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)
“Words From The Front” (1982)
“Flash Light” (1987)
“The Wonder” (1990)
”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,
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.
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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.Powered by Sidelines