Tom Verlaine - The Last Romantic Guitar Hero

From International Musician and Recording World, September 1980

by Jim Farber

"There have been two strong dreams in my life but I've never written anything about them because it's hard to get across the language of dreams."
--- Tom Verlaine

"I'm a bad judge of my own work."
--- Tom Verlaine, twenty minutes later

Tom Verlaine's guitar work is the stuff dreams are made of. Not that they're ethereal or indefinite or any of those qualities we impose on dreams. Rather, the isolation, the internal self-absorption, and the mysterious allure of "the language of dreams" is what Verlaine's playing can offer. As lead guitarist of Television until their breakup in the summer of '78, and now on his own as a solo artist, Tom Verlaine represents the guitar hero as romantic figure. A category all too rare in this age where guitar maniacs have to put up with the moronic, fog-cutting heavy metal of Van Halen, the reupholstered Latino rhythms of Carlos Santana, the excessive repetition of the Outlaws ilk, or loads of tired old sixties blues-based hold overs.

Instead, Verlaine's Television gave us hefty doses of purposeful six-string work and a band attitude totally centered around the almighty guitar. Sadly, even many of their small cult following didn't recognize this. The problem has something to do with the setting. In late '73, Verlaine formed his first band (with short-term member Richard Hell) in order to 'tell-a-vision'; debuting in '74 at arty outhouses like Max's and CBGB's. Playing on the same historic bills as the more lyrically oriented Talking Heads and Patti Smith in the early days of 'punk', Television's guitars were viewed by some as simple backdrops to their symbolist lyrics and remote, brooding stage persona while the trendy 'artiness' imposed on their scene stole a lot of attention from the real work of Verlaine and his more conventional second lead, Richard Lloyd.

And as some downplayed the guitars, others overplayed them. Several complained about the long, drawn-out solos, even though most of Television's guitar work was brilliantly choreographed. If you listen to Television's two albums (Marquee Moon and Adventure) or Tom's solo LP (released last September) you'll see that, in many ways, everything is a solo and nothing is a solo. There are lead lines running through all of the choruses and verses, mounting the guitar work vertically, while even in the few recorded horizontal moments (like the guitar extension in the song 'Marquee Moon') the tones develop in a logical, literary manner; delivering a sense of built-up tension as tightly constructed as a top-forty pop tune. Even in the more extended live movements, Verlaine has proved to be one of the few guitarists (along with Neil Young, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and others), who can solo for more than a few minutes without losing the point. Of all of them, Verlaine's work seems to have the greatest sense of 'telling a story'; of bringing you somewhere and coming back with a vividness as insistent as a recurring dream.

But beyond tight focus of Verlaine's work, there is the uniqueness of his tone; an almost anorexic sound - thin, piercing, brittle and vulnerable. "I term the sound shiny", Tom asserts. "You can get that with Gibsons. On the solo record, I used an Epiphone 'Al Cailoa'. It's got six switches on it and every one makes the sound even thinner."

Verlaine's sound actually developed somewhat by accident. "When I was in high school in Delaware I had a different sound", Tom explains. "I was using an old tape deck - you take the pre-amp out of it, which gives you the same sound I later heard when I first saw Clapton play live. He had a little thing on top of his amp, which I bet was a tape recorder with the pre-amp taken out. A lot of people did that in those days - Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page. It gives your guitar a lot of volume before it hits the amp itself. Then the amp distorts it and gives it an edge. When I got to New York my sound changes because I didn't have any of that equipment. The new equipment I bought in New York was a Fender Jazzmaster, which in those days was $95 because nobody wanted 'em. Now they're up to $400, probably because Elvis Costello had his picture taken with 'em so many times."

Verlaine labels the new sound he came up with for Television as a "cranked up surf sound. It's basically a combination of Fender surf guitars and Fender amps cranked up."

Interestingly, when Verlaine was growing up as Tom Miller in Delaware he claims not to have liked guitars at all. "In the early Sixties I listened to jazz and when a guitar would come over the radio I would literally turn it off. When I heard the Stones, that's when I started to like the electric guitar sound. Also on Dylan's Highway 61, Mike Bloomfield's stuff."

'19th Nervous Breakdown' and 'Tombstone Blues' may have inspired Tom to trash his sax and piano for a guitar but his style developed on a track far outside Bloomfield's or Keith Richard's blues-based licks. Listening to early Television, one might more closely associate him with the psychedelic San Francisco sound; Jorma Kaukonen with his vibrato hooked on speed. "I never liked San Francisco music", Tom counters. "People associate me with that. But the tones I liked more in those days were The Paul Butterfield Blues Band or The Yardbirds live record."

In terms of the 'lean-and-hungry' aspect of Verlaine's tone, one could also dredge up the name of Neil Young. Both Young and Verlaine feature off-kilter lines, emphasizing convoluted reconstructions or extensions of the main themes in their solos. Yet Verlaine is not as culturally rooted as Young. While Young's lines are pure mythic Americana (ironic for a Canadian), Verlaine creates his own separate reality. One is description, the other implication. "The first Neil Young album that I bought was Zuma which I thought was great", Tom says. "I think he's got integrity. He's one of the few players who does. His live album I like a lot. The guitars are mixed real loud on that album."

In the past Verlaine has had problems getting his own guitars mixed just right. He complains of engineers not knowing how to deal with his sound. "On the first Television album it took a while for the band to make themselves understood. When we started making the first album with Andy Johns, he didn't know what the hell to make of it. He pulled me out into the hall and said, 'Is this the Velvet Underground? What kind of trip is this?' He recorded a few a few tracks and then had some personal events so went to California and I finished the record without him. He came back to mix it and he finally said the band was a lot like the Stones because there's this slight out-of-tuneness to it, and you can't polish it up too much or you lose the energy."

On this debut disc, Verlaine revealed how purposeful his guitar work could be right away; in at least one instance creating a solo to reflect pre-conceived visual images rather than random aural effects. Verlaine labels his feature in 'Friction', "a picture solo. It didn't have anything to do with tonality at all. There's a Mingus record called Oh Yeah and a song called 'Hog Calling Blues'. It's got trombone players making pig noises and others making cluck noises and it all sounds great. It's all just a picture."

Interestingly, Verlaine reveals some unexpected roots for other guitar bits on the album. While the stuttering riffs on 'Marquee Moon' may seem wholly original, Tom claims it was reggae rhythms inverted with a guitar version of the horn part of James Brown's 'I Feel Good' layered on top.

On Television's second album, one of the most stunning guitar riffs is on 'Days'. It features Verlaine's warmest work, plus a passionate vocal with the key lyric 'days be more than all we have', to the realm of the spiritual. The captivating main riff in the song has a strange origin. "I had read that Wagner would write something and then write it out backwards. He'd have violins play the main theme backwards. I thought that was interesting. And I always liked The Byrds so I asked Lloyd if he could play 'Mr. Tambourine Man' backwards. We took that and changed it a little bit and that became 'Days'."

Unfortunately the kind of magic created on those two albums could not last. Richard Lloyd had personal problems as well as ego conflicts in the band, and Tom became disillusioned with the drum sound of Billy Ficca. A bust-up was unavoidable but the outcome hasn't been easy for Tom. His solo album was completely misunderstood by the LA staff of Elektra Records, partly explaining the LP's poor sales, and Verlaine had to spend many months battling to change labels. A new deal now seems likely with Warner Brothers, but nothing has been finalized. Then there's the matter of finding a new second lead guitar player and that's a Catch-22 situation in itself. "If a guy's great he wants to play everything himself; he has his own vision", Tom explains. "And if he's not great then who wants to play with him? It's hard to find someone who's talented and has the right attitude."

For now, Verlaine is writing lots of new songs and seeking out fresh sidemen. It should hardly come as a surprise that he claims much of the new work is romantic. While so many other guitar 'heroes' offer a shallow macho strut, Verlaine has long been delivering the depth and passion that befits a true musical hero. True, this has yet to win over the masses, but Verlaine, like his work, always emphasizes the ideal. To him art should always be a "higher reflection of life". You can almost hear the crystalline guitar work in 'Venus De Milo' when he says, "How high you set your sights is a lot of how your life is going to turn out."

SIDEBAR in same 1980 article /interview:

Verlaine gets Technical

When it comes to choosing guitars, Tom Verlaine is truly long suffering. His favorite six-string is the one that causes him the most problems - a vintage Fender Jazzmaster which offers lots of string buzz, horrible hissing in the studio and other troubles to test your faith. For the string buzz, Verlaine suggests taking the bridge out and wrapping masking tape around the poles to keep it from rocking. And because of the hissing, he says he can't jump around while doing a solo in the studio. You've got to be a certain angle to the amp where it hums the least.

Verlaine has less problems with his favorite strings (Ernie Bell and Gretsch) and his amps, which since the final days of Television have been Ampeg SVTs, which he claims, "totally changed my sound. They fattened up the lead guitar so I'll probably use them next time in the studio." On the two Television albums Tom used Fender 'Super Reverb' amps, and on his solo LP he favored cheap $57 mikes, which he claims, "Take more punch. It gives a slappy effect."

Verlaine generally prefers cheaper equipment, asserting the main problem with guitarists today is, "They all go for those $3000 Les Paul's and Marshall amps. There's a real lack of the individual with that stuff."