The bands he started with - Patti Smith, Talking Heads,
Blondie - are selling records and grabbing the spotlight. So why isn't Tom
If the new progressive music (postpunk, postnew wave) ever needed an articulate
spokesman, it would have to look no farther than to New York to find it. While
very few bands make it through one season before they split up and disperse, Tom
Verlaine, in one guise or another for a decade has participated and supplied
some of the coordinates for music's journey toward the year 2000.
While his name is not widely known in his native United States, his impact on
the world is undeniable. In England, his first group, Television, inspired hot
new bands, like U-2. Talking Heads borrowed at least part of his video imagery,
and perhaps some of his slightly eccentric vocal and instrumental stylings. Why
haven't more people heard of him? Well, for one thing, he's been away.
After an extended vacation from visible musical life, Tom Verlaine has a new
album, a new label and a few insights that should be heard. Before his
sabbatical, Tom and Television gathered one of the more impressive critical
dossiers in rock, right up there with Fripp and Eno.
How did this player get to such an exalted level of obscurity? Let's ask him: "I
grew up taking piano lessons and liking Wagner when I was in second grade. I
love these symphonies but they're totally - well, it's like a universe of sound.
I can still remember being in second grade and getting these like, the
'Longine's Society Great Symphonies of the World' records and playing them.
They were mono records. I can remember playing them - it was a universe, it
wasn't a personality, it was a universe of sound! Things happening."
"And then when somebody turned me on to a Coltrane record around
seventh grade, I took up saxophone. Around tenth grade, somebody played me
(actually it was my brother, who would listen to Motown which I thought was like
bad jazz at the time) 'Wake Me, Shake Me (When It's Over)' and when I heard it,
for some reason I loved that song. And then I heard 'Nineteenth Nervous
Breakdown' and 'All of the Day (And All of the Night)'. Those are the records
that made me think the guitar could be as good as jazz. Up until then the
electric guitar was a stupid instrument to me. When I heard the solos on those
records, the sound, the general sound, that's when it occurred to me that the
guitar was a cool instrument."
"Those two singles, like I said were the two big guitar singles and the
early Yardbirds' stuff. And Bloomfield's playing on 'Highway 61 Revisited'.
That stuff I thought was great. I'm trying to think of the records I had, there
in my room, in Delaware. My brother had Sam and Dave records, you know the
guitar playing on those records? And the Byrds. The Byrds I really did like.
And I did like their B-sides, although I haven't heard them in years and years.
Now that you mention it, those B-sides were great! Is 'She Don't Care About
Time' a B-side?"
Soon there would be a change in his life - a brand new environment. New York
City. On Dreamtime, his second album as a solo artist, there is an
almost-lament called "Down on the Farm" that talks about isolation in
a rural place. Tom laughed about it: "I didn't live in the country
but in the suburbs. In the working-class suburbs - two-bedroom houses - miles
of two bedroom houses, you might say. That song about the farm isn't really
literal. It's more than literal. You see, that stuff isn't conscious at all.
When people remind me of it I always think but I have no idea what it means.
Jungian archetypes, huh?!"
Tom did go through a bit of pleasant culture shock on arrival. Another
new world opened up, this time a literary world unknown back home: "I
went through a period when I first came to New York. You see, in Delaware,
there was no 'cultural life', like, you're not aware poetry exists outside of
your textbook, in high school because there's no place to buy it, there's no
place to see it. You might meet some guy who's four years older than you
because it's your girlfriend's college brother who might have a copy of Allen
Ginsberg or something. Not much else."
It was his foray into poetry and books that caused him to meet up with some of
his friends and collaborators during his musical career. "When I came
to New York, Richard Hell was here and he got me a job in a bookstore and I
became aware that there was this whole world here. It was at the Strand
bookstore. A lot of musicians had worked there - one of the guys in the
Outlaws, of all places, worked there. You know, Patti [Smith] worked there but
I didn't know her then, and from what I hear now it's all musicians working
there. I haven't been in there in a couple of years. Anyway, so I started
working there and I sort of discovered that there were poets in the world -
people whose expression wasn't like 'A-B-C', you know. So that was like a whole
discovery in a way. Plus Richard Hell had poetry done and had a poetry
Patti and Tom formed a close friendship, which resulted in her performance of a
Tom Verlaine original on her solo debut. There were a few other "friends"
of that era who also went on to national recognition. "Dee-Dee Ramone
once tried out for a band that was the Neon Boys - did you ever hear that
single? Me and Richard Hell and Billy Ficca went and did a demo at a four-track
studio and it ended up totally distorted and I found the tapes and this guy Alan
Betrock put them out. It's the flip side of a Richard Hell single that came out
last year. When we were that band, the Neon Boys, Dee-Dee Ramone went and tried
out for it - once!" Tom paused and laughed at the idea. "The
main friendships that I remember were, like, me and Patti Smith were friends,
the other bands to my mind - it was never like a big family affair. Fred
[Smith] had played with the Stilettos, who turned out to be Blondie. But I
never knew any of those people, personally, really. It was really from the
clubs where we used to play - like CBGB's - where you didn't need a recording
contract just to play."
Since that time many things have changed. Talent scouts and A&R men scoured
the East Village looking for the "Next-big-thing". Clubs multiplied
like jackrabbits for a while. "I've thought that magazines had a very
big influence on that, you know. There was a certain period when I started out,
there was one club that I found that would take a band that didn't have a
contract, where they could play and grow and whatever. Now I think at last
count there were something like 25 of those and they seem to be closing down one
by one. Probably due to the fact that most of the bands aren't very good and a
lot of them have read a lot of things in magazines and have come to New York
with various delusions."
There isn't a hint of sarcasm in Verlaine's critique of the New York music
scene: "I really don't mean that in a personal knocking of anybody in
those bands, but that's been my experience when I've gone to see many bands.
You can knock things like melodic gifts, etcetera, or do anything you want, but
the real question is that there really are very few people who have real musical
talent. And I'm not saying I'm one of them. I'm not saying that talent is
different from instrumental ability but somebody can write great melodies and
only play two-fingered piano. Even within all the bands that have happened in
the past five years, to my ears I didn't hear anyone who could play two-fingered
piano and come up with melodies that stuck - melodies that came from beyond the
desire to have an impact, you might say."
"Blondie was, as far as I can remember, always a semi-pop group, they
weren't anything like DNA or Wire, you know what I mean. Always a girl singer
with a pretty but not powerful voice playing pop songs. That's still what they
are. But with more and more means at their disposal. I think Blondie was a
group that always needed a producer. 'Heart of Glass' was the middle cut on the
second side, considered a 'dead spot' on an album. Someone must have thought
that was the worse song on the album, that's why they stuck it where they did.
When I heard that album I said, 'Why don't they release "Heart of Glass"
as a single - they would probably make a million dollars.' A month later it
Although Tom has an extensive record collection somewhere in his past, at
present his listening is a bit more focused. "Actually, there aren't a
lot of guitar records coming out, period. If they are, I don't know them. In
terms of songs, the Pretenders have good songs. In terms of an overall
personality the B-52s have something going for them. Right now I don't have a
record player but I have been listening to a lot of New Orleans R&B stuff.
Ernie K. Doe, sort of the Meters, but they're younger than the stuff like Ernie
K. Doe, the original 'Land of a Thousand Dances' album by Christ Kenner, stuff
like that. Recently the photographer I've been working with played me these
Chilites' albums. Have you ever heard those? I totally missed those records
and I was amazed at how ingenious the arrangements and just the songs were."
Just about every guitarist considered "innovative" gets compared
to Jimi Hendrix, no matter how far styles diverge. Other critics have compared
the two as far as impact. Tom has his own view about Jimi: "Hendrix
wasn't that particularly adept an orchestrator. Les Paul was a real wizard at
it! Hendrix' strengths were his solos. I mean, almost all the tunes on the
second record (Axis, Bold As Love) were not great tunes, you know. The first
record's a classic. Every cut is a really imaginative riff and a really great
solo - and short, really compact! There's some beautiful guitar playing here
and there. To my ears there's some real junk on there. After that I don't know
much of his stuff except for what they play on the radio once in a while - the
What is different about Tom's playing is enhanced by the sparkling sounds that
he prefers to record with. "The processing is so complicated and
everything changes from an ear hearing it to recording it. Andy Johns, the
engineer on the first record heard the two Fender guitars without fuzztones,
pre-amps or Marshalls and said, 'What kind of trip is this? Is this the Velvet
Underground again?' Not really! There's a lot of clean guitar sounds on it. A
lot of clean Fender guitar sounds, that's for sure! I hired an engineer who
understood a clean Fender sound for the new record."
"Most guys will put a mic in front of your amp and the guy turns on the
mic and says, 'What's this?' because they're so used to a cranked Les Paul or
whatever sound. Luckily, this guy wasn't fazed by this kind of sound - he liked
"I used an Al Caiola Epiphone and a weird Gretsch for just one chord
here and there. That's it actually, it's almost all this one Jaguar. There's
some 16k, some super, super, way high-end EQ on some of the guitars and it's
probably just what's coming off the amp. I ended up using a twin that was in
the studio that someone had left there and never picked up. Most of the album
was done with it, which might add to that tinkly thing and it's also the fact
that the amp ain't cranked, the amp's up only maybe 4 or 5. There's a Sam Asch
fuzzola, remember those? There's some Sam Asch fuzzola parts on that record!
There's real subtle little effects on it, too - a lot of harmonizer going on, on
these guitars. I would say that almost every guitar part on that record has a
little bit of harmonizer on it. Mostly used as a DDL. Maybe it's a harmonizer
on '99' with a 35- or a 40-millisecond delay. And a lot of parts are doubled,
too. An awful lot of them are doubled! To me that always sounds better than
just a little delay, left and right."
"On most of the songs I had two parts in mind. We might get to the
chorus and the other guy might say, 'Let me try this on a twelve-string' and it
would be okay. I didn't write any of the songs with a twelve-string in mind but
when he picked it up and plugged it in it sounded so good we ended up recording
it that way. Some of the songs had four parts going on during the verse - I was
amazed - and at least three in the chorus. It's a lot compared to something
like Led Zeppelin, which is basically one riff, bass and drums and then a solo
somewhere along the line. Or even the Stones' last few couple of records are
basically two parts going on. A lot of young kids don't know anything about
arranging parts. "
"I was just listening to some of the stuff over headphones and I really
like the way Richard does his guitar stuff - it sounds real random! I'd always
loved his chord work, he is one of the chord guys. Townshend is also one of the
chord guys I admire. I actually like rhythm guitar more than lead in a certain
way. I love playing rhythm guitar!"
Like many other rock and rollers, the crisp sound of the electric guitar seemed
to override musical concerns at times: "I always hated jazz guitar. I
loved jazz saxophone music but I hated jazz guitar. If I would buy an organ
trio record I'd make sure I'd buy one that didn't have a guitar player on it.
The sound was awful! The sound was like 'ick!' I never liked 'mellow' sounding
guitar. Now I see it has its uses but I'd never - even if I were to do an
instrumental record - tone it like that kind of sound."
Having taught himself to play the guitar left him with a few gaps in his
training. "Actually, I wish I had taken some kind of orchestration,
'cause I would love to be able to write. I've bought some Ravel scores and
looked at them and thought 'My God, how do you learn how to combine instruments
to get certain sounds?" Something I wish I knew. In fact, I may go learn
"I'd like to do an instrumental record, though. That's something I'd
really like to do. Robert Fripp and I were supposed to get together but we
haven't found something that suits us both, yet."
To support the new album Tom has been busy getting backup for a European tour.
With Television, and as a solo artist he is well received offshore - but Tom's
success is not what it should be in the US. It doesn't seem to bother him. "I'm
not sure they want a 'next-big-thing' anyway. I think it's much more
conservative out there now. There are always those people with no sense of æsthetics.
They may be in the majority now. I'm wondering about that. But it seems to me
that there's always room for something different. Something new. Sooner or
later, people will hear it. In this country it's all radio. The way it used to
be; you would go to somebody's house and hear a record by the Doors and say,
'What's this?!', put it on and then go and buy the record. Five months later
'Light My Fire' would be a hit or something. I don't know if there's word of
mouth like that around anymore."
Despite any sociological factors, let's hope that there is some good old
word-of-mouth left. If not for any one person's sake, for the sake of artistic
progression as a whole. People like Tom Verlaine, innovators within a tradition
within an art form, are a resource that, given the attention, will always renew