Tom Verlaine

Source: Stereo Review, July 1992

by Steve Simels

After fourteen years, can the original New Wave guitar hero get the commercial respect he deserves?

THE only time I ever met Tom Verlaine was back in 1973, thanks to a classified ad in the Village Voice: "Narcissistic rhythm guitarist wanted--minimal talent okay."

At that point in history, the twenty-four-year-old, New Jersey-born Verlaine was living in Manhattan's then highly unfashionable East Village under his real last name (Miller) and hanging around with Richard Myers, a pal since their late-Sixties days at a Delaware boarding school and in a short-lived band called the Neon Boys. As for me, I figured I was as narcissistic and minimally talented as the next guy, so I decided to call him.

Consequently, one afternoon I showed up at Verlaine's roach-infested apartment and jammed briefly with the duo. Both guys were laconic in the extreme and had a certain (shall we say) attitude, but as I was leaving they said they were auditioning an old friend over the weekend, and if he didn't work out they'd get back to me.

They never did, of course. The friend was the great guitarist Richard Lloyd, and after that Verlaine, Myers (who soon changed his name to Hell and became notorious for inventing the punk look), Lloyd, and drummer Billy Ficca (another school chum) started performing around the Bowery as Television. By the time they released their debut (independent) single, Little Johnny Jewel, in 1975, they had essentially created the entire CBGB scene, and they went on--with Fred Smith replacing Hell on bass-to become one of the most popular and influential of the first generation of New Wave bands, along with Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Patti Smith.

Television folded in 1978 after two brilliant but only modestly successful albums on Elektra. Verlaine then embarked on a solo career, became a guitar hero to countless alternative and college-radio bands, and generally refined his image as the moody poet laureate of Eternally Disaffected Bohemians, Downtown Division.

So when I chatted with him by phone this spring - to discuss his latest solo album (his seventh) as well as the eagerly awaited Television reunion on Capitol - I was flattered and relieved that the first words out of his mouth were, "We met years ago, didn't we? You answered our ad?" Reputation notwithstanding, he seemed like a thoroughly regular Joe, an unpretentious working musician rather than a tortured, mystical artiste.

"Warm and Cool," Verlaine's new solo album on Rykodisc, is all instrumental and thus something of a departure for a guy celebrated as much for his symbolist-influenced lyrics as for his guitar prowess. But Verlaine said he would have done it a long time ago, except that "no record label I was on was ever interested.

"It was like, `It's a nice idea, but it's not really worth it for us to issue it even if you pay for it yourself,'" he recalled. "So when I got off Phonogram, I figured, here's a chance to do it for the fun of it and then sell it."

Recorded with Ficca, Smith, and old CBGB chum Jay Dee Daugherty, "Warm and Coo!" has a kind of Beatnik Jazz Meets Duane Eddy ambience. It's moody rather than intense, and short on guitar pyrotechnics.

"I knew somebody would point that out," Verlaine laughed. "But it's not really a rock record. It's kind of bluesy. There's also something Fifties about it, and something -not in terms of sound but concept - sort of Oriental, in the sense of keeping it incredibly simple and leaving lots of space."

Keeping it simple, apparently, involved having few rigid structures in place prior to making it. "The thing was recorded in two nights, and then we spent about five days editing," Verlaine said. "Basically a lot of it - maybe half, actually - is edited bits out of much longer things. They were all sort of `Oh, let's try something' [sessions]. It was strictly luck that everybody got the idea."

Recording the new Television album, on the other hand, was a less improvisatory affair. It is, after all, the punk/New Wave equivalent of a Buffalo Springfield reunion, and consequently a lot of people have high expectations. Verlaine, however, professes not to be intimidated.

"I don't have any image of the band," he said. "To me it's two guitars, bass, and drums; that's always what it was. The second record was different from the first record, stylistically, and this will be different from both of them. Luckily we still have the same guitars."

The album, due out in July but still untitled when we spoke, seems to have been motivated in part by a certain frustration with the industry. "I had piles of unrecorded stuff," Verlaine noted, "because I had such trouble with Phonogram. I signed with them in England around 1985, and I did one record, and they didn't put it out. Then I did another one, and it came out two years later, and I did another one that came out three years after it was recorded. In the meantime I wound up with this enormous pile of material, and I just thought it might be fun to do this again. Plus, I had played with Billy now and then, and Fred's worked with me for the last ten years or so, so it's not really such a big move even though a lot of people think it is. We were never estranged."

Interestingly, given prevailing industry practice, the band members are producing the recording themselves. "Capitol seems really great to me," Verlaine said about the label that also markets Garth Brooks. "They seem like the last record company that leaves you alone, whereas the new breed, all the new companies, seem to have remix mania."

One of the reasons so many people still love Television is that it conjured up the excitement of New York City at a moment of great artistic ferment. Verlaine, however, seemed unaffected by such Big Apple nostalgia.

"I lived in Europe off and on from 1984 to 1988, and I didn't miss New York at that point, not at all," he said, "although when I came back I noticed that a lot of places I used to go had disappeared. It's funny how [that period] is perceived. I suppose it's a part of history for many people. But I never look back at it, and I always do the same sort of things."

One of those things is dabbling in prose, as witness the "extract from Forty Monologues" on the inner sleeve of his 1984 solo album "Cover." And there's a long-rumored Verlaine book in the works.

"Somebody approached me on it in 1985, and I still haven't finished it," he laughed. "Basically, it's a box full of notebooks. I think it's going to take having six months off and having a nice place to live. It seems like I never get enough time in a block away from doing music. I'm always thinking I can, but it's hard because you're working in the studio or you're rehearsing. It's different from sitting down and just writing."

Given Television's schedule for the foreseeable future ("This is not a one-shot reunion," Verlaine said emphatically), we probably won't see his book any time soon. The band plans to tour extensively, both in the States and overseas, where it had significant chart success in the early days. There may even be a video or two in the works, however odd that may seem considering the group's old image as the Ice Kings of Rock.

The big question that remains is whether the general pop audience will finally connect with Television's visionary brand of guitar-driven music. Post-Nirvana, of course, perhaps the time is fight, but Verlaine dismisses the idea that he and his colleagues may have been the most influential guitar ensemble since the Yardbirds.

"The whole reputation of being a rock guitar player, I could really care less about it," he said. "Still, when I hear new groups today I do occasionally hear something where I think... ahh, I've heard that lick before."