PAT GRANDJEAN WATCHES TELEVISION
When I'm an 85-year-old retired writer (or whatever) and one of my
descendants asks me for stories about how swell it's been, one of the things I
know I'll remember fondly is Tom Verlaine's disarming, self-effacing laugh. (Or
maybe it's better described as sort of a "knowing chuckle".) Anyway,
I heard it a lot when he and I talked about the much ballyhooed reemergence of
Televisionthat is, Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Fred Smith and drummer Billy
Ficcaand their self-titled reunion album on Capitol. It's a record that
establishes, once again, just how different this band has been from anyone else
out thereand if it falls short, it's only because it's not as new or as
striking as Marquee Moon was in 1977. Now tell the truthhow many albums
have you heard in the last 16 years that are as striking as Marquee Moon? It
still brings me to my knees, I know that.
In various recent stores on Television, the idea has come across that
Verlaine is a "difficult" interview. (Most journalists are peeved
when they can't get him to discuss the good old days of NYC punk.) Well, I'll
say thishe's not an easy interview. He doesn't care much for "philosophical"
questions (when I triedrather ineptly, I admitto ask him some, I got
teased in a very charming way), nor does he like being grilled on the PAST
SIGNIFICANCE OF Television. He's not a "bullshitter", in either the
good or bad sense. But he is personable. He went out of his way to call me on
a Sunday afternoon not long before he had to hit the road for a series of live
dates (we talked prior to the band's end-of-year US tour). He flattered me,
whether he meant to or not, by calling The Bob "one of the better music
magazines out there." And though he can seem offhand, it's clear that
Televisionand his many solo projects over the years, including his recent
disc for Ryko, Warm and Coolhave been important to him. He says he hopes
Television will continue. So do I.
The Bob: How hard was it to make the new record? Was it a
Verlaine: Noeasy. I've worked with Fred for, like, 15 years
on most of my solo records, and I've known Billy since I was like 16 years old.
It took about seven or eight weeks to record, and it was real easy. That was
the fun of it.
The Bob: Tell me something about how these songs evolved.
Verlaine: Each song is different. With the song "The Rocket",
it was just me and Billy messing around with the tape rolling. It developed
into some overdub parts, and then I threw some extra parts on itsome of
'em we used when we mixed it, some of 'em we didn't. The song "Rhyme"
was a rehearsal tape I found where we're just playing something for 20 minutes.
I took the best bits out of that. Fr'instance; Richard was playing this melodyhe
played it once and never played it again, but we took that little melody and
made it into a part. I just arranged these pieces into a format, or a song.
"Mars" was rehearsed for a couple of days, until we got the parts
down. Likewise, "Call Mr Lee" and "1880 or So" were more
worked-on a bit. "In World" was, again, a kind of jammy thing that I
had a chorus and another bit for, so we did a couple of takes and erased the
mistakes and then made up some other parts. "Beauty Trip" was more a
beat kind of thing, with a few little doodads on the top; it's an
old-fashioned-type song. A lot of these songs were closer to 12 and 15 minutes,
and we cut them down. Live, they tend to be three to four minutes longer.
The Bob: So it sounds like you start the songs, and then
they're worked on by the group.
Verlaine: Yeah. [Sometimes] we're jamming awaymaybe Billy
starts playing a weird beat and I have something that works on top of it. Most
of the time I have a structure, and in some cases some guitar parts that I can
play, but I can't sing and play at the same time. So Richard will play that
guitar part and I'll play something simpler to sing to. And then on other
songs, I'll have a part and Richard will have a part and they both work
together. Sometimes lyrics are done while we're rehearsingor at least
half-done or a chorus is done, or a general idea for the title of the song is
done. And then other times they're changed in the studio, because by the time
the band is playing, the lyric doesn't seem to quite make it anymore.
The Bob: Of course, one quality common to all your albums is
the conversational quality of the guitarsthey're like voices as opposed to
instruments. Is that something that developed deliberately?
Verlaine: Well, for myself, less and less. I like chords. So
maybe on my last three solo records, the chords as chords start to disappear,
and what happens is you get little partssometimes they're awash behind the
vocal, but other times they're in and out of the vocal partit's like a
different kind of accompaniment, for lack of a better word. Often, on the new
Television record, there's a back-and-forth thing to the guitars, where one part
is playing and the other part comes in, overlapping slightly. It's very
different from what I notice other bands doing, especially these days. They
tend to have two big chord parts slamming away, and then a lead partthere
isn't a lot of one-guitar bands like U2 or R.E.M., with a few overdubs in the
studio. So, I think that makes us sound very different right away.
I also think it's a matter of equipment because we don't play all that loud
compared to most bands. So you get a whole different tone out of the guitar.
Maybe it puts it more toward '50s twang or Chicago blues.
The Bob: That's what I think of, actuallysort of a Duane
Eddy thing. Like something David Lynch would use in his movies. Have you ever
thought of doing a soundtrack?
Verlaine: Yeah. But I did one for a German film-maker that was
very short, about 12 minutes. To tell you the truth, it's so time-consumingI
finally said, "Look, I don't want to time things here. I'm just going to
put down an hour of music, and that way you can slot in anything and edit it any
way you want." Because when you get into all that "cue" stuff,
it's really not fun.
The Bob: Tell me now, who was this for?
Verlaine: This was for a girl who made a little short film in
Munich, Germany, who just liked the guitar playing. And actually, when I saw
the film I said, "I don't really think this wants guitars, it wants
strings." And she said, "Okay". She got string music for it
instead. It's better for me if someone just hears something and wants the
rights to it.
The Bob: The songs on this album seem pretty lighthearted to
me. For instance, "1880 or So".
Verlaine: Actually, that's not one of them. But I can see why
you'd say that, because it's very much a tribute to 19th-century poetry. To me,
a lighthearted song is "This Tune" or "Rock It". I think of
lighthearted as meaning "toward the humorous".
The Bob: I guess I'm thinking of lighthearted as meaning "an
absence of gloom". Anyway, there may be sadness in these songs, but
they're not oppressively so. But you were saying "1880 or So" was
Verlaine: No, I didn't say it was "inspired by", I said
the lyrics were somewhat like bad 19th-century poetry. I saw this reprint of a
magazineor daily papermaybe it was "The Weekly Home Journal"
or something. And in this thing, they had readers send in their poems. They
were all kind of kitschy. But at the same time, the people who wrote them were
obviously really serious and they were very well-intended. There was just
something about the simplicity of this stuff.
The Bob: What was behind "Shane, She Wrote This"?
Verlaine: A combination of religious mania and nymphomania. But
this is coincidentally what is thought about the song after it's done. I don't
sit around and think these thingsI sort of write up conversations and
imaginary things, then think...
The Bob: "This is what that was about?"
Verlaine: Well, "aboutness" is a nebulous kind of term.
I think it only exists in journalismor maybe in the academic world, where
people don't write songs, they write about songs, or they write about poems, and
so they conjure up a whole bunch of meanings for it, which isn't necessarily the
intent, y'know? The intent is more like a moment's expression. It's not that
it's not serious, but...Oh, never mind, it's too complicated.
The Bob: Okay. So these songs are sort of fragments of
Verlaine: In some cases. In some cases they are conversations,
like the song "Willie" is a guy commenting on a girl to somebody else,
but also, the verses are the girl talking [to] herself. There is a lot of...I
wouldn't say playwriting going on in there, but it's very freeing to pretend to
be someone else.
The Bob: Is that what you find you do in your lyrics much of
Verlaine: Yeah...maybe half the time.
The Bob: When you say it's very "freeing"what
kind of freedom does it give you?
Verlaine: I suppose whatever a person writes represents some mood
or part of themselves, but it's transient, right? For instance, with this "Beauty
Trip" song, I remember thinking about one of those giant old, late '40s
cars, from a black and white movie. And some guy is living in this car
somewhere on the outskirts of Las Vegas, which was hardly even built yet then.
And he's just gotten back from some warmaybe the Korean War, maybe it's
more '50s, actuallyand he's crazy about some 16-year-old girl. It's
totally ludicrous, and kinda madthere's a certain madness to the whole
thingbut there's also a certain humor. So this somehow generates a guy's
monologue which becomes the lyric of the song.
The Bob: What about "Mars"? That's a strange one.
Verlaine: To me, there's a weird atmosphere of a bad horror film
there, coupled again with something kind of insane, but at the same time very
transient, nothing life-threatening or anything. Again I think '50s, because
the guitar sounds are deliberately really cheesy. I don't knowit's just
something that passed by and we ended up recording it. I think Fred had a
super-weirdo bass line, and I remember playing this guitar line that I somehow
thought was all wrong, but it just sounded really good. And then Richard
started playing that line, and I started playing a part against that line, so
you end up with these three things happening at once that somehow fit together.
The Bob: Do you enjoy songwriting? I ask this because I know
that any writer goes through times when they like the process and times when
Verlaine: Yeah, sure, of course. I don't do it unless I feel like
it. But I generally work all the timeI'm banging away at an acoustic
guitar or something. Or sometimes I have a little story and I think, "Aah,
I can work this into a song."
The Bob: Are you prolific in the sense that a lot of the ideas
you bang out are ones you eventually use?
Verlaine: Ummm...I don't know. I guess one has a standard,
although I couldn't tell you what it is. I guess that limits the amount of
things you actually finish.
The Bob: Are there writers that you admire? Poets or novelists
whose ideas influence you?
Verlaine: Yeah, I'd say there's probably about a couple of hundred
people I admirebut that has nothing to do with what a person does
themselves. That's why I never mention these things. You can read a detective
novel you really like, but it had no bearing on what you do yourself, you just
think, "God, how this guy wove this together!" Or you get into the
energy of it. Or you see a poem which makes a great statement about sentiment,
but it's not sentimental.
The Bob: But you definitely don't incorporate any of this?
None of it even filters?
Verlaine: Well, I don't know if it does or it doesn't. But it's
more admiring how somebody did something than exactly what they did. What you
see is the guy's energy buzzing off and you go, "That was great." But
the thing is, you don't analyze the technique. You just sit and wonder how they
did this. I don't know how they did it, because I've never analyzed a poem or a
piece of music that way. I mean, I've looked at sheet music for some things and
thought, "Gee, that's really unusual." Or, "That's something I
never would have tried." You see these people, and while I'm sure they
don't pull it out of the blue, it looks that way. You just don't know.
The Bob: Can we talk about some of the people whose technique
Verlaine: That's what I'm trying to sayI don't know if it's
technique. You know what I mean? There's an old TV show called "Mr Lucky".
Henry Mancini wrote this melody, and I heard this somewhere; and I found a
record with it and listened to it and thought, "Christ, what a melody.
Nobody writes a melody like this anymore." A lot of people would say
that's good 'cause they can't stand that kind of thing. But I picked up a piece
of sheet music and looked at it, and it was just making all these little moves
that I never would have dreamed up in a million years. That kind of melody just
doesn't come to me, so somehow I have an admiration for it. But Mancini, who
wrote that melodymaybe it just came to him, or maybe he just noodled on a
piano until he found something. Who knows? I don't know how he found it.
I read something about Ravel, where he used to sit and do exercises, and the
most blank-minded little tweedle things would become really beautiful symphonic
movements. So I don't think you can disregard any way of doing anything,
because there's life in everything.
The Bob: I read that you said you didn't think you had written
any melodies as good as most 1950s TV show themes.
Verlaine: Yeah! I'd say that's true. These things are extremely
strange and memorable somehow. They're all so rhythmically weird. Maybe
because none of these people were writing to rock beats, they were strictly
concentrating on melodythey weren't working against a boom-chick, 2/4
beat. Even in the late '50s, rock music was just thought of as total trash by
anyone who was schooled.
The Bob: What do you think it is about the four of you in
Television that clicks?
Verlaine: I think amongst the guitars, it's a liking for the same
kind of tones, so you don't have one guy playing twang and the other guy playing
with a fuzz tone. So, right away, the two guitars have a kind of "band"
sound. It's not that far off from '60s bands, really, like Yardbirds or early
Rolling Stones, where sometimes the two guitars sound like one big guitar
weaving back and forth. With Fred it's a simplicity thinghe doesn't play
very complicated parts, which help the guitars poke out more. And with Billy,
it's like he has an incredibly broad background in drums. He and I used to play
sort of quasi free-jazz stuff in the '60s. So he has this really wide
background of different styles.
The Bob: Y'know, every time I read about you, I see "Oh,
that Tom Verlaine, he's so difficult." Do you think you're difficult?
Verlaine: Well, the people who say that are the people who don't
know me, number one, and anyone who talks to the musicians I work with never
gets that opinion. A couple of managers may have said that, and likewise, I'm
no longer with those managers because I found them, like, impossiblethe
kind of things they wanted you to do just don't work.
I think it's journalists, actually, who promote that. Sometimes you get a
journalist whono offense to the cause of journalismis kind of an
idiot, and they sit there and they go, "So what's new?" I mean, there
is an interview format, and it is based on questions and the idea of having a
conversation that becomes a printed piece. And when guys sit there and go, "What's
new?" it's really irritating. So then, maybe they say I'm difficult, I
The Bob: You produce yourselves, too. And the message that has
gotten across is that it's because you don't like working with producers.
Verlaine: I wouldn't say that, it's just that...if you don't really
know what you want, your songs are kind of a mess and you don't know about
arranging, and you don't know about basic drum tunings and all that kind of
stuff, it's really smart to have a guy in there who's watching over the whole
thing. But if you have your stuff down and you know what you want and you don't
really need that guy, it can become real debilitating, 'cause then you wind up
fighting with someone who wants you to "do this" and "do that"
all the time.
There was a story in Musician last month where there was a quote about
producers being "all full of shit". But they only printed half of the
quotethe second half was that there are really great producers who are a
huge benefit to a band, or appear to have been. Fr'instance, I don't like
Queen, but there's no question that this guy Roy Thomas Baker really did a
number for them that they wouldn't have achieved themselves. Likewise, Jimmy
Miller with the Rolling Stones, George Martin with the Beatlesthere's a
whole history of guys who worked together on numbers of records that seemed to
have been better records for that. If I found a guy who was like that for us,
I'd be overjoyed. I've never met one.
The Bob: Have you heard something on any other band's records
lately where you thought, "Maybe if I approached this guy, it would work
Verlaine: Well, I hear records that I think are good for what the
band's doing, but they're not necessarily good for what we're doing. First of
all, our guitar sound is so different from all these guitar sounds todayI've
worked with guys and they're totally scratching their heads thinking, "How
am I gonna mix this?" Because it's not the huge, fat, distorted guitar,
which is a really easy thing to mix once you have it on tape. This is a totally
different approach. The guy who does The Cure does a good job with their
records, I think. And I think Scott Litt does a good job with R.E.M.'s records.
The Bob: Do you think of yourself as a quote-unquote "musician"?
Verlaine: Probably not in the way that a lot of guys do.
The Bob: In what way would you say you are?
Verlaine: I drink a lot of coffee. Smoke a lot of cigarettes.
That's my affinity. No, I think it's what I am, given that I spend most of my
time writing songs or giving "concerts", for lack of a better term.
The Bob: What does songwriting do for you? Does it give you
Verlaine: Got me beat. These "life philosophy" questions
The Bob: A lot has been said about Television's early days, and
the band's influence. What do you think about all that?
Verlaine: I don't think about it. I want all these bands to pay us
up, y'know? We want a cut of all their royalties. I just think it's fair.
The Bob: Do you think the band was influential? Do you hear
any bands now carrying on your ideas?
Verlaine: I don't know. I don't really listen to too many new
records now, I just hear snippets here and there.
The Bob: Who do you think has had the most enduring impact on
Verlaine: Uh...Mickey Mouse. For sure. And that dogwhat was
his name?Pluto. And also, the little guy called "The Jeep" in
Popeye cartoons. He's difficult to describe if you've never seen himhe's
this little thing that appears and disappears and helps people out. He's really
a unique idea.
The Bob: That's funny, 'cause I just came across a record in
our attic from 1953 or '54"Popeye the Sailor Man".
Verlaine: Oh, yeah, one of the kids' songs. There's a very strong
philosophy in the "Popeye" theme, "I yam what I yam".
That's very good.
You know, Robert Louis Stevenson used to have these guys he called the "Brownies",
which were these little guys who used to come to him when he was half asleep and
help him finish stories. He wrote an essay about this. That was something that
I found pretty interesting.
The Bob: Aha. Do you have anything like that?
The Bob: Didn't Edgar Allen Poe have something like that, too?
Something beyond a lot of controlled substances, I mean?
Verlaine: Poe developed this theory of the universe that's pretty
wild. One of the later things he wrote was this 60-page essay on the universe
that's like totally unique. It's almost unreadable, because of the style of
that time. But it's pretty cool. I like it when people develop their own wild
theory and are able, actually, to write about it.
The Bob: So tell mewhat kind of audiences have you been
attracting this time around?
Verlaine: So far, most of them are under 19 years old. I think
that's the audience for electric guitar music, period. So it's really nice for
The Bob: Are they demonstrative? Somehow, I hold this
stereotype of your audience as being a more cerebral crowd.
Verlaine: I don't think there is such an audience anymore. Unless
they go see Suzanne Vega or something.
The Bob: How do your songs change live?
Verlaine: They just get longer, because we like to play around. It
has that aspect of we don't know when it's gonna end, and we don't know what
it's gonna be. Maybe one time out of four it really works, and the other times
it may really be a disaster. Still, it's more fun than just being a band that
presents 20 songs that are the same every night. With us, half the songs are
like the record, the other half have a lot of room to extend things.
It's strangeI heard a Hendrix live record yesterday, and he's playing
the exact same solos on it that are on the record. I thought, "Gee, this
guy actually worked on solos or composed them! Or learned them back from the
records as a way to present them." I don't know, I'm not so good at that.
Richard's very good at that, actuallyplaying the solo, as you might say.
The Bob: I guess I need to dig out my copy of The Blow Up and
listen to it again!
Verlaine: It's a really crap recording, but I really like that
thing myself. It just really captures what was going on at the time. There's
about a dozen Television bootlegs out there, but that's by far the best. I
wouldn't even be bothered with the others.
The Bob: Would you consider putting out an official live
Verlaine: I've always wanted to do one, but record companies aren't
very big on them. It used to be very cheap to send a truck out for ten days to
record ten concerts and make a live album. But production sort of took over ten
years ago, and it hasn't quite recovered from that.
The Bob: What's next on the agenda for Television, after the US
Verlaine: I don't know. I really have no idea. What'll happen
next year is, like, a big mystery to me. How long you tour depends on how long
the record actually sells, or if it sells, and since most of the world never saw
this band live, we really want to go to these places we've never been. The
unfortunate thing is I've been to them as a solo act, so it's not new to me.
But now I go to Spain or Italy, and I know most of the good restaurants in these
places. So at least I get us a good meal.