Another Television Broadside
Source: NME 6th May 1978
by Steve Clarke
“Tough, eh, kids?” Smirks TOM VERLAINE, the man who crossed the Channel (He means the Atlantic but there’s no pun in that. –Ed.) to tell Steve Clarke that he doesn’t consider himself “good at anything”. |
It would be difficult to envisage worse circumstances under which to conduct an interview with Television’s creative fulcrum Tom Verlaine.
In what to outsiders must appear an about-turn of epic proportions, a fortnight ago this journal took Television’s latest waxing – the aptly titles “Adventure” – to the cleaners with an almost unparalleled vengeance. The essence of Julie Burchill’s review was that Television was just another American band out to get rich quickly. And all this coming on top of Nick Kent’s interview with Verlaine last year in which the former revealed in detail numerous instances of what he saw as Verlaine’s rampant ego-mania, arrogance and paranoia.
“Kent implied I thought I was Jesus Christ,” says Verlaine.
Last January Kent had been the first to pour lavish praise on Television’s long-awaited debut “Marquee Moon” that the band were deemed fit to grace NME’s cover, solely on the basis of that review.
The critical wind had indeed altered course. To compound “the Television backlash”, Sounds and Record Mirror gave “Adventure” a critical thumbs down, too. In response Verlaine refused Record Mirror’s request for an audience and only reluctantly agreed to be interviewed by NME; after all, NME had given Television a heartly slap on the back last January.
There is nothing about Tom Verlaine’s appearance to suggest that he is one of the most exciting guitarists currently working in rock. With his baggy, weathered cords, sloppy jersey, high forehead and angular features, Tom Verlaine looks like a 1930s intellectual with literary leanings. Verlaine is indifferent to our entrance. His previous interviewer had told me Verlaine’s reputation as something of a difficult subject is pure pie in the sky. The record company said Verlaine is just shy.
After first disassociating myself from Ms Burchill’s review, I immediately put my foot in it.
“We were not booed off stage. What are you talking about?” he retorts to a remark about the reception Television received at New York’s Palladium last March when they supported Peter Gabriel, then making his debut as a solo performer.
“I was onstage and I could hear what was going on,” he continues. “It was like half applause and half booing. And we were not booed off stage. We did our whole set.”
That night in New York Television bore no resemblance to the group which toured Britain to great response later last year. Little of Verlaine’s guitar genius came across, or, come to that, of Richard Lloyd’s more lyrical approach. As a unit Television were limp and uncoordinated and only gelled on the set-closing “Marquee Moon”, a far cry from their awesome presence which was to captivate British audiences last summer. There was no encore.
Verlaine’s explanation for this discrepancy is simple: ”When you get that kind of response it just makes you play so much better. I think we’re as good as our audiences are. If you come onstage and you feel that the audience isn’t just curious – you feel like they’re with you on some simple emotional level – it tends to make you play better.
“You come out and there’s too much expectation or some slight hostility, and it works against everybody. Sometimes you can just get over it by ignoring it. It depends on how tired you are.” The previous night in New Jersey, the tour’s first gig, was worse still, Television performing without a sound check plus minus anyone at the mixer: “The only thing coming out of the PA was bass and drums, and a little bit of vocal. And we’re a guitar group.
“New Jersey likes three acts. They like The Grateful Dead. They like The New Riders Of The Purple Sage and there’s one other group they go nuts for. It’s the kind of audience that drinks a few beers and just loves to give the band a hard time.
“Gabriel didn’t go down that well either,” he adds, pulling up his cords and fidgeting with the long black socks hiding underneath.
In America, Television still mean next to nothing, though they haven’t exactly been breaking their backs to get in on the act. Apart from the Gabriel tour – a 15 date schlep which Television did because it would give them some experience of playing theatres – their only US dates last year were three gigs in Illinois and a handful of club dates on the West Coast. The rest of the year was taken up with the European tour and recording “Adventure”, a four month stint from September to January with November off.
Still, if we’re to believe Verlaine, he isn’t interested in Making It:
“Success per se doesn’t interest me. The only way it would bother me was if it affected our relationship with our record company. Elektra just let us do what we want. They let us double our budget for this record. They’re very nice people. It’s really as simple as that.”
So why does he think Television are much more successful in Britain?
”The English are smarter. Seriously, I think there’s – what, two radio stations over here? In the States there’s twelve rock’n’roll stations in every major city. Just day and night the same crap. There’s five bands coming to your town every week. Every night there must be some band somewhere on TV. We’re probably still too spontaneous for America. Most bands in America have no spontaneity. Everything’s all worked out right. They all go through these producers that have cost a pile of money and they do a record that sounds just like their last one. Look at Aerosmith’s last three records. I can’t listen to that.
“I think the British have some sympathy for individual style. I think Television has that. In America people tend to attach themselves to something immediately familiar. Which is why Elvis Costello is a success over there.
“He reminds a lot of people of a lot of ‘60s acts. His latest single is note for note a Music Machine rip off. Remember Music Machine? They had a hit single in ’66 called “Talk Talk” which is a great song. It’s three minutes and fifty seconds of this very scrambled rhythm. “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea” is at least one third note for note ripped off from this little ‘60s punky group. “I’m not crazy about Elvis Costello. I feel like I’ve been hearing Elvis Costello since I was 18. Younger than that. I like Nick Lowe ‘cos at least he likes experimenting with guitar sounds a lot. “Obviously that guy has heard every record in the world.”
Verlaine had expected to record “Adventure” in eight weeks. But the inadequacy of the group’s equipment and other assorted technical problems there were delays from the start.
“We don’t use producers. We just get engineers. Some bands need a guy in there to tell’em what to do, help’em arrange. Every producer I’ve met has been a… I mean, a producer in the United States makes like two thousand dollars a week.
“They’re all a bunch of really inflated guys who think that they make hit records. Once a producer has a Gold record in the States he tends to be a rather bloated personality. Walks around and wants you to give him cocaine to do your record. Who needs it?
“The first record was almost like a live record. It was going in and cutting everything live and, whenever anything didn’t make it, filling it with another guitar.
“This album was done the opposite way. Half writing the stuff in the studio. “The Fire” and “The Dream’s Dream” were basically written in the studio. Solos are spontaneous in the studio. The drag with solos is that they can always be better. I wish I could remember solos ‘cos I can remember some nights playing a solo I thought was good and not remember exactly what it was. That solo on “The Fire” is okay.
“Everybody says I sound like Neil Young. I don’t know. The first Neil Young record I listened to was “Zuma”. That song “Cortez” is a great song. I like the lyrics ‘cos they capture something that’s historically true. And subconsciously present. He’s one of the few guitar players I like. I like Link Wray’s early guitar playing. I like Buchanan’s work in the ‘50s on those Chess singles. I like Richard Thompson’s tone. I don’t like his playing. I like that sparkly Fender sound. The Byrds got that same kind of sound. That whole kinda shiney sound.”
“Days” sounds like you’d be listening to The Byrds.
“Oh sure. I love The Byrds. I think that track came out of a rehearsal where we were talking about The Byrds. Me and Fred the bass player especially like The Byrds’ sound. They’re a terrible live band though. They’re probably the worse band that ever made Top Ten live.”
Television watchers will notice the non-inclusion on “Adventure” of several songs the band features live on their British tour last year. Verlaine says they didn’t appear because Television was bored doing them and the song “Adventure” itself was discounted because its inclusion would have meant a reduction in sound quality.
“That’s what I don’t like about our first record. The grooves are so close. Maybe the general public doesn’t hear that kind of stuff. When you’re doing it you can all kinds of distortion because the grooves are so close. I’d say the new album is close to five minutes shorter than the first one.
“The lyrics to “Carried Away” and “The Fire” took a long time to write. “Ain’t That Nothin’” was written in an hour-and-a-half in the studio. Everybody came out with an “I Don’t Care” last year so we changed the title to “Careful”. We’ve been doing that song for four years.”
Does he consider himself a poet?
“No. You really can’t sing poetry. I don’t like sung poetry. I once heard a record of Allen Ginsberg singing. That might be poetic. It’s really hard to determine what poetry is. “It’s something that has some sort of personal interior logic. Some people respond to that individual thing. Some people don’t. From that point of view it might be poetic.”
It’s been suggested that you have something in common with the Romantic Poets?
“Oh yeah, that’s because of the name. I almost wish I’d never called myself that. I still like the name enough to…It probably would have been easier if I hadn’t.
“About five years ago in New York a whole number of people I knew did it. One was a painter. Richard Hell was one of them. Me and Hell were friends. We were sitting around and decided to change our names. It took us a while to think of what we wanted.
“It was really a pretty simple thing. It wasn’t meant to be a move where one denies their own past or associates themselves with some historical thing. It was almost just like something to do. “I’m 28 now. I read Rimbaud when I was about 23. I liked him then, but I really can’t read him now. It’s just a name I like. I know it doesn’t sound believable.”
He doesn’t believe in the starving artist myth: “You’ve got to have your bases covered even to do anything. You’ve got to know if you’re going to eat something in order to work on something that night. That basic knowledge has to be unconscious in yourself at least.”
Verlaine’s own life isn’t a luxurious one, although he has moved from the tiny Lower East Side apartment he lived in a year ago (Television’s drummer Billy Ficca now lives there) to an even smaller pad – in a better kept building.
“I like buildings where a lot of old people live. You get buildings where a lot of young people live and they tend to get too communal. I’m not the communal type. I’m not out to meet a lot of people. I’m not very sociable. I don’t go out to clubs much and I don’t go to parties.”
Television certainly didn’t swell their collective bank balance as a result of last summer’s European tour. To date, no money has been forthcoming from the tour and, strangely enough, Verlaine- who after a seven month wrangle freed himself from his contract with Wartoke Management – seems happy to let it stay that way.
Verlaine claims Television has been done out of $5,000, enough, he says, for him to live on for a year.
“I didn’t make more money than that last year. There’s not a lot of money in rock’n’roll. You can make a lot of money if you have a Gold record. Before that it’s just breaking even.”
Verlaine also hasn’t received royalty statement for the sales of “Marquee Moon”. He obviously isn’t into a “rock star trip”. What does he think of Television being dubbed “The Ice Kings Of Rock”?
“At first I thought it was funny, but then I just thought…it would be nice to have total control of your image. The band are hyper-emotional. That’s why I just don’t see where it comes from. “I think when you’re hyper-emotional you appear to be cold, especially on stage where everything is theatricalised. It could be very easy to go on stage and hop around, be a clown. I don’t think it’s icy. Our link to our audience is emotional and the people who don’t pick it up just see the whole thing as cold.
“If it’s nobody’s cup of tea, I think they’re going to write off as that kind of thing. Have you ever seen Muddy Waters? Most blues guys appear to be cold. But the sound coming out isn’t cold at all. A lot of what you’re seeing is somewhat frozen. I’m not saying they don’t sweat. Onstage I move more than people see. It’s just that it’s not exaggerated movements. We’re not a show band.” Does he think about not moving?
“No. I just do what I do. I notice that my leg moves all the time. I notice that my shoulders move. What am I going to do, Chuck Berry stuff? Jimi Hendrix moves? Actually I might do some of those just for the fun of it sometime.
“We’re interested in playing well. I think we play okay. We’re not virtuosos. We’re not even like rock virtuosos. Writing and playing are about the same thing to me. Playing a guitar solo or making up a song is about the same thing. “I don’t consider myself good at anything. It’s not a question of good or bad. It’s a question of how much you put yourself into it. That’s misleading too. I say what I want to say.”
“Well, you see, that’s the mystery. I know I’m saying what I want to say but to be specific about what it really is gets really hairy.
“It does sound really stupid, but it’s true. A person knows when they’ve done something whether it’s right for them. It’s impossible to say whether it means anything to anyone else. I know it means something to somebody ‘cos people tell me they like it.”
Our interview has lasted an hour, during which time Dennis O'Regan has been photographing Verlaine. He now asks if he could do some shots with Verlaine standing up.
"I don't like posing for photographs," replies Verlaine. "You can come backstage next week. You've had an hour.
No more photographs are taken.