Mixed Media

Source: Option (September/October 1987)

by Maria V. Montgomery

Tom Verlaine on music, books, film and even Television

He's thin and pale and looks like he stays up too late, like he's been smoking too many cigarettes. But there's a spark in his eyes, seemingly ignited by his passion for ideas. You can hear that passion in his voice, you sense it from the things he says, in his chosen pseudonym and his affinity for Art-with-a-capital-A, in the music he makes. Even Tom Verlaine's guitar playing sounds intellectual—the bitter, staggering and knotted lines of his lead guitar, the nervous, fleeting chords and harmonies of his rhythm work.

It's easy to take it for granted, looking back through the smoke of a decade, but Verlaine has to be considered one of rock's great conceptualists. In terms of shaking rock music out [of] its moribund complacency in the mid-'70s, perhaps no one deserves as much credit as Verlaine, even if much of his artistic success was serendipitous, he certainly knew that he wasn't willing to rehash the rote moves and boring assumptions of rock as a commodity, as a mindless diversion or a public spectacle.

It must have been with some deliberateness that Verlaine convinced the owner of a rootsy-folksy music dive (incongruently located on New York's Bowery) to let his band, Television, play original rock on a weekly basis. The club, CBGB's, soon turned into a regular venue for the Patti Smith Group, The Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones and others, and became the focal point of a movement. Television also made the move, either radical or foolhardy at the time, to put out their own single, a version of "Little Johnny Jewel" which ran about seven minutes across both sides of a seven-inch record. It's almost impossible to imagine an unknown band today starting a comparable forest fire with a single matchstick like that 45. The indie conflagration is still burning, and the sound of rock music took a new and productive turn.

Though Television only survived two albums and had disbanded by the end of the '70s, Verlaine continued to release solo albums at a casual pace. Through four such LPs, Verlaine's arching guitar and urgent vocals showed increasing depth and maturity, but never quite equalled the crystalline brilliance of Television's best moments. Still, Verlaine has been able to achieve what few successful artists even aspire to: To maintain a sense of personal identity and an ongoing vision in his work.

Verlaine's latest LP was at first released only in Britain when he found himself without a US contract. The album, Flash Light, has since been picked up by IRS for the domestic market. During our conversation in a lower Manhattan restaurant, Verlaine was neither sentimental about his past or resentful about his cult status. Instead, he was alternately amiable, serious, combative and expressive as he shared his views on different aspects of contemporary culture.

Is there any reason you're on a different label now?

Basically, I was on Warner in the United States, and on Virgin overseas. And I met this guy in England who said Virgin wasn't doing such a good job and I had to agree with him. So they just said this and that and I said I'd go off Virgin if he made me a better deal, and he said okay.

So you moved back from England?

I never moved to England. I went there to finish a record, got involved with a manager, got off one label and onto another, so I just ended up staying over there. But I never in any sense moved there. When I got back to New York, people thought I now live in England. It's not the case at all.

What I've noticed most about your songs is that your lyrics have a nice narrative quality about them. Do you write fiction ever?


On the inner sleeve of the fourth album, you have a...

Monologue, yeah, I have a number of these around.

Have you ever had them published?

No, but I've never really pursued it much. I can't really talk about getting something published, but I am working on something. I also don't like talking about something until it's finished, really. It makes you self-conscious, not in a good way.

What things do you like to read?

I just started reading the writings of this pianist, Glenn Gould. He was this completely committed classical pianist who developed, I don't know if he developed his own technique, but he did some radical things with a piano. He had his pianos modified to the way he wanted to have them feel. He also used to carry around a special seat with him that was extremely low. So he apparanetly sat at the piano with his face about four inches away from the keys and his hands a tenth of an inch above the keys. But he had some really great ideas about music, really great observations about composers and things. Also very controversial because...I remember in the '60s, I never really liked the Beatles, I liked some Rolling Stones...this guy in some classical magazine had written this piece because, in the '60s, it had become very fashionalbe for sort of "high brow" music lovers to call the Beatles melodic geniuses. Glenn Gould didn't agree at all. He just said that because it was so well-orchestrated, and George Martin was doing all the stuff, he said they had a couple of good melodies. But they were nothing as good as Petula Clark. You know who she was, "Downtown" and "I Know A Place", and all those other songs. He more or less pointed to the fact that all her things were produced, written and arranged by this guy Tony Hatch.

And I had to agree with him immediately because the melodies of these Pet Clark songs were like really great, really soaring and joyous, much stronger and more memorable than the Beatles songs. To come out and say that there was a sort of genius behind Pet Clark, especially for a man who is, in a sense, in the upper echelons of the classical music world, is really quite a brave thing to do in a way. There are pop critics who wouldn't consider Pet Clark anything but a sort of pop singer. But if you get her greatest hits album, these songs, the melodies on them, the arrangements on them are just great, amazing actually, considering the kind of happier pop tunes of the day are nowhere near as good as those are. It could be looked at as incredibly naive. The lyric content is, like a song called "Downtown" where all the lights are bright, this young person with this incredible idealization toward the city and going there. It's unambivalent, that's what I like about it. Rather than naivete, I like unambivalent songs, statements. But I can't say I'm a Pet Clark fan.

So you don't like ambivalence, or things that aren't clear?

It's a very complicated thing to talk about actually, it's not a simple case of disliking ambivalence, but in a song, using [Petula Clark's] as an example, is that they're so wholehearted. There's nothing sort of wishy washy about them. They are completely what they are. You either like it and get a sort of sensation from it, or you don't like it and can't stand to hear it. I know people who can't stand her records at all, they think it's just awful, irritating. The guy who wrote them all, Tony Hatch, is still working. He does a lot of soundtrack stuff for the BBC, in other words, TV theme music, special shows. I just find [Gould's] observations about this really unusual. It's just something I picked up a week ago and is interesting. He says things about Mozart and all these other composers that are sort of outrageous. I can't repeat them, it's better to read it yourself, but they're both outrageous...and there's a little kind of truth of what he has to say about these people. He had what could be called an eccentric life apparently. He had these hotel rooms with a couple of pianos in them in Toronto. He used to travel by himself incognito a lot, and he had this problem with sleeping on certain types of beds. So he'd get to this hotel and the bed would be too soft and he'd say, "Send me up another one." And that one would be too hard or something, he'd drive thse managers crazy.

Have you been interested in anything else lately?

I don't really get into things. Through friends or someting, I hear about something or see it, I don't really get obsessed with things too much. For instance, that's one example of a book, I might not even read the whole thing. I might read a couple essays. I think I tend to spend more of my time working on things. One day I'll work on a type of prose writing I guess, and another day I might work on songs or be working on something and get an idea for some music and put that on a cassette machine and later listen to it and put a second part onto that part already on tape. That's how I write a lot of songs. It's a certain thing, playing a guitar, then playing along to a tape, finding the other parts to the song. Because I very much like using the counterpoint of two guitars. And when I get a collection of that...the other way is all of a sudden finding yourself hearing a melody or a lyric and putting that on tape. Or actually writing it down and having that suggest music so the whole thing becomes a song very quickly, and then arranging the guitar.

Does it happen suddenly or randomly?

I don't know what causes it. It doesn't have anything to do with environment, in a car or in a plane...or in a restaurant or anything. I think it's a thing some people are born with. I remember being a kid and doing this. I had piano lessons when I was a kid, I was always making up these tunes, trying to figure out how to work my father's tape recorder. It never really worked right. Now I either keep it in my head, or I have a little system of notation which has to do [with] numbers and which note goes where. If I write the words down, that will suggest the melody, it's pretty easy to do. Often I'd say 99% of that stuff never gets used somehow, piles of fragments all over the place. It depends on how excited I get about something. I'll be excited enough about it to want to record it, so then I'll make a note to record that next time I do an album.

Have you made any videos for the new album?

I've made two videos for this album already. One of which was sort of fooled around with by Phonogram. So it's okay, I mean, I don't really like videos too much. The format of them has already become so fixed, so I sort of made another little video, basically at the expense of myself and the director, we put together this thing to the song called "Bomb". It's basically this footage he had lying around on 8 millimeter of this guy dressed in this strange sort of leather transvestite outfit, just sitting around the house making coffee and reading the newspaper. It's very...


Yes, exactly. Because of this, it has a strange quality. People associate all that kind of odd costuming with various so-called sex perversions or manic scenes, whereas this guy just [g]oes and sort of hangs out in his house with this costume, reading the paper. Something about this was insipid, pathetic and funny, that I just thought it was a great video. And there was this song "Bomb", and I thought, "this will work", so I just dropped that on top of the footage. That's even the kind of ideas I like for videos; it's not struggling so hard to be some sort of advertising, but rather some little moment there, or even some kind of inappropriate juxtaposition developing, you get something like that, the music is just going by and there's a picture over there, somehow there's a link.

Do you ever watch television?

I just got a television about ten days ago. What I like about it, just watching it over the past week, are these commercials, not the expensive ones. In New York there are hundreds of really cheap ones. Like this guy does a video commercial for his car fix-it shop in Queens. He's there talking about his car fix-it shop and there's this really cheesy yellow lettering on the screen and in the background there's some guy welding. Anyway, just these really completely unexciting images, shot really badly with a video camera, garish lettering on the screen, narration going by. The local flavor is what's interesting.

Have you seen any of the Iran hearings?

A little bit.

Any thoughts on the Ollie North phenomenon?

I like this guy a lot, myself. I wonder what's going to become of him, though. I think it's rather amazing that he hasn't been killed yet.

Makes me wonder what happened to Casey, dying at such a convenient time and all. I watched at night, I don't have time during the day, but I think it's one of the best soap operas on television.

I don't see it as soap opera at all. This is what's wrong with people, now I'm not saying you're a television fan, but the problem with the media and with television is that it does have this soap operatic quality where anything on there immediately becomes cliche or melodrama because the format itself is so superficial.

So you think TV trivializes things?

I think that's the point of view that you're trying to present, and it might make interesting copy in a magazine but...I mean, you are presenting a fasionable angle on things, philosophically fashionable, which I think is dangerous. People aren't able to think of themselves in the situations of these others, they're extremely alienated from the incredibly real problems these people have. It is a very popular attitude these days. Because of the context and the way something like television works or the effect that it has. A lot of post-modern thought deals with this all the time. And it's fascinating philosophically, the effect of it, I think, isn't particularly positive. In a sense it's lazy.

Do you think it's dehumanizing?

Well, what you said about North is. To you, you're watching a soap opera, a play, something with no "real life" to it. It is hard to talk about so-called real life because the moment you start to talk about it you enter a whole different type of discourse which influences how you see it. So to talk about it becomes a whole art form in itself. Again, it's an artificializing of the whole thing. I think your thinking is highly derivative of very popular unexamined attitudes that are going around, but I think it's very common. As much as has been written about popular culture being able to swallow things up and spit them out again, it doesn't matter.

Perhaps I've been reading too much literary criticism.

Like what?

Foucault, Baudrillard...

I find that stuff very interesting. But it's much more interesting for me to find out where they go wrong. I think people are idolizing these critics already. They are brilliant, obviously. Their ability to articulate is amazing and the actual kind of poetry they achieve is very interesting. For instance, Baudrillard speaks about these "simulations". This is a very exciting point of view. One can easily adopt it by simplifying his whole notion. What I find amazing is how Americans will simplify and make something of their own to this extreme point of view of simulations. Like Madonna is very important to the Americanization of the idea of simulations, because there's a girl who comes along, and by simulating the looks of others, has become the biggest female pop star ever.

Part of all art work is artifice, it's even built into the language. Think of the way popular society, or commerciality, uses everything. The profit motive is very strong. You look at a bad television show, one that is well received like Dallas or something, you realize the whole premise of the show is the profit motive. And they put together a show that is extremely artificial looking, everything is completely hyper in it, the color, the shots, the way people talk. The most uneducated person in aesthetics would look at it and say, "This is stupid"—and yet they turn it on every week and watch it. That's why these shows continue and continue.

Do you think it's different elsewhere?

Well sure, it's different. You turn on the BBC shows in London and you see an hour of closeups on chipmunks. Is this interesting, I don't know. But you see hundreds of these nature shows on the BBC, they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for people to produce these shows about how trees blossom, tundra and elks. Television in Europe is becoming much more modernized. The good thing about the state controlled stations in Europe is that there's no commercials, or there's minimal commercials. There's very rarely a commercial during a film. So you see the film the way the director wanted you to see it, not broken up by other images. I like that aspect of it. They speed up the action on televised films here and then use a harmonizer to slow the voices down to a natural pitch. Probably one quarter of the films you see now are sped up. There was a show just done on this showing Bogart picking up a cigarette in Casablanca, picking up and smoking it. Then they showed the scene from the original film, where the whole gesture is much cooler and thoughtful. They do this, of course, so they can show two movies a night instead of one.

What sort of movies do you like?

I like Elia Kazan's films, On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, they're all absolutely great films. They're all really sort of American dramas, all really well done, well edited, really well scripted.

The one I really like is this one The Wild River with Lee Remick and Montgomery Clift. There's one great scene in this film, where Lee Remick's this sort of poor farm girl and Clift is the guy working in New York. He comes down to the Tennessee Valley to tell them that this area is boing to be flooded by the building of dams and they have to give up their farm. Clift slowly begins to see, in a sense, how wrong this is, and how much a part of the place they're living in they really are. Unlike New York, which is very mobile—a sense of home in the cities is almost non-existent. People move all the time. Anyway he falls in love, he and Lee Remick fall in love. And I think at the end of the film he decides to stay there.

There's one beautiful shot in the film where he's in this vacant house with Lee Remick and it starts to rain and basically there's very quiet voices with the sound of rain beating on the roof. The way it's shot, the way it looks, it's a great love scene, a really beautiful love scene.