Tom Verlaine Wakes Up Dreaming

The Village Voice, September 10, 1979

by John Piccarella

Tom Verlaine came to New York like another Bob Dylan, christening himself with a poet's name and bringing to urban rock and roll a visionary rural surrealism. His initials became T.V., his band became Television, and on the first single, "he's just trying to tell a vision." He brought rock and roll to CBGB, built a stage with his own hands, and helped Richard Hell invent punk style. He collaborated with Patti Smith on stage, on record, and in print, and together they developed a psycho dramatic singing style and a symbolist rock and roll poetry. Like both Dylan and Patti he had a knack for great lines that suggested both wisdom and evoked dreams, but his lyrics were harder to understand because he gave you so little to work with. Since he was also a great guitarist his excesses came in the form of long guitar solos rather than surplus verbiage--the words were esoteric telegrams. Taken together, words and music countered obscurity with virtuosity and reticence with revelation.

After whatever happened between Verlaine and Hell, Television was all about Tom Verlaine. And throughout whatever happened between Verlaine and Patti, or Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, his music hasn't changed much. "Tom Verlaine" probably isn't substantially different from what the third Television album would have been - Verlaine striking out on his own is Verlaine doing what he's always done. The differences are mostly textural. The absence of Lloyd makes the guitar attack more direct; the absence of Billy Ficca makes the beat more direct. I miss the rhythmic interplay, but Verlaine places his riffs against his own excellent rhythm playing so sharply that he almost makes up for it. What they don't make up for are Lloyd's solos. In fact, partly because he was the underdog and partly because his simple melodicism and brutal sense of tension and release were more traditional, even classic, I often found Lloyd more exciting than Verlaine.

On the other hand, I don't miss Ficca much. I always thought his jazzy moves were self-serving, overrated, and not tough enough, and his persistent overplaying on the cymbals was at times a noisy distraction, especially on the album Marquee Moon. Drummers Jay Dee Daugherty and Allen Schwartzberg provide the hard beat that Verlaine needs without stinting on subtlety. While the rocking attack here may recall Marquee Moon, I think the album's power is in the drumming and in the vocals--Marquee Moon's weak points. Verlaine's singing is more relaxed; he's confident enough to fuck around, as in the silly Sparks-like falsetto moment in the "The Grip of Love", the absurd/magnificent bass-voice backups in "Kingdom Come", or the drunken backups, coughing, nose-blowing and mundane conversation of "Yonki Time". The cracked farm boy rap in "Souvenier From A Dream" is like great Jagger: "No Mister, you got to go back to the junction about five miles. I think you've come the wrong way. You were supposed to make a right turn." (Plattsburg!?)

Verlaine's guitar playing is spare, precise and deliberately unvirtuosic throughout. Even the extended improvisations on the album's final two cuts, where second guitarists Mark Abel and Ricky Wilson provide a foil, are achieved within a kind of minimalist stasis. Like Garcia's, Verlaine's solos have always been prolonged teases, indefinitely postponing resolution, taking daring circular detours and abruptly changing direction, avoiding the note you're waiting for. The beautiful solos on 'Last Night' seem to rise and fall simultaneously, a tight maze of dead ends miraculously transcended, like Coltrane's unaccompanied sax excursion on the Selflessness live version of 'I Want To Talk About You' with its devastating barrage of false endings. The 'Breakin' in My Heart' solo is equally static, riding Verlaine's best groove since 'Marquee Moon', gradually adding notes to the same riff without going anywhere - another Coltrane dynamic. On the same song, and also on 'Red Leaves' and 'Kingdom Come' (great track, even if you remember the more exciting live Television renderings) Verlaine introduces a new guitar hook on the final choruses, pushing near-perfect cuts a step further.

Doing it on his own allows Verlaine to combine the daring of Marquee Moon with the care and precision of Adventure. I think the lyrics might be his best, although words always sound better without a lyric sheet, and the music is undiminished. All three albums open with a tight raw rocker to let you know it's new wave, followed by a slower, prettier song to let you know it isn't, and then a real solid mid-tempo rocker to let you know the 70s are as good as the 60s. The sides all begin with elegant stuff and end with extended tracks that run on rather than climax. And the first sides always end with something exceptional.

But where the long structured solo of 'Marquee Moon' or the slow Dylanish organ-against-piano mood of "Carried Away" are only remarkable, "Yonki Time" is really an exception. It's a joke, and a smart one. Musically and lyrically it's kinda dumb, but something is happening here. Verlaine's naive questioning - "Uh, what time did you say it was?" - meets "Ballad of a Thin Man" strangeness: "IT'S YONKI TIME!" The switch is that Verlaine turns Dylan inside out. It's Verlaine who is Mr. Jones; dropping in on these seemingly downed-out incompetents, who actually maintain the song in an amazing state of constantly falling apart, he is the one in charge. The song's ridiculous but he's not, even if it's on his record; like another Dylan song, "Rainy Day Woman", its reckless humor puts the singer's insularity into perspective.

"Yonki Time" may turn out to be one of those novelty songs conveniently located at the end of the side so you can flip the record over sooner (remember Cream's "Mother's Lament"?), but I don't think so. It's a weird piece that fits among the things that occur most often in Verlaine's lyrics: dreams and the night. Verlaine's hallucinatory romanticism is fueled by an unsettling awareness of organic chaos, a delirium of the senses, " ... some new kind of drug", where the body merges with the landscape, events change with the weather, and nature responds to experience. The dream dreams the dreamer, but when it's Yonki Time you hold your own, take out the garbage if you have to. The meanings are obscure but the stance is powerful, immediate, centered, and expansive. And the impact is like that other event that shows up in Verlaine's lyrics - waking up.