The Miller's Tale: A Tom Verlaine Anthology

Source: The Wire, May 1996

by Tom Ridge

In the late 70s Television were critical darlings of the emergent New York underground, and their taut, elegant guitar-cool has gone on to become one of the essential musical influences upon Stateside alternative rock, along with The Stooges, The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. Much of Television's music still sounds vital and undated now, though Verlaine himself has become something of a shadowy, peripheral figure. The Miller's Tale redresses the balance, spotlighting his solo career as well as his Television work. The real gem here is the previously unreleased live concert on disc one, recorded in London in 1982. It is as a live performer that Verlaine comes into his own, where his virtuosity as a guitarist has space to breathe -with jaw-dropping intensity on "Always" and the evergreen "Marquee Moon". There's nothing too ostentatious about Verlaine's exploratory playing—it sounds unforced but with an irresistible momentum, improvisatory but controlled—a quality shared with Richard Thompson. And similar to Thompson, the excitement of live performance is never quite transferred to a studio setting. The live versions of "Breakin' In My Heart", "Days On The Mountain" and "Clear It Away" far surpass the more carefully layered studio originals.

Where this concert suffers a little by comparison with previous live recordings - Television's The Blow Up (on ROIR) - is the lack of a strong group dynamic. In Television, Richard Lloyd was a second guitarist in his own right, providing an on-stage tension to offset Verlaine's huge talent. With the 1982 concert it's Verlaine alone, however ably assisted, who drives the machine.

Disc two lacks the intensity of the live work but compensates by providing a fairly comprehensive overview of Verlaine's career to date. Early Television classics such as "Venus" and "Glory" (but alas, no "Foxhole") are featured, both in short and punchy contrast to the live work. Material has been compiled from a disparate range of labels and releases: From poppier stuff such as "Let Go The Mansion" and "O Foolish Heart" (from 1984's Cover), to the more robust Flash Light era and the 1992 re-formed Television ("Call Mr Lee" and "No Glamour For Willi" from the massively underrated Television album that year). There are a few obvious omissions, with selections weighted generally in favour of the Virgin material, and some of the rarer items don't really cut it—the fragmented pretentiousness of "Revolution" could have been omitted in favour of more from Flash Light or a real rarity like the first Television single, "Little Johnny Jewel". These are minor quibbles, perhaps, because The Miller's Tale is a long overdue collection from a genuine maverick talent, and the live disc alone makes it essential.