In 1974, when the four young musicians who made up the band Television walked into a rat-infested bar in the Lower East Side looking for a gig, rock 'n' roll at large was at a low ebb. The music had degenerated from the vital, vibrant sounds of the 1950s and '60s into the disconnected domain of soft rock and stadium stars. Although in its previous incarnation as Hilly's on the Bowery, the club, then just recently renamed CBGB, had hosted other acts connected with the dawn of what came to be called punk rock, it was Television who established the toehold at CBGB that opened the door for other up-and-comers like the Ramones, Patti Smith, and Talking Heads to play there. And now, 42 years later, Television, one of the most influential bands in rock history, is still performing. On September 4, the legendary group will play the only Northeast show of their upcoming American tour at BSP's Backroom Theater.
Fred Smith was not the bass player in Television at their time of their earliest shows at CBGB. In fact, it was bassist Richard Hell who cofounded the group with singer-guitarist Tom Verlaine, guitarist Richard Lloyd, and drummer Billy Ficca; at the time, Smith was in another early CB's band, Blondie. "On any given night, you could catch two or three different acts," says Smith about the stylistically varied, embryonic scene. "And usually they were all good." When Hell left Television in 1975 to form the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders and, later, his own Voidoids, Smith took his place, and the group cut the indie single "Little Johnny Jewel" and 1977's monumental Marquee Moon. Imbued with Verlaine and Lloyd's intertwining guitars, Verlaine's enigmatic lyrics, and the unbroken pulse of Smith and Ficca, the album showed that the quartet's art owed more to psychedelia, jazz, instrumental surf, and Symbolist poets than the Stooges-styled nihilism of their more widely imitated contemporaries, the Ramones. Television's second album, the underrated Adventure, appeared in April 1978, but despite its charting in the UK, internal tensions tore the group apart only months later.
Following the split, Verlaine and Lloyd pursued solo careers, Smith and Ficca played with other artists and on Verlaine's albums, and Lloyd worked as a session guitarist. The band reunited for 1992's well-received Television and recommenced touring, but Lloyd left in 2007 to be replaced by frequent Verlaine sideman Jimmy Rip. Since then, the group has kept active on the live front, doing select dates in North America and headlining festivals and large venues in Europe, the UK, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. After the Kingston show and dates in Washington, DC, and North Carolina, the foursome will return to South America, where they performed to sold-out houses in 2013. "Jimmy lives in Argentina, which was really great the first time we played there," says Smith. "The audience knew all our songs and sang along—they even sang the guitar solos."
Speaking of songs, are there any new Television tunes in the works? "We'll probably do a couple of new ones [in Kingston]," Smith says. "We've recorded some other stuff, but Tom's still working on lyrics." A Rosendale resident since 2003, the bassist and his wife, Paula Cereghino, run the successful Cereghino Smith winery. Does Smith see any parallels between making music and making wine? "In a way, yeah," he muses. "With both, you're trying to get people to taste what you make, hoping they like it enough to buy it."
Television and special guest Deradoorian will perform at BSP Backroom Theater in Kingston on September 4 at 7pm. Tickets are $40 in advance and $48 at the door. (845) 481-5158; Bspkingston.com