The foolish heart of Tom Verlaine

Source: NME (September 1, 1984)

Talking with Tom Verlaine, as legend has it, is one of the less entertaining or productive options available to the interested party. A teeth-pulling exercise.

“I don’t know if I have that reputation. I feel more like the clown of all time. “I think my bad reputation might come from friends of mine who became drug addicts. They always slag off anyone they know. You should call up some people I’ve worked with and they’ll tell you I’m no bad guy.”

Tom’s bashful smile and nervous guffaw came next. Then he folds his spidery fingers, looks away and back again. His eyelids have a flustered tic that suggests a traceless wind has blown sand into them. The routine of talking seems to snarl up a polite, well-spoken man. It happens that this lean scarecrow figure has made some of the more fascinating music since “new wave” he helped to define nearly ten years ago.

From the first eruptive jangle of Television’s “See No Evil” through an intermittently compelling and combustible series of solo records, Verlaine has played an outsider’s tactic on the interior heartland of rock. The rewards in “Tom Verlaine”, “Dreamtime” and “Words From The Front” are hard-won, for these are ungenerous and sometimes gruelling records full of spooks and shocks.

Love in Verlaine’s music is a painful grip, a break in the natural order. Guitar passages of acidulous purpose burst out of whiningly taut songs; imagery burns and corrodes in stories that the composer’s strangulated voice can sometimes hardly get out. But when - in “True Story”, “Breakin’ In My Heart” or “Mary Marie” – those elements bond and coalesce, the gift is cruelly beautiful. Verlaine’s rock is squirming in electricity that sometimes glows and sings.

For the moment he is making his home in England, where his second Virgin LP “Cover” was recently completed. The record is Tom’s calmest collection: songs like “Swim”, “Foolish Heart” and “Let Go The Mansion” are all grace and symmetry and wisdom, played rather like a roundelay of chimes and whispers.

“I like the sound of this record” he says. “I spent a lot of time trying to make it as simple as I could. A lot of the songs are stripped down. I wanted it so an instrument could really speak… it’s something you hear on jazz records. The guitar still seems to have a style, something personal about it – it’s not something you can get the same from synthesisers. “

Something, though, will always appear in a Verlaine song to send it crooked, make it hurt. Is he afraid of pure melody?

“Well, there’s definitely more melody here. More like Mozart. You could sing these songs with an acoustic guitar and still hear the melody there. And a retard could play those drumbeats. That’s the rhythm I like best. I mean, I really love The Troggs’ drummer! Brutal, you know. “Maybe it sounds difficult to some people, but to me it appears ultra-simple and ultra-natural. If it doesn’t sound good right away I try something else. Everything’s easy to play, it’s just positioned so that they might sound different to other pop tunes.”

The simplicity of form masking a complexity of touch, timing, nuance – Chet Baker, Jimmy Giuffre.

“Baker, yeah, and Miles Davis – parts that are very simple but charismatic because of the person behind it. I’d be at a loss in a jazz context because I don’t have the technique. It’s a virtuoso music as far as I can tell. “I make mistakes, there’s far more mistakes in my solos, but … you just ask, what’s really gonna improve if we do it another five or 20 times? There are solos on the record that were done to test microphone levels. It’s better than sitting there and trying.”

Is it difficult to muster passion in the studio?

“The opposite. Trying to find a centre of calm to do it in so it’s listenable! You reach the point where the clock’s so wound up all the springs are going to come flying out of it. There’s a certain point in the process where it’s productive. There has to be a centre on the whole thing, the hands on the instrument, the voice…”

That concentrated effort and energy may have peaked in “Dreamtime”, a stupidly overlooked record. In sound of unrepeatable denseness and huge textural width, Verlaine trashed out a tract on romance and despair that should’ve smoked every valentine within miles. It reaches a furious climax on “Down On The Farm”, where an entire orchestra of guitar wipes clean through all memory of rock “heaviness”. Prophetically, one tune was called “A Future In noise”! Could it ever be duplicated?

“Yeah, a lot of those songs couldn’t be played. Especially the slow ones. I love slow songs but I really don’t think people want to hear them at concerts any more. I had to take them all out last time I toured. Bronski Beat probably don’t do any slow songs. Maybe The Rolling Stones do some slow blues, or something.”

Tom has a way with these sourpan asides. “Dreamtime” was sound as battering ram – is he interested in the physicality of music, like the way disco shoves against the flesh?

“I think people wanna dance, and the minute they hear something regular and slightly faster than their own pulse they’re gonna dance. Going to a disco is a horrendous, awful experience because it’s a big loud thing making your heart beat faster. Really bad for your internal organs. The pleasure comes in giving yourself over to the desire of being haywire and rhythmic – but the experience itself isn’t really pleasurable at all. “The history of low sounds – well, it comes out of church music, using low sounds to create an awe-inspiring effect. In Himalayan music they use very large horns to do that. But in pop it’s passé to me. I Like the Blue Nile record because of the bass drum on it is almost religious, a big, low feeling. I mean, I don’t find bass drums interesting to listen to, or dance music. Do people listen at home to Michael Jackson records?”

Or Tom Verlaine records?

“What else would they do? Dance to them?”

Perhaps work on them. There’s a quality of a man under glass about Verlaine’s records, an insider looking even further inward.

“That’s true. Have you ever seen film of Coltrane? That was very much an inside sort of situation, not standing back and playing at things…the feel of the whole thing became more and more essential. “Everyone I’ve ever admired has had good technique. Even Dylan’s folk guitar and the way he strummed it on those early records. The sound of the strum! He was no half-assed player. Simple, but intricate. Stole it off Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, though. “I would say this completely seriously,” says Tom, trying to catch the hub of the Verlaine worldview. “Once a year I’ll go back and listen to the last record I made and it seems to me, when I hear my records back, that there’s a real obsession with sex! The rhythm content and everything seems to be unconsciously fascinated with sex. All the guitars seem to have a certain amount of… pleasure involved. When you listen to the guitar breaks, instead of the usual melodic purpose there’s a release of tension.”

Good grief. Did you say completely seriously? In staking residence over here, Verlaine might almost be coming home. Old Europa always sang Television’s praises, and in London the gaunt fellow is something of a godfather to a particular stream of guitar-driven clubrock: half of the independent chart regulars must have cupped ears to “Marquee Moon” in their cribs night after night.
Verlaine the architect and organiser is suddenly more seminal than ever.

“I’ve come here to finish the record and work with a few groups here. It’s something I can contribute to and I can do it well. There are people who really do need help. I gather the producers here are a lot more ruthless than in the States, and a lot of groups don’t work on their sound as much as bands did ten years ago. And they don’t have the outlets to play live.
“I enjoy the art of playing live. I don’t like the touring around in buses but I like the performance art. It’s like a living tradition. U2 is a band that actually loves to play live – they’re not a particularly brilliant band but they’ve developed a certain rapport with audiences. I’ve seen about ten bands here and half of them don’t know how to relate to an audience. “I’m not talking about getting them to clap hands like Simple Minds do, which is absolutely retarded. That was appalling. But the matter of connection isn’t known or understood. Sinatra doesn’t say much. Miles Davis just comes out and plays.”

Verlaine is cagey about his interest in potential protégés – maybe the material he says, or the singer. Not the guitars?
He laughs again.

“I don’t think they’re out of fashion, although I hear U2’s next record is going to have lots of synthesisers on it. I’d rather use cheesy organs and dress them up with weird boxes or something. I can’t even think of a synthesiser song I like.”

Pinning down his other interests is impossible. Verlaine plays a good softball in conversations; his outguessing is ingenuous but smart.

“I’ve found it interesting to listen to music from languages I don’t understand. Tunisia, Rumania… what comes through it is so completely basic to me. There’s no media involved. It sounds much more basic and direct than any pop music. When you hear a lot of pop music it’s like, yes, this is the gargantuan dance track or whatever. People are trying to second-guess their audience. You hear people thinking their opinion aloud in the music.
“In things like Tibetan music everything is much more cathartic. Everything is used in moving consciousness. That application of sound is really interesting. I might make an instrumental record over here. There’s more time to work here, somehow, compared to New York. This is more like a café society. What happened to the coffee houses here?”

They died out with Alexander Pope.

“There’s a time when New York becomes destructive to your work” I could see myself living in Europe…but the only thing about Europe is, America still has an incredible wild element that you don’t find here. I don’t know what Europe’s done with it. Maybe England buried it in its Empire. I’d like to check out the Mediterranean. Robert Graves threw everything up and went to live there. A certain part of that appeals to me, living somewhere fairly rural.”

Part of the block Verlaine’s work puts on the average ear is his refusal to pepper references to other rock through it. Do people listen to his music to remind them of other music?

“Yeah, that’s a ‘70s phenomenon, a conformist age. People acted very much like their neighbours. That was when mass haircuts and Farrah Fawcett look-alikes came in – a lack of style was something people emulated. It’s funny, because it was also coupled with mass spiritual brainwashing, all those weird cults, the Moonies and everything. People wanted to be part of something larger than themselves.”

The cult persists today, centred perhaps on a thin black man with a golden hiccup.

“Jackson doesn’t sing any melody on his records at all. I find it amazing that he can be so successful. The Beatles weren’t so successful just because of their looks and personalities. The songs and melodies were so warm, whereas Michael Jackson’s lyrics are so… disposable. What does it say about our life and times? Are people’s feelings so atrophied that they don’t give a shit about what they hear any more?”

O, foolish heart! You hear any old tune, and you sing.

“I was interested when I heard “Beat It” the first time. The way it was made was interesting. What else has excited me? A couple of Himalayan records. Ravel’s “Pavane”. I find myself very bored with rhythmically-oriented music. Melody is the heart of music.”

Isn’t pop music meant to be exciting?

“It’s meant to be exciting! That’s good. There’s something in that statement that tells the whole story!”