Russ Tolman Meets Tom Verlaine

(For more info on True West and Russ's solo recordings visit Russ Tolman's Little Motel on Web 66)

Nineteen Eighty Three was one hell of a year. Looking back I am amazed by how much happened in twelve months. At the time it didn't seem so. In fact, I was so impatient and insecure then that if there wasn't major big news every couple weeks, I thought the band was over.

True West released its first 12 inch at the beginning of '83. By summer, the record with its swirling guitar interplay was an underground hit. It's hard to believe now, but some pundits then were saying that the days of the guitar were over and that synths would rule the earth forevermore. True West, along with compatriot bands like Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, and REM were living proof that the experts were dead wrong.

Fall found us touring around the US in a Ford Econoline van. Playing clubs like the Peppermint Lounge in New York, Maxwell's in Hoboken and the Rat in Boston was pretty heady stuff for a band that practiced in a basement in the rural college town of Davis, California. Co-lead guitarist Richard McGrath and myself were both big Television fans. Richard's playing ability was actually on par with Lloyd and Verlaine, but at that point I was just a string-wanking wannabe. So it was an amazing dream-come-true when I spoke to our manager from a phone booth along the highway somewhere between NY and Boston and was told that Tom Verlaine was interested in producing some demos with us. Can you imagine? God wants to work with us? Slap me, I must be dreamin'.

So here's the deal: TV was scheduled to show up at our next Danceteria gig in Manhattan. We were so excited by the prospect of meeting him that the big city 3am showtime that usually found us either sleepy or drunk was no big deal for us flatlanders this time. I recall scanning the audience looking for Tom, but didn't see anyone who fit the description. We came off the stage and still no Tom. Being impatient, I decided to take a spin around the club, fearing that TV was a no show.

I returned to the dressing room a few minutes later and there was Tom in black with beret along with his girlfriend who reminded me of a ballerina. He wasn't the rail-thin, sunken-eyed guy that I'd seen on all the album covers. Tom had actually filled-out! Apparently, he had quit smoking and put on a few pounds. He looked quite healthy.

We were scheduled to record at Bearsville Studio in upstate New York near Woodstock in December '83. EMI America was footing the bill for forty hours. A&R guy Steve Ralbovsky had worked with Tom as manager in the past and now was attempting to rustle up some production work for him.

Bearsville studio is quite amazing. The main room is huge and barn-like-- perfect for that big '80s drum sound. The studio complex is in the woods and quite pretty. We stayed in small rustic building that originally had been Janis Joplin's rehearsal room. There were still Orange amps and other vintage equipment with "Fult Tilt Boogie" stencilled on the side stacked in the corners.

Tom was very business-like in the studio. To say that he was a bit aloof would probably not surprise anyone. I was pretty shy at the time and covered up my lack of social skills with a rock n' roll chip on my shoulder, so Tom and I did not really connect. I was the ringleader of the band and had been in control in the studio up this point, and even though I was thrilled to work with Verlaine, I think I was a little pushed out of shape not to be centerstage. Tom treated us democratically. I wanted him to recognize me as the little boy genius. He seemed to joke a bit with the other guys in the band, but I think my attitude put up a wall. It's a shame because I wish we had become friends.

Forty hours is not a lot of time to record four songs, but if you are efficient, it can be done quite nicely. Drummer Joe Becker (later of Thin White Rope) was so excited to be recording with TV in a famous studio that he rushed the tempo of every song with the band ending the song at twice the speed that it began. We wasted our first day of recording trying to get the basic tracks right. Tom suggested that he bring Jay Dee Daughterty up to pound out the parts. We didn't want to hurt Joe's feelings, so we kept trying until we had some usable basics. In retrospect, I wish we had used Jay Dee. It would have been a gas to meet him, the songs would have turned out better, and we ended up firing Joe a couple months later anyway.

Hanging at Bearsville was cool. Tom had the producer's room in the big house. The band had stocked up with groceries and cooking was done on a couple nights by booking agent Randi Blattberg and manager Connie O'Donnell when they came to visit. Tom, on the other hand, had vegetarian health-oriented meals delivered from the town of Bearsville.

One day while wandering around the studio, I ran into this old hippie who was filling the coke machine. Turns out that Mr. Pony Tail was Albert "Call Me Al" Grossman, owner of the studio, the man who had put together Peter, Paul and Mary, the former manager of Janis Joplin, the Band, and a skinny kid from Minnesota named Bob Dylan. I had just seen "Don't Look Back" (the R.A. Pennebaker film of Dylan's 65 tour of England) in NYC a few weeks before and had been mesmerized by show biz tough guy Grossman. It was quite a shock to see the gentle, friendly side of this legendary thug.

With the basic tracks down, we then moved on to guitar overdubs. Tom is a wiz at getting a great sound out of a guitar amp and I learned quite a bit which I took with me. While waiting for Tom to twiddle the knobs to his satisfaction, I attempted to gain brownie points by playing the guitar line from "Marquee Moon" which I had learned from Steve Wynn some years earlier. I think I played it about five times before Tom noticed. I don't think my version was that bad (although I later found out that Tom plays it in a different position). I just think "The Schoolmaster" (as we had taken to calling him) was just occupied with getting that perfect tubular tone out of my old Fender Twin Reverb.

Because we had taken so much time getting the basic tracks down, Tom was pressed for time when it came to mixing. Too bad! It would have been cool if he had time to experiment with stuff, but we were under the gun. Although it's usually boring for most band members, I find mix time fascinating as I am really intrigued with the process of putting together records. I do recall not hanging out for much of the mixing though. In the neighboring studios were the dbs and NRBQ, two bands whom I admired very much. I remember db drummer Will Rigby hanging out with us a bit.

OK. The recordings finished. I don't recall how many songs we actually did. I think we only managed to do three because of the wasted time. (The tracks can be found on the TW compilation records Best Western and TV Western).

We were going to give Tom a ride back into NYC. He finished signing the LPs that we had brought along and we all piled into to the van for the ride back. Along the way, Tom Verlaine Serious Manhattan Artiste became Tom Miller regular guy from Delaware. We had a great time asking him every question about Television and the early CBGB scene that came into our heads. He told us about building the stage at CB's and the first gig with Richard Lloyd (Neon Boys?) where Mr. Lloyd showed up for the show in platform shoes. We asked Tom if he was ever a junkie. He replied that he hadn't been, but that his twin brother was. Two surprising revelations. We had no idea that there was another who looked like him wandering around Delaware. We looked forward to recording with Tom when we did "the big major label record."

EMI America ended up passing on the band. We recorded one more album for an indie label. Toured England and Europe. Missed out being signed a couple more times. I ended up leaving the band. They recorded one more album before packing it in. I have recorded five solo CDs since 1986 and have a new one for release later in '97. I haven't had any direct communication with Tom since the recording. I did write him a fan letter after Warm and Cool was released and I've had mutual acquaintances pass greetings back and forth and seen him play solo, but I haven't spoken with the man since.

Meeting my ultimate guitar hero will always be a thrill!