Melody Maker, May 19th, 1990
by John Wilde
Thirteen years on from "Marquee Moon", the debut Television album, Tom
Verlaine still looks like a man surprised to be face to face with a world so
"I still like my life," he says after one of those legendary Tom Verlaine
silences. As he considers his next move, he nudges a strawberry off his
plate and watches it roll across the table and onto the floor.
"I'm allergic to strawberries y'know. I've only got to look at a strawberry
and I come out in a rash. Red as a pepper." |
Verlaine has blown into town after a two-year absence to play a couple of solo acoustic gigs at London's Bloomsbury Theatre. Some long-running dispute with the A&R department of his record label has made the setting up of this interview a major nightmare, involving endless telephone messages left for his manager in virtually every major city in Europe.
He's still one of the classic rock 'n' roll faces. As taut and distinguished as Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Neil Young and John Lydon. A face that's been lived in, doubtless. But cool, remote, abstract, inscrutable, alive. Pure rock 'n' roll.
It is now 25 years since Richard Meyers and Tom Miller, two teenagers who had been missing for three weeks from a private boys school in Delaware, were arrested in Alabama for setting a field on fire. One said they wanted to watch it burn (he later changed his name to Hell). The other said they wanted to keep warm (he later changed his name to Verlaine). The rest, as they say, is history.
Hell and Verlaine would hook up again in New York in 1971 when they formed their first band, The Neon Boys. Within 12 months, the group was defunct. Hell and Verlaine went their separate ways, the latter giving occasional electric-guitar performances at local venues or in friends' apartments. In '73, drummer Billy Ficca and guitarist Richard Lloyd joined Verlaine. Shortly after, Hell and Verlaine reunited and Television was born. Along with Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones and Patti Smith, they built up their reputation in New York's CBGBs. In '75, Fred Smith replaced Hell, who went on to form the seminal Voidoids.
In February 1977, Television released their debut album, "Marquee Moon". In a year of classic albums (Bowie's "Heroes", Iggy's "Lust For Life", "The Ramones' "Leave Home", Wire's "Pink Flag" "The Clash", "Never Mind the Bollocks", "Talking Heads '77"), Television proved peerless. Verlaine's poetic lyricism and crystalline guitar lines made for a new music that was a genre in itself. Television's influence on the music of the next decade would be immeasurable.
By 1978, Television had broken up, leaving behind a hugely underrated second album, "Adventure", and a towering legend hat would pursue Verlaine through the Eighties.
While Richard Hell spent the decade as inconspicously as possible, Tom Verlaine has never really been away. There have been five solo albums since 1979's "Tom Verlaine". Two out-and-out masterpieces in 1984's "Cover" and 1987's "Flash Light". Without Verlaine, The Smiths, James, The House of Love, The Blue Aeroplanes, Aztec Camera, the Commotions, Echo and the Bunnymen coud never have existed. Patti Smith once said that "Tom Verlaine plays guitar like a thousand bluebirds screaming". He's always been that far out.
Verlaine's grand guitar dramas have provided some of the most compulsive rock 'n' roll of our times.
Verlaine has never been outwardly comfortable with his appointed role as stylistic guru to the post-punk generation. "I guess you could say that I don't have a reaction to the question of my influence," he says blandly.
When I suggest that Lloyd Cole is the most ludicrous example of homage-paying, he shakes with laughter. "I gotta good Cole story. Wanna hear my Lloyd Cole story? Well, I was over here mixing a record in '84 and I had to do some pictures out in the East End. So I'm standing there and this guy says, 'Hey, Tom, Lloyd Cole is across the road and he wants your autograph'! I didn't know who this Lloyd Cole was, y'know. So what do I care? He came in with all these records and I autograph them. A week later, I heard he'd done a version of 'Glory', the old Television song. When I heard it, I thought, 'Uh uh, that's sort of interesting'.
"Then I met his cousin or a friend of his brother from Glasgow, who told me that Cole used to come home from school and practice singing to Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine records in front of a wardrobe mirror. I thought that was hilarious! I started to listen to his stuff a little more closely and detected a bad simulation there in the vocal style."
When I ask him if he finds it irksome that all his imitators score hits while he has remained a cult figure, I touch on something of a sore point. "That, I find very ... ironic."
"If you wanted to get down to a serious, nitty-gritty article on the problems between Tom Verlaine and Fontana Records, we could be here for days," says Dave Bates, A&R man at Phonagram/Fontana. At the age of 41, Verlaine finds himself without a record contract. The problems leading to his departure from Fontana are, indeed, involved. While Verlaine is reluctant to discuss the situation in detail, he does infer that it has arisen because of the attitude of Bates towards him. Bates, meanwhile, is keen to offer his side of the story.
"Apart from Clapton, Verlaine is my all-time favourite guitar hero," says Bates, who has been a "committed fan" since 1977's "Marquee Moon". He had wanted Verlaine on his label since 1981, when Verlaine's contract with Warners/Elektra expired. Instead, Verlaine signed to Virgin and released "Words From The Front" and "Cover" before moving on.
"When he signed to us in '84/'85," Bates says, "I still felt that he was one hit single away from being a major success."
1987's "Flash Light" album sold around 25,000, his most commercially successful work since "Adventure". It was when the recording for "The Wonder" album began that serious differences became apparent. Bates offers a nightmarish catalogue of events that involves numerous producers, managers, lawyers and locations. He argues that Verlaine's demands became more difficult, more impossible as time passed and that a parting of the ways was simply inevitable.
"Why should I bend over backwards to help him," asks Bates, "when, after two albums and a bunch of scrapped recordings, I'm 452,000 pounds in the red on Tom Verlaine? For an artist so heavily in dept, I'm going to have to sell close to a million albums. I hardly think so. I should have stopped after the first 100,000 pounds and said goodbye. But I stuck with him and he turns round and shits on me. I find this grossly offensive on his part.
"I'll tell you what of Tom Verlaine. I think he's scared of succeeding. It's much easier to never attempt to make a commercial record and never attempt to be successful. It's so easy to sit back and say, 'No man, it's my art. It's critical okay.' That way you can never be judged and told that you're a failure. If you've never tried, how can you fail?" "So, as far as Tom Verlaine and Fontana go, it's the end of a relationship. We have no future together. He's known that for some time. He'll be far happier making cheap little records for an independent company. He'll be happier as a small, cottage industry. That's very sad, really."
One might also argue that the artistic reputation of a company like Phonogram/Fontana hinges on serious artists like Pere Ubu, The Fall and Tom Verlaine. That sales of Bon Jovi or Tears for Fears records in South Glamorgan or Walsall could subsidise the career of an artist like Verlaine for a considerable period of time. That it is unreasonable to expect someone like Verlaine to aim at the charts while groups like The House of Love score hits with more than a little help from the Verlaine guitar sound.
"Anyway," says Tom, "I always thought I was commercial. I always thought I was writing hit singles. These days, whatever's on the radio is considered commercial. People like what's on the radio, whatever it is."
Throughout his career, he has always seemed reluctantly commercial. Like he's been shooting arrows into the dark, hoping for the occasional yelp when the odd dart finds its target.
"That's not been my impression," he laughs. "See, I don't get to meet my audience. Some of them are very young. I met a 19 year-old girl in a club the other day who had never heard a Tom Verlaine record in her life. She'd wandered into one of my acoustic shows. She said, 'Jeez, I really like your voice!' That was great. She had no preconceptions. She just strolled in and decided she liked it. That kind of audience is always the best." Perhaps the Verlaine legend has become an intolerable burden. Who needs to buy a record when a name can be dropped?
"Well, I don't pay attention to rock 'n' roll too much. There are people I find interesting. Madonna is very interesting. The sheer ambition of that woman is incredibly interesting to me. I don't necessarily admire ambition. But, yeah, it's interesting. I certainly don't have that kind of ambition. I don't have that need to be seen. I don't desire to be seen the way she is." Does he prefer to be unseen?
"Uh, invisible you mean? Well, it's easy to be invisible if you really want. It's just a question of attitude."
Perhaps over the last 10 years Verlaine has become invisible. An insidious influence with no chart clout. A classic rock 'n' roll face who continues to carve out beautiful, immensely powerful albums that come and go, delight the Verlaine faithful, but fail to win the kind of new audience that might pull his career back on course and satisfy the demands of record company executives.
"It's true that there's a hell of a lot of people who have never heard a Tom Verlaine record. What can I do about that? Bribe the DJs? I can't even think about my music in terms of success. I know that word has a meaning, but not for me. The way I see it is, it's just like the way a plumber fixes a toilet or the way and an electrician puts wires in the ceiling. It's what you do with your life. To me, there's minimal glamour in all this. My idea of success has always been fixed in the same place. Some records do better than others. That's all there is. "I don't seek the same things as Madonna. That's why I'm perceved as an isolationist. Look a Orson Welles. In his field, he was so remarkable. Was he an illusionist? Was he a difficult person? I don't know about any of these things."
Perhaps Verlaine is simply riding on a different street-car?
"Given the preoccupations of most citizens outside the Third World countries, I guess I am. Most people are preoccupied with getting the video, getting the car ... making records is the central thing in my life. It really is. Y'know, people ask me what I think my position is these days. I really don't know. If anything, I refer back to how someone described me a while back ... as a sculptor. I find that slightly corny, but it's also true in a way. In writing songs and playing guitar, there's a constant chipping away at something, breaking something down very hard and dense, a kind of destructive element that is trying to arrive at this beautiful whole." He mentions that a recent meeting with old buddy, Richard Hell, in new York, resurrected the idea of releasing some old tapes the two made together in the early seventies. The chances of them working together again are "definitely remote".
The release of Television's "Blow Up" sessions on ROIR CD is a matter for some displeasure on Verlaine's part. He describes the release as "completely ilegal" and prmises that legal action will follow.
His projected "41 Monologues" book, excerpted on the inner sleeve of "Cover", is currently on hold, though some form of publication, possibly a lyric book, is imminent.
Meanwhile, Verlaine's final Fontana album has slipped out, with noticeably less critical fuss than usual. With less emphasis on Verlaine's exploratory guitar lines, "The Wonder" lacks some of the tingling intensity of old. Not that its rather muted reception has cost Verlaine any sleep.
"I haven't read the reviews. To me, it's electric guitar, bass and drums. What else could it be? I guess this one has the most naive qualities in it, at least lyrically. It was the first time I decided to let loose the more frivolous side. It's true to life basically." True to life, maybe. But, in the middle of 1990, one of the last great rock 'n' roll heroes looks down the line without a record deal in sight. A disgusting situaion. If we've reached the point where no one will take a chance with Tom Verlaine then we might as well back our bags and call it a day. A scandalous situation. At 41, one of the last great rock 'n' roll faces looks wider awake than just about anybody.
Besides, there's nobody around who can tell lies like Tom Verlaine. "Y'know, I'm having a four-way love affair right now. There's the Virgin Mary in the ethereal world. She doesn't manifest very often. I reckon she's playing hard to get. Then there's a very famous Hollywood starlet whose name I can't mention. And her sister. It's kinda difficult. Takes a bit of juggling about. But I'm travelling a lot. That makes it easier. Anyway, the Virgin Mary doesn't seem to mind. She seems to be very open-minded ..." Stick around, Tom. Gotta feeling we'll be needing you. Real bad.