Another Television Broadside

Source: Sounds, 8th April 1978

by Stephen Demorest

Tom Verlaine – Genius In Fragments

As a child Tom Verlaine loved listening to symphonies. Half asleep and half awake, it was like dreaming. Now, with Television, he makes music that reflects the abstraction of one lost in thought, balancing giddily between two worlds.

Television does to rock what Stravinsky did to classical music, breaking it into fragments and reassembling it anew. The percussion is shifty and unsettling as high winds at midnight. The guitars surge and sputter like live wires dancing with an apprehension for balance. The drums are the tension, the guitars are the release; darkness doubles and lighting strikes itself. Television skirts the Twilight Zone with dissonance, discords, minor keys, and pinging harmonics. Some of their best notes are the ones they don’t play, sudden silences and hesitations that jerk through the air like a crack goes through a cup. They don’t forfeit surprise.

“The whole thing of modern art is based on fragments.” says Verlaine. “But I don’t hear it as fragmented, I hear it as one thing. People who say it’s fragmented don’t see the whole thing; it’s like they’re making a premature decision.”
“Richard Hell thought of the name ‘Television’,”
Tom says. “He was really drunk one night, and he has this list of about 200 names, and he looked around his room and saw his television set and put ‘Television” on the bottom of the page. Then he brought it to rehearsal and everybody said, “This one is really good”. He had all kinds of names: “Goo Goo”, “The Liberteens”…”

Violence: “I hate fights, it just seems so stupid it repels me. I understand breaking guitars onstage, I even kicked an amp to death myself one night, but I don’t get any thrill out of witnessing destruction. I’d rather see a guy do it as a joke than do it because of an inability to control his temper.”

This doesn’t mean Verlaine is chicken, though. “I used to get kicked out of games for unnecessary roughness in school. In soccer, I was overly energetic going for the ball. I’d be kicking and kicking until the other guy was on the ground. Same thing in football. I played fullback and I used to be real fast, but whenever a guy came to tackle me I’d get real pissed off – Who the hell are you ? – and I’d try to knock him down instead of avoiding him.
“I’d be ten yards from a touchdown, but instead of making it in down the sideline, I’d run right into the guys and get creamed. I was making great yardage, but I blew it in the pinch. It was real stupid, but I couldn’t get over it. Finally, the coach just took me out in the middle of the season.”

Good/ Evil: “I do think in terms of good and evil, and I don’t think everything is so relative. This is this and that is that. Evil comes when people are totally convinced their points of view are The Truth. People are led by confidence, unfortunately, so those who have that much confidence in their points of view find followers. Evil is an attitude that comes over those who refuse to discriminate. There was a California expression: “It’s all the same”. Drinking a glass of water or cutting a leg off – “Oh, it’s all the same”.

I also think some people are deliberate about making sure you know what they’re going through, which I don’t really care for. There’s people that are definitely out to occupy space that they really shouldn’t be taking up, and that to me, is a real misdirection.” “I do feel like I have an good angel, there’s definitely some help. I feel if there’s something I really have to do, then I can do it – anybody can get help in the clinch. I guess some people don’t feel that way, that’s probably why a lot of people are in jail. “

“I don’t like to analyze my own work; I do it until it’s right, and then it’s gone. In fact, I have developed a phobia about putting things on paper that I’d like to get over. When I had a typewriter, I used to write a lot more, all sorts of stories, but a friend of mine and I tore it to bits one night for fun. It was like, “Wanna see a key?…Rip!” I haven’t gotten one since.”

“There’s a feeling that goes on between you and your tools which I never took seriously until I had all seven of my guitars stolen, and had to get used to new ones. They weren’t real expensive, but they were set up so I could play them in a certain way. At least I got to do one record with them. Most necks are different sizes. Your hand takes all that for granted, but on a strange guitar you get millions of bad chords. Your hand keeps playing the old neck.
“Some kid showed me harmonics in 12th grade, and I thought it was the greatest – they’re all over our first record. Lots of jazz guitarists can apparently do it really fast. I can’t do it fast, but I love the sound – like little bells.”

Verlaine likes his painters abstract. “Right now I like Charles Burchfield, who does watercolor landscapes on the verge of abstraction, but not quite. And do you Albert Ryder’s landscapes? He lived this completely impoverished life in New York, down on West 19th Street. He had no money, so he’d break a board off his bed to paint on, and he had the cheapest paint so they’re all cracked now. He’d do one painting on top of another for years. And I like Paul Klee a lot. In fact, Klee is probably as good a painter as Beethoven is a composer.”

“I just started to listen to Beethoven last year, and now he really appeals to me. It was the same thing with abstract painting – I don’t know what it takes, but all of a sudden it dawns on you. A lot of people think Beethoven’s last three string quartets are the greatest music ever written. From a certain point of view, they’re really perfect, they just don’t stop weaving Bach had that down , but with him it always struck a certain logic within a person. Beethoven, it’s beyond logic – they’re like little miracles.”

Television appears in a silent black and white film by Ivan Kral of the Patti Smith band which was screened once at CBGB. Tom stands like a ramrod digesting lightning. His face is lit with phosphorus, an art nouveau martyr in platinum print. He rolls his eyes through timid, scarcely begun glances, like a blind man. Tom didn’t see it. He walked into the club just as they were going off the screen, and all he remembers is it was the darkest segment of the film.

Tom Verlaine and Fred Smith of Television are holed up at Elektra Records on Fifth Avenue. Smith is relaxing over in the corner, behind a puckish smile and twinkling eyes. Verlaine, however, only slept three hours last night, and despite his boyish look – cropped blonde hair and a colourful patchwork leather jacket – he seems worn and agitated. In a spasm of creativity, some goon in the Elektra art department has tinkered with Verlaine’s specifications for the jacket of Television’s new “Adventure” album and Tom – always a most exact artist – is quietly furious, sick to the centre of his soul.

He’s been plagued frequently by bad business in the year since his powerful band released its startling “Marquee Moon” debut album. Bickering with Elektra, which wouldn’t release the single Tom wanted. Splitting from their management company, Wartoke, which couldn’t account for the proceeds from Television’s English tour to Tom’s satisfaction. Working short-handed during the “Adventure” sessions when Richard Lloyd, the brilliant guitarist whose eyes remind one of Charlotte Rampling, was laid-up ill for five weeks.

Now Verlaine is correcting proofs of the LP’s lyric sheet (more mistakes) and nervously twiddling his pen.

We get along fine but he’s no fan of interviews – one more nuisance. “I’ll tell ya,” he sighs at one point. “I wouldn’t mind disappearing one of these days.”
“It’s hard for me to find something good to read. I found a book in England called “Death And The Dreamer” by Dennis Saurat that’s divided into three parts. The first is conversations with Spanish peasants about ghosts; the second is a dialogue with a monk in Italy who tells the real story of Jesus Christ; and the third is an autobiographical account of his experience while he was knocked unconscious and pronounced dead during a World War II rocket bombing of London. Those stories interest me; in fact, I want to see that cheapo movie about returning from death, “Beyond And Back”.

“Another good book is “The Sands Of Karakaroum” by James Ullman, who was considered a pretty trashy writer of the ‘40s and ‘50s. It sounds like a stupid desert novel, but it does have some grip to it. It’s about westerners who go to this totally desolate, unmapped place above the Himalayas in mid-Asia, and the black sand and heat and local legends alter their consciousness. The author said he was haunted by this story for 15 years, and then wrote the whole book in one week. It’s like a fever-dream.”

Verlaine’s taste in records similarly esoteric: “I buy them and sell them the next day, looking for something decent. Elvis’ guitarist, Scotty Moore, made a good little jam record on Delwood, but I think it’s already a cut-out. Actually, I think Bowie’s recent records are interesting. I like to analyze the engineering aspects because it sounds so different. It sounds so true-to-life to me, like the snare sounds really whacky. I also heard a soundtrack by Enrico Marconi (sic), who does them for Italian westerns like Clint Eastwood’s. They’re unique, some blends between classical and pop without being muzak. I would bet Bowie heard his records, too.”

Verlaine’s favourite disc last year, though, was a 1961 record of music from the “Twilight Zone” TV show, by Marty Manning and His Orchestra, which Tom rediscovered in his childhood collection. “It’s an album of really neat stuff, and it’s impossible to find now. It’s not really spooky, it’s just weird combinations of instruments, totally arranged with strange rhythms. It’s pre-synthesisers and tape-effects.”

Verlaine doesn’t listen to much new wave music, although he concedes, “I suppose it’s more interesting than this and that. Actually, it seems like all the guys you’d think could do really hot stuff don’t do it – like this guy Spedding, his record is just a bunch of standard rock and roll licks piled up.” Then he brightens: “I hope Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore do more of that Derek and Clive stuff.”

Although Television’s material is pretty uniformly humourless, Verlaine himself is known to have a playful turn of mind. (He recently came across an old envelope full of funny cartoons he once drew of spherical, simple-minded characters.) High on his reading list these days are some vintage W.C. Fields filmscripts which he found in a New York bargain bin for a dollar, and which he calls “first-rate literature”. He also likes flying saucer rock records from the Sputnik era and appreciates comedy items like “It’s Sick” by The Sick-niks from1958. “It’s totally stupid, like a psychiatrist who can’t stop burping in front of his patient. One side is about 40 bands of one-line jokes.”

The leader of Television does not own a TV set. “I had an old, battered one, but when we had to move out of our rehearsal loft one day I left it behind. Only half of the screen lit up anyway.” Tom is obviously fascinated by sound. He loves to try things out while recording (an expensive habit), which accounts for the distinctive personality of their records, Television’s guitar tones, for instance, had their diamond-hard tonal quality enhanced by the studio at Soundmixers, a large wooden room with a floor like a gymnasium where they got a lot of reflected sound bouncing off the walls. They spent from September to January on the LP and, says Tom painfully, “it cost a fortune”. “Another reason we have a different sound quality from the standard Les Paul beefed-up guitars plugged into Marshall amplifiers is we don’t use Gibson guitars – it’s all Fenders and Danelectros. I think it gives you more bite and sparkle. I ended up using the same old Jazzmaster for almost the whole record because I couldn’t find another one that would stay in tune. Jazzmasters are traditionally the guitar nobody would play – the pickups don’t respond to a string like a Les Paul – but to me it sounds great.”

“I also think we use notes that other rock and rollers don’t use in chords. Like “Ain’t That Nothin’” is just a drone of a G, but over the top are all sorts of 6ths and 7ths travelling by. Also the arrangements aren’t strictly tailored to a voice, like “You Light Up My Life”. In fact, on a couple of these things, I had no idea of the vocals when we put down the music. “Carried Away” had three different melodies – it even had three different sets of lyrics – and this one was the best.”

Collaborations: “There must be 20 people I’d like to do records with, but contracts and money make it a mess. It’s like a marriage – you sign a piece of paper for better or worse. It’s too bad you can’t just do one song and see how you get along.”

Power: “I can never read history, but I love hearing stories about people. Like Nero and Caligula – they were the two comedians of all time. I came across a quote something like: “History is a big playpen where people ruin each other” - and it’s sad but totally true. People with a certain point of view are granted power by people around them. Any time someone comes on strong, usually there’s more people willing to go with him than against him. It’s definitely true in rock and roll. A group like Aerosmith, there’s no content there, it’s just coming on strong like they saw somebody else come on strong before them. The same thing with Kiss.”

At its best, Television’s expressionistic music is taut with an ecstatic tension reminiscent of the absinthe romanticism of The Doors. They may be the most artistically ambitious band in rock – grand-mannered, inspired- and probably seem either pretentious or loaded with talent, depending on hw well they capture your imagination. “Adventure” is full of gorgeous, obsessively individual sounds, and seems to me much more accessible than their first album. The five cuts on side one are classic rock structures; it’s the three lengthy cuts on side two that really cut loose the free-form musicianship. Yet for all their inventive experimenting, there’s fundamental hard-on rock and roll in “Glory”, “Foxhole” and the Stones-ish “Ain’t That Nothin’ ”. Verlaine’s poetic lyrics remain obscure imagistic collages, with certain echoes from his earlier work becoming apparent (folded hands, docks by the water..).

Verlaine’s favourite track, “The Dream’s Dream” is a lovely trance instrumental which nearly didn’t make it on the record. “I found that basic melody on a two-year-old cassette one day. We were working five days a week, so we worked it our over a weekend and did it on Monday. The other title for that was “Cairo”, but it’s actually all in western scale, in the key of F. ‘Course, I wish it was 10 minutes longer…”

The most tortured guitar solo on “Adventure” is found on “The Fire”. Flames are hardly a new image in the Verlaine repertoire. He wrote of arson in his poetry collaboration with Patti Smith, “The Night”, and he remembers:
“I used to do a number about an arsonist called “Horizontal Ascension”. It was all about a kid who got a lighter for his birthday and decided to burn things. He’d go to drug stores and movie theatres, and when nobody was looking – whoosh ! – he’d burn everything up. Maybe it’s because I’m a fire-sign, Sagittarius.

“The melody of “The Fire” is in a minor key, but the chords aren’t exactly in that key – they float around it. And that weird, reedy oboe sound is an ondioline, a little instrument invented by this French guy in the ‘40s. It’s like an organ, but it only has 24 notes, and when you press the key you can bend it, like a guitar note. I heard one on that “Twilight Zone” record. It was listed in the credits along with things like “the serpent” and “bull’s roar” – whatever they are.” The next thing Tom wants to try is an instrument made by Farfisa that makes “squeaky little cheapo organ sounds like you hear in Chinese restaurants.”

Kate Simon is sitting on the floor, alternately listening and daydreaming. She has a wonderful book, “Dolly On The Dais”, which tells the true stories of the women who modelled for history’s greatest works of art. When I mention Verlaine should check out the Venus de Milo, Kate says Liz Siddell was the most tragic figure in the book. Siddell was the model for Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s painting “Ophelia”, which Verlaine is partial to. I mention she looks dead in it, and a smile flickers across his face:” Yeah, I can see the charm of that.”

Television are becoming as renowned for their unreleased material as for their Elektra albums. “Adventure” in fact, is the title of the one song they recorded that didn’t make it onto the new album (it was dropped for reason of length). Also axed was “Mi Amore”, which Tom regretted not getting onto the first album a year ago. (“We tried it for half an hour, but it’s just too hard a song to worry about getting right.”) Another old favourite which they never had time to work out right is “Hard On Love”, a ballad that appears on their earliest demo tapes- “Careful” is the one song from this era (circa 1974) that finally qualified for “Adventure” “by popular request”. Then there’s Television’s celebrated version of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. Tom says, “I heard somebody bootlegged that in Paris and put out a thousand copies – I’d like to hear it myself.” He’s already getting tired of the song, though, and is considering replacing it in their set with – get this – the country & western melodrama “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town”. My eyebrows shoot up sceptically, but Verlaine is adamant: “I’m telling you, man, it’s a little stupid, but with a few changes in the lyrics, that song could be great.”