Maestro - An interview with guitarist Tom Verlaine

Boston Phoenix, 1996

by Al Giordano

At five o'clock on the last day of the tour, Tom Verlaine and I find an Italian joint in Philadelphia and settle down for an interview. The presence of Verlaine as a lead guitarist on Patti Smith's first rock tour since 1979 boosted an already historic bill. Verlaine, 46, was the musician who, in 1974, talked Hilly Crystal into allowing his "Country, Blue Grass and Blues" club - CBGB - on New York's Lower East Side to be used for rock shows. Verlaine's band, Television, was the first of many groups to rise from the Bowery at Bleecker Street: the Patti Smith Group, Talking Heads, Blondie, and the Ramones. Television's original bass player, Richard Hell, branched off to form the Voidoids.

Verlaine invented an approach to electric guitar that continues to be replicated by many of today's alternative rockers, especially in more free-form bands such as Sonic Youth. Like Miles Davis before him, Verlaine plays the silences between the notes as intentionally as he does his signature riffs. His style is improvisational and structured at once, slicing open time and space. Bono of U2 has said that Television's first album, Marquee Moon, has had as much influence on his generation of musicians as Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited had on the previous decade's.

Although Verlaine has long been acclaimed by music critics, commercial success has largely eluded him. In the '80s, he supported himself through solo albums and movie soundtracks. But the return of his longtime friend Patti Smith to rock and roll gets me thinking: can Verlaine's own comeback as a popular musician be far behind? Even now, two decades after he led thousands of guitarists onto new musical terrain, he remains the master: the first and the best.

AG: Before recording on Patti's album last summer, had you collaborated with her at all in recent years?

TV: Nobody did, to my knowledge, in terms of those of us from the early '70s. I didn't hear anything from her until a year ago. She had called my manager a couple of times, and I wondered what that was about. Then I got the call last summer, "We're in the studio. Will you come down and play?" Took me by surprise.

AG: How did you and Patti first meet?

TV: I lived on 11th Street. She lived on 10th. The first time I met her was in a laundromat. I had this leather coat on. She said, "Pretty nice coat." We knew some of the same people, including Richard Hell. Richard wanted to publish a book of her poetry together with mine. I went to one of her poetry readings with Richard. We were rehearsing with Television at Terry Ork's loft back then. Terry got her or Lenny to a gig, and she really liked us. She wrote a review for the Soho Weekly News. Because it was her, and a real interesting writing style, that article developed a lot of interest in us. Then she had me play on the "Hey Joe" single.

AG: You were her boyfriend...

TV: We hung out for a couple of years, I guess. It's really hard to remember. Then we wrote this song, "Break It Up." I remember sitting with her in the apartment early on and playing piano. She sang it sort of jazzy, with a measure of five here, of four there. I put a very normal American piano sound behind it, and everything fell into a more groovy kind of thing.

AG: You didn't seem to know "Rock N Roll Nigger" during the rehearsals last week. Were you unfamiliar with her third and fourth albums?

TV: I was around when she wrote most of the songs for Horses, and for some of Radio Ethiopia - her first two albums. When my guitar got stolen, she bought me a new one up on 48th Street. But I didn't see much of her in the late '70s. She was touring a lot. I was touring. When she had her accident [fracturing seven vertebrae in a 1978 fall from a stage] I saw her, because there was really nobody to look after her.

AG: She seems to work particularly well with talented men.

TV: I think almost every woman artist I've ever met has this ideal of being in a partnership working situation with a man, that men don't seem to share. John Lennon ended up in it briefly, with Yoko. They seem to want this ideal thing, that we'll always be together and work together.

AG: This tour leaves me wanting to hear long, 20-minute versions of songs where you can really stretch out. There's something that happens in a long song where you can really get a whole collective trance state going.

TV: Yes and no. You still have to have that organizational principle behind the song. Coltrane did this entire album as one piece, both sides, but even that had big written sections and distinctive parts.

AG: You are a composer and an improvisational player all at once. I feel that in your song "Little Johnny Jewel," for example.

TV: The 20- or 40-minute improvised pieces, though, are still structured. There's still a principle, and we haven't taken the time on this tour to work that out in rehearsal.