstar bloat of '60s rock with short, fast, hard, acerbic songs," I explained to The New York Times Book Review twenty years after the fact. By design, this formula applied equally to the New York bohemians who devised the punk aesthetic and the London extremists who made a mass movement of it. Yet although Television were protopunks from jump street and played CBGB before anyone, they were barely punk at all once Tom Verlaine replaced style-setting, scene-ruling bassist Richard Hell with Blondie's capable, obliging Fred Smith. And by the time Karin Berg corraled the touchy Verlaine for Elektra and got Marquee Moon out of him--which didn't take long because Television had been playing those eight songs live for years--his band had been beaten to the rack jobbers by Patti Smith, the Ramones, and Blondie, with Hell's Voidoids not far behind. Here and in Britain, many indelible albums came out of punk--Ramones, The Clash, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, Smith's Horses, Hell's Blank Generation, Blondie's Parallel Lines, Wire's Pink Flag, X-Ray Spex's Germ Free Adolescents, Talking Heads' More Songs About Buildings and Food, on and on. But Marquee Moon was the one I never tired of. And that was in part because it wasn't punk. Its intensity wasn't manic; it didn't come in spurts. Nothing wrong with manic--punk made me crave that style of intensity all my life. But there's nothing wrong with endurance either.

One way the original Television were protopunks was their visual style, in which Hell was the safety-pinned fashionista and Verlaine's down-at-heel preppy maudit fit right in. Another was a cartoonlike, meta-ironic dissociation right out of the New York School poets they loved. But beyond their early ineptitude, what was most punk about them musically was crude garage-rock covers like the Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction" and the 13th Floor Elevators' "Fire Engine"--a frame of reference formally congruent to but culturally and sonically distinct from the Dolls' r&b novelties and the pre-Beatles macho mimicked by U.K. pub-rock. This is a post-Beatles vein nailed right off by the twelve-second intro to "See No Evil" and exploited by all six shorter songs on Marquee Moon--formally, not sonically, because they weren't raw enough. Verlaine's mellow, ululating drawl, so wimpy some hardasses in their own minds will never get over it, guarantees that. And on a militantly learn-while-doing scene, every guy in the band had more chops than garage rockers are supposed to: guitarist-forever Verlaine, his pop-leaning counterpart Richard Lloyd, jazz-hip drummer Billy Ficca, and knowledgeable middleman Smith. Marquee Moon--co-produced with Verlaine by Stones/Led Zep engineer Andy Johns--wasn't a punk album. It was a rock album.

It was also a vinyl album, forty-five minutes split right down the middle, and this sealed its status, because side one, which shifts materially song to unforgettable song without diluting a band sound that ignores every parallel no matter how complimentary (Byrds-Dead-Stones are all miles away), is as good as album sides get, rushing forward as one thing yet revealing new details every time you play it again. With addictive guitar riffs securing each track, there's not a misplaced second, and much of it was recorded in one take. Side two can't possibly keep up, and doesn't--I find the devotional "Guiding Light" soupy myself, and only "Prove It" with its droll "Just the facts" stays with me like "See No Evil" or "Venus" or "Friction" or "Marquee Moon" itself. So make side two a high A minus. But side one is an A plus plus plus, and side one is why so many treasure Marquee Moon as a classic.

Going outside Manhattan and against type, I assigned the Riff to Virginia-born Boston Episcopalian Ken Emerson, who loved it, only not in the terms I did. For Emerson, Marquee Moon had it all over reductive Ramones and apocalyptic Patti because Television were "grown up." Everywhere he listened, music or lyrics, he found a "doubleness," "a golden mean," an "insistence on seeing things whole." But while the doubleness is certainly thematic, remembering how young I was when I latched onto "Vacillation" makes me wonder how grown up it is. What I love most about the lyrics of Marquee Moon is their evocation of that youthful moment when you're this close to figuring everything out, voicing in very few words a multivalence worthy of that adventure's complexity and confusion--beautifully, profoundly, naively, contradictorily, romantically, kinetically, jokily, cockily, fearfully, drunkenly, goofily, impudently--so nervous and excited you could fly, or is it faint? And with the single line "Broadway looked so medieval" added to what we know about its East Village provenance, it situates this philosophical action in the downtown night.

Like many great albums and a great many more pretentious ones, Marquee Moon has gathered armies of exegetes set on getting to the bottom of every word, and bless 'em, really. But they're misguided. Not only don't I know what all the lyrics mean, Verlaine doesn't know what all the lyrics mean, and it's a dead end to speculate. When we ran into this problem with Coleridge (who Verlaine would have ditched for being a junkie like Hell and Lloyd), it was because he let the poem get away from him. Here it's more like Verlaine wanted the poem to get away from him, because he knew the paradoxes it posed were unresolvable and because he knew the guitars would blast through and lift over. So say "See No Evil" is about the onrushing illimitability of desire and "Venus" is about the enveloping impossibility of love and "Friction" is about the bracing inevitability of conflict and I don't know what the fuck "Marquee Moon" is about except that it's ten minutes long and you feel it'll be perfectly OK with you if it goes on forever, like, er--some amalgam of show business and heaven? C'mon. "Elevation" and "Guiding Light"? Getting high and losing either God or love. "Prove It"? So funny it don't matter. "Torn Curtain"? Ten minutes again, only not much longer please because this case is closed you just said. Ba-da-boom.

In the long wake of punk's speedy demise and multiple afterlives, U.K. extremists and their offspring got permanently exercised about a doubleness that pitted "rockism" against--what, exactly? Sometimes the prog tendencies of "post-punk," sometimes just pop. This polarity is so stupid I generally refuse to discuss it, but in this case I'll suspend my disbelief in the interest of provisional clarification. Forced at gunpoint to choose, I'd call myself some kind of poppist--Pop Art was formative for me, I have a history of respecting the charts, and what are perception-altering short-fast-hard anythings if not pop? Note too that the two least punk of the indelible albums named above are pop--Parallel Lines proudly, More Songs About Buildings and Food ironically. And then recall that Marquee Moon is a rock album. Why do I believe the rockism-versus-poppism polarity is stupid? Because while most popular musicians who take themselves too seriously are mooncalves, now and again one will home in on something deeper than the pop-identified would dare--in a form livelier and more liberating than the highbrow-identified would know was there if it bit them in the cranium. So I'll say it and you scoff if you want. The fact that Marquee Moon is a rock album is basic to why it's a masterpiece--a great work of art. Ba-da-boom.

And It Don't Stop, January 29, 2023