Friday, October 23, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: Television's Adventure (1978)

The wonders of discovery never cease. I was unfamiliar with Television's second album, Adventure (1978), until recently. I checked it out from my public library and have been immersed in it all week; a true immersion, which involves listening morning, noon and night.

One of the reasons that I was unaware of Adventure is undoubtedly due to the long shadow that the band's debut, Marquee Moon (1977), casts. Marquee Moon -- released February 1977, the same month as the first UK Punk full-length, The Damned's Damned Damned Damned -- is one of the greatest records of all time. It sounds as fresh and incisive today as ever. 

Not too long ago I was shopping at my neighborhood supermarket when "See No Evil" began to play on the store's PA. It seemed odd at first that a track from one of the seminal Punk albums should be playing as background music at a supermarket chain. But after a moment or two I realized that "See No Evil" sounded completely appropriate to our present social milieu, whatever name it may go by.

Adventure was the follow-up to Marquee Moon. And while it was favorably reviewed by Robert Christgau, who awarded it an A-minus, it didn't fare nearly as well on the charts as Marquee Moon.

Then Television broke up the same year as Adventure was released. The break-up was due to a combination of drugs and the clashing egos of the band's two guitarists, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, both of whom would go on to record solo album's for Elektra. 

Television's break-up combined with the super-historicity of Marquee Moon has to be the reason why Adventure is not more broadly acknowledged as an excellent album and a vital document. The guitar playing is luminescent, sounding at times like Richard Thompson's work from the same period, or Nels Cline's stuff for present-day Wilco, and the song writing is revelatory. But there is a definite spaciness and ethereal vibe to the record. There seems to be a synthesizer anesthetizing in the background on many tracks. Adventure isn't as sharp or exuberant as Marquee Moon. But if one plays the record repeatedly, a complex coherence emerges.

An epiphany I experienced this week while listening to Adventure is that it is an album that defines our Present Age. Gone is any aspiration for grand transformation, total rapture or transcendence. We've settled for a digitized life of individual dreams. The energy of our technocratic elite is intellectual and oblique, much like Tom Verlaine's lyrics.

Adventure was released the same month that Scorsese's The Last Waltz (which was shot at Winterland Ballroom) appeared in movie theaters, three months after the Sex Pistols disintegrated (at Winterland Ballroom). Nineteen-seventy-eight, a year when personal computers start to find their way into homes, is really the dividing line between our Present Age and what goes before. We have been living out 1978 in one form or another for the last 35-some-odd years, a "monochrone." Adventure should be studied as an ur-document for our time.

Robert Christgau wrote a prescient review of Television in June 1978 called "Television Principles" where he notes that 
Not that knowing the words is knowing what they mean--as Verlaine himself puts it in his ambivalent paean to rationality "Prove It "many of them are "too 'too too'/to put a finger on." His writing is genuinely idiosyncratic and spiritual, and although he's more humorous and dreamy on the new record, he stated his credo right after that classic riff at the beginning of Marquee Moon: "What I want/I want NOW/and it's a whole lot more/ than 'anyhow.' " 
Verlaine's needs and visions are deep-seated and obsessively personal; I wonder if even he knows what "Marquee Moon" is about any more. He's such a bourgeois individualist he even changed his credo to "and it's a whole lot more/than Chairman Mao" one time Sunday night, and I say good for him, because I believe he's ready to risk all in his quest. The line that haunts me from the new album--"I love disaster and I love what comes after"--could be a revolutionary's motto as easily as a mystic's. In this denial of limits, asserted too in the musical release they aim for, Television is representative of nothing. Almost every great rock band and a lot of the most successful bad ones culminate some general social tendency, be it the Ramones' pop economy or Kansas's greedy middle-American pseudo-seriousness or Steely Dan's expert programmability or Kiss's life-sized caricature. But while it's possible to imagine a late-'60s revival in which Television would spawn countless imitators, at the moment their single-minded Utopian individualism sets them apart. And it is just that that makes them seem so precious.
This is of course who we are today, or at least what the neoliberal paradigm screwed down on top of us over the last four decades would have us believe: a "single-minded Utopian individualism" that is inflating to enormous proportions the gap between the haves and have-nots; it is a post-familial world of mass extinction where we find ourselves alone in a cyber infinity. This is the dream's dream. The digital is indistinguishable from the spiritual.

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