Tom Verlaine’s Question Time

Source: NME 12th September 1981

Chris Salewicz looks at TV in the video age

Notwithstanding a certain amount of nervous chuckling, Tom Verlaine seems a nice enough fellow as he sits with his feet up on the desk in an office at Warner Brother’s Soho headquarters. Having been seduced by the brand’s glamorous packaging, he is smoking a Sobranie Turkish cigarette, but is rather disappointed with its flavour – a not unusual experience.

Tom is in London in order to master the single “Always” that will shortly be put out off his new LP ”Dreamtime”: the New York cutting-room he normally uses is fully booked up. Anyway, all his three LPs – the two Television records and his first solo – have fared better in Europe than in America.

“In England alone we may have sold more records than we did in all the United States.” It would be misleading to suggest that he and I slip into instant rapport. Indeed, at the outset of the interview we experience something of a breakdown in communication.

Thus: “In terms of punk rock, the first Television album “Marquee Moon” was a formative record. Yet your record sales hardly equalled your influence, especially when you compare them with those of, say, Blondie, who supported you on your first UK tour.”

“Was there a question there?”

OK, I’ll try again if you like: “How do those low sales appear to you, considering that Television were a most vital group of their time?”

“I’m still not sure there’s a question there: see, I’m not good at talking unless somebody specifically puts a question to me.”


“In terms of…?…I just keep on doing the same thing, you know. There’s a certain sound that I like which is essentially just two guitars, bass and drums. So this new record doesn’t sound a whole lot different to me from the other stuff – though whether it’ll sell more now than it did five years ago, I really don’t know.
“As far as America is concerned I don’t think they’ll ever get used to me.”
Tom Verlaine spent much of last year recording “Dreamtime”. It was slow going because his head was still cluttered with the draggy debris of the previous twelve months:

“That year there was a lot of time involved in trying to get off Elektra in the States, which is a different label from over here. Now I’m on Warner Brothers in America, which took a lot of legal finagling.
“Anybody can pretty much guess the reasons why I did it: to this day I still actually don’t know how many records Television sold (laughs). That’s one of the reasons.”

One feels that Tom Verlaine’s is a quietly simmering talent wrapped around a genuine art, rather than blind ambition backing up half formed ideas.

Sometimes it seems that he’s so obviously relaxed and unhurried, and perhaps quietly sure of himself, that he must be a wide-open target for sharks. Even when Television played that first sell-out English tour, he had trouble getting his money, this time from his management: “We didn’t need an adding machine to figure out what we were supposed to be making, so we just had to leave that management. In fact, we had to borrow money from the record company to pay them off. “It’s a pretty common thing, mind you,” he adds. “I’m not sour about it, because it’s a fact of life.”

Tom even suggests that if it doesn’t seem fitting, then I don’t need to write anything about all these hassles.
So my next question is:
”Why is it such a long time since you’ve played live?”

“Because I wouldn’t have been able to pay anybody! Also,” he laughs to himself, “ I wasn’t in the mood to do it. I don’t want to go out there and do it just to make some money to pay the rent. My personal mood for about a year, which is one thousands of people go through, was just not to do much, because I knew that if I did I wouldn’t actually be doing anything good. “Whereas now I want to do it, and also I have the means to pay the musicians.”

For a road band he already has bassist Fred Smith and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. A guitar player is required, however, turning Tom Verlaine into yet another group leader encountering the well-known Zen joke of The Quest For The Ego less Guitarist: ”I’m looking for someone to get some sort of chemistry going with, someone who’s open to doing things in different ways. In America, so many guitarists have just one stock style with a Les Paul and a loud amp. There don’t seem to be many guitarists who actually have the desire to really play.”

Tom’s record company difficulties apart, it still has taken him a whole year to come up with a new set of songs: does he write slowly, I inquire?

“It depends on how heavy the pen is,” he waggishly replies. “In fact, I tend to change my mind a lot. I often write two or three songs, and they end up being one. I may have half an hour of music and start cutting it down because I realize there’s a song in there somewhere. Writing songs that end up no is hard work, it seems. But when you write one that you like, it seems very easy indeed.”

Perhaps Tom should call his new group Tom Verlaine’s Video: that would be just the ticket for today’s pastel coloured music audience.