Source: Hot Press Magazine (Dublin), 7 September 1984
by Liam Mackey
Liam Mackey finds Television legend Tom Verlaine in exile in Britain. The interviewer almost does a double-take when he's introduced to Tom Verlaine in a pleasant bistro opposite Townhouse Studios on London's Goldhawk Road.|
At 35, Verlaines's face is softer and fuller than before, bearing only a passing resemblance to the gaunt, chicken-headed visage which stared out from the cover of Television's debut album "Marquee Moon" back in 1977.
Seven years on, the power of that extraordinary record is undiminished but as far as Verlaine is concerned, the Television legend is ancient history now. Indeed he doesn't even seem to like being reminded of it, noting, late in our conversation that most interviews he does consist of "the same 25 questions about Television".
Forewarned, I'd avoided bringing up the subject - a difficult exercise in restraint, since I'd count the two Television albums high in any list of the all-time greats. Only after the taped section of our interview was complete and we had re-located to Townhouse Studios to call a cab, did Tom seem relaxed enough to recall certain memories of "Marquee Moon": such as how the record's producer eventually threw in the towel in despair at Verlaine's quest for an ever rawer and more elemental sound, leaving, in the end, just Tom and a tape-op to complete the mixing.
Such single-minded pursuit of a personal ideal has characterised Verlaine's work since then: he's an artist who knows exactly what he wants and goes for it uncompromisingly. If Television's achievements have deservedly become the stuff of legend over the years, it is arguably at the expense of Verlaine's work since then, a formidable quintet of albums culminating in the forthcoming "Cover".
The latter comes two years after the magnificent "Words From The Front", ending a lengthy silence from a man whose creative voice is never disappointing.
In person, Verlaine is initially guarded, his speaking voice a low near-drawl, his sentences punctuated by long gaps. It's about 1 p.m. and the man is only just out of bed - I can empathise most heartily.
"It wasn't a real expensive record to make, nor was it all that time-consuming", he says of Cover's long time a-comin'. "The work was just spread out. I probably could have finished the record a year ago if I'd forced myself to do it. I didn't see any point really."
For a second, it almost sounds as if Verlaine is weary of putting out superb records, which are inevitably critically acclaimed and just as inevitably ignored by the bulk of a record-buying public more concerned with this week's model.
Is this the Ol' Cult Blues again?
"It's not that that bothers me - it's just that economic reality being what it is, how long is a company gonna continue to finance your endeavours? And even if they do, are they gonna be patronising about it?
"The only thing that bothers me really is that I'd like to be working all the time - like, I've written a couple of new songs in the past month and there's no real money to go out and do 'em whereas if I had a gold record it'd be no problem to book a studio - that's the difference."
And Tom Verlaine's alternative vision?
"I think really the only way to do it is to find yourself a place you want to live and build your own studio. That seems to be the best way to do it."
When I mention John Fogarty, who after Creedence Clearwater Revival folded, retreated behind closed doors and over a couple of years released two exceptional records, "Blue Ridge Mountain Rangers" and "John Fogarty", on which he played everything himself, Verlaine - though acknowledging the achievement - responds that that approach is not for him.
"I've done a bit of that on this record just because it sort of happened that way: I happened to be in a place that had a bass guitar so I played bass on it, y'know? But I'd much rather work live with musicians."
On "Cover" he's accompanied by a couple of old sidekicks in Fred Smith on bass, Jimmy Ripp on guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums with appearances also by Bill Laswell (bass) and Alan Schwartzberg (drums).
Do you, as the phrase has it, bounce ideas off other people?
"I don't think that expression means anything (~laughs~). It does if you're a person who doesn't know what you want, who's just throwing all these things out all the time. But if you know what you want, you just get on with it and do it. "I don't think producers are particularly great. ~good~ producers, I think, are good for editing your work if you're being overblown about it. I end up editing a lot of stuff out. Even on this new record I'd edit out more stuff at this point if I could."
That said, Verlaine has also displayed a predilection for lengthy pieces.
"Yeah, they don't seem long to me but I guess they are. I took two songs off this record -- one was eight minutes long, the other six and a half. There was something about 'em, they needed more work."
For the last three months Tom Verlaine has been resident in London, having left New York because, he says: "I was sick of it - I've been in one place for too long and you want to see something else."
To some of us on this side of the pond, the move might nonetheless seem a bit perverse. After all, isn't the Big Apple the ultimate melting pot, a city of endless inspiration for the creative artist? What about the Bohemian Cafi and Loft Society we used to hear so much about?
"Loft society now is people who are making a helluva lot of money," Verlaine reflects. "A loft costs around a quarter of a million dollars and artists traditionally aren't people who make a quarter of a million dollars and go out and buy a loft.
"It's becoming like that in New York. People are more career-oriented, they get a craft going. There are painters who, if a gallery tells them what to do, they'll do it, if they think it's gonna sell. There are a group of young painters in New York whose work I regard as pretty much shit. It's, pretty much, do it quick, get it on the wall and go to all the right parties.
"There's no inspiration, it's all career moves, trying to be part of something. It's like reading about artists when you were a kid and wanting to be an artist - rather than having something you can't contain so you let it out. Or a gift you don't really have any control over. Even just having something to offer."
The New York music scene according to Tom "hasn't been vital for the last eight years, if you ask me." Among his own favourite contemporary American bands he lists Green On Red, True West, and particularly The Violent Femmes, whose new second album he describes as "very traditional, not a modern or pretentious record at all -- it was done in about five or six days and it's got a very live feel to it." This would make it close to the heart of Tom Verlaine who is self-avowedly not a hi-tech recording artist, preferring to work with, in Bono's words, the primary colours of bass, guitars and drums. Here's Tom on hip-hop: "There's nothing mysterious about it. Those drum machines are played with buttons and that's the sound you get. Once you get in a studio and see all this stuff, you know where it comes from. To be honest, I don't think it's very interesting music to begin with. There's always been dance music around of one kind or another and this is just a bit more mechanical."
Verlaine is also less than enamoured of much of what's happening in London: "There's not much to do - it's not a really happening 24-hour city," he observes. "I don't find that the bands have any rapport, not only with themselves, but with their audience. The way they play on stage is like they're very isolated from each other. And the audience are just there, sort of looking on. The younger bands, say 19 to 24 year olds don't seem to play long enough to know what it's about. They don't have any instincts for it."
Verlaine's interest in British music is more than academic since he wants to produce some bands himself. He's already heard lots of tapes, but apart from waxing enthusiastic about Liverpool band It's Immaterial, doesn't seem to have been all that impressed.
"Some of the tapes are so funny because you hear people aping the enunciation of other singers, right to the T as if they were parodying them -- but they're not. One tape I got had someone singing exactly like David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust period. Why pattern yourself on something like that? That's definitely more prevalent in England than in the States."
Tom Verlaine only came to rock'n'roll after earlier immersions in classical music and jazz. His discovery of rock'n'roll came via such records as the Yardbirds' version of the blues classic "I'm A Man" and the Rolling Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown". The rise of literacy in rock also had a profound effect on the poetically-minded Verlaine. In particular, Tom fondly recalls the release of Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde".
"I can remember my girlfriend saying that Bob Dylan had a double record out and I said 'What do you mean - a double record?' She said 'It's two records in the one pack' and I said 'D'ya mean there's like 30 songs on it?!?' She said 'No, one is all one song actually' and I said 'This, I gotta hear!'
"The records which to me seem to last the longest have a quality of being raw," Verlaine adds, "like I still pull out albums by the Velvet Underground, The Doors, Dylan - even the 'Desire' album, that song Sarah is a beautiful, beautiful song."
I tell him that ol' Bob subsequently denounced the song saying 'There are some songs you'd be better off never to have written' or bitter words to that effect. Verlaine laughs "That song is so naked that, in retrospect, he probably feels embarrassed by it."
Clarity, simplicity and raw power are constants in Verlaine's music. As evidenced by songs from "Venus De Milo" through to "Postcard from Waterloo", he also has a fine tunesmith's ear, an aspect of his work that has perhaps been overshadowed by his justly earned reputation as a guitar genius and sound innovator. The tradition of melodies you can hum in the bath is continued on "Cover" which is probably Verlaine's most conspicuously buoyant set to date. In particular there's an instantly memorable track called "Swim", which Tom seems genuinely chuffed I should single out for mention.
The song opens in a most humorous and cryptic manner with Tom providing a backwoods-type talkover against African-like guitar and the sound of a barking dog. Thereby hangs a tale.
At 8 in the morning after an all-night session in the studio, Tom asked the janitor if he could get his dog to bark while the tapes rolled. No problem said the janitor proudly fetching his tiny terrier into the studio. Needless to say, when the crunch came, the dog appeared totally mute. "Eventually," says Tom, "the janitor started yelling 'Kill! Kill! Kill!' at this harmless little eight-inch-long dog, which immediately started barking ferociously!!"
The spoken intro to "Swim" is an excerpt from a book which Tom hopes to have published. It consists of a series of short monologues -- interspersed with occasional dialogue -- narrated by a bunch of American characters Tom has invented, of whom our friend on the "Swim" track is one. He, Tom explains, lives alone in a caravan in remote territory and "he has these odd experiences -- he leaves his body, for a lack of a better explanation, and he's always in the presence of some mythological goddess who's never there physically. There's a certain pathos to it." And no little humour too, for Tom Verlaine is an exceptionally droll individual. As for the book itself, Tom reckons he's got a greater chance of having it published in Britain than in the States "where they just want to publish books about jogging - they do that here too but there is still an interest here in writing, more than in the States."
By now, with our interview well developed, Tom Verlaine's early hesitancy has long since vanished and he's revealed as a fluent, witty and stimulating conversationalist. Talk ranges over a variety of subjects including pre-Christian Irish poetry (a particular interest of his), the writings of Flann O'Brien and Colin Wilson, and hypnosis - a subject about which Tom is eager to learn more, since he was cured through hypnosis of his nicotine addiction. The methods of the hypnotist in question appealed to the Verlaine sense of humour. "He just said 'you're going to find this very relaxing and why not - you're paying me a hundred dollars to do it.' Well not quite that stupid or silly but very very unconsciously unmanipulative and unspooky."
More importantly, the hypnosis worked - Tom hasn't smoked a cigarette since. "I've had a pack of cigarettes on my desk in New York for a year and haven't touched one. You have to discover you don't want to do it and then you don't do it. I mean, I like smoking, I still like smoking - I just don't do it."
Quitting smoking has made quite a significant difference to his life, he says.
"When I started smoking I liked it because it deadened my feelings towards things (~laughs~). It creates a certain mental atmosphere sure, but it does make you less sensitive because your whole body is getting less oxygen. I've found since I quit smoking I've been a bit more emotional, I get angrier easier, I get hurt easier. I realised that when anything emotional hit me before I reached for a cigarette. It becomes a habit where you don't go into what you're feeling - you have a cigarette and just think about other things."
Finance permitting, Tom Verlaine hopes to tour Britain in the Autumn. Who knows, maybe he'll even fulfill a long-standing wish to play Ireland too. In the meantime, prepare to take "Cover".