Cult Hero Tom Verlaine Surfaces With LP, Tour

Rolling Stone Magazine October 29, 1981

by Kristine McKenna

NYC: Tom Verlaine appears to be adrift inside of his clothing. Reed thin, his lanky limbs extend a number of inches beyond the loose, flapping cuffs of his shirt, lending him an air of Grapes of Wrath chic. He ambles into a cushy conference room at Warner Bros. Records, and though it's four in the afternoon, he begins sipping his first coffee of the day, a cigarette dangling from his bony fingers.

A small-town boy from Delaware, Tom Miller, like Bob Dylan, took the name of a poet and set off for the big city to make great music. The former leader of the seminal New Wave band Television, Verlaine has been an influential figure on the New York scene since 1974, when he edged into the spotlight at CBGB, oozing the zomboid cool of a somnambulist. Raised on jazz, Verlaine persisted in playing the guitar while those around him were brandishing it as a weapon, and he made a name for himself with a terse, stuttering style that burned like a beacon amid the wash of guitar noise that clogged the airwaves of the late Seventies. A cryptically compelling lyricist, Verlaine sketched intensely personal abstract tone poems composed of jumbled chunks of imagery. Contrasted against the easy melodicism of Television's second guitarist, Richard Lloyd, Verlaine's edgy, neurasthenic profile made Television one of New Wave's most intriguing contenders.

That Verlaine is still but a cult hero can be attributed to Television's contract with Elektra, a record company that neither understood nor knew how to market the band, plus ill-timed tours and band members' personal problems. After two albums that garnered critical raves, meager sales and zero airplay, the group disbanded in August 1978, and the enigmatic Verlaine dropped from sight. He resurfaced briefly in the summer of 1979, when Elektra released his self-titled debut album. A worthy follow-up to the Television legacy, Tom Verlaine was allowed to die on the vine by Elektra, and Verlaine set off in search of a new record company.

Now secure at Warner Bros., Verlaine just started a tour of Europe and America. "I've been told that the temperament of the mainstream audience has changed in such a way that people will be more receptive to my music now, but I don't know," he muses in a soft drawl. "It's been three years since I performed and although Television did pretty well in England, I have my doubts that there's much interest in me in America. Still I feel the need to get out there and see what's going on."

If Verlaine onstage sounds half as good as the new album, he'll be in fine shape. A collection of stripped-down essays on faith, betrayal and redemption, Dreamtime contains some of his finest work. Punctuated with tart, ringing guitar-lines, the likes of which haven't been heard since Michael Bloomfield met up with Dylan, Dreamtime, in fact, sounds much like early Dylan and evidences no knowledge whatsoever of current musical trends. Conscious or not, that's a definite plus.

It's a tougher record than Verlaine's made in the past, yet it's a sweeter one as well. His obsessive vocals have become even more bruised and chocked, but the chord progressions he favors are so are so gloriously melodic that the album's ultimate tone is a downright religious glow of dewy-eyed hope. Reputed to be a stubborn perfectionist, in the studio, Verlaine spent nine months polishing Dreamtime to a satisfactory shine.

"Warners must be pretty interested in breaking me, because I went way over budget making the record, and they're giving me tour money on top of that," Verlaine marvels. "Dreamtime cost a lot to make because of a bad batch of tape that kept falling apart. I lost entire takes of songs . . . although it actually might have been a good thing because it forced me to keep working on the songs. I think the vocals on the record are real strong, I hadn't sung in a while and I wasn't liking my voice, so I went to this acupuncturist and asked her what she could do. The next thing I knew, I had all these needles in my neck! And I was amazed at the results - it really did seem to open my throat up."

Cast by the press as a romantic, spaced-out visionary, the notoriously reclusive thirty-one year-old appears to be playing to type by calling his new album Dreamtime. But he pleads innocent of cultivating the Verlaine image.

People who think I'm a hermit are people who go to clubs all the time, and I ain't crazy about sittin' around clubs," he protests. "As to why I called the album Dreamtime, I couldn't tell you, other than I do tend to be awake all night - I guess that's just my time."

"I'm told Dreamtime is real close to Television's first album, and I guess you could say all my music has a central story and all the albums are variations on that story," he continues. "This one's different in that it names real people. I think good writing has to involve another person, and though some manage to assemble songs in a very detached way, I think if that detachment is forced, you're not going to get a good song. You're more apt to get a good song when any notions you might have about 'good writing' have collapsed."

Asked if he feels nostalgic about New York's fertile 1977 music scene, he replies with a typically philosophical tangent.

"No, not now. I might when I'm fifty years old. Who knows? I recently realized that Television has influenced a lot of English bands. Echo and the Bunnymen, U2, Teardrop Explodes---it's obvious what they've listened to and what they're going for. When I was sixteen I listened to Yardbirds records and thought, 'God, this is great.' It's gratifying to think that people listened to Television albums and felt the same."

"Sometimes old Television songs will run through my mind, and I'll think, 'Oh, that line's not right", but a little bit of failure can be a good thing. In India, when they weave marriage blankets, they make them perfect until they get to the end, then put in this little screwed-up thing. They say that mistake is what lets you in. That's what the Grail myth is about---somebody who's wounded. I think you just have to accept that wound because it may be the first ingredient in some recipe."