Back in the days that you couldn’t really listen to an album before you bought it, and you relied on the music press to inform how you spent your hard earned cash, I relied solely on Rolling Stone, Creem, NME and Melody Maker to tell me what I should buy…and what I shouldn’t. I probably read something about the group of New York bad boys headed by Tom Verlaine, but it was not that which lead me to hand over the cash. I knew my hero, Lester Bangs, hated them with a passion – I think something that had more to do with his loyalty towards his friend Richard Hell, later of the Voidoids, but latterly of Television – Hell does not play on Marquee Moon. I think it was a personal dislike of Verlaine which meant that Lester was not willing to listen without prejudice. That is ok. I am the same. I will never ever listen to a Foo Fighters album without wanting to throw it off the stereo and into the trash, that is how much I dislike Dave “the nicest guy in rock” Grohl.
One look at the cover, with the elegantly wasted Verlaine and his band, and I knew these guys would somehow be able to capture a feeling, a set of circumstances. I was clearly their target audience. There is a certain cameraderie that comes with doing the same drugs. A mental fist bump. A nod towards solidarity. These boys looked the part, the quintessential New York band of junkies. It almost didn’t matter if I hated them. So I put however much it was towards the cause of their next bag, and headed back to give them a listen.
I wish I had first heard Marquee Moon on a car stereo, up as loud as it can go. This is how I have most enjoyed this album, driving through Sacramento or Salinas, through Cass Lake or Fargo, through Seattle or Olympia, the window down in the truck, Verlaine’s soaring guitar duelling with the wind and the noise of the world outside the perfection that is Marquee Moon. Now, I know I am no Lester, and what does it matter what I think, but hand on my rock and roll heart, this is one of my favorite albums of all time. This is my comfort album, this is what I want to listen to when I am shaken up, this is what I want to listen to when I need shaking up. This is my driving album of choice. It is virtuoso brilliance.
I put Marquee Moon on the stereo, the scuffed cover of the second hand copy irritating me as I unfolded the inner sleeve. I put it on, and that driving rhythm and bass, the grinding percussion, soaring shimmering guitar, and Verlaine’s strained insistent vocals, immediately wooed me. I was in. Lyrically it is in turns smack-y philosophizing and sardonic cool punk whine. “I understand no destructive urges…I see…I see no…evil” yelps Verlaine urgently. I get the urge to tell him that it is ok, I’m not looking for a savior, I’m not hunting for a punk Dylan, I am not looking for the keys to the universe, or even the path to the next plateau, I just want a good time with friends. “Get it?” he asks, abruptly. I sure do, Tom. This is Tom setting out his stall, in See No Evil. He doesn’t want questions about whether they are a drug band, or the habits of the guys making this music, he sees no evil and he doesn’t want the rock press hungrily pouring over whether they get more grist for the rock mag mill. Don’t say unconscious/No don’t say doom./If you got to say it/Let me leave this room. This became my slogan for a while. I would play people this track, and get off on the right foot. Don’t comment of my habits, if you can’t not say it, warn me so I can leave first.
Venus De Milo, the second track, an ode to being high has our hero “falling into the arms of the Venus De Milo” when of course the Venus De Milo has no arms. Falling and not being caught Verlaine asks, “how we fell? The band responds: “Did you feel low?” Nah! We fell right into the arms of the Venus De Milo.” The freefall classical age old beauty of the opiate high – falling into the arms of the Venus De Milo, “I knew there was pain, but the pain was not aching.” Tom got it. Tom wrote as much an ode for the smacked out as Burroughs ever managed. Two years before Waters dreamt up Comfortably Numb, Tom’s hands were ‘like gloves’, and his eyes ‘were so soft and shaky.’ Lou’s “Heroin” is a smack song written by a man who loved speed. Marquee Moon is an infusion of opiated musical gold.
This album is pure New York. More complex than the ONE TWO THREE FOUR of the Ramones, but somehow in the same vein. The sound is complicated duelling guitars and fuzz galore, a driving beat and the jangling extended moody solos of Verlaine – similar in length and vibe to the trippiest of Gilmour’s whilst being freer and more edgy – if you love Meddle, you might adore this. The band elevates the sound to something more than punk, whilst retaining all of the attitude, the mood and the feel. The music soars higher and higher, building in intensity, so you can fall along with them into the arms of the Venus De Milo.
The epic ten minute long Marquee Moon is a shimmering triumph, part grinding, part flying along to it’s wistful conclusion. Echoes with edge. Verlaine is an outstanding guitarist. The ‘darkness doubles’, ‘lightning struck itself’ as side one pulls to a close.
The second side is less triumphant, and darker. It reminds me of Iggy Pop with more melody. “Elevation! Don’t go to my head,” demands Verlaine, but we know that is a losing game. There is no trouble in elevation, and there is no help coming your way. You might sleep and you might wake, but the price will be paid. Reminded of Tom’s earlier warning in Friction that, “All us boys are gonna end up in jail,” side two falls further into the darkness, despite the innocent doo wop sound of Guiding Light, guiding through the night, and the voices that don’t cry for help. This is Television at it’s Velvet Underground inspired best. When this band simplifies they shine brightest. The same vibe continues with the cutely sarcastic “Prove it.” Hard boiled punk boy jangle guitar, done expertly.
The elegiac end to the album – Torn Curtain, feels like it belongs more on side one, bringing it round in a full circle. It is a dark Berlin burlesque march of a song, a death march in which a young man mourns the years already lost. Lou Reed would have been proud to write this song, and certainly could not have pulled it off with as much longing as Verlaine. Reed was always too cool to truly whine. Whereas Lou’s New York harshly declared in “Street Hassle” – “This cunt’s not breathing, I think she’s had too much of something or other,” Tom’s scene gives her back her humanity: “Torn curtain, such an expose/I’m uncertain when beauty meets abuse.” This album is one of storybook streets, a sense of solidarity amongst the falling, and the most beautiful guitarwork ever heard in punk.
If you have never heard this album, I envy you. The joy of hearing Marquee Moon for the first time is a precious thing indeed. I have always wished I could speak to Verlaine, tell him how much comfort this album provided over the years, how much joy, how much fun I had turning up the volume and heading down roads. This album has been with me throughout my adult life. I get accused of playing it too often. At one point my partner removed it from me, and would only let me play it on special occasions, saying I would wear out it’s what makes it shine. One of the best things about being free is that I am free to listen to Marquee Moon whenever I want. Now I just need a record player again and a vinyl copy to truly achieve euphoria!