Tom Foolery

Source: The Face (July 1984)

by Max Bell

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 do—they'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 duende—to 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 moving."

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 good—what 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 behavjur—they 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 the gym."

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.