The Tom Tom Bomb

Source: Sounds, 21st February 1987

by Robin Gibson

Talking to Tom Verlaine comes in two parts.
Part one is where you catch yourself wishing you'd dropped your car keys down a drain. Surely an afternoon on your knees with bent coathanger and a muddy arm would prove easier than trying to prise pearls of wisdom from these clenched, nervy lips. But part one only lasts about half-an-hour. He'll say things like' "Another year, another album," with a cynical, if good-humoured detachment.

He'll talk about the importance of relative parts in his approach to musi-making. Rather drily, he'll profess a love for the true use of the language of music in the symphonic tradition and a disregard for current rock'n'roll use of what he sees as "rhetoric." Basically, he'll confirm your suspicions about his artistic intensity and he'll chainsmoke into the bargain. If part one is going to depict Tom Verlaine as some sort of dull, worthy, tasteful old fogey, then it's not worth dwelling on. But it's worth rescuing this, "A lot of it is very spontaneous for me. Describing any process sounds cold, because it becomes reflective. It somehow leaves out all the emotionality, and even the physicality of it. Its like, I can't really reproduce these guitar solos. I listen to 'em and I realise, Well that goes there and this goes here, but I don't really know what the notes were. You try to surprise yourself, I think. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Maybe it's down to the mood you're in that day." Tom Verlaine has been making records with Fender guitars, bass and drums for ten years or so. He must be in a pretty good mood most of the days he makes one.

Part two is where he opens up, chomps thoughtfully on a croissant, occasionally forgets where he started (mainly because he enjoys leaping off at outrageous tangents) and generally seems to explain things for his own benefit as much as anyone's. He takes quite a childlike delight in discovering things as he talks; he takes care not to give too much away about himself. "Flash Light" is his fifth solo album. If 1981's "Dreamtime" with its dense, frenetic climax was the logical end to the style of grand guitar drama that the first Television album "Marquee Moon" ushered in, then even "Flash Light" is a natural descendant of his last LP, the brilliant "Cover". "Cover" was a masterly redirection of his resources, featuring some of his calmest, most spacious, subtly orchestrated and adventurous songs. And though "Flash Light" zigzags less than "Cover", housing nothing as exploratory as "Travelling"or as perversely picturesque as "Swim", it contains plenty of great moments. Songs like "Bomb" and "Cry Mercy Judge" are as taut and thrilling as anything he's done; "The Scientist", "One Time At Sundown" or "At 4am" as beautiful and intriguing as any classic Verlaine.

Like all of his music, it sounds unique and it describes the vision of someone whose approach to rock music has always been unique. It's electric and exciting, but somehow it sidesteps the crudity, baseness or craziness that is implicit in the term "great rock'n'roll". "Mmm, but there is something crazy in it," he argues. "For lack of a better word, there's something irrational in a lot of it. It seems to surface more in the guitar solos and the vocals and lyrics, the subject matter of the songs, which isn't conscious at all, really. They seem to explore either very high-spirited moments, or some kind of dangerous moments where people's live are at stake."

There often seems to be a sense of elation in Verlaine's songs; but in something like "A Town Called Walker", the new single, the tone seems to be one of reflection. "Well, that is actually a very tragic song. It's about this very naive girl who's going back to someplace, this town, and she's making excuses for it, and for the people there. It is a very B-movie sort of thing. But I've seen people do this in their lives, it's very real. They'll come to New York and complain, this place is too crazy, it's too fast, and go back to their hometown or whatever And in a way, it's worse. They find they have to continually adapt to a bad environment which has, in a sense, been known to be the root of all disorder. When you find yourself having to adapt to bad situations, you become part of the situation yourself." The story sounds straightforward, but terming it "tragic" lends a certain romance to the telling of it, I suggest. "Well, I like the term straightforward," he goes on, completely disregarding my second point.

"This is precisely what I tried to be on this record. For instance, 'Annie's Tellin Me' had a very, um, thoughtful quote/unquote lyric. But I thought, I don't really want this, the person to the song is dealing with doesn't talk like this -she talks! So I ended up using clichés, using these things where the character is just put before the public. On this record, though the characters are creations or voices speaking through a song, there was a sense of allowing them to be themselves, to be dumb. Just allowing them that existence, without trying to be clever about it.

The other thing that's come up over and over again is a theme of corruption. Like, the corrupt judge on 'Cry Mercy Judge'; 'Say A Prayer', which has this guy deciding the world is on the take and thinking immediately, Well, this is how it is, I'm corrupt as well; and again in 'Walker', the girl going back to a corrupt place, naively. Now, none of this conflict is really resolved whether it is corrupt, or not.

Song is about these people who can't seem to talk to each other; and then again in 'The Scientist', the guy writes a letter, and it's obvious he adores the woman he's writing to, but what does he write? He tells her these nothing little facts, and there's a whole feeling of being unable to communicate."

"In 'Sundown'," he continues, "the guy is trying to, ah, retrieve something. Going back to pick up what he dropped. The literal metaphor would be somebody dropped a valuable jewel, or object, or a personal charm. It's this naive belief in a holy grail, or something that is actually nothing but a signifier of either a state of consciousness, or elation, to use your word."

The half-eaten croissant is reclining forgotten in his lap. He lights a cigarette from the end of his last one.
"I just found this whole theme of either inarticulateness or corruption. I don't know how or why all this stuff surfaced, though."
Are these your obsessions?
"Um, maybe they're symptoms of an obsession," he smiles. "But I don't know what that obsession might be. It is curious, because it's basically a very upbeat record. Yet the lyric themes are dealing with difficult things."

Difficult for you?

"Well, not difficult for me, because to me they're expressions of something. But," he wonders, "I'm not sure what they're expressions of! In a simple way, they're releases of tension, or relaxations of tension that isn't essential." Yet the obvious way to describe what Verlaine does might be to say that it's creating a tension which is essential. "Yeah, well, that might be the paradox. One's creating it to resolve it, the snake biting its tail, sort of effect. There is, perhaps, an attempt in this record to explore the inability to say what one means."

Have you ever tried any other means of expression apart from music?

"Well, I used to draw a lot, In fact, I used to paint between the ages 12 and 15. I did quite a bit. And I always kept notebooks - this was how I learned to write. I started to write little, terrible poems, usually about monsters. The first things I ever wrote were about King Tut and Godzilla. I had a great boyhood thing about monsters."

I used to have the same, about dinosaurs, I remark.

"Actually, I used to have all these little plastic dinosaurs. I used to go and rake leaves on people's lawns, in the fall, after school they'd give you about 50p, I guess, and these dinosaur things were about 90p."

Verlaine looks more like the sort of person who still spends his time raking leaves than the sensitive, poetic type he is. His uncertain twitches, his heavy hands, right down to his big workman's boots: none of it seems to correlate with his music. Is the attention to detail in his records as much a characteristic of the everyday Tom?

"Ah hahaha! I don't know, I mean, the apartments I live in, unless some woman is coming to stay there, are a complete mess. Usually before someone shows up I have to work on it for eight hours to make it look like something other than a bear lives there. So if neatness and detail have a relation, I'm not a very neat person. It's interesting. I'd never thought of applying that word to this before now. Someone was asking me about the title of this album, which is very deliberately supposed to be two words and actually, what has been an obsession with me is this idea of, you know, the traditional flash of light in which something becomes known." The light bulb over the head?

"Right. I was thinking of this kinda dream, about walking in a room or a completely dark space, and the light comes on very quick, and goes out very quick, and what did you see? This may even have something to do with a childhood memory that I haven't quite unlocked yet, that something very significant was seen in that bright moment, that somehow still remains nebulous, can't quite be incorporated into your daily lifestyle. I'm not quite sure how that is involved with the people on the album, but it could be that that's exactly what's missing from the whole thing. I often think, in fact completely believe, that people whatever they're working in are feeling their way in the dark, that it's not important to know what you're doing. I mean, yeah, you can set up a method for yourself. Apparently mystery writers work this way, in the first chapter introduce the crime, in the second the motives and in the third the possible suspects. So you develop a structure, fill it in and there's your thing. I've never been able to work this way at all." Even after ten years, a Verlaine single like "A Town Called Walker" only reluctantly strays into commercial territory and anything he's recorded seems incredibly tasteful and unpretentious in the shadow of the Def Leppard sleeves that adorn the wall of the Phonogram office we're in. 

"Right. But the artificiality of that, for some people it becomes a whole number. I'm thinking of David Bowie, who is always pulling this, pulling that from here and there. People who are manipulative seem to have got further in the last ten years, quicker. I'm also thinking of people like Madonna, who has chosen a whole set of ready-made images. I've never been able to find myself liking something which is only the product of pure ambition," he decided, wincing as he recalls a recent, extraordinarily vacuous Patsy Kensit interview on The Tube.

Which makes me think involuntarily about something else Verlaine has previously cited as an obsession: sex, massive amounts of which, he's said, have seemed apparent to him, on reflection, in his music. Pushed on this, though, his talent for tangents ascends to an even higher level.

"Yeah, but sex is a world where all sorts of other things get placed, somehow. What springs to mind are some of these so-called sexual perversions, like 55-year-old businessmen who hire girls and go through the most bizarre practices, being pissed on, or whatever. When you study it, that sort of behaviour has nothing to do with sex whatsoever! I mean, what is this guy really enacting?? When I was playing clubs in New York the kinda stuff that used to go on was incredible. I mean, an apparently enormous amount of sexual activity and innuendo and attempted seduction all the time. And yet, so much of it not really having anything to do with sex. I used to get the most bizarre propositions playing these clubs. I was packing up a guitar one night and this girl came up to me and completely matter-of-factly said, Had I ever beat up a girl before? And I said, No and she said, 'Well I'll pay you 200 dollars to come over to my house, tie me up and beat me up! She had a whole design in mind, this whole thing. I did not find this exciting at all," he mutters wryly. "In fact, I was incredibly flabbergasted! Anyway, someone I knew actually took her up on it, apparently." Ah well, Tom Verlaine always did seem more sensible than most of his contemporaries. "I think though," he says eventually, "This thing about sex, the sexual element of all rock'n'roll is always there. It's just the kind of thrust the stuff has." And refuses to be drawn any further.

Tom Verlaine has been living, or at least based in England for two-and-a-half years now, and he's aware of - though not unduly concerned by - just how much he's perceived as a seminal figure. After all of this and after the consistent excellence of his solo work, a huge amount of interest in him is centred around his status as just that, and Television's in particular. It might be unjust but even in my house it's more likely that "Marquee Moon" is being aired than his solo albums.

Well, yeah I hear the guitar stuff all over the place, I've been hearing that for years. But I'll tell you,this girl called me up and said, Have you heard this guy Lloyd Cole? And I said, No. And she said, Well, this is the first time I've ever heard someone try to sing like you. And I thought, Oh, no, it can't be! But I didn't hear it. And then when I signed to Phonogram, this guy in the office put on this Lloyd Cole record. And I couldnt figure out what it was, but I knew that stuff sounded really familiar in the weirdest way, and this guy says, Yeah, he's totally copped your vocal style! I thought, Come on, but he says, No, it's true, I know this guy. And later on, I ran into him. And he asked me for an autograph. I was just looking at this guy thinking, What's this all about?

He might well ask.

Meanwhile, we should be thankful that one of the last great innocents abroad in rock'n'roll is still one of its greatest craftsmen and originators too.
Autograph hunters this way.