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Tom Verlaine | Part One of The Interview with S.R.P.

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Of Tom Verlaine, Patti Smith once said, “Tom plays guitar like a thousand bluebirds screaming.” and to listen to Tom, is to know exactly what she means. But there is a gentler side of Verlaine; the guy who comes through in songs like Pillow and 4.A.M and Stalingrad – this is the Tom Verlaine that I grew to love, long before I knew that he had played with Patti Smith on Horses, or so it was rumored, and yes, I knew Tom could belt out a song like nobdy else, and I mean, like nobody else because Verlaine has a style and a method all his own, and it’s hard to pin-point precise musical influences, though he reveals some in this interview.

But the literary influences are far easier. Take the name for instance, Verlaine, which was changed from his family name of “Miller” and used after the poet and symbolist Verlaine, whom Tom has long admired he says. But Tom Verlaine has always been a poet in many ways. He even authored a book, long ago, with Richard Hell under the pen-name Theresa Stern. What ever became of the book, I can’t say for I was unable to track down any copies or even remnants of this, but what I can say for sure is that even now, Verlaine’s work is full of poetry. Consider one of my favorites, “Pillow,” the lyrics below;

“What does the dove see,
There at the window?
Two people fast asleep
Oh, you were such a clown,
Out on the balcony,
Time is a stupid thing,
That’s what you read to me.
Watching the birdies fly,
You whispered, “I could die”,
As I recall it’s really nothing.”

Pure poetry. For this interview, I printed many of Verlaine’s lyrics just to get a glimpse into who, exactly, he has been – to find whether or not his lyrics would tell me something of the man I would to interview and where he was coming from, how it had been and where he was headed. What I found, not surprisingly, was a man who was by turns frank and full of candor and at the same time, able to maintain that elusive edge that has allowed him his privacy and a certain mystique that keeps even the most seasoned fan or journalist guessing.

Interviewing Tom Verlaine I found a man full of surprises – from the child he once was who was deeply moved on hearing his first symphony (and if you listen to a lot of Verlaine, hear the symphonic like nature of his own work – the long riffs and drifts we are aparty to) we can’t help but wonder whether or not Tom’s experience with the classical boxed sets with which he grew up had some influence. I also found a man who is gentle yet never afraid to speak his mind or ask for anything, at once forthright and at the same time shy; open to being interviewed yet somewhere in there, part of the interview felt at times like knocking on a door repeatedly and interrupting a man from a great rest.

I was both interrupter and interloper – walking in through Tom’s door and into his world and more, trying to get inside his head, and having been the subject of interviews myself, even I can attest that the experience is always a bit unnerving, especially for those of us who are perhaps a bit shy, reticent, or even wish to keep a piece of ourselves private. Who could blame him, then, for any reticence he may have had. That said, Tom Verlaine met me full on, no bullshit, straight ahead and offered up answers as they came.

Anyone who knows Tom Verlaine knows that his career has been quite prolific and productive , with 6 solo albums (listed here), plus two albums with his band Television (1976, 1977). Note that the albums listed here do not include the Television albums or any other albums, of which there have been many, that Verlaine played on for various friends and acquaintances etc. As for Verlaine himself, the avid fan will know the albums and their song lists, but for the record, the albums with their dates are, in order:

“Tom Verlaine” (1979)
“Dreamtime” (1981)
“Words From The Front” (1982)
“Cover” (1984)
“Flash Light” (1987)
“The Wonder” (1990)

“The Miller’s Tale: A Tom Verlaine Anthology” (1996)
Other songs
”Smoother Than Jones”
”Your Finest Hour”
and Richard Lloyd, two records, 76, 77 — for television

For a song list of each album, you can check Amazon.com and also www.oldielyrics.com ( strange to see our Tom Verlaine considered an “oldie” – I would hardly consider either he or his music that, but with the industry changing so quickly, the term is used loosely today).

Well, they say you are as old or as young as you think you are and interviewing Verlaine was like being met with all of the excitement and positive energy of one who has retained a youthful spirit and who still can see the world as a somewhat magical place. Tom Verlaine brings with him a refreshing, almost sparkling, honesty and personality that just makes you want to get on whatever train it is he is on, because whatever he is talking about, he makes it sound interesting and lively. Tom Verlaine has influenced some of the biggest names in rock n roll, including Dave (The Edge) Evans of U2 who said of Verlaine, “[he is] the only guitarist I heard who was saying something musically… I was very influenced by Tom Verlaine – not stylistically, but in terms of approach and tearing up the rule-book.”

For all of the No, you’ll never get Tom in an interview stories I heard before I got to T.V. himself who said simply “Yes”, I can tell you every bit of the leg work was worth it for this series of interviews. Tom Verlaine made even deepest darkest winter and Lent seem bright. No surprise from the man who has songs named “Shimmer” and “Glimmer” and albums called “Flashlight” and “Dreamtime” – there is something wonderfully bright and clear about Tom Verlaine here I present you with Part One of my interview with Tom Verlaine; more to follow soon:

Thanks for listening in,

Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti
February – March, 2005

Tom, I’ve listened to and read your lyrics and listened to your songs for years now, probably most of my adult and young adult life, and I can’t help to think that so much of what you write sounds like poetry. Would you agree with that?

TVWell I’m not sure: What does poetry “sound” like? Dylan Thomas has great sound but the sense… a lot of it is psycho-sense or something and Lewis Carroll also sounds good in many places and his sense is really great, somewhere beyond foolosophy-comment. and all the Frank O hara types seem to have very little sound stuff going…it’s so chatty or something, although it’s kinda smiley-likeable in the informality- lack-o- big-statement, which functions as a comment as well i guess. Actually Emily D (Emily Dickinson). has great sound and sense. I wonder what all those Chinese poets sound like in Chinese. I like their distilled quality. Anyway, I am not sure I can answer the question — Which is quite not unusual!

Have you in the past or are you now working strictly on any poetry? I know I’m harping on this, but that is because I see this so much in your work and it seems like a natural progression – that perhaps a book deal would or could be in the works if you wanted it to be, the way Michael Stipe from REM did a Haiku Year, you could do something similar but so much better I think. Do you have any plans in this direction?

TV Not “strictly” working on poems…no. There’s always a notebook around or scraps of paper in the pocket, since I was 14 or so. It’s mostly nothing-squiggles. What’s really fun is to write under different names. Not sure if they are “personae” or whatever. This is maybe why personae was such a big discovery a while back, and the persona “atmosphere”! if such a term isn’t passé…it’s not easy reading really… for me at least.

Why did you pick the name Verlaine out of all of the French Symbolists and poets and surrealists, why the poet Verlaine in particular?

TV Well it was strictly for the sound…that name… not any associations. In retrospect it would have been better to have picked “Johnson” or something, since 30 years later folks still ask about it!

So I think Verlaine was a great name change for you. But then you did this, I think, really clever thing when you released The Miller’s Tale…

TV (interrupts)It wasn’t me who released it, or named it. One record company bought another and hired a bootlegger jive critic to rummage the vaults to make some cash back. Never been paid for it, of course…nor have the musicians on the live CD.

Did you always know you’d be a musician? I always knew I’d be a writer – for example. For me, it was always a sort of “calling” or ministry, I say. I wore too much black, smoked too many cigarettes, took a vow of poverty and crossed myself three times and hoped for the best. Was music like that for you? A calling in a way, or was it something you found yourself in and were somewhat surprised to find yourself there? I know that sounds odd, but a lot of musicians I interview are surprised to find themselves where they are today – so how is it for you?

TV In the 50s you could buy records at the supermarket…super low-priced boxed sets of classical favorites and compilations of movie themes. I remember first hearing some symphony and being totally transported…a big universe of sound and a kind of orgasm!!! Amazing. I don’t know if this linked in anyway to wanting to play music but it may have something to do with wanting to then create which led to piano lessons which then led to wanting to learn to write symphonies, but all the piano teachers said “No you must wait for that” and started throwing ultra complicated exercises for piano my way and I got really discouraged, I guess, and within a year, discovered jazz…instant composition…and took up sax. I reckon this transpired between the ages of 10 and 14, not sure exactly. The soundtrack-themes compilation records probably had a lasting effect in that a “record” became something with a lot of contrast, from cut to cut, a record is wildly different from piece to piece. Or rather that was the initial definition – made without, of course, realizing it.

* * *

For more of Tom Verlaine, tune back in this April, when we’ll be printing more of this interview. For purposes of length, the interview has been divided into parts with more to follow, and as we go on, more questions. If you have a burning question you’ve always wanted to ask T.V., please do suggest it in the comments section here and I’ll do my best to fit it in.

sadi ranson-polizzotti

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • http://www.kolehardfacts.blogspot.com Mike Kole

    Thanks for this item! I’ve always been a huge fan of Television, for the interplay between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, but I’ve honestly never given Verlaine’s solo stuff much of a shake. That will change.

    Thanks again!

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sadi

    thanks, and stay tuned for more. we expect to run more of the piece sometime this April… so looks good for that. He’s a fascinating person and interview subject, let alone a musical genius… thanks for reading. s.r.p.

  • Anony Muss

    Frank O’Hara ‘smiley-likeable’? Not the best description of the poet I’ve heard. I think O’Hara revolutionised poetry, he plucked it from a very stale history and made it live again – isn’t that what all artists are striving for? Surprised at Tom’s comment.

  • http://ffangs.stumbleupon.com/ ffangs

    Hi srp, this is a great interview – I didn’t comment when I first read it because I figured there would be a flood of comments. Where are all the people from the Television mailing list?

    The Wonder has been my favorite album over the last 13 years, battling it out with the likes of Soundgarden Superunknown and Peter Murphy Love Hysteria. I guess people don’t like it because it has so much keyboard on it, but there are so many interesting melodic things going on in different layers, and the guitar lines really stand out. The lyrics contribute a lot also.

    My (big giant) question for Tom would be why no more solo work? Please don’t hold out on us…

    ffangs

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sadi

    hey, and yes, where are the TV mailing list people. perhaps you know of a site where we can post the link or email? do let me know or feel free….

    the interview with Tom is/was not officially over. Still more questions to go, but we were interupted for reasons that could not be helped (he had some things to manage, so we delayed.) I expect he and i will be in touch soon and that we will continue where we left off.

    I’m hoping so – and looking forward and will certainly include your question with my other questions….

    He’s an amazing person to interview. We already knew he has immense talent from his music and lyrics, but to deal with him one on one is to deal with someone with a great and strong spirit and a good sense of play.

    Be well, and again, if you know of any sites that would want this link, let’s get the word out there!

    Cheers, and thanks for reading and kind words.

    Sadi

  • http://ffangs.stumbleupon.com/about ffangs

    I sent an email to Phil Obbard, who maintains the Television mailing list – I used to be on it a few years ago, it still seems to be as active as ever. I don’t know how this interview got missed. Then again, I only came across it because I have Google news giving me any new articles with “tom verlaine” in it (a great way to keep up with your favorite artists).
    Good luck with the next part of the interview, and here’s hoping you can talk Tom into releasing some more material :)
    ffangs

  • T. Cromwell

    I was pleasantly surprised that Tom contributed to the liner notes of the recent Rhino reissues of Marquee Moon and Adventure. Was that enjoyable for Tom? A trip down memory lane, or a contractual obligation?

    Any chance we’ll ever see another Tom Verlaine solo record? (Which reminds me: You omitted 1992’s Warm & Cool from your list, as well as Television’s self-titled 1992 album).

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sadi

    fangs – thanks for sending that email. that should help drive some traffic, and that would be super. anything you can do to bring people to the interview would be great, since he does not grant many interviews and more, we hope to continue this, so i can give you a head’s up when the next one is due out…

    t.c. – wow, i can’t believe i missed an album. i thought i had every Verlaine album and Televison album there is… I also looked it up and couldn’t find Warm n Cool for some reason on the obvious sites. Can you post a link to it somewhere with a song-title list, please?

    is it a reissue of songs, or is it newer songs from that time? wow. sorry i missed that one. talk about feeling stupid. thanks for pointing out the ommision. now i’m on the hunt to get it and complete the set that i have – also, i should have it for the rest of the interview.

    many thanks –

    sadi

  • http://mobiusstreet.blogspot.com Hazy Dave

    “Warm And Cool” is 14 original instrumental tunes, and was released on Rykodisc. Familiar names like Fred Smith, Billy Ficca and Jay Dee Daugherty contribute as well.

  • Alan Norrington

    Hi Sadi,
    great that you got to do the rare thing that is an interview with Tom and that you are (or were?) due to continue it.Sorry that its taken me ’till August to find it.As he has been inactive in terms of releases and interviews for so long its still very contemporary to me at least.
    If you are (still) to continue,perhaps you would consider putting the following question to Tom,even if it does seem to be somewhat mundane.
    In that the ‘Music For Films’ project that he does (as live performances
    only) is the only project not documented by a CD release,would he consider that? (As Tom/TV self-released a live Television recording in 2003,perhaps he would consider doing it that way?)
    In your introduction to the piece,you mentioned that you have not seen the Theresa Stern book that he co-wrote with Richard Hell in 1973.It might be worth keeping an eye on Richard Hell’s website as I know he has republished it at least once within the last few years(an English/French version).
    It might show up there again.
    If its not too late,”good luck” with the rest of the interview.
    Alan

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sadi

    some issues came up on his side that were family related etc. so we had to postpone some things. i imagine we’ll still finish, just when Tom is ready etc.

    I saw one of his live performances for film and it was amazing; he did a silent film at a museum and i was right there in the frnt row. he’s a truly gifted guitarist no question. Patti Smith obviously knew what she was talking about.

    I WILL ask him the question you propose should we have the time or things come back around as i imagine they will. For now, i think i’d rather let him deal w/ his own stuff etc. and then come back.

    We all have our stuff to deal with… thx for checking this out. I”m glad you liked it. ~ any other questions for him. let me know. i’ll certainly ask. should the time come.

    s.

  • Heckelsmiller

    I’d love to know how he feels about that mojo award television received last year, nearly 30 years after releasing marquee moon. Flattered? Grateful? Annoyed that people forget/rarely mention his other work? Finally the recognition it deserves?(And more importantly, where is that award now?)
    About the song “Eating The L”: Who came up with the text? And are there any plans to do more collaborations like this because it’s a quite intesting song and not very tv-esque.

    Good luck with the rest (if it happens) :)

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sade

    i’m sure your insights about tom and tv are pretty bang on the money and you raise some really good questions. i dn’t know if the rest of the interview will happen at this point. i had him all lined up but then something personal came up on his end, so i can’t push that. (would rather not get into that for his privacy issues)… But anyway… thanks for the good luck and god knows i’ll need it if we get there.

    thanks again ~ and some of your questions should be factored in along w/ others here.

    s.

  • craig mullen

    I liked the interview…but what a superficial snack. A more intelligent and sensitive person could have really did a much better job of the rare opportunity. Tom is fine. What else can you say. I saw Tom in 1999. I think that he approached John Coltrane on the night that I saw him at the Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, MASS. I saw Tom after the show and was afraid to talk to him…not because Tom had a wall-up or seemed unapprochable…but I met Richard LLoyd in his 300 lbs incarnation when he was backing Matthew Sweet and I found Richard LLoyd to be…and i still have yet to change this opinion…I found Lloyd to be the most ugly, stupid, and objection “being” that I have ever met in my life.
    I did not, and I could not after, meeting Fred in NYC and digging him the most…want to take a chance on blowing my illusions on Television. 50/50% can keep a dream going…but if Tom turned out to have an ugly streak below his beauty and artistry…I simply have absolutely no desire to know. To all fans of TV and Television…I bid you “bode well.”

    mullen…

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sadi ranson-polizzotti

    Mullen ~ i’m really not sure what to say to you other than if you hate television and Verlaine so much (or do i misread?) they why bother? I saw him in Boston too – he played along for a silent film and was great at the MFA. I’ve long been a Television and Verlaine fan and Lloyd etc and anything anyone says won’t change that… I”m sorry you seem disillusioned but whatever. To each his own. I’m glad you read the interview, even if Part 2 never materialized because of illness in his family, i still think he’s pretty great.

    Anyway, this isn’t a personal attack (as i hope your comment wasn’t), i just think you need to move on and stop reading about Velaine etc if you really are that disillusioned. I mean tant pis but oh well…

    My best to you,

    s.r.p.

  • mullen

    more to come

  • mullen…

    Sadi, you are surely mistaken. My point is Verlaine is great, the music is great. Lloyd is a train-wreck. If not for Lloyd there would have been more Telvision music. Tom’s solo stuff does more than fit the bill. As for your interview style…I was simply pointing out that you are a “fan” who never gets beyond hagiography, the obvious, the already answered, and the already known. I am quite sure that Tom Verlaine is way past French Symbolist poetry and name changes as he approachs …dare I say…Old Age. He is going to be 57 years old you know…why rehash the obvious. I am not being personal. I would like to know what Tom is reading now, listening to now, where he is living now, his toughts on the world around us “NOW,” and perhaps some of his already interesting erotic imagination. I bid you peace “mon frere,” and don’t sweat the small stuff.
    mullen…

  • http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com sadi ranson-polizzotti

    more later, i’m too whatever right now…

  • GoHah

    Thanks for the appreciative profile–Marquee Moon remains one of my favorite albums of all time, and I’m keen noew to dig out and replay the solo albums I have.

  • Sarah

    re:

    “…He even authored a book, long ago, with Richard Hell under the pen-name Theresa Stern. What ever became of the book, I can’t say for I was unable to track down any copies or even remnants of this…”

    the book is called “wanna go out?” any librarian would have been able to help you find this title. a quick search on worldcat shows 14 copies around the US that one can easily arrange an inter-library loan for at any public library.

    please see here if interested.