Friday, June 18, 2010

Talkin’ with Television’s Tom Verlaine (At CBGB’s, New York City, 7/29/76)

Interview text © 1976 by Bernie Kugel;
RBF intro © 2010 by Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

The following interview with Tom Verlaine was originally published in Big Star magazine, issue #1, dated May 1977. It was conducted by Bernie Kugel, and reprinted here with his kind permission. I have left the text the way Bernie originally had it (cleaning up some typos kinds of things), changing only the way the names are presented in the Q&A (e.g., “Tom” rather than “T.V.”) for clarity. Text added by me in 2010 is in [brackets].

The esoteric level of television was lost on me to some extent in the mid-70s, but even so, there were a band a saw quite a few times back then, and enjoyed the experience nonetheless. My favorite live song of theirs, after “Little Johnny Jewel,” was the cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” in an extended version they had made their own, much as Patti Smith had done with “Gloria.” This was around the time Richard Hell had just left the band.

I was sort of there the night Bernie Kugel interviewed the band. Well, I was at CBGB’s, saw the show, but I hung out with drummer Billy Ficca while Bernie was interviewing Tom (for privacy reasons). I can’t remember I talked with Billy about all that time, during the early sound check period before the doors to the club officially opened, but that’s not the point here.

Television, of course, is part of the reason there
was a CBGB’s, and their history is well chronicled elsewhere (in many different places), so on with the interview. – RBF, 2010

Bernie Kugel: Would you think of Television ever going on television?
Tom Verlaine: No, I don’t want to do TV at all. Fact is, a lot of groups ruin their own live performances by playing TV because everybody sees them on TV and they’re not going to pay $6.00 for a concert if they can see ‘em like that. They might check ‘em out if they’ve never seen ‘em, but if they see ‘em and didn’t like ‘em, they’re not going to pay money for the concert, see? That’s why a lot of people don’t… Blue Oyster Cult don’t do TV for that reason…. A lot of groups are very smart in not doing TV… I wouldn’t mind doing a three-minute spot if I got my own video guy and did it my way, but usually the sound on TV is crummy and you got these asshole cameramen doing psychedelic shit with the lenses while you’re playing. It’s just silly.

Bernie: Would you say you like jazz more than rock…?
Tom: No, no… not by any means. I mean I like all kinds of music, but I’m not hooked on any kind of music, so to speak. Like I don’t sit around and play KISS records all day long. But I do like everything; all kinds of music.

Bernie: How does the writing of a Television song come about?
Tom: I get the words… sometimes get the words, sometimes you get the riffs first, rehearse and throw this around, and I might have ideas for guitar lines… show [guitarist Richard ] Lloyd something like this, he take it and maybe improve it. Same with Fred [Smith, bass]… Fred will come up with a line or I’ll come up with a bass line and he’ll take it and make something better out of it… Billy [Ficca, drums] will make something better out of it… It’s like in any group really. It’s like one guy who writes the material and has the basic idea for the arrangement and you do it for a week and throw it around and everything falls into place. If it doesn’t you find out about it when it’s too late.

Bernie: Would you think there would come a day when Richard or Fred or Billy would be writing songs for the group?
Tom: It’s sorta not how we operate, ya know… exactly… it could happen.

Bernie: Do you foresee Television lasting a long time?
Tom: Oh yeah.

Bernie: Do you see people in the band going into solo careers shortly or anything like that?
Tom: No, I think we’re getting closer as the years go on, so to speak.

Bernie: What’s your favorite types of guitars?
Tom: I’ve always liked Fender guitars; they have a real juicy sound, you know? They’re not great for rhythm, they‘re real good for lead. They don’t stay in tune either, though they’re still worth it somehow. I might end up playing a Gibson because it stays in tune and in a big space it makes a bigger sound; it doesn’t get lost in the room. But in a studio I like to play a Fender.

Bernie: In The New York Rocker, you were explaining about how drugs help you expand yourself…?
Tom: Oh yeah…

Bernie: Do you still experiment with drugs a lot?
Tom: No, not much at all. I wouldn’t say really at all. Drugs are like… if you’re intuitive about things or something and you take drugs, they make you believe in your own intuitions more ‘cause there’s something very nebulous about drugs, and there’s something unspeakably true about what you go through with any given drug.

Bernie: What’s this about Theresa Stern (authoress of a book of poems, Wanna Go Out, credited by many to be the early works of Verlaine and Richard Hell, currently denied by Hell in recent interviews)?
Tom: What do you know about Theresa Stern?

Bernie: Teresa Stern is, in reality, you and Richard Hell.
Tom: Who told you that?

Bernie: I’ve just sort of got the idea from everything I’ve read.
Tom: I got no comment.

Bernie: One of the deep dark mysteries of Television?
Tom: (laughter)… Ya see, I don’t wanna have any bad words about Hell, you know what I mean? He’s always accusing me of this and that over the years… he considers himself a founding partner in the band and I don’t even think about it. It’s like two and a half years ago. I got no opinions on it anymore and anything he wants to say, let him say, I don’t care.

Bernie: So it wasn’t exactly an amicable split when he split from the band?
Tom: No, he quit and that was it, you know.

Bernie: What have you done to earn money over the past few years?
Tom: I haven’t had a job since… Well, I quit the Strand Bookstore in 1970, so I haven’t had a steady job since then. At one time, I worked ten hours a week in a bakery bagging bread, shit like that, part-time job here, putting books in mailing envelopes, when I need money. After the Strand I stretched unemployment for like two years so that was real good.

Bernie: Were you doing writing when you were on unemployment?
Tom: Yeah, always working on stuff…

Bernie: I remember an early [Village] Voice article that mentioned you worked on fiction a lot during those years….
Tom: I was working on some stories…

Bernie: Did these later develop into Television songs?
Tom: Yeah, one of them did, a thing called “Breakin' In My Heart” that we stopped doing for a while; I think we’re gonna do it again. What I got sick of is the whole “spoken style”; I just got sick of it. I didn’t want to project that myself, so I stopped it. I wanted to make it a little more… “listenable” or something.

Bernie: Do Television practice a lot?
Tom: Yeah, we really work out. When we first started we rehearsed six days a week for four months before we even played live; then we still stuck. We were awful, y’know? Now we rehearse four nights a week if we have a job or are breaking in new stuff. If we have a month of no jobs, we might rehearse three nights a week. We have problems finding a place to rehearse, though. If we get some more money… We’ll get some money with this record deal… we probably won’t get a dime after it’s all… ya know lawyers take this, and managers take this, taxes that this, producers take this… and that’s the end of it. Then you buy a new set of drums and a couple of new guitars and you have to go play live for a year.

Bernie: But if you do get some money what do you think you’ll do with it?
Tom: If I had a lot of money?

Bernie: Yeah.
Tom: Well, I’d get a decent place to live. You wouldn’t believe the shithole I live in. You really wouldn’t believe it. The floors are like black with shit and the windows are… the glass is ready to fall out and kill somebody in the street, like it rattles. There’s one radiator for four little rooms. In the winter, it’s like… the only thing is I haven't paid my rent since last November… I owe my landlord like $1500 and he hasn’t come after me for it, which is like a miracle ‘cause I haven't had any money this year at all really. I’ve had enough money to live on from the jobs we’ve been playing. But it’s like a miracle that my landlord hasn’t asked me for rent in almost a year.

Bernie: Do you have television in your place?
Tom: I had one… I had this great little old TV, but the aerial broke on it.

Bernie: Do you watch a lot of television?
Tom: No, I can’t stand it, to tell you the truth. I do find a strange thing happening though. I very rarely watch television really; I watch a movie or something, or the boxing matches, or the Olympics or something, but I noticed that five of our songs that have titles of TV shows… There used to e a game show called Prove It I think in the ‘50s… there’s a soap opera on weekday afternoons called Guiding Light and this kind of shit… I don’t look through a TV Guide to find a sing title… this kind of stuff happens…

Bernie: You have a song called “Guiding Light”?
Tom: Yeah, we do. We can’t do it live ‘cause it’s so gentle that if the guitars go out of tune it ruins it… we’re going to put it on our record, though. It’s a real sweet song.

Bernie: What was it like playing your first performance in some theater in midtown Manhattan?
Tom: It was just a tiny theater; it only had at the most 140 seats and it was designed for screening movies for like Federico Fellini or something. It was just a little hole in the wall, but it was very plush, very small. And they wheeled in this P.A. – it was Alice Cooper’s old P.A. – it was an enormous P.A. It was like 15 feet tall; it was just completely nuts, just crazy. We were all like nervous as hell. We played for two hours or something, it was just completely crazy, insanely loud for a room… the room was like a third the size of this club. The P.A. was at least as big as the one that’s in here now, maybe bigger. Plus all of our equipment was completely fucked up, breaking strings on every song.

Bernie: Do you have favorite Television songs right now?
Tom: I like the long ones more and more for live… I like to do long stuff. I’d stretch any song out to 20 minutes, but it’s hard to do that within a group ‘cause if not everyone’s reading each other right it just sounds fucked up. It’s like a group must have a strong leader. No group survives without a strong leader. Our drummer’s completely behind the band here, he can’t really hear anything. He has to listen to hear what’s going on. We’ve got this room down pretty good ‘cause we’ve played here [CBGBs] 200 times. It’s like playing in your living room now.

Bernie: Do you ever think that you should be doing something else other than this, like you’ve chosen the wrong profession or something like that?
Tom: No, but I’ll tell you a feeling I have though, sometimes. It’s like half of me is in New York, and the other half of me is myself standing on some fertile hillside raking a lawn or something, with a real bright sky. The exact opposite of New York. It’s like completely true. It’s like simultaneous realities or something. Maybe it’s like… rock and roll is sort of self-destructive, there’s no question about it. Unless you attack it as a complete business, I guess that’s why a lot of people end up doing it. They just forget about anything but the business – just do this in the show, bring out this prop, and do this. But I’ve never approached it completely as a business. To me, it’s like an art. The whole struggle is to get the art as perfect as possible. And it is a struggle. I’m not in good shape at all. Like we had to play an hour and a half at My Father’s Place [Roslyn, NY] on Tuesday night. I get offstage, I feel like I’m gonna collapse, at the same time I’m so wired up I couldn’t fall asleep for eight hours. It’s really dangerous for your health, even if you don’t use drugs.

Bernie: Do you have favorite guitarists?
Tom: I have solos that I like. I like Hendrix’s solo in “The Wind Cries Mary,” thought that was a really fantastic little short solo. I used to like John McLaughlin playing on the records with Miles Davis. He had this really beautiful tone, this silvery tone that he doesn’t use anymore. The best John McLaughlin solos are on a record called Mountain in the Clouds by a bass player called [Miroslav] Vitous. They’re the solos of McLaughlin’s I think are completely untouchably fantastic. Really insane, but perfectly in control. Just incredible. There are some solos I like. But my favorite solos are the early Kinks solos on the ’64-’65 Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night”…

Bernie: The ones that Jimmy Page’s taken credit for and Dave Davies says he did…
Tom: Nobody knows…but he was another guy I was thinking of getting as producer, Shel Talmy, who did the early Kinks and the early Who, but I hear he’s no good now that he has 16 tracks. He gets a great sound on a crummy tape machine, and he goes to 16 and he loses that. That roar, that big sound.

Bernie: Do you have favorite authors?
Tom: I went through a whole period where I was really crazy about French writers like [Paul] Verlaine, [Arthur] Rimbaud, especially this guy [Gérard de] Nerval. I really like Nerval. Nerval wrote this one story that’s really great. It’s sorta the diary of a guy going crazy, so to speak. It’s a real beautiful story. Nerval did go crazy, unfortunately. I still like Persian writers, like Omar Khayyam and stuff, about the “wine”… some of those poems are real sweet.


  1. Great interview, thanks!

  2. Bernie: Do you foresee Television lasting a long time?
    Tom: Oh yeah.

    Bernie: Do you see people in the band going into solo careers shortly or anything like that?
    Tom: No, I think we’re getting closer as the years go on, so to speak.

    Apparently Tom isn't a know-it-all after all.

  3. I saw Television last night and they were INCREDIBLE... Diiiiiiiiick^