Tom Verlaine

Musician Magazine 1987

By Scott Isler

"The press doesn¹t deserve anything but lies."

What luck! Just as "Cry Mercy, Judge" was released as a single off Tom Verlaine's first album in three years, the singer/guitarist found himself in his protagonist's position: arrested for speeding without a license. "They couldn't believe someone could be so stupid," Verlaine recalls. "The judge asked what I did for a living. I said, 'Well, I write songs.' He said, 'Well, I guess you got a new song here, don't you?'"

Fortunately, he got off with just a fine. Unfortunately, this publicist's dream isn't quite what it seems. For while Verlaine was crying mercy in South Carolina, his record was available only as an import. One of the founding fathers of the mid-'70s "new wave" music revolution couldn't find a record company in his native land.

Since then, I.R.S. Records has taken the challenge, releasing Flash Light and putting the artist under a promising long-term contract. It's only the latest twist in a career Verlaine archly terms "interesting." In five solo albums over the last nine years--not to mention two early LPs with the pathbreaking Television--Verlaine has consistently produced musical pearls. His nebulous lyrics wrestle with meaning, plainspoken but evasive. His slashing, guitar-driven music, on the other hand, rings with harmonic certainty; and his soloing prowess attracts fans who may not even care what the hell he's singing about. Yet for all his talent and influence, his records have trouble breaking 20,000 sales.

Having the critics, if not the public, on his side is a mixed blessing. Admirers tend to approach Verlaine with a solemn reverence that hardly jibes with the image of him bombing down a Southern back road at 100 m.p.h. in a '65 Plymouth. "People think that he takes himself too seriously," says his longtime drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. "But he's one of the funniest guys I've ever met! He's a riot!" "He's a character--a classic character," says guitarist Jimmy Ripp, a Verlaine regular since 1982; "the guy should be in movies." Bassist Fred Smith, who goes back to Television days with Verlaine, cagily describes him as "bright, witty, handsome." His ex-manager Steve Ralbovsky calls him "stubbornly opinionated...He pretty much does what he wants to do." However, Ralbovsky adds that Verlaine is "very easy-going": "What doesn't come through in his music is that he's a regular guy who grew up in Delaware. He can be real warm, caring, straight-ahead. The guy can be as mundane as anybody."

For this interview, Verlaine showed up promptly at a Greenwich Village café. Smoking one imported cigarette after another, sipping a café au lait, he avoided eye contact but proved quite forthcoming--a welcome contrast to how he usually comes across in print. "I read them," he says of interviews, "and I think, that was a waste of time talking to that guy." He laughs. "We had a very thorough conversation and he printed three quotes with a bunch of weird other stuff."

Tom, if you're reading this, we hope we didn't waste your time. You've never wasted ours.

Musician: You're perceived as a respectable cult figure with disreputable sales. Can Tom Verlaine sell records?

Verlaine: I don't think it's up to me, really. How do you think people sell records? What kind of music am I making? [laughs] You should tell me, then I'll see if we agree. It's pop music.... I don't hear these records as being difficult to listen to, or even demanding. I've read reviews over the years that describe them as some very difficult thing, and I just can't hear it--nor have any of the people I've worked with, either. It's like a joke, incredibly simple music, it really is.

Musician: Are you such a recluse? How much of your time do you devote to music?

Verlaine: Quite a bit. The stuff that makes it to records is maybe one-tenth of what gets worked on...I like my B-sides, in a sense, quite a bit more than I like the A-sides on the latest stuff. Most of the B-sides were cut as A-sides but the record company had no perception of it whatsoever, and there was no arguing with them. I myself think those are A-sides. They have a much more radical approach, including the lyrics. I think it's partially that lightness isn't taken seriously, whereas lightness often is the result of something very heavy, to use a dumb sort of word--or a sense of crisis.

Musician: Do you know what your songs are about?

Verlaine: [laughs] People ask me this a lot, what a song's about.... I do think analyzing a song can be interesting, although it doesn't necessarily get to the point. It's a whole other side activity. I do like making a thing into pictures. If I get an abstract idea and all the words in it don't represent tangible things, I might try to take the idea and make it into a picture, create a little scene there, an image.

When I look at the lyrics on this latest record, it seems much more about people's conscience and consciousness than their feelings. That might include their feelings, but there was a lot of other things going on as well. Basic sentiments come into it but...I have done tons of interviews this year. I swore I wasn't gonna do 'em 'cause people always ask the same thing. Then I turned it around: I thought, well, why do they ask this? Is this because it's easy to ask? Is it a stock series of questions that's easier to go into automatic gear and get something, write up an article? Or is this actually what people really want to know? For instance, 20 or 30 years ago you never saw interviewers ask musicians, painters or even actors so much about their career. I don't mean they were approached with exaggerated or undue reverence, but it wasn't like interviewing the head of CBS. Nowadays when people are interviewed, everything seems to be like...maybe it's just myself because I have done a series of records and never had any Top 10 records, outside of those Television records in some countries in Europe. And it was very much a stroke of luck, and time and place, that even these Television records were hits over there. The main reason I signed with Phonogram [in the U.K.] was the guy who signed me there said I wasn't selling records because no company had ever promoted me, which was true. Television wasn't even promoted. There'd been no ads, but the reviewers all loved it. These records just struck a chord with people and they wrote it up. In those days press sold records. That's no longer true over there; you can be on the cover of a magazine and not sell out a club of 700 people.

What was my point here? [laughs] I'm losing track of this. So they agreed to promote it, which they did. They were immediately able to double the sales which Virgin [Verlaine's previous British label] had done.

I could be as big as Muhammad Ali was in boxing [smiles].

Musician: Hmmm. Let's see if we can find the real Tom. How would you describe a typical day?

Verlaine: I tend to sleep 'til two or three o'clock, but that changes. Like this morning I got up at 10. Yesterday morning I got up at six. I don't have much of a schedule. I tend to work after midnight. But when I was living in England I tended to work in the afternoon.

Musician: By "work" do you mean practicing guitar?

Verlaine: I never practice. I just sort of doodle around, like somebody with a sketchpad. Sometimes I run a cassette recorder and maybe listen to it, maybe never listen to it again. There really isn't any pattern for how these things work. Some songs are written in 10 minutes. Sometimes I'll build a whole song around a bass line. Often the melody is just two sentences and that becomes the germ of a song.

Some days I'll wake up and have an idea for a song. It's not always on guitar. I might just hum into a tape, or play a little Casio keyboard and get that idea down. Then a week might go by that I don't play guitar much, but just work on lyrics or listen to tapes. There isn't any given procedure or schedule.

I don't work compulsively. I don't sit around and drum on a guitar for five hours and pull my hair out trying to get a song. My "influence" on guitar players really is a bit of a joke. I've never really learned guitar technique. I once tried to learn a better way to finger a scale and I never practice that either. It's much more hearing something and playing it, going for something much the way jazz musicians do, a very of-the-moment thing. It doesn't always work. Likewise in the studio you can get guitar solos on tape sometimes instantly; other times you whack around for an hour and it just gets worse and worse. It's a question of timing.

When I was in England, there was a fellow in a really successful band in a studio down the hall. I was talking to the engineer, who looked like he'd been up for three days, and they were laughing. I said, "What are you doing in there?" He said, "Those guys been working for three days on a guitar solo!" The guitarist had seen other apparently successful guitarists do this before. My tendency is to like records like Sonic Youth, where you get the feeling that maybe they rehearsed a little bit, and then went in and made the record in a couple of days. Or else L.L. Cool J, which is a cheapie technological record, but with a really nice performance over the top.

Musician: When you get a band together, do you tell people what parts to play?

Verlaine: Yeah, it's all pretty much arranged. On a couple of songs on this record I even wrote out the drum fills 'cause I had so much--like hearing a miniature symphony or something. "Annie's Telling Me" had certain drum parts written out; all the drum fills on "Song" were written out. It also has to do with working with rhythm machines; I developed it a bar at a time and realized I was hearing certain things. I usually work out all the drum parts with a drummer, with the exception of fills, then record it a couple of times, then get serious about fills--which to use, or what style. Likewise with the bass lines: maybe take out a few notes or change the bass-drum beat around a bit. It's real elementary stuff, though.

Musician: What's your modus operandi? Do you have a preferred method for constructing a song?

Verlaine: It's real different. This "Cry Mercy" song had a title and I also had a guitar part lying around for years, which I never thought of making into a chorus. Then I just whacked it on top. The title built the whole song up real quick, in terms of attitude and character. So that came out of guitar parts and just writing a simple pulse beat. "Say a Prayer": This had a chorus with a guitar melody I really liked; I combined that with a bass and guitar riff, which are the verses. Again, I was thinking about a certain kind of character--what this guy does and what this person says.

On this record there's an awful lot of criminality going on: crooked judges--this guy with Whitey Black [in "Say a Prayer"] is some sort of completely immoral--well, he's some kind of thief. This girl Rosie [in "At 4 a.m."] is involved with--I don't know what she's doing in that song! She's obviously been killed by gangsters or something for running away with some counterfeit money, or something. I noticed this when the record was done, that an awful lot of it seems to be built around this wickedness going on.

Three songs--"The Scientist Writes a Letter," "One Time at Sundown," and "Song"--have much longer melody structures than I'd been working with. The melodies tend to go on; instead of a series of riffs and an almost shouted vocal, they have a line that weaves along much longer phrases. I really like this. I don't know where it comes from. But all three of those songs were written in England, and all written very quickly. No, one of those songs was written in Paris. [laughs] Some of these songs go way back! "The Scientist" was January of '85, "Sundown" was November of '84. "Bomb" was something I had lying around and just started messing around with in the studio, got halfway through and stopped, just decided to record it. I think we did two takes on it, and that was that.

Musician: Your music and lyrics have a separate but equal appeal. Which tends to come first?

Verlaine: It depends on the songs. Sometimes I have a text, an idea; you get a little spark [laughs]. You use all these clichés about songwriting, it's really--I don't know. I mean, I could get incredibly theoretical about them, the procedure, but each song is so different to me. Like "Bomb" was just a three-chord guitar-riffy thing with an idea that didn't require a lot of thought. Some of the other songs I had to think about a lot more. "Song" has maybe three other verses that didn't get used. But the opening line, "I had this friend," describing this friend, is really what the whole lyric became. It usually has to do with one sentence, or a chorus, or a little thing that expands into a song. I think all composition or writing is like that: John Coltrane experiments with a rhythm, and this leads to another rhythm. Beethoven and Mozart are the same thing.

Musician: What do you do when you get tired of music writing?

Verlaine: I do a lot of prose writing--I guess it's prose--some of which gets used in the songs. "Swim" on the last record had a bit of this monologue at the beginning. "Annie's Telling Me" had a spoken monologue with music that was sort of an introduction to the song. But it made the song awfully long, so I chopped it off. Then I realized that the lyrics over the music that got chopped off lent something to the song that was no longer there. So I decided to print the lyrics on the sleeve. t does have something to do with what's going on in that song, the tone of people.

Musician: So far you've mentioned only music and writing. What are your other interests?

Verlaine: I like listening to people. I like when people on buses engage me in conversation. I always egg them on to see what's on their mind, what they really want to talk about. The psychology of these people I find interesting. It's not so much that you hear intelligent things, it's just that I find the preoccupations of people very interesting and funny. Not always, but often. Recently I had a long conversation with somebody about gossip, and how traditionally gossip is looked down upon. But gossip really is two people creating their own world together, conjecturing on the doings and motivations of others. They're probably often completely wrong; they might have a little fact right, but then they go on and develop this whole universe. It's not so different from what anybody writing a story is doing.

I like traveling a lot. I spent most of the last two-and-a-half years in Europe, most of that time in England, Portugal, Paris. What I'd really like is to have the option of going into a studio five days a week--to have a deal with a studio where you could call in a day ahead, say "I'd like to come in for three days," and then not go in for another month. It's sort of how Cover was done. I knew these studios that weren't busy; on all but one occasion I could call up and say, "Are you booked tomorrow?" That's a really fun way to work.

I like to walk. I don't have any hangouts. I probably walk a couple of miles a day. I would like to have a car. Someone wants a guitar that I've got. They offered to trade me this car. It's a great swap, but I don't know if I can afford to keep a car around.

Musician: You don't have a driver's license, do you?

Verlaine: No but that won't get in the way. It never stopped me before.

Musician: You seem to be lucky in working with the same group of musicians for the past 10 years.

Verlaine: So far it's coincided that when I need to do something, they've been available. It's a real family: Fred and Jay and Jimmy Ripp. We're like four brothers who are continually clowning around. It lends a great rapport onstage.

Jay's really playing great. He did some things on this tour like a young Elvin Jones, some stuff that's unbelievable. The young English drummers couldn't believe it. These kids sit at home with a rhythm machine and play boom-chick-boom-chick. They had never heard a drummer pull off the kind of things he was pulling off on the longer numbers.

Musician: What do you think people get out of your work?

Verlaine: It's a pastime, isn't it? Listening to any record is a hopefully enjoyable, maybe provocative pastime. Certain people use certain records to reinforce their own beliefs. When I was young, I'd always find myself arguing with the singer on the radio--saying, "Well, maybe that, not that," in terms of the lyric. I could see where this guy had been lazy and thrown in a line just for the sake of a rhyme, or hadn't quite thought out a statement. But maybe that's something only people who write songs do.

Musician: It's hard to think of somebody else who writes lyrics that come across so well on the printed page.

Verlaine: They do tend to rhyme, though. As corny as they are, I really like it when songs rhyme.

Musician: How do you feel when you hear other people doing your songs?

Verlaine: It's a kick, I guess. You just hear a song; in a sense it has nothing to do with yourself. When you've finished an album, you're pretty detached from it. You sit back and listen to it, and you're probably aware of the shortcomings. But when you hear somebody else do a song...I always think, gee, I'm glad I didn't do it like that. [laughs] I don't mean that in a really negative sense.

Musician: Do you feel flattered that David Bowie recorded your "Kingdom Come"?

Verlaine: I think he should do more of my songs! Some of his new songs aren't...[laughs] I've got a song I want Anita Baker to do, but I don't know if she'll do it. I've also got a song I want Aretha Franklin to do. Those two are amazing.

Musician: Did you really tell that New York magazine profile writer you were 33?

Verlaine: [laughs] Yeah, sure! I told somebody in Europe I was 43. I never tell my true age. It's ridiculous that people ask. The press doesn't deserve anything but lies.

Musician: You told one interviewer you didn't know who the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine was, but you adopted his name because you liked the sound of it.

Verlaine: That actually was true.

Musician: ?! [incredulous]

Verlaine: It's not hard to believe. In '75 there were no books in print by this guy. Believe me. [Ed. note: The 1975 edition of Books in Print lists 12 titles by Paul Verlaine.] Everybody in Television--no, the drummer had his real name, but nobody else did. [giggles] We were sitting around thinking up names. It was completely a lark. It's fun. "David Bowie" is a hilarious name. I remember being in high school and some people were saying "Bob Die-lan" and other people were saying "Bob Dylan." I remember one older guy feeling very superior because he knew it was Dylan and claimed it was after this poet. Nobody cared. Half the people walked around saying "Die-lan" anyway.

I find it insulting that people would even talk about "real names." What's a real name? A real name is a name you choose to have. You're given a name by your parents because the legal system operates that way. There's nothing absolute about names. Actually, "Miller" isn't my real name either. I'd have to get hold of my grandmother to try to find out how to spell it. It's a northern Russian name. My family went from Russia to Scotland, and ended up in the United States three generations down the line, and their name got shortened every time they went somewhere. It's something like Millaren-Schenkov. My grandmother said that in Russia all these family names had meanings, images attached to them. [laughs] God, what is the origin of naming? How absolute is a word?

TV Guide

Tom Verlaine's guitar of choice is a Fender Jazzmaster--"mid-'60s, I guess. Nobody can play it 'cause the strings have gotten heavier and heavier. It's now 13 to 58, or something. Someone said they're like piano wire. I used to use lighter ones, but they didn't stay in tune." He also has a Strat and a couple of Gretsches. For amplification he's got "a bunch of really old Fender stuff. I like the sound of four 10s, or else one 12." The secret weapon is a combination tape delay and Dynacord 1950s tube pre-amp. "It really brightens and beefs things up." He also has a two-octave Casiotone keyboard and a decidedly low-tech Panasonic cassette recorder for home use.

Fellow guitarist Jimmy Ripp favors a Roland guitar synthesizer; on Flash Light it's plugged into an Emulator or Yamaha DX7. Otherwise, Ripp has an endorsement deal with Marshall amps. His collection of effects--"toys"--goes all the way back to a green Gibson Maestro, but Ripp's favorites are a Fuzz Face and Electro-Harmonix Memory Man analog delay. Strings? "I'm trying to think of who's giving 'em away. Say they're LaBellas. They're all the same shit."

For the last four years bassist Fred Smith's been playing a G&L 1000 with D'Addario stainless-steel strings. His amp is usually a Gallien-Kruger RGB400 feeding into two separate JBL speaker cabinets, each with two 15" EVMs.

Drummer Jay Dee Daugherty's onstage kit is a black Yamaha Recording Series. It includes a 16x14" bass drum with a Pearl chain-driven pedal and Rottor counterweight; an old Ludwig Black Beauty snare, 12" and 13" toms on a RIMS mount; and a 16x16" floor tom. Daugherty also has 12" and 14" Rototoms on the side. His cymbals vary between Paiste and Zildjian, but currently are 16" and 18" Sabian medium-thin crashes; a 20" Paiste heavy ride; 22" Paiste China Boy; and 15" 602 Soundedge high-hats. Sticks are Manny's 1A Durawoods. And let's not forget the cowbells and Latin Percussion woodblocks.