BY ED KING I owe the Philadelphia Free Library (Cottman Avenue branch, to be exact) an apology. And some money. I used to transfer SEPTA buses to and from school at that spot. There was a pretty cool record store next to the library with punk and new wave records. A couple days a week I’d stop in the store and marvel at the records, posters, and buttons. It was at this store I’d buy the latest copy of Trouser Press, which was tapping me into a way out of the doldrums of late-’70s rock ‘n roll. One day I actually stopped into the library instead. I was researching something for a class, when I noticed that the library had records — and so the research was put on hold. Flipping through the bins I found a copy of an album I’d been reading about, Television‘s Marquee Moon. I took the record home and quickly became so entranced by its hypnotic weave of guitars and impressionistic lyrics that it became part of my permanent collection. About 10 years ago, I finally removed the album sleeve from its thick, plastic protective library sleeve and accepted the fact that I would never return it to the library.
While a lot of the punk bands I was getting into connected with my boyhood love of energetic, mid-’60s British Invasion music, Television took my understanding of punk rock back to the hippie rock I used to listen to in my uncle’s bedroom, more expansive stuff like Traffic and Jimi Hendrix. The rocking songs, like “See No Evil” and “Friction,” contained twin-guitar riffs and short, explosive, melodic solos worthy of Jeff Beck-eraYardbirds and early Hendrix. The mid-tempo songs, like “Venus” and the epic title track, built slowly, doubled up on themselves, and allowed me to sit in my shade-drawn room and drift off just as I did as a young boy listening to “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” on my uncle’s 8-track.
The sleeve for Marquee Moon didn’t give much information, but one thing I noticed was credits for who played what solo. I learned that most of the driving, biting solos were by Richard Lloyd while most of the cleaner, spacey solos were by Tom Verlaine. During the verses, though, there was no telling who played what. For an aspiring punk such as myself, flashy guitar heroes had become a joke. Television found a way around this, allowing us to absolutely love the guitar heroism while not getting bogged down in the notion of guitar heroes. It was an approach that showed a way forward for punk rock, that suggested there was a future after all. I hope the Philadelphia Free Library can understand my moral lapse.
For whatever reasons Television was unable to capitalize on their smoking debut, releasing a fairly flat follow-up album and then, 14 years later, a reunion album that smoothed out the fluid rhythm section of bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca. The band would tour, on and off, over the next 14 years, but a fourth studio album would never arrive. Lloyd quit Television in 2007, and has since kept an active pace, touring and recording with his own band, The Sufi-Monkey Trio. We talked in anticipation of his tour, which brings him to Philadelphia tonight, and he explained his big move. “Television commands good money when we play live, but we hadn’t made a record in 14 years, and you know, Tom is impossible to deal with.” Lloyd explains that it was time to finally move forward. “In order for me to sort of go my own way, you know, I couldn’t have a first loyalty, which I had maintained for 35 years to Television. If I was working on my own projects and Television wanted to do something, I would drop what I was doing for Television, because I had made a magic circle around Television, but Tom didn’t respect it, and so what.”
On this tour, Lloyd, one of punk rock’s few, true guitar heroes, can also build momentum for the September release of The Jamie Neverts Story, an album of 10 Jimi Hendrix covers. Until the official release date, copies will be on sale at shows. Lloyd’s limited voice doesn’t pack the sly, knowing punch of Jimi’s otherwise limited voice, but he makes the album work as a spirited, loving take on the music that doesn’t resort to the studio gimmickry that was distinctive of the original recordings but would sound corny in the hands of anyone else. I asked Richard if it was daunting the to cover Hendrix songs for posterity. “No, no,” he replied, “not daunting at all. In fact, it was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. I mean I learned all that stuff in ’68, because I was studying under Jimi through my best friend, Velvert Turner. All those songs I know, or knew. You know, I looked at the tab for a little update for a couple of parts, but I love that stuff!”
Although the album includes the smash hit “Purple Haze” and “Are Your Experienced,” the highlights are less-heralded, concise album cuts from the earlier years of the Experience, such as “May This Be Love” and “Spanish Castle Magic,” cuts that are likely to get lost in the mythical wake of long Electric Ladyland deep cuts like “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be).”
“I especially love the stuff he did with Chas Chandler,” which was music to my ears. “I like Electric Ladyland, but that’s Jimi without Chas making him have such an impact in 2-minute, 3-minute songs.” Still on the topic of Chas Chandler-era Hendrix recordings, Lloyd pointed to his version of “Ain’t No Telling,” which clocks in at a tidy 1:58. “You don’t think it’s an incomplete song,” he says, “there’s so much packed into his early writing that it’s just delightful for me. I didn’t do this to climb onto a cash cow, I did it as a payment of a debt that I owe them. I’ve kept that influence hidden; the entire duration of Television no one knew, but that influence was always there. He was my first teacher, through Velvert.”
The Jamie Neverts Story is not only a tribute to Hendrix but to his teenage friend, Velvert, who had been taken under the wing of Jimi, even receiving guitar instruction from the master. Following these sessions, Turner would hook up with Lloyd and the two of them would hack away at it. “We were practicing together, it wasn’t really lessons. Neither of us were very good, frankly. Here [Jimi] was showing Velvert this stuff, and then Velvert would leave his house, come over to my house, and we would have two guitars or pass the guitar and try to do these things he was teaching, back and forth.” The Jamie Neverts Story is as much a tribute to his friend Turner, who went on to pursue his own Hendrix-inspired career in the early ’70s in a band he led that included (take note rock nerds!) future Knack bassist Prescott Niles.
These days, along with playing music and recording bands, Lloyd gives guitar lessons and contributes to Guitar World magazine. He spoke of the process through which rock ‘n roll is passed down and his own role as a teacher. “In the Medieval days there were guilds and even now in academia there’s mentorship , but among musicians there’s very little of it. The magazine I write for, a couple of the columns are well done, but a lot of it is like, ‘Here’s my new hot lick that comes from my new, hot record that I’m going to come down from Mount Olympus to show you, you lucky son of a bitch!’ That’s not my approach at all.” He starts by clearing up a common misconception student might have. “Let’s get the fucking hero worship out of the way! It doesn’t matter at all how good a guitarist I am. It only matters if I can impart to you something that will help you realize your own potential.”
From his long association with Television through his current works, Lloyd has been dedicated to the ritualistic powers of musical collaboration. Lloyd’s teenage, ’60s idealism seemed to carry right over to the beginning of the punk era, bypassing some the worst impulses of rock guitarists’ Me Generation. Specific to his own work, Lloyd talked about the founding ofCBGBs as a punk scene and his guitar interplay with Verlaine. “That era was very important. In the beginning, nobody knew who did what. I used to be complimented for things that Tom did. They would compliment Tom for things that I did. Part of that was on purpose in the jigsaw puzzle, sort of clock-gear mechanism, but it’s over now. And so I made a record, The Radiant Monkey, that to me is my strongest work. It’s a real rock ‘n roll record, where the shaman takes you some place you can’t go!” Richard went on to talk about the opportunities and roles that rock ‘n roll afford. “Everybody has a shadow, a dark side. Otherwise The Rolling Stones couldn’t sing, ‘Stick a knife down your throat baby and it hurts.'”
In more cosmic terms, Lloyd discussed the “close affinity between rock ‘n roll and religion, or spirituality.” He ties rock ‘n roll into the tradition of shamanism: “Jim Morrison exposing himself, Iggy Pop going through broken glass…These are not things the average guy can do on his lunch break. So when you buy a ticket for something like that, that’s the experience you ought to have.”
The teenage Richard and his friend Velvet got that experience and then some the numerous times they got to see Hendrix live and up close. “Seeing Hendrix was like looking at a nuclear reactor from outer space.” He says you had to be there. “You can’t experience it from the films. I don’t even care if you watch Monterey, the complete performance. You don’t get what you got when you saw him live in that era, when he was at the height of his powers. The word is A-G-O-G: agog! It was not human, and yet here was this man, you know, channeling this incredible … something.”
Lloyd is on a Hendrix-inspired roll. “Once he answered a journalist who asked him to label his music — of course, everybody does — and he said ‘It’s science-fiction rock,’ which is fantastic.” I agreed that the description fit and asked Lloyd if we’ve gotten any closer to future that Jimi inhabited. “Having known him and being a sensitive, sort of, highly intuitive and deeply penetrating consciousness myself,” Lloyd said authoritatively, “I actually think he was something of what would be called an avatar, that is, the incarnation of a certain attribute of God, or a god. I mean, once upon a time he said [Lloyd slipping into his best hip Jimi voice], ‘Yeah, I know we play electric music, I know that it’s loud, but we’re trying to reach into people’s souls, and there’s so many sleeping people.'” Lloyd takes a moment to reflect on Jimi’s heightened powers of insight. “It’s not just simple ‘You rock me, you rock me all night long.’ There’s nothing wrong with good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll and blues and the other genres, but there’s something else, there’s a transcendental music that’s still rock ‘n roll.”
Then Lloyd brings it all back to his own work, his own vision. “Television was that way; we were more like a sitar band than we were like ordinary guitars. We would dig and dig and dig and dig ’til we hit some fountain of living water, and people would stop breathing. And lately I’ve been getting some of those reactions, where people literally froth because of the experience of being there in front of this virtually impossible thing that happens.”
“Sometimes I come offstage,” he continues, “and think, ‘Human beings can’t do that!’ That’s why they ask me if I play guitar I say, ‘No, I play the electricity.’ The guitar is just my wand, like my hand in front of a theremin. I don’t play the guitar, the guitar plays me. There’s a relationship there that goes beyond the ordinary.” To make himself perfectly clear, Lloyd brought it back down to earth. “I mean, I don’t have sex in public, but that’s about as close as you get to it, to describing the relationship between some guitarists and the music that comes out of them.”
For those hoping to hear Lloyd play more than Hendrix covers, fear not. “We’ll be playing at least 4 or 5 of the Hendrix songs on this tour, but we’re also still working my previous record, The Radiant Monkey, and we’re also going to do a couple of Television songs…songs that don’t have impossibly jigsaw-puzzle two-guitar parts.” Although puzzle-mate Verlaine won’t be there for the fit, the current Sufi-Monkey lineup includes Television drummer Billy Ficca, of whom Lloyd did not hesitate to praise.
“Great guitarists,” says the honestly immodest Lloyd, “absolutely need wackoid drummers. They’ve all had them.” He continues, “If you think about it carefully, you can’t find a single classic, fabulous guitarist without a ridiculously, absurdly, nutty drummer.” He cited Mitch Mitchell (Hendrix), Mickey Waller and Ansley Dunbar (both with Jeff Beck), Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Ginger Baker, adding Ficca to that list. “He’s really one of the world’s great drummers. I’m amazed that he hasn’t been more recognized, but that’s another matter. I like to say, Billy’s been playing a drum solo since 1972, only interrupted once in a while by songs! I mean, I’ve never known a guy who, 35, 40 years later, still spends the whole time in the car tapping on things. He never stops!”
Lloyd can’t stop, himself. “I say there’s two types of people who play rock ‘n roll: those who don’t want to grow up and those who haven’t. I most definitely avoid the latter. I’m still bearing sweet fruit, and I still feel like a 14 year old at the edge of puberty. I still got those hormones running around in me so when I get to a hotel room I still jump up and down on the bed. I don’t destroy the room, but that’s the kind of feeling I still have.” Toward the middle of a tour, he says he has moments when he wonders what he’s doing in “places where all the walls are painted black, there’s no windows, everyone else is intoxicated, you know, What the hell am I doing with my life? Then towards the end of the tour you’re saying to yourself, Oh crap, it’s gonna end. I wish this was the middle.”