A prophet without honour, a guitar hero with no axe to grind, Tom Verlaine
is still set on his chosen eccentric course.
Can it really be ten years now since we first heard about Television and the
infamous New York scene of 1974? Those days, laughingly referred to as some
sort of new wave then, seem pretty old hat now. Richard Hell has disappeared
into self imposed obscurity, Blondie are in disarray, badly affected by Chris
Stein's prolonged illness, The Ramones have long crossed the threshold from
parody to cabaret.
Of that particular class only Tom Verlaine remains in any kind of creative
shape, commonly hailed as a major influence on just about every current guitar
group from John O'Groats to True West, his name dropped as frequently as Lou
Reed's once was. Verlaine has been in England for the past two months,
finishing off his fourth solo record, entitled "Cover", listening to
the progeny he inspired, mulling possible production duties for the Pale
Fountains and other callow youths.
Sitting in the Asterix creperie behind Virgin Records' offices he looks much
the same; gangling, untidy, guardedly friendly. Only the thinning hair betrays
advancing years, otherwise he still resembles the boy who quit downhome Delaware
for New York City bohemia. Today he hates to be reminded of the mid-'70s
plaudits. "I don't remember that stuff anymore. It's only from a thousand
miles away that people thought it a scene. I remember the odd club but there
was no sense of hanging out; I wasn't a very social person. CBGB's wasn't the
kind of place I would go to except to play. Here I get people who remember it
more vividly than I dothey'll talk about the first album...musicians
mostly. I hear them use Television which is not something I'd want to do."
Verlaine continues to work with Fred Smith, his partner in an earlier group,
The Neon Boys; Richard Lloyd he hasn't seen in four years ("we didn't
exactly fall out but it got strained"). Yet there are constant factors in
what Verlaine does best. He continues to favour the sound of "two guitars
banging away. Given the choice of recording in a high-tech Munich studio with
all the latest synths or a dingy room in Memphis I'd opt for the latter."
He attributes his unique talents quite simply to a personal desire to excite
himself, always hoping to fulfill Lorca's definition of duendeto
achieve a sense of magic by transcending the form. He compares his own
methodical approach to that of a craftsman: "No-one ever created anything
worthwhile in a storm of emotion. Only occasionally is recording spontaneous.
I read somewhere that in Hindu aesthetics everything can be fitted to a series
of nine moods from horror to euphoria. Even when you break that down to
individual experience it holds true."
Verlaine's guitar style, which ranges from the most intensely melodic lines
to angular jazz-like structures, stems from the years he spent playing alto sax,
learning the importance of timing and breathing. "Eddie Van Halen and all
that boys' band music is just whacking off; look at my fingers! They never stop
Not surprisingly he isn't enamoured of many new British pop groups, finding
it a lightweight, conservative period in general. "No-one feels compelled
to make any statements. Instead they're methodically going about a career. I'm
not bitter but I'm just not impressed. No young musicians seem to be any goodwhat
does it mean? What do they get out of it? I went to see Bronski Beat and it
was like one long song. I've read that electro hip-hop is big here but don't
people know that they're just cranking out that stuff? Great, if it stops them
from street fighting. That's no reason to spend money on it."
Verlaine aims to tour here in September and may even play in America which
he hasn't done in two years: "There was no point in doing songs I was
heartily sick of. Here people are more sympathetic to change; America hasn't
changed for ten years. Even New York is no longer such a good place to live.
The days have gone when you could get an apartment for thirty pounds a month, do
a menial job and finance yourself. Now it's so expensive that everyone shares.
Communal living never did much for personal expression so nothing that
productive emerges from New York anymore. Since Television you've had the noise
period, Teenage Jesus and that crap and now you've got a lot of performance art
which generally consists of people taking their clothes off and screaming for
ten minutes. The French seem to like that wild American hokum but the only
people who go are friends of the performers and other performers. They produce
magazines to give each other press."
As for the Cafe Society which drew him to the city: "It's been
replaced by the supermarket mentality. They sit around talking about shoes and
third rate films." Despite his seeming disenchantment with most current
musical trends Verlaine isn't entirely serious: "I'm not a clown but I'm
not an academic either." As if to bear out the fact he relates his brief
flirtation with Erskine College, South Carolina, where he arrived only to be
chased through the woods by the local rednecks because he had long hair. "They
wanted to shave it off. I ended up on a side road where I met a cop who took me
back to the dean. He was very apologetic, he said, 'I'm sorry for mah boys
behavjurthey jus' don't know what to make of your appearance'."
Verlaine caught the next train back to Delaware where a career in the DuPont
chemical factory beckoned. "I tried again in a Pennsylvania military
academy. I was one of forty civilians, the rest of the kids were in uniform so
I gave up. I didn't like school either. I was asked to leave after a girl I
knew gave the teachers some sob story about me being a disturbed child with a
high IQ, something to do with my parents divorcing and my brother dying. All I
was doing was slipping out to the football field and smoking cigarettes behind
We adjourn our meeting so that Verlaine can return to his record company
office and convince them of his suitability to produce a few fledgling groups.
"They don't seem to realise that I'm quite a capable producer actually. I
can see when a band I like needs a little help. I remember the people who
taught me. After all I have done six records now. I've been in studios
for ten years."
Yes, it really has been that long.