TROUSER PRESS January 1982, No. 69
by Toby Goldstein
Tom Verlaine is looking for clues in an interior landscape, signposts that just might point the way
to some inescapable Truth. "You don't respond to having strong dreams? You're frightened of them?
Like how? Hmmm." It's not that Verlaine aims to turn a Warner Bros. conference room into a nether
outpost of Carl Jung, but he's genuinely interested in translucent thoughts.|
"It's because of the equinox," the 32-year-old guitarist concludes, indicating a twice-yearly occurrence when day and night become perfectly balanced. "Everybody I know goes through three or four days of strong dreams. I'm not obsessed with dreams, but I try to pay attention to my own."
Tom Verlaine called his second solo album Dreamtime, but it's not strictly defined by the sleeping episodes he's just dissected. The dream state, to Verlaine, has multiple meanings - a viewpointwell suited to his highly personal music.
"In Old English they don't say I had a dream, but there's another usage of the word - 'life is but a dream,' to be corny about it. It's implied with eyes wide open, rather than asleep. But I'm not a philosopher to explain myself. I wish I could. Maybe that's why I'm a musician."
Since Tom Verlaine and his first band, Television, emerged as one of the major ensembles of the punk era in 1975, Verlaine has been known for giving indications rather than explanations. Whether in the title track of Marquee Moon or the wistful ballad "Without A Word" on Dreamtime, Verlaine succeeds best at conveying internal moods - the unsettling buildup of tension, the pangs of indefinable loss.
He is flattered less by being thought of as a guitar virtuoso than by a comparison to Australian filmmaker Peter Weir. Weir's films are similarly understated yet inevitably paced, and impose a veil of stress over the viewer from the outset. And Tom Verlaine would much rather talk about the movies than rehash Television's career - or discuss his more recent label switch from Elektra to Warners.
"Well, the chocolates are better in these offices, " he deadpans. "I'm just trying to say something that's interesting to read. Y'see, I don't read [the music papers] too much anymore, but when you read about a guy changing labels it's always the same story, so that's why I think chocolates are a better reason."
Verlaine emits one of the nervous laughs that frequently punctuate his conversation. It is impossible to determine if the cause of the giggles is sheer nervousness or the inadequacy of words to convey what his songs state with style and grace. One thing's for sure; if Verlaine plays interview games it isn't for the purpose of being quotable. He considers as totally alien and unhealthy to his environment "the self-promotion of somebody's personality with a rock 'n' roll record as catalyst."
"I'd never assume an audience was anything but totally receptive and perfect. Seriously, it seems to me that's the only circumstance you can work under. Otherwise, speaking for myself, you may as well be in the advertising business. If you underestimate people and try to sell them on something all the time, you're not really being creative."
Suffice to say that Verlaine has never been known for hanging out in public or chumming up even with his fellow originators of New York's alternate music scene. He does not own a television and quick to chastise its mind-molding tendency. He says that he has not been under any pressure to make music although it has been nearly three years since his last tour.
"I just decided to go to the movies for two years," he declares. I've been developing my career as a movie-goer. "Stevie" was great, have you seen it? "The Last Wave" wasn't bad. It's real hard to remember the great ones, 'cause of all that garbage in there."
One unlikely place to have spotted Verlaine, who is not distinguished for the R&B flavor of his material, was at the Soul Clan Revue, a showcase for Wilson Pickett, Don Covay, Solomon Burke and other beacons, which promised greatness that was not delivered. ("What a rotten show. It wasn't even jive.") What else has Verlaine seen?
"God, not much. A band called Mission of Burma. I enjoyed them much more live than I did their records. I saw an interesting junkyard from a train a month ago." Come again?
"From the window of a train; it had this look to it. I always like junkyards. All this metal piled up - they're filled with pathos, those places. Much more pathos than most of the music I've heard. You look at it, and there's more feeling, even though it's depressing, than there is in a lot of music I hear these days. A junkyard is what it is, whereas listening to a record by, say, Styx, is something else."
It's ironic that, without intent to create anything but a good record with integrity, Tom Verlaine is now in the charts. Dreamtime contains no in-jokes, such as the self-consciously silly "Yonki Time" on his first solo LP. His spare band consists primarily of bassists Fred Smith and Donald Nossov, drummers Rich Tetter and Jay Dee Daugherty, and second guitarist Richie Fleigler. Smith and Daugherty as well as ex-Kid Creole guitarist, Jimmy Ripp, form Verlaine's touring ensemble.
Dreamtime avoids spotlighting Verlaine's lengthy onstage guitar solos, stressing instead the structure of the songs. Perhaps now that others have stepped in to perpetuate the echoes of musical psychedelia, Verlaine needs to show no interest in recycling himself.
"I'm not real familiar with all these new groups that come pouring out of England. I heard Echo and the Bunnymen; there was a lot of Television stuff in there, and I was real surprised. I try not to just hear a riff and go play it. When I hear a band who's heard a riff and played it backwards or maybe even put it so that instead of being in the first measure it happens in the second, I'm surprised, 'cause I don't work that way. I'm used to hearing that crap on the radio, the billionth generation of some riff in a Top 40 song. I'm not used to hearing something that I may have come up with, and it strikes me as kind of odd." Unfortunately, it's not likely that the uncompromising moodiness of "Mr. Blur" or "There's A Reason" will unseat REO Speedwagon on the Hit Parade of blah.
Having recorded two Television albums and two solo LPs in New York City, is Verlaine encouraged by the development of local music since the early punk days? Not really, he explains, with several pained sighs. "A lot of the stuff I've heard strikes me as real derivative of the seven bands that came out of CBGB in 1975. One sounds a bit like the Talking Heads but on a Ramones beat and another sounds like the Ramones with this or that. But there's a lot of stuff I haven't heard so I'm a bad guy to ask about a scene."
What has given Verlaine recent pleasure was discovering RPM and Penny Lane Studios, where he completed and mixed Dreamtime after using up his budget and dipping into his advance as cautiously as possible. Verlaine is first of all a songwriter and musician, but he is well aware of the need to look after himself.
"I'm looking forward to playing now, 'cause the guys I'm working with are so good, and I can afford to pay 'em something. I didn't want to hire musicians and pay them $100 a week, which is what I would have had to do two years ago. The situation now is not so different from the 1950s; you don't even have to turn your back for the knife to go in."
At least in a junkyard metal objects are left alone to shift and alter form according to natural laws before they finally drift as dust.