Changing Channels

Source: Spin (July 1987)

by Eric King

Is Tom Verlaine a competitive person?

"No. How could I be? There is no one to compete with."

Is Tom Verlaine an arrogant person?

"No, I wouldn't say so. Not at all."

Does Tom Verlaine have a sense of humor?

"Sure, I laugh all the time."

Tom, what makes you laugh most?

"W.C. Fields. W.C. Fields and...uh...Milan Kundera."

Exactly! W. C. Fields and Milan Kundera. And, of course, sex. Ask Tom Verlaine a mildly impertinent question about his sex life and he'll respond with a weak smile, which turns into a wry chuckle, which becomes a hearty guffaw, which evolves intoa convulsive roar. It's a spectacular laugh, one that would stand out in a donkey park. When it shows no signs of subsiding, he escorts it to the bathroom to attend it, to nurse it, possibly to get down on his knees and beg relief from from it. On his return, a few moments later, he reintroduces it as a suppressed chuckle; it pops out now and then, like a rogue hiccup. When you think about it, as you must, Tom Verlaine's sex life could be wildly amusing in a number of ways. Naturally he won't talk about any of them. Verlaine enjoys being inscrutable even more than he enjoys being amused. In fact; paradox appears to be his principal source of amusement. Which is why most people just settle for calling him perverse.

"How about dreamy?" he suggests. " I see that word applied to me all the time. I think it's an absurd term, especially in the way it's used. Personally, I find great clarity in dreams." While he's on the subject—and he's rarely off it—he would also like to argue with the terms "reflective," "introspective," "detached," and "evasive." But these all take a back seat to another, more immediately intrusive kind of word. "Television is something I never talk about," he explains. "I've been hanging up on journalists all over Europe, because that's all they wanted to talk about. It just doesn't interest me. People who were around then already know about it. People who weren't generally aren't interested. And I just don't think about the past."

Nevertheless, Television won't go away. Like Lou Reed, Tom Verlaine is saddled with the expectations created by his early work and burdened with the general suspicion that he has yet to live up to them. And that's a heavy burden. For the couple of years that Television had a public profile outside of downtown New York, they burned bright as the New Wave's most plausible crossover act, its one serious bid for the mainstream. It was Verlaine's lyrics that got quoted in Time magazine, it was his virtuosity that provided an entry point for critics looking to divide the conceptual amateurism of punk from the conceptual literacy of the New Wave.

The sheer physicality of Television's music seemed to prefigure a move toward the big arenas. For, above and below more subtle considerations, they were just about as good as Led Zeppelin at their best. In concert, the band's 20-minute workouts on songs like "Little Johnny Jewel," their first single, and "Marquee Moon," the title track of their first, extraordinary LP, worked up the same kind of locomotive traction as Zep's more transcendant anthems. That they did so without resorting to Zep's kitschiness, and without employing a primate to play drums, made them some kind of revelation. It's also why Verlaine's post-Television career—the band broke up in 1978—has been so surprising.

Though never openly declared, Television's music, like all great, transcendant rock 'n' roll, put forth a certain kind of mythology: Its freshness derived from it not being the usual sex and drugs and bossa nova; but its power bespoke the same mythological quest for intensity, for friction, for control. Not that Verlaine himself appeared to symbolize myth; he always managed to fade into his surroundings, even onstage. On the other hand, back then you had to figure everyone was copping the reverse attitudes of what they really intended to become. And in some cases actually did become. Blondie found international stardom via a disco hit; Talking Heads did likewise via an Al Green cover and an Afro-funk orchestra; even Patti Smith, the queen of bohemia, sang a Springsteen song and scored a hit. So when Television burned out, it seemed probable that Verlaine, the band's lyricist, principal composer, and instrumental virtuoso, would aim for the skies. In the event, he did the opposite, releasing a series of solo LPs that made no real attempt to broaden his appeal. In fact, several seemed almost willfully determined to disappoint. On Flash Light, the fifth and latest, he sounds more engaged and generous than he has in years. But by anyone other than Neil Young's standards, that's still pretty disengaged.

Tom Verlaine, of course, has a problem with all of this. It's part of the broader problem he has with any discussion of his work that also partakes of his personality. And since just about anyone who tries to get a line on Verlaine's personality runs into a raft of contradictions, it's a problem indeed. At the outset, I had figured him as a major talent who'd compromised his vision as a means of denying his ambition. Then, as a visionary who'd managed to divorce his talent from his ambition. And finally, as a gifted guitar player whose favorite word is invisible.

"I like thinking of myself as invisible. I find it a very advantageous way to live," he says. "Unfortunately, it's not the way the music business works. If you don't create some kind of public image, it gets created for you. It's like I've been on a number of record labels, some of which have seen me as a possible commercial commodity, and others which have seen me as a token artist. There's nothing you can do to change the way people see you, so I just don't look at it or think about it. I tend not to be interested in regarding the image of how something's going to be received. There are people who are sociologically interesting, like a Madonna or a Michael Jackson. There's alot more to be said about them than about someone like me—who is not particularly ambitious for himself, but rather for his work."

The latest work posed the usual problems. Out on a world tour to promote it and to give interviews to explain it, he quickly drew a blank. "So I started telling lies about it," he explains, brightening up. "One was how it was all about the study of a secret language of a Borneo tribe. Another one was about the time I spent in Iceland studying volcanoes, how this had become a great inspiration in my musical career."

Has Tom Verlaine ever been to Iceland? "No, but I'd like to." Over the last two years, Verlaine has been commuting between New York and Europe. It has not been the life of a jet-setter; the two rooms he currently rents in a run-down section of London are the most spacious accommodations he's known in ages. The life of the emigre bohemian appears to suit him. He moves restlessly, invisbly, and has learned how to deal with any prickly ideas people might have about him. In Paris, they tend to spring from a fixation on his surname, which he filched from a French poet he'd never read ("I just like the sound of the name"). In Britain, where Television was, as they say, seminal, it's a matter of growing accustomed to hearing his echo in a new generation of guitar bands. The first time someone played him Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, he was faintly bemused, then embarrassed, that anyone should attempt to imitate his vocal style ("What style?").

When back in New York, he avoids the downtown hangouts where he came of age. "I just don't like people coming up to me and saying something," he insists. "It immediately makes you become insincere. There is no way you can react to it sincerely. I really don't have much interest in stardom. I've become aware of the difference between the desire for attention and the desire to exploit some personal creative drive. And I don't find myself requiring a lot of special attention. The problem with all that is that it can only lead to people being disappointed with you. You have to get them past some basic illusion they might have about you. I like not having to trouble about that."

And so Tom Verlaine keeps moving and recording. As postcards from a cloistered room, written by someone who would prefer to remain anonymous to people he would rather not meet, his recent work plays well, feels right. "I saw some Shakespeare in England," he says, "and it made me think about what makes a great artist. Is it someone who's extremely accurate in describing something? Or is it someone who is creating something that has nothing to do with what is actually happening?" The thing is, I'm becoming more and more detached from what it is I thought I wanted. I don't particularly have an enormous desire to have this or that. I don't identify with being a musician. I don't practice, I've never practiced guitar in my life. With my records, it's just a matter of trying to create something fresh for myself in a very finite context, which is the pop song. I don't know anything about the people who buy my records, and what, if anything, they get out of them."