Music Preview: Television's leader Tom Verlaine turns it on again

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Tom Verlaine still casts a long, dark shadow over the groundbreaking New York punk scene of the mid-'70s. And yet, the frontman for the band Television doesn't even acknowledge that punk exists.

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It's just "slightly more aggressive bubblegum music," he says dismissively in a recent phone interview.

Certainly, if the term punk is applied to Television, it's only in the sense of the band's pioneering spirit. While they shared the legendary CBGB's with the likes of the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television wasn't known for its punchy pop tunes. The songs evolved slowly with angular, art-rock structures, creeping, nocturnal guitar work and elusive words delivered in Verlaine's trembling vocal style.

In terms of work ethic, Verlaine has always been on his own schedule. Television formed in 1973 and, despite all the bands around it producing vinyl, didn't release its debut, "Marquee Moon," until 1977. That record's impact would go a long way, though, toward spawning a post-punk movement of such bands as Sonic Youth, R.E.M. and U2. It sits at No. 128 on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums of All Time.

Television disbanded after a second album, 1978's "Adventure," and has been on and off (mostly off) since then.

Verlaine, meanwhile, launched a solo career in 1979 that didn't depart much from Television's signature noir sound, and moved along productively up until 1992's "Warm and Cool," which coincided with a Television reunion record.

Then the screen went blank.

Verlaine did soundtrack work on silent films and sat in with Patti Smith, but that was about it. Finally, in April, Verlaine reappeared with not one, but two new records. "Around" is an all-instrumental disc on which he applies his liquid guitar work to dreamy pieces ranging from rock and Latin. "Songs and Other Things" reaffirms Verlaine as a shadowy singer-guitarist and songwriter with a poetic touch.

Verlaine has been a stranger to Pittsburgh. He brought a solo tour to Carnegie Mellon in 1981, and turned up 21 years later to play over a movie at the Three Rivers Film Festival.

Saturday, he takes the stage at the Three Rivers Arts Festival with a band that features bassist Fred Smith (from Television), drummer Louie Appel and guitarist Jimmy Ripp.

Verlaine is notoriously elusive in interviews, but talking from his studio last week, he did open up a bit. After some chatter in which he asked about where he would be playing, what time the gig was and whether I could recommend a hotel, this is how it went:

I have to start with this obvious question: It has been 14 years since the last release. Why now? What sparked these records?

I guess because they were finished ... at last [long pause].

Well, how long were these actually in the making?

The vocal record was seemingly a couple years, but it's because I only worked a couple days every third month. The instrumental record was literally four days in a row to do the whole thing.

Did you take different approaches to making them in terms of writing and recording?

There wasn't as much unit playing as there was on the last instrumental record. There wasn't as much bass, drums, guitar thing. It was kind of solo guitar with background things put in. It may in some cases be easier to record instrumental music because you don't have to worry about the vocal -- where am I going to splice the vocal in the mix? You're not really performing a song. It's something else.

How readily or easily do the songs and compositions come to you now? Are you fairly prolific?

I would say I could do a record a year if I wanted to. But somehow I didn't want to. I got involved in other things.

When you set out to make music, are you weighed down at all by expectations?

Nope. I don't think there are any really. I think anyone who has the luck to make two records has like a hundred people that like 'em. It's hard to say.

Your music has such a film noir quality. Do you do most of your composing at night?

I tend to work after midnight, and whether that flavor come into things, it probably does. And I always record at night.

When your music is discussed, there is so much emphasis on the guitar sound and structure. Do you think the lyrics are overlooked?

I think in general people don't talk about lyrics any more unless you're unbelievably obvious, like you write a really filthy song. Or you're talking about Neil Young's new Bush record ["Living With War"], which I'm glad they're talking about, actually. I don't think people talk about lyrics like they did when I was young. I remember in the '60s people talked about this person's or that person's songs. Of course, Bob Dylan, but even other people. In many ways, people don't really pay attention to them any more, it's just kind of an overall effect thing.

Maybe there have been too many songs and too many lyrics since then.

I also think people make one or two records at a certain time in their life and they're not particularly writers or interested in writing. They just get excited about playing in a band, and that's as far as it goes.

I happened to talk to Richard Hell last week, and he was talking about growing up with '60s music and wanting to rekindle that spirit in the mid-'70s. But were you more influenced by jazz?

Not in terms of rock. I played piano as a kid. And the first thing I ever heard as a child was classical music. It may be true of any music that whatever they heard struck them as an ecstatic event because of the sound and the whole thing. I remember really being transformed by symphonies when I was 4 years old or so. I think any kid, if you put music on at that age, they're going to be riveted. Later on, I played saxophone a few years and got more into rock about '65, I think.

When you went to write and compose, were you drawing at all on jazz?

I was aware that you could do other things. I'm really keen on staying between three to six chords. I really like the simplicity of rock and actually even folk music as well. But I'm also aware you can have a lot of fun improvising in that simple form and working spontaneously. That may set it apart from other rock music where they just can't improvise or don't want to improvise.

You were so different than everything happening in New York in the '70s. How did you see yourself fitting into that scene? Was there some kind of spirit to what you were doing that bonded you with other things happening there?

I wouldn't say there was a lot of bond between what you might call the CBGB's groups, in terms of personalities hanging out with each other and such. In fact, in some cases there may have been some animosity [laughs]. I'm not aware of hating anybody in any groups or anything, but certainly the styles were so utterly different that people didn't hang out at each other's shows and stuff. I mean, I was friends with Patti Smith before that club became kind of a hallmark of newer bands.

What were your feelings on punk?

I didn't think there was any punk and, in fact, I still don't. I think punk is slightly more aggressive bubblegum music. Structurally, musically speaking, it's pumping eighth notes, right? The punk style is totally ramped-up bubblegum, with perhaps a bit more of an angry lyric, but not always. Some so-called punk records were just as funny as bubblegum records.

I recently read that you were the one who talked the owner of CBGB's into having rock bands? Is that right?

My memory is, yeah, that I was walking down the street with a piano player, a guy who played ragtime, and we were thinking, "Where do you play?" Because even the hotel and bars did not want a ragtime player. We said, "Well there's a bar over there, let's go talk to him." We walked into this place and it had a very small stage and piano, and he didn't even want to have a ragtime player, but he said if you have a band why don't you come by? He was open to having something. He was having Irish folk music and other things. I don't think we talked him into it. I think he thought I'll try this band on Sunday night and if it works, I'll try it on Saturday night. That's what kind of happened over three years.

Are you sad to see it close?

No, there are so many clubs in New York. There's a huge proliferation of clubs in New York over the past few years.

What is your situation with Television right now?

We get together about once a month and we play some shows every year, usually in Europe. Usually the festivals will call, or we'll go to a country where we've never been to just in terms of having a vacation. And usually we'll have a few new songs. We almost have a record ready to record. If we pushed it, we could probably record a record in the fall, I guess, but I don't know if that will happen or not.

I'm guessing you don't care much about this, but should Television be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

I wouldn't go if they were. [Laughs.] I just think it's somebody's way of making money in some kind of sleazy way. It's also anti-spirit of rock 'n' roll for me, so ... I think they asked us for a guitar, and I think we told them it would be $50,000 just to see what they would say. That was the end of that.

So, after all this time, do you enjoy having these records out now?

Yeah, it's good. [long pause] It's fun playing them live. The new songs were basically recorded without rehearsal, so they're already sort of mutating as we play. That's always fun.

Verlaine performs at the Three Rivers Arts Festival at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Scott Mervis can be reached at or 412-263-2576.


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