Conversation: Talking “Marquee Moon” with Bryan Waterman

Posted by Jason Diamond

I’m not much for personal lists of favorite books or records, but if you lit my apartment on fire (please don’t), and said I was allowed to grab five of my favorite LPs and leave the rest to burn, I’d pick Marquee Moon by Television, no questions asked.

I’d have to think Bryan Waterman likes Marquee Moon as well.  Considering he decided to write an entire book about it as part of the always great 33 1/3 series, the Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in NYU’s Department of English lived the dream of any true music nerd, and penned what has to be the greatest tribute to one of the greatest and most under appreciated albums ever.

(Please note that this is the second interview we’ve done with a 33 1/3 author this year.  We’re huge fans/dorks for this series, and we apologize for any music fanboy wankery.)

The Marquee Moon 33 1/3 was released at the same time as the book for The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls.   On your personal website you say, “We really did conceive of them as companion volumes.”  Is that true, and if so, what’s the connection other than the somewhat close proximity in release dates?

Cyrus Patell and I have taught a class at NYU called Writing New York since 2003. One constant unit in that course runs from the Beats to the punks on the downtown scene. Smith, Hell, and Verlaine figure as people who initially presented themselves as poets but who made the turn to rock and roll. (Lou Reed works that way, too, and Dylan turns to rock from folk right about the time academics started debating his status as an American poet.) So we’d been thinking about the downtown scene in literary terms for a while. Cyrus, though, is more of a Stones nut, and so their looming presence over the New York scene has been something we’d noted but not really developed much, even though we’d cite Some Girls here and there.

When we pitched the books to Continuum we framed them explicitly as complementary looks at NYC in the 70s. We didn’t communicate much while drafting, though we did send a few tidbits back and forth by email. It turns out, though, that the material really is related, both because Some Girls explicitly responds to NY punk but also because the same media figures factor heavily in the reception of both records. A lot of names pop up in both books, some shared historical landmarks, such as the financial crisis, etc. Cyrus draws on Raymond Williams’s terms to write about bands like Television as “emergent” and the Stones as still “dominant” in the mid-70s. There were a lot more references to the Stones in my material than I’d anticipated, for sure.

Since you’re teaching a class in “The Downtown Scene, 1960-1980,” could you humor me for a second and try in the shortest amount of words possible to tell me how important Marquee Moon is in the grand scheme of all things New York “scene”?

In terms of rock and roll the album’s pretty damn important. It’s probably the most important American rock record after Velvet Underground and Nico in terms of the New York scene’s general impact on alternative or indie rock, both US and UK. In terms of the NY scene in the 70s, I foreground the relationship between the mythology or mystique Television created in the 70s (a big part of the international media attention given to NY rock) and the origins of the CBGB mythology, which continues to underlie NY’s claims as a significant site in rock and roll history. The ironic reality is that Verlaine, at least, was always a little aloof from the actual scene, but in terms of mythological presence, that may have ended up lending to his and the band’s stature.

I realize this is incredibly cheeky, and not to dig too much into your academic past, but Tom Verlaine ran away from home with teenage friend Richard Hell to be an artist in New York City, and ended up creating one of the great pieces of American art of the 20th Century.   You’ve taught a class in American Romanticism.  Obviously he’s over a hundred years removed movement, but would you consider Tom Verlaine a Romantic?

He has talked about running away as a teenager in the 60s as a “Beat” thing to do. He and Hell renamed themselves with reference to French decadent poets. He namechecks William Blake in relation to the protagonist of “Little Johnny Jewel,” Television’s first single. So I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to place him in a long Romantic tradition: he’s done it for us. Verlaine, Hell, and Patti Smith all shared the Romantic impulse to create themselves as poet heroes — to come up with Romantic personae that were part of the overall package of their art. Smith continues to deliver on that character, all the way up to Just Kids or the film Dream of Life. I mean, how many graves does she visit in that documentary? Very nineteenth-century. Verlaine perhaps inadvertently continues to come off as a Romantic by remaining more or less a recluse. He haunts bookstores, remains mysterious. By contrast, someone like David Byrne seems quintessentially modern, biking around town all cheerfully and showing up backstage at a Dirty Projectors show or something.

Do you have one lyric on the album that stands out to you as your favorite?

I probably spend too much time on lyrics in the book, but I love the lyrics to this album and I spend most of my time writing about literature, so sue me. “Prove It” probably has my favorite lyrics overall, but my favorite lines would come from “Venus”: “Broadway looked so medieval — it seemed to flap, like little pages.” I think about that line every time I ride my bike home down Broadway after dark.

I’ve long been under the impression that Marquee Moon had sort of the same impression on many that the Velvet Underground did, i.e., everybody who heard it started a band or was hugely influenced by it — from The Cars to various kids in Ohio proto-punk bands like Peter Laughner and members of Pere Ubu.  But yet it seems to be the 4th or 5th album mentioned when talk of the CBGB punk scene comes up, and if you asked most “punk” fans, it probably isn’t even on their radar.   Would it be fair to call Marquee Moon one of the most underrated albums of all time?

Part of the problem here has to do with the term “punk.” It’s never fit Television very well, even though they began as a post-Dolls, post-Nuggets garage band like a lot of the other New York bands. The album has a worldwide audience — search Twitter for “Marquee Moon” and you’ll find people digging it in a dozen languages day and night — but it remains a cult audience. Either you get it or you don’t. Musicians tend to get it. Critics do. People who crave something that pushes you to listen hard and repeatedly. It’s not easy listening, at least not at first. It demands something of you as a member of its audience.

If it’s underrated, that’s only in terms of the general public. It came in at number 4 in a NME top 100 albums poll in 2003 — just ahead of Revolver. Clinton Heylin names it as one of the top four American punk records. It’ll be around forever.


Is side A of Marquee Moon the greatest A-side in rock history?

Hard to think of something else to top it. Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets has some of the same energy at first, but it doesn’t build to the same climax. Velvet Underground and Nico is more like a carousel ride than a steady build toward a boil. Highway 61, maybe, but “Ballad of a Thin Man” feels like cement boots compared to “Marquee Moon.” So, um, yeah, I’ll go with you on that one.