"Tom Verlaine Without TV: The New Season"
NEW YORK ROCKER, #22, September 1979
by Roy Trakin
Finally meeting with the notoriously reclusive Verlaine after two years of pursuit, I was more than
surprised to find him a charming, funny, warm and (yup!!) human cat. With his rep as a sullen,
tight-lipped interview, I expected the worst from Verlaine, but he turned out to be an articulate if
somewhat reticent subject. Over a plate of shepherd's pie at the Glocca Morra, a run-down Irish pub
on Third Avenue, we launched our conversation. There were, of course, moments when Verlaine drifted off into a fantasy world of anthropomorphism and talking stuffed turtles, but he generally attempted to answer my queries straight-forwardly. He chose his words very carefully, all the while darting his eyes and looking over his shoulder as if something or someone was gaining on him. . . |
New York Rocker: Do you think Elektra mishandled the first two albums?
Tom Verlaine: I don't think they handled them at all. The way most record companies run, they just put the stuff out there. .
NYR: You mean they throw everything up against the wall to see what will stick. . .
TV: Yeah, that's like the 1950s' Madison Avenue language. Actually a lot of stuff's really funny, all those phrases. There's about five hindered of them, all equally obnoxious. All record companies are the same. Make them a lot of money, they're very happy. And if you don't make a lot of money, if you're lucky they'll give you another chance to break even.
NYR: What's the attitude of your record company towards you? Do they seem willing to bend over backwards for your idiosyncrasies to try and please you?
TV: What idiosyncrasies?
NYR: Oh, you know, the eccentricities of being a creative person.
TV: What do you think my idiosyncrasies are? I don't think I have any.
NYR: For instance, are you prepared to go out and do a promotional tour to promote this album? Will you shake hands with radio promo people and get your picture taken for the trades?
TV: Most of those things you don't have to go out of your way to do. When you do a tour and a radio, guy wants to talk to you, there's no reason why not to talk to someone who's interested. There's not that many people you met in life who are interested in you.
NYR: You have an image, fostered in the press, of being distant and aloof.
TV: I think that's just because I don't go to bars and clubs at all. I think that's what it boils down to really. There are a million people who go to clubs and run their mouths off about what they're doing all the time. Most people don't, in fact.
NYR: There was a period when you hung out a lot more, though. Are you shy?
TV: (arches his brows in that curious way of his and peers out at me from the corner of his sockets): Am I shy? Is it the look in my eye?
NYR: Do you believe that knowledge can be gained through dialogue with another person? Your work suggests you do not believe in the dialogue method?
TV: What gives you that impression? You never met me before and you're already making judgments.
NYR: Only based on your work and the impression it makes on me.
TV: My songs give you the impression that I don't like to talk?
NYR: No, but there is a sense of isolation and insularity in your output. A removal from the day-to-day world and an embracing of private experience.
TV: I think that's looking only at the surface. I don't see isolation. If someone is isolated, you probably can't communicate with them. I don't see myself as isolated.
NYR: Well, in your case, the exchanges takes place in performance. Obviously, you're not sitting up in your apartment singing the songs to the mirror. Perhaps a million people, either voluntary or involuntarily, have been exposed to the sounds you've created. You attempt communication, but only through the filter of art. Actually, I hear a lot more humanity in your new album than I've heard in your previous work.
TV: There's more people on this record, I'll grant you that. There's more physical people on this record. And that means something. Or it might mean something. It might even mean something to you, Mr. Tray-kin!
NYR: Did you read the piece I wrote in the [NY] Rocker last year on Adventure?
TV: Actually, I do remember cracking up about the film director reference. You got a lot about film in there.
NYR: I mentioned Antonioni. . .. TV: I think Antonioni is one of the funniest directors ever. I used to go to his films and really laugh. They were the funniest things.
NYR: I sense a kind of inadvertent humor in your music. There's a certain playfulness going on, especially on the new record.
TV: It's as serious as the person listening to it.
NYR: Don't people accuse you of being pretentious?
TV: I've only heard one person call, me pretentious and he was a guy who auditioned for the band and later became a rock critic for High Fidelity Magazine.
NYR: I imagine no one would call you pretentious to your face.
TV: I' m not sure what that word means. I think it's pretentious to write lyrics like, what's that band, Foreigner. There's an awful lot of people who don't do things with all of themselves, if you know what I mean.
NYR: Does your stuff make you laugh?
TV: Nyah. Sometimes the situation of recording certain things make me laugh. I mean, I don't sit around and joke with myself, y'know, cover my mouth with my hand and start whinnying. You' re asking me how I react to my own work, which is like asking me to be schizophrenic or something.
NYR: Do you have a sales strategy for the record in the marketplace?
TV: I don't look at it that way. The marketplace. I really like performing. I want to play live again.
NYR: Do you have a band together?
TV: I got a drummer as of today. I don't have a guitarist yet and I might get a keyboard player too. So far, none have worked out. Fred (Smith) will be playing bass on the tour.
NYR: Did you feel, constricted by the band format or did certain players in Television just dissatisfy you? Was it merely a matter of growth and maturity?
TV: I'm such a mature young man. Astute observation.
NYR: Was it a difficult decision to break up television?
TV: It's painful in the sense, you work with people a long time. I've known Billy (Ficca) for fifteen years. I just wanted to do something different. I'm just glad no one in the band took it real personally. I know Richard always wanted to write songs and have his own group. He was writing songs he knew weren't quite right for Television. In terms of the sound they put out. I don't know how badly he wanted to do them because he never tried to force them on the rest of us. I think he knew what would fit in our overall style and what wouldn't.
NYR: Ultimately, Television was your band, wasn't it?
TV: I wouldn't say it was my band. I wrote material for and did a decent amount of arranging for.
NYR: Did you produce the new record?
TV: I don't want any production credit. I think producers are overrated. They're for people who, first of all, don't know anything about music or arranging and have no ear for their own doings. They can't tell a good solo from a bad solo, stuff like that.
NYR: A producer is a trusted outside opinion, isn't he?
TV" Yeah. For some bands, it's important to have one, but I think it's equally important for some bands almost not to have one.
NYR: Can you think of someone whose opinion about music you would respect more than your own?
TV: I wouldn't mind having a guy behind the board who was real sympathetic to my whole style and sound, which is something Television never found. Someone who could get the right combination of distortion and twang in the guitar sound which every engineer we ever had dealings with did not understand. They were used to guys with a Marshall and a Les Paul blasting away into these small microphones with the standard series of things they do or approach. Billy had a strange way of tuning his drums, for instance. The [his] whole thing was different. I think the records capture some of it; I don't think they capture what we could have if the right engineer had come along and was able to get the sound we wanted on vinyl.
NYR: Do you play all the guitar solos on the new album?
TV: I play all the solos, but there's not a whole lot of solos. I didn't realize it until the record was done, but it seems there were more guitar solos on Television records.
NYR: In "Souvenir From A Dream", there's a line, "You were living five lives at once."
TV: "You were living five lives in one."
NYR: I like the line, "It seems you have something to say/ Why don't you say it?" Have you ever been admonished with that remark?
NYR: Does a great deal of inspiration for songs come from dreams?
TV: This might sound like a bad answer. They might come from dreams. I don't know if they do. I don't see that I describe a dream in a song. But they might come as a dream.
NYR: How do your lyrics come to you? Are you in a trance when you write?
TV: Nobody really knows how they write. Can you explain how you write?
NYR: Do you write in long-hand?
TV: I used to write with a typewriter which me and Richard Hell took apart one night piece- by-piece. But that was a long time ago. Back in the early '70s. Now, I mostly write in long-hand.
NYR: Did you come into the studio with all the material written for this album or did you write and work up things while recording, like with Adventure?
TV: About half of it I came in with. I some cases, I cut the song with some other musicians and then re-cut it with another drummer. Things like that. "The Grip of Love" I cut with separate musicians and then re-cut with Jay Dee Daugherty. "Souvenir From A Dream", me and Fred worked up. I used to play bass and Fred would play drums up at the old Television loft. The music for "Souvenir From A Dream" is real old, something we fooled around with a couple of years ago, that I worked up again. The third song is "Kingdom Come", but not Television's "Kingdom Come".
NYR: The fourth cut is a funny one.
TV: "Thank you Mr. Bingo, fuck you very much."
NYR: It reminds me of Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" or even the Grateful Dead's version of "Big Boss Man".
TV: The only thing I've ever heard by the Dead was "Dark Star". It's the only song I've heard because I liked it. In 1969, I used to work at a bookstore where I heard it on the radio and thought it was great. I like the way it floated through so many things.
NYR: Is "Mr. Bingo" a tract against your average suit-and-tie-clad businessman?
TV: It's not just about a businessman. Most businessmen are harmless, you might say.
NYR: But it's opposing a certain kind of mentality.
TV: We-l-l-l it's a picture of a different mentality. It may be the picture of a mentality a little bit more sophisticated than what you might say is a businessman's mentality.
NYR: Is Mr. Bingo a real person or a collection of ideas?
TV: It might be a real person. I don't know.
NYR: Now we come to "Yonki Time". What is this song about?
TV: This sounds really insipid, I know, but it was written by a little turtle. (NYR: Boy, he wasn't kidding!) A little turtle over at my girlfriend's house who always wanted to write rock 'n' roll songs. I took the turtle to the studio and sat him by a microphone. He played drums, he popped around on keyboards, popped around on guitars. I did it because I'm really cheap, I didn't have to pay him.
NYR: Ah, a session turtle?
TV: No, he wasn't a session turtle. I actually called Local 802 and asked for a turtle, but they didn't have any. And this guy from was really dyin' to do it. It's like a New Orleans kind of influence, he's a southern turtle. In fact, it's not actually a live turtle at all - it's made out of cloth and styrofoam, but that doesn't really make any difference either. I'm sure a lot of people won't believe me. I told you it would sound insipid. We laid down all the tracks for "Yonki Time" in an hour and a half real late one night.
NYR: Your vocals show a lot of different colors and inflections throughout the record.
TV: A lot of it is the microphone we used. No one knew how to record my voice. They didn't know what to make of it. I started using really weird microphones on my voice with this record just to achieve the range that it gets on stage. With cheaper, $60 microphones my voice sounded more like it does, more real, than it did using like, those $900 German mikes.
NYR: Did you feel during those final Television gigs last July you were approaching a musical peak?
TV: (with straight face) Don't know if they were a peak, I knew they were the last.
NYR: But the band was consistently improving as a unit.
TV: Well, you can say we got better as the years went on.
NYR: Is it impossible to expect that you and Richard Lloyd will ever play music together again?
TV: I don't know. Who knows really?
NYR: Don't you profit from having a strong player in the band to challenge and prod you, to create some friction, so to speak?
TV: Sure, I won't go out on the road without another strong player.
NYR: Have you found one?
TV: Not really. I used Mark Abel (ex-Criscraft and Feelies producer) on some cuts and Ricky Wilson of the B-52s. It's easier to do it yourself really than to show somebody a song and have them play it like you hear it.
NYR: Are you frustrated by your lack of financial success?
TV: I don't want anything really. What does a person do with his money anyway? It just spoils everybody. Since Television broke up, and this is somehow true for the whole band, we all have more money now than we did when Television was together. I don't know why, it just turned out that way.
NYR: Where is your money coming from now?
TV: I'm living off the money from sales of the Television album in England. I have been for a year. I've got enough money to live for six months or so.
NYR: Do you want to be on the road nine, ten months a year?
TV: I don't crave living in Holliday Inns. I don't crave the whole style of going on the road, but it doesn't annoy me that I have to do it all. I like playing live.
NYR: Was the amount of touring you wanted to do a source of conflict between you and the rest of the band?
TV: If it was, no one ever said anything to me about it.
NYR: Did the mixed response to Adventure precipitate the band's demise?
TV: I was disappointed in the record company. They gave us tour support, but there was nothing in terms of letting people know about the record. Next to no advertising.
NYR: They gave up rather quickly, didn't they?
TV: I don't think they ever started, let alone gave up. I think they had the attitude, well, this is an interesting new band that we really don't know what to do about, so, rather than do something they'll hate, we won't do anything. They can even be kind about it - some labels won't promote a band because they're afraid they'll do it wrong. I know for a fact, Elektra was a little bit scared. They didn't want to do it wrong, so they never gave us any ideas on how to do it at all.
NYR: What is that Deerfrance is singing in the back of "Red Leaves"?
TV: "Red leaves, la-de-di, red leaves whirling across my lawn." That song is about being a kid, without the sentimental point of view, though.
NYR: What do you think of the recent English reissue of the original ORK "Little Johnny Jewel"?
TV: I think they could have found a better live version for the B-side. Obviously, it's the worst mono you'll ever hear. It is what it is I guess. What can you do?
NYR: Tell me about "Last Night". It sounds a lot like "Dream's Dream" off Adventure.
TV: That was the first song we did in the studio. It was done with Mark Abel and another drummer. I called up Bruce Brody because I thought a piano would sound good on it.
NYR: Did you enjoy working in the studio more this time than with Television? Did you have more control?
TV: Yeah, but it has nothing to do with control. It had to do with picking the right person for the song. I don't like making someone do something he doesn't want to do. You can't make Billy Ficca play a certain way if he doesn't want to play that way. I would think, oh, this song would be perfect for Jay Dee Daugherty. And he'd come in and play and I wouldn't have to explain anything.
NYR: Because his style was a priori perfect for the particular song?
TV: Yeah, it's just so much faster that way.
NYR: "Breakin' In My Heart" is the only song on the new album Television performed.
TV: We did "The Grip of Love" once at those last shows at the Bottom Line. "Breakin' In My Heart" we would do maybe once or twice a year. Special occasions, stuff like that.
NYR: Are you considering recording any other old Television material, say "Adventure" [the song]?
TV: We recorded "Adventure" for the second album and dropped it because there wasn't enough time to get it right. What are you, drinking my beer now, Trakin?
NYR: How long did it take to record the [new] album?
TV: Well, I did it a way no one records albums. Most people go in for a month to six weeks and just do the record. I spent, off and on, six months. No one song took any longer than five hours to get down on tape. It was really spread out. I worked five or six days a month. It's the ideal way. I was going in and trying stuff out, writing constantly. If it didn't sound good, I'd just go on to something else.
NYR: Do you have a hard time deciding when something is finished?
TV: That's something Richard Lloyd told you, isn't it? Am I right? I'll bet he said that. Which is odd, because while we were making the Adventure album, he was in the hospital. If you're working on a tune that you've more or less written in the studio or rehearsed once, you may try out a lot of different things and it may take a long time to get it set. Whereas, if it's a tune you've rehearsed a million times, the opposite is the case. The first Television record was stuff we'd been playing for three years, so we just went in and played it live. Most of the solos I did were live.
Second album was stuff we developed in the studio, took a break for a week to work up and then recorded. Do I have a problem deciding when something's finished? No, I don't think so. It is something that's affected me. Mixing a record, for instance, is very tricky. You've got sixteen and sometimes twenty-four things to keep, track of. There's a million different variations you can use and you don't know what it's going to feel like until you've tried an awful lot of them out.
NYR: And then what happens when the sound reaches vinyl? I understand you're disappointed with the way the pressing turned out.
TV; Well, Elektra is more disappointed than I am. It's the whole vinyl shortage thing. The quality of vinyl is poor because of the oil companies. I was really shocked to hear the difference between the tape and the pressing.
NYR: Does the technology of making records interest you?
TV: Like I've said, technology was not awfully generous to Television, from my point of view. I'm more interested in the idea that you've got a microphone and you're trying to capture this garbage that's going on in the studio. And it's supposed to get a great sound on a tape. But whether it does or it doesn't . . . well, the story is very often it doesn't. I've come to know a whole lot about studios. You can learn the whole thing pretty easily. Just read up about it a little. It looks like a million knobs and gadgets, but within thirty minutes you can memorize the whole board. I'm satisfied with the sound I'm getting, so why not do it yourself?
NYR: Are you listening to any music lately?
TV: I've been listening to a lot of Motown stuff more than anything. Some old New Orleans things, like Benny Cadell.
NYR: Do watch television?
TV: I don't have one. We had one in the practice room where we used to rehearse. I think it was left there when we got thrown out.
NYR: Are you going to say hello to Lester Bangs when you pass him on the way to the laundromat? You know you hurt his feelings when you ignore him?
TV: I heard something about that, but I don't know if I'd recognize him. I met him like twice about four years ago.
NYR: Are you going to be more accessible to the press?
TV: I've always done interviews - everything that comes my way except a few college reporters.
NYR: How do you feel about the way the press has represented you?
TV: They can't represent somebody. I would say everybody has their little drawings that they make and some are more life-like than others.
NYR: Do you think you'll be able to keep the old Television fans as well as add new ones?
TV: I mean going out as Tom Verlaine or going out as Television is not that big a deal. I mean, if I had been co-writing for a long time with somebody and then not, it would be a different story.
NYR: Do you have many friends or are you basically a loner?
TV: (chuckles) Everybody has friends, except for maybe, what's his name, David Berkowitz. I mean everybody has one or two close friends, sure.
NYR: How do you respond to the success of some of your contemporaries?
TV: Like who? Blondie really surprised me. They were one of those bands who had a small following initially. I think it was a really smart move to get that guy (producer Mike) Chapman. He's like the sixth Blondie or something. He's good at what he does. Who else has experienced any kind of success on the scene? What you're asking me about is money.
NYR: No, I'm asking you about your own competitive nature. What makes Tom Verlaine run?
TV: I'm not very competitive. Obviously, if I was competitive, I'd be trying to get my name in the papers and all that other jazz people do when they're competing in the race. I admit to being a bit lazy. Even during a tour, I wouldn't want to play more than five nights a week. A lot of bands do.
NYR: Do you read?
TV: I used to read a lot more than I do now. I'm constantly looking for things to read, but I find it really hard. I'd like to find out more about ecology, but none of the books tell you what you really want to know.
NYR: Do you practice guitar much?
TV: I don't sit around and work out solos or anything. Some days, you work on a lot of stuff. Some days you pick it up and put it down. I don't have an obsession about playing guitar, if that's what you mean.
NYR: How many guitars do you own?
TV: Let's see, an acoustic guitar that I've had for twelve years, two Jazzmasters, two Jaguars. I've got maybe five or six guitars I can use in the studio and two for on the stage, none of which are worth money or anything. They're all sort of set up for me to play, nothing special about them.
NYR: Will there be another Tom Verlaine album after this one? TV: Oh, yeah, at least one, probably two. I got a real good deal.
NYR: So Elektra has definitely cast a vote of confidence in your career?
TV: That's what they call it. Right now I'm lacking an opinion until I see what happens with this record.
NYR: How would you compare this new album to the first two Television records?
TV: Adventure was smooth as a result of the engineer we worked with getting a smooth sound. On the new record, I worked with a guy that gets a raw sound, but not so you don't want to hear it either. This record does have more bite to it. I think its got more bite in terms of sound than Marquee Moon does. Adventure is like a floating record - the way it was engineered, the way it was played. All these things led to it having that out-of-time quality. In ten years that record is still going to sound out-of-time. There's something I really like about it.
NYR: Do you consider yourself a rock 'n' roll performer?
TV: In terms of what? In terms of asking an audience to clap their hands? I'm not that style. I don't design to be a low-key, over-in-corner act nor do I intend to be like the Paul Williams character in - what's that movie?
NYR: Phantom of Paradise?
TV: Yeah, I didn't see that, but I'm not interested in pop stardom, so to speak. I'm not an ambitious, fantasizing, star-struck kind of guy. I've never been that way.
NYR: But you do have a survival instinct. You want to eat.
TV: I have to eat. I don't want to eat. I have to.
NYR: Why did you separate from your first manager, Terry Ork?
TV: I like Terry. He has no business sense, but he's a great guy. We told him all along, though, that when we signed with a label we'd have to get somebody who was more professional, who knew how to handle all of that. It's ironic, though, because as it turned out, Wartoke was no better. They ripped us off.
NYR: When did you first come to New York?
TV: I came to New York in 1968 with the purpose of starting a band. I played with a few people I met and knew. I backed up a singer playing on guitar in 1969 for awhile. I didn't find anybody that worked out. Me and Richard Hell were like best friends in the early '70s when I got this guy I went to school with in Delaware, Billy Ficca, to play drums. We couldn't find a bass- player though, so we asked Hell if he wanted to learn how to play bass and he jumped at the idea. That was a band we had for awhile called the Neon Boys. Me, Hell and Ficca. There are some great tapes around of that group doing, "You Gotta Lose", an old Hell song.
NYR: Do you like New York? Do you feel the need to be here?
TV: I don't know if I need to be here because I haven't been out of here for so long. I wouldn't mind spending four months a year somewhere else, but I don't know where just yet. I'd like to see Japan and that part of the world. I like going places where people have a totally different like speed or pace. Foreign. I like the idea of singing in a different language than the audience.
NYR: Do you consider yourself a poet? It seems you try to describe the "peak experience" in your work.
TV: I'm not trying to describe a peak experience. It's not consciously how a psychologist would describe a peak experience. I may be influenced by some experiences that are unusual, you might say. I don't hear my music as being so different in terms of a sound. Some of the riffs are different than what you may hear here and there. Some of the guitar solos aren't quite as boogie- woogie as you're hearing now (over the loudspeakers at the Glocca Morra). I used to listen to a lot of jazz as a kid and that could have something to do with it. Coming from a different base or something, y'know?