The Cult of Tom Verlaine

New York Magazine August 10, 1987

by Katherine Dieckmann

"Accessible? Really? To whom? asks Tom Verlaine, sipping cafe au lait on a sticky Sunday afternoon.

"I'm probably the last person to recognize these things. I'm not even sure who my audience is." But Verlaine's devoted followers know who he is: founder of Television, the acclaimed seventies rock band; forger of the era's most wildly improvisational guitar style, which stretches from bluesy licks to the sound of a monkey being strangled. And whether he cares or not, Verlaine's fifth solo album Flashlight (just released by I.R.S. Records) with its rockers and ballads lashed together by that freeform guitar, may win him his largest audience ever.

"Some people have a real patter about what they do, " says Verlaine, 33 [sic]. "I don't." A thin-faced man who lives in hats and dark glasses [he's wearing a perfectly round Panama straw hat in the accompanying photo], he was born Tom Miller in New Jersey, dropped out of high school in Delaware, checked in and out of colleges and finally wound up in New York, where he started a band and later persuaded the owner of a Bowery gin mill---CBGB---to open the doors to rock groups. Unlike Talking Heads or Blondie, Television never found a mass audience, but Verlaine seemed to like it that way. What else can you expect from a man who denies taking his name from the French poet ("I just thought it was a cool name"), and disappeared to Europe for a couple of years and was assumed to be in exile (but claims he never really left New York)? Ask him even the most basic question---about a collection of his writings that's due out next year---and he lights another cigarette and exhales a variation on the line from a new song: "I don't want to talk about it / Isn't that the funniest thing?" He can't comment on the New York music scene because "I never really went out and saw bands," but he does like Sonic Youth and the new album by L.L. Cool J."

And he becomes positively effusive when the topic has nothing to do with music: the novels of Janet Hobhouse; films by Alan Rudolph; the way an old woman on a bus told him about "bypassing the American educational system." Novels, film, and overheard tales are more essential to Verlaine's work than the Billboard chart. What does he say about his influences? "When I think of 'influence', I think of 'influenza', like somebody's picked up a germ."