“It’s a big relief to discover what you are best suited for, and it’s a real advantage to be able then to focus.” – Richard Hell
Tom ‘Verlaine’ Miller of Television grew up alongside former member Richard Hell in Lexington, Kentucky. They lived a few miles from the shrouded brick block narcotics treatment facility known on the streets as Narco. In the shadow of this reprobate fortress for artists like William S Burroughs who had stepped one toke over the line, the demimonde of the counterculture was already on their doorstep. In October 1966, they fled to try and find its permanent housing.
The pair thumbed their way across the South in a serpentine path of wavering circumstance soon to be cut short when they were apprehended by the police. But from these first speculative steps into the no-mans-land of wayfaring adolescence, an attitude of independence was instilled in the 16-year-old hellraising duo, and like chickens with ambitions of batter-free longevity, they were convinced that there was a better life for him outside of Kentucky.
Everything about this now seems entirely ‘on-brand’: the darkened netherworld beginnings, the need to forage out a space to call your own, the camaraderie, and the fierce daring intent—a lot of the tenets of punk were already in place from the off, they just didn’t find what they were looking for yet. Patti Smith was similar. She knew she wanted to be an artist once she was stirred up by Bob Dylan. Dylan incidentally once remarked: “Happiness is not on my list of priorities. I just deal with day-to-day things. If I’m happy, I’m happy – and if I’m not, I don’t know the difference… Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be – that’s much more important than just being happy.”
Almost ten years would pass before Television found themselves on stage and a young performance poet, artist and full-time journalist in the form of Patti Smith sat in the audience. She had trundled along to some little-known club slowly gaining traction called CBGB. As a signifier of the arty intent of the band, a wall of televisions would be stacked behind them, each displaying different channels, except for one, tastefully off-centre that showed something akin to David Lynch-esque CCTV footage of the CBGB itself. Patti Smith’s piece would be titled: “Television: Escapees from Heaven.”
Now, the piece she wrote for The Soho Weekly is not only a fateful document, but it also heralded the wave of punk that she would soon join. It begins: “Somewhere in the fifties Billy Lee Riley was slicking brill creme and boys all over the U.S.A. were resting Les Pauls on their hip and scrubbing them like sex. It eats thru the Chez Vous Ballroom, 13 Floor Elevator, Love, Velvet Underground and the Yardbirds Live in Persia. It permeates backseats, waterfronts, the local poolhall, traintracks, just anywhere that rains adolescents. And for the past six weeks it peaked after midnight every Sunday on the bowerie in a dark little soho bar called C.B.G.B. Lousy P.A., long nervous dogs running, random women smoking French cigarettes and mostly boys on the prowl hanging by a thread waiting for Television to tune up.”
The opening stanza is a punk pastiche that captures it from the ground floor. This unadorned view is as close as you can get to the zeitgeist of the sweety, stinking C.B.G.B. without access to a time machine. And thereafter, she etches one of the most proto-punk statements within the piece reads: “Confused sexual energy makes young guys so desirable; their careless way of dressing; their strange way of walking; filled with so much longing. Just relentlessly adolescent.” Bearing in mind this at a time when they only had the New York Dolls and the Ramones for company, this youthful spirit was pretty much the Promethean punk force.
The piece continues: “Hell raises it. He’s real neat, totally Highway 61. Tufted hair, perfect shades and a grey-blue gabardine suit reputed to have graced the frame of Raymond Chandler. The way he moves is so insane like a spastic Chuck Berry like as if the strangest spade was doing the split on desolation row. His bass is total trash. A metallic gold fleck piece of shit he got in some pawnshop for $41. He has a driving monotonous way of playing it that comes on real sexy. He’s also a real fast mouth, spits those jokes from the spleen and keeps them coming.”
For a while, Television were among the greatest bands in the world and their album Marquee Moon may well be the greatest American punk album there is (or at least I recently declared it such, just about… click here). And their triumph was celebrated by Smith who wrote: “Television is ascending. Sometimes they drive you crazy cause they get out of time yet so close to Persian. But they are worth all temperance cause when they hit it you get shot with light you never felt. They transcend every obstacle and heartache and bad night. Someone said one Sunday around 3 a.m. closing time, ‘these boys are crazy’; they are just too insane, but me, I heard this funny flapping of wings and the wild boys, the wild boys, the wild boys… just smiled. They’re ascending.”
Soon enough Smith would ascend to that same stage. And later declare: “I was young, but I felt our cultural voice was in jeopardy and needed an infusion of new people and ideas. I didn’t feel like I was the one. I didn’t consider myself a musician in any way, but I was a poet and performer, and I did feel that I understood where we were at, what we’d been given and where we should go, and if I could voice it, perhaps it could inspire the next generation.” The rest, as they say, is ancient history.