A Sad Case Of Bengals Envy

Today the Cincinnati Bengals will play the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. I’m trying to decide whether to watch.

If the Bengals win, they will go to the Super Bowl for second year in a row and for the fourth time overall. That’s four more times, incidentally, than my team, the Cleveland Browns. The poor Browns are one of the tiny fraction of NFL teams that have never made it to the big game in the 50-year history of the Super Bowl.

The Bengals have a great team, led by an admirable, franchise quarterback who happens to be an Ohio boy: Joe Burrow. They have a complete offense and a good defense, and are well coached. And yet, only a few years ago, the Bengals stunk. Somehow, they managed to completely turn things around, accumulate talented players, hire a good coach, and become a dominant team. I can’t look at them without thinking: why, oh why, can’t that happen to the Browns? What weird issue seems to leave the Cleveland Browns seemingly permanently mired in mediocrity–or worse?

So, will I watch the game? Probably, since I’m an American guy and it is what American guys do on Sundays during football season. I’ll probably even find myself casually rooting for the Bengals, knowing that a Cincinnati victory would make friends who are Bengals fans happy. The Bengals are supposed to be the Browns’ AFC North rivals, but the sad reality is that the Browns aren’t really anyone’s rivals these days: we’re just too pathetic and pitiful to be a hated foe. And don’t tell me that I should switch my allegiance, either. I’m not and will never be a fair-weather fan; being a Browns fan is as much part of me as my left arm.

So I guess I’ll watch–knowing it will be a painful reminder of my own team’s record of absolute, mind-boggling, seemingly impossible futility. I’m bracing myself.

Tom Verlaine

It seems like every week of 2023 brings news of the passing of some rock music icon. This week we learned of the death of Tom Verlaine. Verlaine was the guitarist and motivating force of the ’70s band Television, which produced one of the greatest rock albums in history: the urgent, brooding, melodic, magnificent Marquee Moon.

I first learned of the album from the pages of Rolling Stone. In those days, I regularly read that magazine because it seemed important to try to stay abreast of what was going on in the music world and learn about new albums that I might want to add to my collection. I had never heard of Television or Tom Verlaine, but the Rolling Stone review of Marquee Moon was a positive one, and I had some money in my pocket–this was in pre-credit card days–so I went down to one of the OSU campus record stores and promptly bought it, took it back to my apartment, and put it on the turntable.

About an hour later, singularly struck by what I had just heard, I listened to the album all over again. The lyrics were weird and funny, and made every song worth a very careful listen (a personal favorite that still makes me laugh to this day, from the song Friction: “If I ever catch .(pause) that ventriloquist, I’ll squeeze his head right into my fist”) and the music was fantastic. The songs frequently built to a crescendo, like you were listening to a guitar-heavy, rock version of a Rossini overturn or Ravel’s Bolero. From that day forward, it was a favorite. When I got home from classes and was trying to decide what to listen to, I turned to Marquee Moon again and again.

It’s hard to describe Television’s music on Marquee Moon. Some of the obituaries for Tom Verlaine say it was an “art punk” band like Blondie or the Talking Heads, but I always thought Television’s music was unique, and not so easily captured. The rough-edge vocals definitely had a punkish sound, to be sure, but the band’s musical abilities were far above what you would expect from a punk band. Tom Verlaine’s guitar playing had a lot to do with that. It was ever-changing in sound, but always beautiful, with a beat, and soaring, and sinuous. The epic song Marquee Moon, stretching to more than 10 minutes in length, most of which is devoted to Verlaine’s guitar leading an extended instrumental interlude in which the whole band is totally tight and focused, is one of those mood-altering songs where you just say an inner “Wow!” when it is finally, regrettably over.

This morning I decided to to remember Tom Verlaine by listening to Marquee Moon again, and it is as if I am 20 and listening to the album before heading to a 9 a.m. class. To quote a lyric from the Television song Guiding Light: “I woke up . . . and it’s yesterday.” Thank you, Tom Verlaine and your Television bandmates, for creating something that can have that kind of lasting impact.