"Run For Cover: Tom Verlaine Is Not Yet An Open Book"
The Boston Phoenix January 25, 1985
by Howard Hampton.
From Elvis Presley to Captain Beefheart to Tom Verlaine, the most
gratifying rock originates from the performers of powerfully imagined
acts of self-creation. Although the gestures and demands of the star
and the hunger artist may be worded in related sounds and experiences,
the personas they devise are antithetical. Singer/poet/guitarist Tom
Verlaine has unobtrusively nurtured one of the most thoughtful and
iconoclastic sensibilities in rock, one so wholly personal that it's
landed him on the far margins of the music. As his superb new Cover
(Warner Bros.) testifies, there's nothing overtly jarring about his
work; but ever since he led the now legendary, still misunderstood
Television, there's been a steely isolation to his conception. He
offers few obvious reference points in his songs; he's made his
influences in his own image, so that his rock seems to spring from
his head, a vibrant but self-contained entity. (This isn't surprising
coming from someone who began his career conflating Symbolist literature,
with Albert Ayler and the Rolling Stones.) Cover is typical Verlaine:
charged with abstract sensuality, cascading mysticism, playful opacity,
all couched in lithe, keening, crooked guitar overdubs. It's a private
record that beckons with uncommon immediacy---the sensitivity of
Verlaine's vision makes the mundane deformities around him pale before
the moving apparitions he summons up in their place.|
Fine as Cover is, however, the records that best introduce Verlaine are Television's Marquee Moon (1977) and his solo Dreamtime (1981). The first offered the shivery, spun-glass dual guitars of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd as signposts to a luminously alive city of the senses rife with desire, opportunity, contradiction. Verlaine's literary but vernacular lyrics and chocked vocals filled in the rest of the picture: "My eyes are like telescopes/I see it all backwards/But who wants hope." Perched on a tightrope between polarities that were unfashionable in rock at the time---empathy and detachment, act and trance, the oneiric and the routine---Television performed the balancing act with an ease and ambition that renewed hope for the music's powers of rebirth.
On Dreamtime, a less audacious record than Marquee Moon that nonetheless managed to be both more intricately textured and more candid, enraptured guitars provided the perfect instrumentation for Verlaine's heady verbal ejaculations. His songs and arrangements caught the rush of longing, the mysterious infiltration of spirit into flesh that runs like a current through vulnerable, unattended lives. Dreamtime casts passion as a kinetic blur; it verges on a nervous, unstable fusion of sensuality and self-consciousness. His oblique asides and his wily ambivalence reflected the importunate emotional acrobatics we enact like clockwork; it was as liberating---and yes, as sexy---as prime Prince. (But if sexuality's function in Prince's music is autoerotic, in Verlaine's it's autodidactic.)
Cover, Verlaine's fourth solo LP, doesn't quite scale the heights of his two masterpieces, but offering the most melodic, confident pop arrangements he has yet put down on tape, it reaches closer than any of his other scattershot releases. The album is an active, layered record, featuring his usual breathtaking signature guitar runs and a spacious, insinuating, multitrack mix. It's also sanguine; even Verlaine's anxious quiver of a voice and his edgy dissonances seem no more than beguiling allusions---"Come into my consciousness" could be his motto. From the outset, Verlaine seeks the obscure object of his desire. The cinematic vignettes of "Five Miles of You" (monumental, echoing bass; pistoning drums; chiming, elliptical guitars) give us our bearings: she's disembodied (woman as metaphor), all-encompassing, blissfully insoluble. She's a utopian sylph Verlaine tries both to chart and to lose himself within. Here love is the instrument of escape from the borders of personality, a means to a union that's irreducible to ego---or, for that matter, to id; the song's contrast of measured urgency (the verses) and ecstatic emancipation (the choruses and the bridge) captures the pilgrim's mixed determination and awe. The exotic "Traveling", with its sly cycle of stuttering guitars and semi-Arabian synthesizer lines that recall David Bowie's "Yassassin", brings us in closer, still mixing journey and erotic arrival. "I'd like to wander into your touch", Verlaine tells his young beloved.
"Miss Emily" at last names this beloved, amid a spray of elongated blues-licks. He offers himself up in traditional fashion ("I'll be your handyman"), taking on every obligation of adoration ("I'll work real hard 'til my debt's been paid"), surrendering to the grip of love ("Day after day, I've heard your voice/Inside of me, burning me up"). Elsewhere, the shimmering collage of African beats and rhyming guitars on "Dissolve/Reveal" implies the ethics of Verlaine's eros. He takes rapture as a moral imperative, as a means to revealing the wealth of feeling and sensation conventional love words gloss over, trivialize, segregate. In abandon he discovers tools for dissolving routine self-representation, allowing a hundred possible personalities to bloom.
As eloquent and pleasurable as Cover is, there's an undeniably alien air about it---as though it were sung by the satyr from another planet. To listen to the languorous, sweet-spirited cadences of "O' Foolish Heart", for example, is to experience an unbearable remoteness. Cover is a call to life we, as realists in a mercantile, post-punk, pre-nuke world, have outwardly disabused ourselves of aspiring to. Working from entrenched premises of isolation and despair, we could easily dismiss Verlaine's convoluted agape as high-flown escapism. But it runs deeper than that; Springsteen says, "There's more to life than what you see around you." Back in the glory days of Television, Verlaine counseled us to "pull down the future with the one you love." In distant 1985, he simply pleads with his femme ideal, "I want to go back, back to your garage/We'll flip through all the photos, the ones of the mirage." Maybe it's just my foolish heart, but Cover hints that imagination and desire, hardly mirages, might create a future worth pulling down.