Tom Miller met Richard Meyers in the mid-1960s at a boarding school in Delaware and were both drawn to New York, where they settled into a life of letters before starting a band together and rechristening themselves Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell.
Punk compatriots Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine followed a similar path from poetry to music. Born Richard Meyers and Tom Miller, they met in the mid-1960s at a boarding school in Delaware and were both drawn to New York. They settled into a life of letters and worked at several bookstores, including Cinemabilia, where future Television manager Terry Ork and An American Family’s Kristian Hoffman worked. Verlaine also hung around the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, a block from his apartment, and Hell had already been publishing his own poetry magazine, Genesis : Grasp. Hell started the Dot Books imprint in 1971 with the intention of publishing a list of five books, including Patti Smith’s poetry, but he wound up printing only a collaboration between himself and Verlaine, as well as a book by Andrew Wylie—who became the infamous literary agent known as “the Jackal.” During this time, Hell and Verlaine began writing collaborative poems, sharing a typewriter much as Smith and Shepard did with Cowboy Mouth. As their writing experiments progressed, Hell thought it would be fun to conceive of it as a work of a separate third person. Verlaine liked the idea and suggested making the author a woman, Theresa Stern. “Feminism and androgyny and transvestitism were in the air,” Hell wrote. “We’d cash in! I started imagining her biography.” Theresa Stern became a Puerto Rican prostitute-poet who worked the streets of Hoboken, New Jersey. Her debut book, Wanna Go Out? was published in 1973 just as Hell and Verlaine were forming their first band, which evolved into Television. “I had a book of Patti’s that we had compiled with me as editor, and there was a book of mine, and a book of Tom’s,” Hell said. “But it was just Andrew’s book and Theresa’s book that were actually published. The other books were ready to go, but then I got into rock ’n’ roll and I just transferred all my energies to music. And so did Patti.”
From Chapter 25 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“Television had been percolating around for awhile, and then they started playing at CBGB on Sunday nights,” recalled Roberta Bayley. “I was living with Richard Hell at that time and their manager Terry Ork said, ‘Do you want to sit at the door and take the money?’ So that gave me something to do. Then later I started to do it full-time at CBGB.” Hell invited Patti Smith to one of their shows during the band’s CBGB residency in spring 1974, and Lloyd invited Lenny Kaye. Before heading downtown that night, Smith and Kaye attended a glittery, star-studded premiere of the Rolling Stones’ live concert film Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones. (Hibiscus, his sisters, and other Angels of Light had been hired by the theater to add even more sparkle to the occasion, performing a short vignette before the film.) “The first time I went to CBGB was on Easter Sunday 1974,” Kaye said, “when we left—symbolically, amazingly—a Rolling Stones movie uptown at the Ziegfeld Theatre and took a cab down and went there for the first time.” Television’s raw, jagged music reminded Smith of the first time she heard Little Richard as a girl, or seeing the Rolling Stones when she was a teen. It was electric, and transformative. In the pages of Rock Scene magazine, she waxed poetic about Tom Verlaine’s guitar sound (like “a thousand bluebirds screaming”) and described the tall skinny musician as “a languid boy with the confused grace of a child in paradise. A guy worth losing your virginity to.”
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Like Patti Smith, Richard Hell transitioned into rock after spending time in the underground poetry scene, where he learned a useful DIY skill set. “I had become completely acclimated to that culture of doing it yourself as a writer in the world of street poets,” he said, “so when I started doing music it felt familiar.” Hell was a bit nervous about having no previous musical experience, but Tom Verlaine assured him that the bass was an easy instrument to learn, and the two friends began rehearsing in Verlaine’s apartment. “At the same time I started working on lyrics and melodies to some guitar compositions he’d got going that he hadn’t worked up words for,” Hell recalled. “The idea was that he’d sing his lyrics and I’d sing mine, and eventually I’d write music, too. I had the name for the group: the Neon Boys.” Hell and Verlaine wanted to strip rock ’n’ roll down to its essential core, doing away with the showbiz theatricality of the glam bands and jettisoning the kind of excesses that dominated 1970s corporate rock. Looking to flesh out their lineup, they placed an ad in the Village Voice classifieds section: “Narcissistic rhythm guitarist wanted—minimal talent okay.” Blondie’s Chris Stein auditioned, but wasn’t a good fit, and Dee Dee Ramone also tried out even though he couldn’t play guitar. Hell and Verlaine never found the right musician for the Neon Boys, and in 1974 the fledgling group hooked up with guitarist Richard Lloyd, morphed into Television, and began playing regularly at CBGB.
Television’s first gig was at an art house cinema on 122 West Forty-Fourth Street. They rented the Townhouse Theater, charged two dollars admission, and advertised the show by posting flyers around Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side. Reflecting the multimedia experimentation that permeated downtown, the group’s first show mixed live video, broadcast television, and rock ’n’ roll. “My idea for ramping up our presentation was to place four or five televisions onstage,” Richard Hell recalled. “During our performance each was tuned to a different channel, while one of them was hooked up to the Portapak of the video guy who’d been taping our rehearsals. He roamed the theater shooting our act as we played, as well as the audience, and that stream was fed to one of the monitors onstage, too.” Hell also helped define Television’s early visual style, wearing ripped T‑shirts held together by safety pins and, in one case, a shirt with “Please Kill Me” handwritten on the front (a cheeky and somewhat brave thing to wear downtown in the crime-ridden 1970s). Soon after their Townhouse show, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd asked Hilly Kristal if they could play at CBGB, but the owner declined because he wasn’t interested in booking rock bands. They returned with their manager, Terry Ork, who suggested that Television play on the bar’s worst night—Sunday—and guaranteed that all their friends would make the bar’s cash registers ring. It was music to Hilly’s ears.
With no major labels interested in signing an androgynous poet-singer, Patti Smith decided to do it herself. Lenny Kaye had produced an album by the Sidewinders for RCA Records and previously played on a single as a teenager, so he knew his way around the studio. “We recorded our single in June of 1974,” he said, “mostly just because I knew that you could make records easily from hanging out in these record stores.” Robert Mapplethorpe loaned them the money to press a seven-inch single, which was recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios on West Eighth Street. The Patti Smith Group performed the Hendrix staple “Hey Joe,” along with one of her original songs, “Piss Factory,” to which Tom Verlaine added guitar. The group began distributing the single via mail order, at local bookstores and record stores, and during Smith’s shows—where Jane Friedman sold them out of a large shopping bag. “The DIY way of working in the poetry world was completely assumed,” Richard Hell said, “so that idea leaked into the music world when Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye pressed their single.” Hell also pointed out that this independent route was a continuation of what Warhol had done when he produced the first Velvet Underground record. Instead of waiting to sign to a major label, he paid for the sessions himself so as to avoid being constrained by record company executives.
From Chapter 31 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore