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.
Verlaine was born Tom Miller (hence The Miller’s Tale) in Delaware, where he grew up playing piano and saxophone and listening to Albert Ayler and other out-there jazz artists on LPs bought at a second-hand record store on the “wrong” side of town. He is rumored to be married to a rather fetching German artist, but when asked, he merely stares down in silence at the conspicuously bare ring finger of his left hand. He is a confirmed night owl who practices guitar (very quietly) in his Chelsea apartment between midnight and 6 a.m., careful not to disturb his neighbors. Or perhaps, given the quality of the sounds floating through the plaster, the neighbors are the opposite of disturbed: It sounds like an insult, but Around, his new instrumental CD, is absolutely wonderful to go to sleep to. It’s not Tom Verlaine so much as Om Verlaine. If I were his neighbor, I’d say, “Turn it up, for Chrissakes!”
Now 57, Verlaine says he’s considering the idea of adhering to a schedule and actually putting music out on a regular basis. He plans to release another instrumental record next year, and his sometime co-guitarist Jimmy Ripp is putting together a CD of the guitar duets they’ve recorded in theaters around the country, accompanying showings of obscure silent movies, including Man Ray’s L’Étoile de Mer and Carl Dreyer’s They Caught the Ferry. (They had hoped to make a DVD, with images and music together, but couldn’t secure the film rights.) And then there’s Television’s long-promised but so far undelivered fourth album.
“What do you think it is about Television’s and your own solo music that attracts certain people so intensely?” I ask, speaking as someone who’s logged an embarrassing number of hours listening to the stuff.
Verlaine thinks about it for a moment, and then — face lighting up suddenly — exclaims: “It’s sugar-free! Which of course limits the audience! ‘Contains no artificial sweeteners!’ ” And then, after a moment, he adds, “Which isn’t to say that it’s bitter.”
Quite so. Astringent, perhaps. Lyrical, but darkly so. “You must be aware,” I tell Verlaine as he resumes his habitual posture — which is mostly to look off to one side and down to the floor — “of how much pleasure you’ve given people over the years. You may not have the biggest audience in the world, but people who like your music are extremely devoted to it.”
“Well, those are nice words of praise!,” allows Verlaine, appearing abashed to the point of blushing. “I don’t know what to say. I do try to do something of my own, which isn’t like trying to cop the coolest guitar lick and make a hit out of it or something, but try to offer up something of yourself, for better or worse, and maybe that element is what people respond to, because it is personal. I’m not trying to make some grand classic-rock thing or mega-production for the masses, you know.”
Which is sort of half true. Certainly there are tracks on Songs and Other Things, glowing miniatures such as “A Stroll,” “The Earth Is in the Sky” and “Documentary,” that could have been created by no one else, and that feel as intimate as one-bedroom apartments that haven’t changed hands in years. (Like New York apartments, in other words.) Verlaine keeps the guitar flash to a minimum, stresses melody and structure, and, in a characteristically oblique manner, bares his soul to the world. “Documentary,” for instance, is a spinning barbershop pole of a song that alternates jaunty, optimistic passages with distorted guitar solos so plunged in anguished foreboding as to suggest incipient schizophrenia. Yet it remains compulsively pleasurable to listen to. “The world’s on a ledge,” he sings, and for a moment you feel the whole globe might just go tumbling down.
On the other hand, Marquee Moon and some of Verlaine’s early solo ventures, such as Dreamtime and Flash Light, were nothing if not ambitious productions, even if they weren’t explicitly aimed at “the masses.” And judging from some of the new songs Television have been playing live the past couple of years, Verlaine hasn’t forgotten how to construct an epic. “Persia,” “The Sea,” “The Rise and Fall,” “Balloon,” “Shirley” and other songs recorded in concert and circulating on bootleg CDs, often under different names, are so good they suggest Television may finally have the makings of a record that will give their seemingly unassailable debut a run for its money.
As usual, Verlaine seems in no hurry, though his Television bandmates — fellow guitar wizard Richard Lloyd, bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca — may feel differently. Perhaps the same perfectionism is at work that led Verlaine to delay recording Marquee Moon for two years, even as New York’s punk scene heated up and the likes of Lou Reed and Brian Eno begged him to hurry. But Verlaine was correct to wait, and the end product was — and is — perfect. In any case, time appears to mean little to Verlaine — or his music. It’s good the day it comes out, and it remains that way for decades.
“There are so many recordings from the 1920s or ’40s or ’50s that are still really great and available, so whether a record was made in ’77 or ’89 doesn’t matter to me,” he says. “My perspective on [Marquee Moon] is that maybe somebody in 2030 will be able to find it and go, ‘This is a pretty interesting record,’ and they won’t care about the New York scene or the punk scene, it’ll just be a piece of music they listen to and like. I remember finding a Louis Armstrong record made in 1927, and I was just really amazed by it. So to me, it’s like when I put out a record, [the hope is] that 30 years from now when I’m dead, someone will listen to it and go, ‘That’s kind of interesting, or that’s kind of good’ — you know?”
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Though commercial success has eluded him, and some would say he has failed to fulfill his gargantuan promise, Verlaine remains a talismanic figure and a guitarist for the ages. His live performance of Television’s first single, “Little Johnny Jewel,” on the now “official” bootleg, The Blow Up, captures the madness and turmoil of 1970s New York as indelibly as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It’s also one of the greatest 14 minutes and 56 seconds of scarily intense and imaginative lead guitar you’ll ever hear.
In James Wolcott’s novel The Catsitters, ?you can find the following passage:
As I crossed the street, I recognized the lean specter of Tom Verlaine, the legendary guitarist from Television, walking past the iron bars of the church, slipping a slim paperback into his coat pocket like a gin flask. Village lore had it that whenever you spotted Verlaine in daylight, it was a good omen.
Fame and massive record sales have their glories, but there is a beauty to enigmatic shadows, too.