San Francisco, 19th June 1990
"Smoother than Jones. Alias Much Finer than Sinatra."
At 4 a.m.
Man in the Backyard
One Time at Sundown
Smoother than Jones
Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
Words from the Front
O Foolish Heart
I Am Daylight
Let Go the Mansion
I Walk the Line
You might approach this one with a feeling of .. what?.. apprehension? A Tom Verlaine solo acoustic show. Unplugged, as they say. No chance at all of the electric guitar wonders that we love and look forward to. In a way it's the last thing that you expect Verlaine to do so you have no idea at all what to expect.
What strikes you first is the rapport which he establishes with the audience. There's an atmosphere of intimacy and warmth, and he sounds very comfortable doing it. What you get is eighty minutes or so of Verlaine songs stripped down to their very essentials - the words. The bare bones of all these songs (mostly from "The Wonder" which, at one point, refers to as "my new record which is available everywhere except America!"). Now, Tom Verlaine is no more a "singer/songwriter" in a the accepted way than John Lennon was so it's pointless to listen to this as if it were, say, a James-Taylor-kind-of-thing. The acoustic guitar accompaniments are not (couldn't be) quieter equivalents of the electric structures from the albums. The guitar here is almost incidental to what's going on, which is something I never expected to feel about a Verlaine performance! (Having said elsewhere that there are no traces of blues influences in Verlaine's electric guitar, now I have to say that they are all over his acoustic playing.)
I would never have thought, for example, that "Words From the Front" would work without its wonderful electric guitar, but it does. The broken lines that Verlaine pulls from the acoustic have just as much power as the searing electric solo on the album. "At 4 a.m." is quite lovely and his voice has a warmth and tunefulness that has never been so apparent, the guitar sounding, at times, like a mandolin. In "Smoother Than Jones" his voice has a fragility and vulnerability which is quietly gripping. "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" is a surprise and a small delight.
So, you are drawn into his world/view of things much more directly and easily than before (and, it has to be said, the audience seems to be hanging on to every word). The sense of catching glimpses of someone else's thoughts, dream fragments, that I get from Verlaine's records is intensified here through the clarity of the lyrics and the spare music.
Another thing that takes you by surprise (although I don't know why it should) is the humour. "Man In The Backyard", a kind of simple tale of urban paranoia, emerges spooky and funny - imagine a cross between the Dylan of "Time Out of Mind" and Loudon Wainwright. Johnny Cash's "I Walk The Line" segues into "Ring of Fire" and then mutates into a ludicrous scenario in which Cash, bombed out of his mind in a motel room, muses on pill-popping, motel curtains, death and redemption. It manages to be funny and strangely moving at the same time.
Most bands who have taken the unplugged route seem to have done it to prove that they could - only to demonstrate that they couldn't. Verlaine, with nothing much to prove, simply opens his songs up and presents them in a less ambiguous context. You should hear this.