Tom Verlaine Interview

Boston Rock Magazine, November 1981

by Michael Hafitz

Verlaine projects and Hafitz reflects; I am not a historian and I have a memory like a sieve. But I think it was the summer of 1975, or maybe sometime that fall, when I first went to New York to see Television, Talking Heads, Ramones, and a bunch of other 'new' bands. Pop music, an animal lying dormant for years, was then being resuscitated in a new climate, revitalized with new attitudes. I don't know if I'm being nostalgic or just redundant, but I remember thinking, while watching those bands that there was only one other place in the world I'd rather be than in front of a fifteen minute Ramones set at CBGBs ("What the fuck was that?") or at a Talking Heads show in a space filled with artists, patrons and even their parents .... and that was listening to Television.

Television was crysalloidial - a special substance which formed a true solution to useless wanderings of countless two leads guitar outfits of the day. (One could be bashed about by the solo-less Ramones and then swelled by the soulful Television.) Passion and intellect precariously balanced on a nightmare scale. Drug riddled lyrics sung in an uncomfortable quaver. And those guitars! Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine, no matter what their present feelings are towards each other, made magic together. Television was a serious band, and you had to take them seriously - or not bother at all.

Of course, The American Record Buying Public chose the latter. After an indy 45, a few twelve inchers, and a couple of albums, Television, for reasons of this or that, pulled the plug.

Tom Verlaine's second solo long player, Dreamtime, is his first for Warner Brothers. Fred Smith, Television's bass player, is on the album and in the touring band. Richard Lloyd has just released a single covering two vintage Stones hits, his only record since Alchemy. And Billy Ficca has joined The Waitresses.

I had wanted to meet Verlaine for years, not out of idolatry or hero worship (if I remember correctly my last was Mickey Mantle) but because a simulated identification and plain old respect. Well, preconceptions are often as not misconceptions, and Verlaine shattered a good deal.

Tom Verlaine: I want to see what kind of bad review they gave me here. Let's see ... "This guy is flaky as shit" (speaking about the review in the last issue of Boston Rock). I get really amused when I see these things now, good or bad.

Boston Rock (BR): What have you been doing with yourself?

TV: I guess it must have seemed like a long time since the first album, huh? Some people spend two years between records. I'm always working on stuff. I guess I've just been living my life, sort of working all the time, getting ideas ...

BR: Did Elektra make you even more wary of this business?

TV: Well to this day I don't know what those records sold. It took a long time to get off Elektra although it was easy to get another deal. I was supposed to do three records for Elektra and they didn't want to let me go. It took a year to get off. The latest Elektra accounting report said that one cassette has sold in Canada in the last six months!

BR: Why didn't you turn to an independent after that experience?

TV: Well, you know we started out with Ork Records. Most independents are worse, let me tell you. They're just these guys walking around picking your nose blah blah blah ... But that's not really fair - Rough Trade's a good one.

BR: Are you planning any live Television releases to file next to the Arrow bootleg?

TV: That's not a bad bootleg at all. I'm still trying to find out who did that one. There's close to 200 tapes floating around. I know a guy who has a hundred shows on tape - every show we did in New York City except for the first five or six. I doubt I'll do anything. I'm not crazy about them and it's time consuming to sit there and pick the better versions, which ones are half way in tune, which ones you can hear the vocals on.

BR: After working with Richard Lloyd for so long, have you found it difficult to make the two guitar thing work?

TV: Well, I'd add keyboards too if I could afford them, but they're so expensive to lug around. As far as Lloyd is concerned, I showed him a lot of what to play, you know. I'm not saying he's not a really good lead player ... I did so much of the arranging for those guitars. This is only our fifth date so it's a matter of getting used to playing together. It's also trying to educate somebody as to what you have in mind.

BR: You use a lot of rural imagery in your songs, drawing on prior experience I suppose, but you've been living in New York for how long?

TV: Twelve years. I'm not aware of drawing on anything. The thing I'm aware of when writing a song is talking to somebody. More than anything else it's like communicating with somebody, whether they're in the room the room or whether they're not at the time of writing. It's someone specific. It might not be the same person.

BR: Are they usually women?

TV: They tend to be, yeah.

BR: But not the same one?

TV: Well it might be the same spirit, but not the same person. I never think about this area so that's why I'm probably a bad person to interview. I don't have ready made answers. Because I never think about it, I'm either forced to make up an answer or tell you I don't have one.

I got this theory that in in the bottom line no one knows how to do anything. Right now in the literary world and in the art world there's a big emphasis on how you do it. The people I've admired in the past have no interest in how at all. It's just something they do. "Where does this melody come from?" There are no answers for it - it's sort of an ongoing event or something.

BR: Some of the recurrent themes in your lyrics, water and ships for instance, have strong drug connotations for me, a heroin haze or something, probably as a result of doing too much Velvets.

TV: What exactly is a drug song? I don't associate with drugs although people who take drugs would associate that with drugs. I don't really use drugs much anymore and even when I did take drugs it didn't have anything to do with what I was writing at all.

I took heroin twice in my life and it was because like a year ago I was beat up and this guy kicked in my rib, you know, so I took it once and it was OK . I took it a second time and it was nuthin'. Even as a drug that drug doesn't appeal to me at all.

BR: Do you listen to Neil Young a lot?

TV: People told me about Neil Young about five years ago. The only thing i knew was "Heart of Gold" so I started buying stuff, but I must have bought the wrong ones. Then I heard "Drive Back," this electric sort of stuff and then I knew what people were talking about - a certain spontaneous element---and I knew what people were comparing. It wasn't someone who learned a bunch of Chuck Berry, Jeff Beck, or Eric Clapton riffs.

When I was a kid, I liked "19th Nervous Breakdown," before that, five years of very heavy jazz. Guitar didn't interest me at all. Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, that kind of expression. I don't draw on that, I don't think, "Oh Eric Dolphy I'm gonna do ..." Know what I mean? You draw on your own resources of your own self at any given moment. As far as solos go, you might play one very similar to how you did it on the record because that's the way it happens in a sense. That's the way it sounds good. And another time you might do something totally different. Sometimes it's much worse, sometimes it's much better.

BR: Why did you choose guitar?

TV: I started playing piano when I was six. I played sax for three years too. I don't know. A person might have some desire to express themselves in that musical language. There may be a thousand people who may want to do that and there may be a thousand people who heard something on the radio and wanted to do the same thing and there may be a thousand people who picked up a guitar because their girlfriend liked the guitar player.

The style is accidental and incidental to yourself.mI don't even know what it is. And if someone tried to tell me what it was, I might just walk out of the room.

BR: A person with your sense of introspection would seem to dwell somewhat on the past. How come you haven't written any songs about your Television experience?

TV: Well, first of all, I don't dwell on the past. In fact, I have a real good memory, but the past in the sense of what happened in your life isn't that extraordinary from someone else's life. There's a number of people who had someone very close to them die when they were young which makes them very much different. Those people become aware of something utterly and completely gone. I can't say that I have the same sense. I sympathize with those people ... . I find that I meet an awful lot of people who've gone through that. Maybe I attract that type, I don't know, but something about the last twelve years in New York City ...

BR: Does the city get to you?

TV: Yeah, I went to Maine a year ago just to look around. Of all the places I've been. Maine is the most appealing. Two things, though, winters are real rough and jobs are hard to find. But if you're a good craftsman, you can make a living. I don't know whether I could be content doing it, because I've never done it, but I could easily spend a year or half the year there.

BR: Then what are you doing here?

TV: I was real anxious to tour again. Year before I could have cared less. And in December, I want to play the colleges. I've never played the colleges before and I want to see what goes on there. I don't hear great things are going on in the colleges.