THE POP LIFE
New York Times September 2 1981
by Robert Palmer
"This Verlaine Is a Poet of the Rock
The idea that the electric guitar was a magical lance and that guitarists were rock and roll heroes, began to get out of hand during the late 60’s. Guitar solos, which had originally been short breaks in songs, grew long and bloated. The songs atrophied until they were flimsy excuses for endless displays of guitar prowess.
A new guitar-accessories industry sprang up, manufacturing little boxes and foot pedals that brought the tonal distortions, howling sustained tones and other effects developed by genuinely innovative guitarists like Jimi Hendrix within the reach of the average suburban garage-band guitarist. Pretty soon, there were so many guitar heroes, all posturing and leering and sweating in their uncomfortable leather clothes, that one began to wonder whether singers and bass players and drummers were about to be phased out entirely.
Most of the popular rock bands that ply the American stadium and arena circuit include at least one preening rock star, but the idea of the rock guitarist as a real hero - an innovator, a musician sensitive to the musicians he is playing with, a soloist who can be charming or gentle or vicious depending on the music at hand - has pretty generally been discredited.
More Than Holding a Guitar
The players who were the most celebrated during the mid 60’s, the heyday of the guitar hero, soon grew tired of being deified and of playing out adolescent schoolboys’ phallic fantasies on stage and went on to other things - Eric Clapton to more relaxed, country-flavoured rock, Jeff Beck to jazz-rock and Michael Bloomfield to his first love, blues.
During the last decade, rock has produced plenty of fine guitarists, and a multitude of players who looked very convincing holding a guitar. But there have been very, very few guitar heroes, and that brings us to one of the most inventive and most reluctant guitar heroes in all of rock, Tom Verlaine. As his assumed last name suggests- he is unwilling to reveal his family name - Mr. Verlaine enjoys thinking of himself as a poet, and although he can be an exceptionally poetic and provocative rock lyricist and singer, primarily he is a poet of the rock guitar.
Mr. Verlaine founded the band Television, one of the most celebrated groups to emerge from the mid 70’s Lower Manhattan ferment that also produced Blondie, Patti Smith and the Ramones. He released a well-received solo album on 1979, the year after Television broke up. But that was two years ago, and "Dreamtime," his new album, which was released this week by Warner Bros,. is the first music that has been heard from him since. What has he been doing? Where has he been?
If you live in the West Village, you know where Mr. Verlaine has been. You’d probably have seen him walking round the neighbourhood, eating 4 P.M lunches in a favourite French luncheonette, buying groceries in a Korean market - tall, gauntly handsome, with a slow, ambling gait and a gaze that somehow seems both friendly and a million miles away.
And what has he been doing? "Oh, nothing much," he said offhandedly the other day as he sat down to talk about his new album and his reputation as the most elusive of guitar heroes. Then he laughed an easy, ingratiating laugh.
"Actually," he said, "that’s not true. I did have one real bad year. I guess everybody has one of those at one time or another".
"But basically what happened is this: Television was signed to Electra Records. Karin Berg, who signed us and was the one person at the company who really believed in the band, left the company. When the band broke up in 1978 - for my part, I wanted to do more kinds of music with different musicians - I was still signed to Electra and had to do my first solo album for them. They didn’t give me any support to tour or even to play locally, and I couldn’t ask my friends to play for almost nothing. So I didn’t play. And I spent the next year involved with lawyers, trying to get out of my contract. That was the bad year. Then I spent this past year writing and recording the new album."
"Dreamtime" is a splendid, ethereally beautiful record, with Mr. Verlaine’s dreamlike imagery, wonderfully tender songs about sex and whimsical tales of imaginary characters like "Mr. Blur" set off by guitar solos that are soaring, melodious and executed with remarkable technical aplomb. The accompaniments o his vocals are intricate latticeworks of guitar parts that tit and turn and dovetail into one other, with solid bass and drums pulsing beneath. There is even an instrumental, "The Blue Robe," that allows Mr. Verlaine to show off his abilities at some length and is likely to become a guitarists’ favourite.
"I’d like to make an all-instrumental album at some point," Mr Verlaine said. "But when I was growing up, I played the saxophone before I picked up the guitar, and I always listened to saxophonists rather than guitarists. I always liked those short, concise, melodic solos, rather than the kind of guitar stuff where the guy would be racing all up and down the fretboard." Aspiring guitar heroes, take note.
Recently, Mr. Verlaine visited Britain to talk to the music press and promote his album. He is assembling a band to play with locally and, he hopes, internationally, and this time, he says he will be getting record company support.
"But it’s awfully hard to get a really good guitar player," he said, "one who can play a little lead and can play any kind of rhythm guitar part that you need. You don’t happen to know anybody, do you?"