An Elegant Enigma

Source: The Boston Phoenix (October 1977)

by Frank Rose

Tom Verlaine guides Television to the top of the art-rock heap

There is something bloodless about Tom Verlaine, something gaunt and alien, something a little self-consciously spooky. Who but an overgrown teenage zombie would be sitting in the only cleared space of his manager's cluttered office - with its dingy asbestos tile floor and streaked and flaking rose colored paint - sitting here in a white t-shirt, pegged black chinos and black Italian ankle boots, cleaning his nails with a battered steak knife? Behind him is an enormous grungy window, reinforced with chicken wire, that overlooks the high-rise corner of Broadway and 56th Street; in front of him, on a shaky formica topped table, a 20-button executive phone glows with the incongruous luminescence of technology. "I'll tell you what," he says into the receiver. "I'd like to know exactly how much you can get from Anchor." A business call; Verlaine is discussing "Little Johnny Jewel", Television's debut single and one-time signature song, released on Ork Records, before the band had a regular record company. "Little Johnny Jewel" is worth money now and Verlaine needs money to pay off the five-figure debt he accumulated while guiding Television to the top of the art-rock heap.

It hasn't been easy, this guiding process. There were cold, hungry nights on the Bowery, dreary days in a cold water flat on the Lower East Side, times when there was no stage to play on, times when they'd lay out $60 for an ad in the Village Voice and earn only $20 from the take at the door. Verlaine decided years ago not to worry about the money, just to do what he wanted. What he wanted was to be creative with a rock band - which is why he's in this cubbyhole in his manager's office, upping the price of his past and granting the obligatory interview.

How does Verlaine see Television? "I don't watch it. I just go about my business, in a certain sense." Grinning, he reaches for a Lucky, lights it and spits. "It's really just creating stuff that's fun to play or something...and has a good effect on the members of the band, and hopefully on the members of the audience, too." A good effect? "I knew you'd ask that. Anything that is good - or that has to do with the word good."

I see. Perhaps we should start at the beginning. Tom Verlaine was known as Tom Miller when he grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. Little is known about his family ("I never talk about 'em") or his childhood, save that he was voted the "most unknown" in his high school graduating class. He dropped out of two colleges within three months and landed in New York City after hanging around Wilmington and Philadelphia for a while. In the summer of 1968, when he first arrived in New York, he stayed with Richard Hell, a friend from Delaware who was living in the East Village. After that, he lived in a succession of East Village apartments, all of them grim, and worked at a succesion of odd jobs, none of them serious. In 1971 he formed a band called the Neon Boys with Hell and drummer Billy Ficca, another friend from high school; they spent the months auditioning for a rhythm guitarist, then finally broke up. Verlaine went solo.

Television originated when he met Terry Ork late in 1973. Ork, who runs a Village nostalgia shop called Cinemabilia, solved the guitarist problem by bringing in Richard Lloyd, a kid from the Village who'd been crashing at Ork's Chinatown loft. Ork also provided a place to rehearse (the loft), some equipment to rehearse with and a showcase theater for the band's debut. The name they got from Richard Hell, whose eyes lit on a television as he was scanning the list of possibilities they'd made up. Verlaine had already changed his name; it's a coincidence that the groups initials and his are identical.

CBGB's didn't begin to happen until Verlaine walked past it and complained that he had no place to play. The guy he was with told him to go in and see if he could play there; when he did, the owner said yes. It was an unexpected response, but Television wasted no time. Ork moved in, squelched the owner's ideas about "Bluegrass Night" and "Hawaiian Night", and started booking compatibly scruffy bands, always with the aim of developing a showcase for Television.

The rest, as they say, is punk rock history: The first press notice - a rave by Patti Smith in the Soho Weekly News; the Tom and Patti liaison that followed; the dispute with Richard Hell and his replacement by Fred Smith, the bassist from Blondie; the Patti Smith/Television double bill in the spring of 1975 that established CBGB's as the avant-garde rock hangout sans pareil; and the rapid development of a complete CBGB's scene, with CBGB's bands, a CBGB's fan mag and, of course, a CBGB's record. Naturally, Verlaine is now ready to put some distance between himself and Hilly Kristal's beer-soaked bar. The group's three-night engagement there last February, just after the release of their album, Marquee Moon (Elektra), and just before their first American tour, is expected to be their last.

At the moment, Television is back in the studio, working on their second album. There summer European tour took them to clubs all over the continent and to concert halls in Paris, Stockholm and Britain. They were on the cover of England's leading pop paper and generally lionized by the British music press. The American tour had them opening for Peter Gabriel in 2500-seat halls across the country - nice exposure, a good chance to get accustomed to the bigger stage. True, the airplay on their first album has been minimal and sales haven't been sizzling either, but Elektra didn't sign this group to get Top Ten records - not right away, anyway. Although Verlaine has recently moved - from a heatless four-room apartment on the Lower East Side to a studio in Greenwich Village that costs twice as much - he says nothing has changed since the album's release. "We're just as much underdogs as we ever were. In fact, now it's even heavier. There's so much prejudice against New Yorkers it's incredible. In a town like St. Louis, you can't even get played on the radio if you're from New York. You walk into a radio station and the guy looks at you like, 'Here's another bunch of New York assholes.' It makes you either want to be an asshole or try to get through to the guy. I don't mind if they play the record or not, but I'd really like it if they'd listen to it. We're a different sort of band from what they're used to, so I think we're worth a listen."

A different sort of band: This could be Television's epitaph. At a time when gloss and pleasant mediocrity are the recognized denominators of success, Television dares to be different. Not wild and raw, like Patti Smith, but precise and searing. Their lyrics are perfectly enunciated, but fragmented and dream-like. Their music is biting and acidic. Yet for all its frenetic qualities it is also elegant, formal and measured. The sting of double guitars is both graceful and awesome; the voice may sound fragile and wounded, but the stately pace renders the singer invulnerable. Verlaine turns on this record like a revolving mannequin, slowly, behind glass, as if in some curiously mechanized dream.

On record, Verlaine sounds like a person who would never let anyone see into his eyes. In person, however, he flashes them coquettishly. They are limpid caverns that seem to reveal all, but actually communicate ironic distance. Verlaine says as little as possible - he doesn't speak to fill the silence - but after every sentence he flashes a signal, seeming to indicate that the interview should be taken as a joke. After all, what can Verlaine say about himself? Not much, except in small ways that reveal - and he is far too defensive to risk much of that. His work is what counts, and he cannot or will not discuss it except in "aw shucks, it's only me and my guitar" terms. He is a bit unpolished as an enigma, but his art demands enigmatic poses and he will polish them as surely as Bob Dylan did his. At any rate, what he wants is not a platform for discourse but some response to his art - airplay, criticism, that sort of thing. If he isn't getting it, that could be because Television seems so opposed to the trends in commercial rock. "We're also opposed to the trends in uncommercial rock," Verlaine says. "I don't see our style as different from any number of so-called successful rock groups...You name 'em - you name the successful rock groups...that's what I'm talking about. I don't think we're so different from any of them."

Surely there must be some differences? "In the 70s, the trend in rock 'n' roll is for somebody to totally pattern themselves after someone else. Then they play 300 nights a year and make a lot of money, because the people who see you will go buy your records. I'm talking about Aerosmith or Kiss. Everybody's out trying to be commercial. I'm not trying to be anything, really." Verlaine grins, then picks at a fingernail with his steak knife. "We're not some fantasy-oriented band - like Kiss goes out and projects their...insect fantasy. But we're not out to project what might be considered common, everyday life, either." Does this mean they're out to project some kind of extraordinary life? Verlaine smiles. "Just remember - you said it."