Monday, June 5, 2023

Once, I had a ship

In Television's "Carried Away," Tom Verlaine discovers the world and loses himself
Television: l-r, Billy Ficca, Richard Lloyd, Tom Verlaine, Fred Smith
There's a certain spell that's cast listening to music while on a plane. The surreality of it all—the muted, ambient cabin noise, the intimate proximity to strangers, as in a darkened movie theater, the still-miraculous notion of being transported at six hundred miles an hour while held aloft eight miles in the air. Safely tucked away behind my headphones I enter another state, compounded by the view out of the window of the tops of clouds (to which I once alluded in an awful poem I wrote in college as the heads of Gods we were not supposed to be able to soar above).

I discovered during a recent flight from New York City that Television is a great band to listen to while high, as it were. Though historically associated with a gritty street rock scene, the band produced a quasi-psychedelic, shadowy sound, even inside of their more agitated, nervy arrangements, that evokes a placelessness, due in no small part to the generally abstracted, musing nature of their lyrics. Tom Verlaine's ephemeral vocals, so airy as to be transparent, always sound untethered, easily escaping gravity and earth-bound concerns. Marquee Moon's "Elevation" ("I live light on these shores") obviously self-nominates as a flying tune, yet up there in the sun and the clouds I was especially moved by "Carried Away," from the band's second album Adventures.

In an article in New Musical Express on the occasion of the album's release, Verlaine acknowledged that the lyrics to "Carried Away" "took a long time to write," suggesting that the subject matter was either stubbornly elusive to Verlaine or so deeply felt that he took his time in carefully composing the words. In Elektra Records press materials of the time he remarked also that "Carried Away" was the first piece he'd written "primarily on keyboards," adding, "I usually write on guitar. It was almost like improvisation." This makes sense to me: "Carried Away" is about letting go, giving over to where the currents take us, much like improvisation requires surrender. But this is Verlaine the Craftsman, so musical spontaneity is cautiously allowed. (It was almost like improvisation.)

In fact, the main keyboard line is cheerily basic (and, when played at double-time in my head, jaunty even), arriving as it does after the song's opening, gentle two-chord sequence on guitar played with an "early 60s vibrato" that has "a watery flavor," Verlaine observed. "The guitar vibrato keeps the pulse of the song going rather than the cymbals." So we're hearing and seeing a river before the first line, where the singer reports that the night before he'd "drifted down to the docks."
The water, glittering and black
The snow fell lightly and disappeared
I felt the old ropes grow slack
He felt there at the river's edge that he might dissolve—that's the word he uses—and there's fear behind it; some of us don't want to lose our grip before we're prepared to. But "the beacon revolved" and he loses himself in the moment, allows himself (and I'm pretty certain that he's surprised here) to get carried away. The guitar vibrato's not the only watery language: the singer drifts and is carried away, he sinks into banks, he acknowledges that once he had a ship— 
Yes, I had a map
I had the wind
Like a tree has sap
—a charted course and a means to get there so native to him that it was in his marrow, yet in that moment the maps, like himself, dissolve, and as he sinks into those banks any fear of the unknown's replaced by wide-eyed wonder at the world, a world where "Everything was more / Than I took it for," the song's great discovery and probably also its origin point; Verlaine's gentle reckoning with the ecstasy of that moment by the docks, with the freeing, and alarming, "old ropes grow[ing] slack," is the reason the song exists. Like so many responses to a mystifying, renewing, unbidden moments—in his review of the album Christgau called them "visionary surprises"—"Carried Away" lets the wordless passages say what the lyrics can't, as the simple guitar/keyboards (there's also a cheery jangling piano) hover just above Richard Lloyd's complementary guitar and Fred Smith and Billy Ficca's rhythm bed, respectful on the banks, near to the singer's revelation but never intruding. 


Adventure was released in the Spring of 1978, two months before Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town, and perhaps its the chronological nearness that I can't shake but I hear "Carried Away" as Verlaine's attempt at a Bruce song, the closest he'll come to writing one, anyway. Maybe it's the Federici-like keyboards, the stately, mid-paced groove, the solemn, solitary persona and his epiphany along a river, the imagery of east coast docks. Had Springsteen written the song, he might've given the scene to one of his many invented characters, and likely would've steered clear of the literary abstractness in the middle passage's references to golden heads, arms full of lightning, and obscurely whispering lamps. Springsteen doesn't really do "detachment," yet I'd love to hear him tackle "Carried Away" one day, try on Verlaine's wry vulnerability, his urban skepticism, and see if it fits him.


Maybe you hear a different song, a darker one. I can see those currents carrying the singer away in much different and literal, perhaps deadlier, circumstances. And what about that shattering glass? Yet I can't help but imagine Verlaine singing "Carried Away" with a half-smile, a contented (even) look on his face. Up in the clouds, the song moved me immensely. Back on Earth, I listened again as I drove home from the airport; literally on the ground, closer to docks and rivers, my tires hugging the road, I felt the song's upward-drifting transcendences on fleeting currents no less keenly. For me, the poignancy arrives via Verlaine's naked singing, the poignant ways that he admits to all sorts of potentially life-altering moments in a voice that's both exposed and guarded, pulling back in contemplation even as it reaches for a glorious world, paradoxes that make the song's discoveries all the more urgent. Finally, "Carried Away" is a glad song, glad to have arrived, one of Verlaine's and Television's sublime recordings, a tender tale of an exalted moment. 

Photo of Television by Roberta Bayley / Redferns


artbass said...

and the brief, disruptive chord changes around "Those rooms were freezing" Thanks Joe

Joe Bonomo said...


Anonymous said...

And now Richard Lloyd is producing lines like Your crotch is a source of global warming . . . I saw him live recently for a perfunctory performance at Darryl's Place