Boston Phoenix, October 17, 1981
by Michael Howell
It was almost inevitable that Tom Verlaine would release an album with the word "dream" in the
title. Since the first Television albums, dreams have been Verlaine's territory. This doesn't mean
that Verlaine's music is exclusively dreamy - though there are numerous songs that could take that
adjective - but it does provide a way to understand his approach. "How I love to wander," he wrote
in "Breakin' in My Heart." Trouble is, his mind doesn't often wander down gentle paths, and a
dream's serendipity can quickly become dangerous. So while other surrealist or psychedelic
musicians attempt to bring us into their experience, Verlaine's electrifying guitar playing is the
subconscious attempt to illuminate the unknowable. If you've followed that, you're probably a fan
from the album, "Marquee Moon." If not, don't be put off: "Dreamtime" may be the work of a mystic,
but it's also a showcase for some of the sharpest, most devastating guitar work in years. |
"There's a Reason" kicks off with a lumbering martial rhythm; Verlaine's guitar doesn't even come into the mix until the first chorus. He skates along, scattering high notes until the return to the original rhythm. Then, like Bobby Orr playing with a sluggish opponent, he glides alongside in imitation, throwing off four or five notes to the rhythm's one, yet always keeping the pace. Verlaine tires of this sport, however, by the time the chorus repeats and administers a dazzling coup de grace. First, sustained single notes are bent around the thumping rhythm; then he breaks into a three-note riff, but it's repeated eight times, and with each repetition the center note inches higher - an audible turn of the screw. When Verlaine finally releases into a starburst of high notes, you feel you've survived an experience no one warned might be dangerous.
Anxious uncertainty has always characterized Verlaine's work. Who else would title an album centered around the idea of being "Careful" and looking for a "Foxhole" because there's "too much danger" Adventure? Verlaine's never sure what's out there in his head, so wariness seems the prudent course. In the grinding rocker that opens the second side, he's trying to place "Mr. Blur." The Stones-tinged "A Future in Noise" finds him warning both the person he's talking to and himself that "I gotta keep about a mile from you/Arm's length just won't do." The dreamer might sometimes wish he were an insomniac, but as his most revealing line puts it, Verlaine knows that he has to "face what's never there."
Yet that recognition that he's not quite sure what to expect also translates into Verlaine's gift as a guitarist. No one else uses hesitation, the excruciating half-beat before the guitar solo rushes in, so effectively. No rock guitarist so frequently and gloriously seizes upon the element of surprise: even on songs with a familar tempo, Verlaine's solos come at us from an unexpected direction. To us it's the shock of the new; to him it's a way of keeping the demons off-guard. On "Without a Word," a slow and (dare I say it?) dreamy song, you almost think it's over; there's a pause, then Verlaine flings off a breathtaking crystalline solo. Suddenly the song is transformed from something of a plodder to something special - and the mid-solo swoop into the guitar's lower register seals it.
"Dreamtime" is almost evenly divided between the post-coital dreams and the pre-heartburn dreams. "The Blue Robe" (an instrumental also available as a 12-inch import vocal version), "Without a Word," "Fragile'" and "Mary Marie" make up the first category. They are uniformly lovely, and lavished with little touches, though save for "Fragile," they're no surprise to people who are familar with "Last Night" or "The Dream's Dream." Perhaps because there's less content, the second category has more staying power. My favorite song, "Always," yokes all Verlaine's tough-minded virtues. Opening with some nervous perimeter-patrolling by two guitars ("Marquee Moon," anyone?) and an I-dare-you-to-wake-me-up vocal, it turns a tight corner and becomes wistfully romantic - "Love remains the best kept secret in town." This line is repeated twice, aided by Verlaine's inexhaustible arsenal of embellishments, and then the song screams to a conclusion, with Verlaine whipping a stinging guitar line ever higher.
What's the market for guitar heroes these days? More promising than one might expect, judging from two different Verlaine performances on his current tour. At the Paradise, Verlaine was treated with near reverence by a crowd that contained more than one local musician ("Every guitarist in town is here," whispered Mission of Burma's Roger Miller). Verlaine responded to the audience's indulgence with a daring series of explorations. His voice was even more anemic than usual, but with the systolic support of former Television bassist, Fred Smith, he made each song an adventure. Alone in the spotlight, Verlaine seemed to be feeling his way through familar territory that had become overgrown with brush, and his soloing had a fraught-with-peril tension. Three nights later, in Rosalyn, Long Island, Verlaine was more accessible, though no less brilliant. A cross between Lou Reed and Neil Young, he struck closer to the linear sound of his records. The band, which seemed to play so small a part in the Boston concert, sounded epic. And when Verlaine strummed four chords after the line in "Breakin' in My Heart" that "threw me in a room without walls," those imaginary walls sprang up. It was then that I knew he could build his dream house.