Tom Verlaine walks into a café out of the winter cold, reeking of tobacco and looking like a man who finds much of life wincingly painful. Long, strong guitarist’s hands (good hands to be strangled by, Patti Smith once said) and spindly, crooked teeth. Watery blue eyes that only occasionally meet yours. Brief handshake, shy smile. Lanky frame. Graying hair. An aging new-wave rock idol on a frigid March day in New York City, 2006.
In 1977, as lead singer, songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire for the band Television, Verlaine entered rock’s pantheon on a permanent basis with the band’s debut LP, Marquee Moon, one of the most passionately admired and influential records of the past 30 years. (Traces show up all the way from early U2, through Sonic Youth, the Libertines, the Strokes, and on and on.) A year before the album's release, the quartet auditioned for Ahmet Ertegun, the president of Atlantic Records, and producer Jerry Wexler. “Jerry, I can’t sign this band,” Ertegun reportedly said after giving the four rockers in the studio a careful listen. “This is not Earth music.”
Aesthetically, Ertegun wasn’t far wrong. Television combined punk aggression with an ethereal virtuosity that bordered on the otherworldly. And commercially, he was plain correct. Marquee Moon failed to crack the Top 150 in the States and rose no higher than No. 28 on the British charts, though Television was hailed as “one band in a million” in the U.K.’s New Musical Express. Their 1978 follow-up, Adventure, did somewhat better, a hopeful development they celebrated in typically perverse fashion by breaking up. Which left the field to the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, et al. — bands who had flourished in the confines of CBGB, the club Verlaine had helped transform from failed roots-music venue to punk-rock hothouse.
Since Television, Verlaine has mostly flown solo, making some fabulous music along the way but with gradually diminishing sales. The two records he’s just released — Songs and Other Things (stark, minimalist rock featuring the usual heavenly guitar work with the inimitable Verlaine twist) and Around (a collection of moody, spectral instrumentals) — are his first studio albums in, er, 14 years.
“Just lazy, I guess,” says Verlaine. (Television do still play live on occasion, and there has been an “official” bootleg of one of their shows, not to mention countless unofficial ones.) “I could crank out a record a year,” he adds, “but I don’t really want to do that.”
While I head to the counter to buy my slothful hero a croissant and latte, Verlaine grabs a New York Post from an adjacent table and starts reading a story about the NYPD putting 1,200 extra police on the streets. One of the officers pictured, wearing paramilitary goggles and wielding a giant machine gun or possibly an intergalactic missile launcher, particularly rivets his attention. No surprise there. “That cop’s from Mars!,” he howled on the magnificently deranged closing track of Television’s 1992 “reunion” album, Television. Verlaine has always been known for a slight paranoid streak.
For instance: Years ago I walked into a record store in Greenwich Village to buy two tickets for an upcoming Verlaine concert. “What the hell do you want to see that guy for?,” the proprietor shouted at me. “Tom Verlaine is the most paranoid motherfucker in New York City!” Granted, the speaker didn't sound like a paragon of mental stability himself — in fact, he sounded deranged — but his words proved at least somewhat prophetic. The girl I went to the show with knew Verlaine’s drummer, and afterward we went backstage, where we found Verlaine slumped in a chair. He took one look at us, pointed a bony finger in our direction, and drawled: “FBI.” A joke, of course, but as conversational icebreakers go, the kind that tends to leave you frozen in your tracks.
Verlaine also has a reputation for being “difficult.” Late last year I heard about a store that sold Television bootlegs. The rail-thin owner sat in a corner strumming an acoustic guitar and puffing on a coffin nail as if Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-smoking laws were still a distant rumor. After I’d poked around among the racks (which indeed contained all sorts of Television and Verlaine bootlegs), I asked if he knew Verlaine. “Tom Verlaine is not allowed in this record store,” was his succinct reply.
I bought a couple bootlegs, and they were every bit as good as the owner had assured me. But they turned out to be peculiarly erratic products. Sometimes they played beautifully, and sometimes they just sat there in the CD player and refused to produce any sound at all.
Which is a bit like Verlaine, come to think of it. Fourteen years is a long time to go without putting out a new record, even if you’re putting out two, and even if you count The Miller’s Tale, a 1996 double-CD compilation that includes a blistering 1982 live set recorded in London with his solo band. Leaving the usual record-company hassles aside, one senses that the past decade has been a trying one for Verlaine, but that’s just a guess. Verlaine keeps his private life very private indeed. He claims to write poetry under various pseudonyms, and the name “Verlaine” is itself a pseudonym, taken from Paul Verlaine, the 19th-century French symbolist poet.