By Bruce Bauman
“This morning I woke up and it was yesterday.” That happened Saturday morning, when I’d gotten a text from my old friend Dave Schulps, co-founder with Ira Robbins of Trouser Press: “I think Tom Verlaine has died.” A swell of emotions rushed over me, not least my own encroaching mortality.
My most powerful memory of Television was the first time I saw them at CBGB, in the winter of ’74-’75. There are life-altering events that remain as present 48 years later as this morning’s sunrise. Seeing Reggie Jackson’s three-homer game against the hated Dodgers in the World Series, the Belmont Stakes between Affirmed and Alydar, staring agape at a Pollock in the old, old MOMA for hours, the Who at Lincoln Center, Godard’s Weekend, reading Kafka and Joyce. Seeing Television was that kind of event for me. “You gotta see these guys,” Dave told me. I remember speeding down Great Jones Street with a razor-blade-sharp wind cutting through us. We passed a guy walking with his body at a 45-degree angle. “That’s Richard Hell,” Dave said. “He was just thrown out of the band.”
Entering the club I saw a smattering of maybe 20 people in the audience. The first coupla bands were not very good. Then came Talking Heads, pre-Jerry Harrison – good, but never would I have predicted they would emerge as superstars of the downtown musical scene. Last came Television, tuning up for what seemed like days. Then boom! Lightning struck itself and everyone in the audience. I’m getting the chills typing this, reliving the sounds emanating from Tom Verlaine’s and Richard Lloyd’s guitars. That was only the warm-up.
Television came back for a second set at who knows what hour. Maybe only eight of us were left in the audience. Simply put, I’d never heard anything like what came next. Even by the age of 21 I’d seen scores of bands – but Verlaine and Lloyd flew to a place few artists of any kind reach. Magic wings descended and lifted the music to a transcendental dimension. We were just along for the ride.
Months later, Dave and I interviewed Verlaine in the walkup apartment on Second Avenue that we shared for a year. Verlaine sat like an emperor in my ugly thriftshop Archie Bunker-like chair. My memory of that day was Dave and I sitting awestruck like the acolytes we were. Verlaine was friendly and open, and so damn sure of himself. Suddenly, and for brief seconds, would come the inscrutable side-eyed gaze and he’d be gone as if listening to Hamlet’s ghost. I don’t think he’d ever again be so vulnerable.
Then Dave found the interview – 65 minutes on a 48-year old cassette, from which he’d pulled four quotes for the introductory Television piece in Trouser Press 12 (Feb/Mar 1976, archived on this site). Dave digitized it, and we both listened to it – separately – in total “Holy Shit! He said that?” mode. Verlaine spoke so freely. It was like a conversation with three guys hanging out at a bar riffing on his band and their evolution, Roky Erickson, Patti Smith, John Cale, Brian Eno, the Velvets and the Dolls, Rimbaud, critics, the burgeoning New York scene and the music business. His band didn’t even have a contract yet; their difficulty in securing one is where the interview starts.
Verlaine sounds both a bit innocent and cynical. Don’t laugh, I believe he had a sweet nature. And we laughed a lot. He was cracking jokes. We were throwing out opinions, many I wish I could take back. They were ignorant or arrogant. Ah, youth. Dave and I were 21 and Tom said he was turning 26 the next week. [But he also mentions it being November, so the interview must have taken place around Thanksgiving 1975.] My guess is that if he’d heard it, Verlaine would feel the same. I’ve wondered if posting this was exploiting Verlaine’s legacy. In the end, I don’t think so. Television and Tom changed music. How he formed his style, his view of the sound he wanted, his lyrical and musical influences all matter to those who love any kind of music.
At the time, Dave was working at the Upper East Side Musical Maze record store near where we lived. After the interview, but before he wrote up the article, I happened to be there when a guy in a white raincoat like some CIA spy wandered into the shop. We started talking to him and discovered that he knew Tom Miller before he was Tom Verlaine. They’d gone to the same prep school; he’d even printed some Miller/Verlaine poetry in a little mag. I don’t believe most rock lyrics are “poetry” – they need music to come alive. Not so with Verlaine. His lyrics are poetry. His use of language sings without the need for melody – though he sure as hell composed spectacular melodies to match his surreal imagery.
When it came time to write up the piece, I gave it a shot and failed miserably. I couldn’t capture the music in words that I’d heard in my head. Poor Dave had to write up the piece the night before the deadline. I still got undeserved credit under my then pseudonym, A. Mindswallow. After the piece came out, we saw Verlaine, who was pissed – he wanted to know how we found out his given name. Talking to me after that, he was wary. Things also got more awkward because Verlaine had told us (while the tape wasn’t rolling) that he would never allow a junkie in his band, and some months later I walked in on Lloyd shooting up in the CBGB bathroom. I said nothing. After the article. our personal relations, casual as they were, ended. Not so my love affair with the band or with Verlaine and his not nearly well-known enough solo albums.
In a 2007 Da Capo Press anthology, The Show I’ll Never Forget, I wrote about seeing Television that first night and, though I did a better job in attempting to capture their essence, again I failed. I didn’t understand why their first two albums are considered classics by music enthusiasts, but the band never achieved the commercial success or recognition of Talking Heads or Blondie or even Patti Smith who, despite her reputation, never sold tons of records. In my more than 15 years of teaching writing at CalArts, the vast majority of my students knew those bands, but only two out of 12 had heard of Television – and only barely. If I was PO’d by that lack of recognition, I wondered how Verlaine must have felt.
I saw Verlaine in 1997. Patti Smith was opening for Dylan at Connecticut State University in Danbury. The gym was half-full. Time Out of Mind hadn’t come out yet. Verlaine played some songs with Smith while Dylan played longer than I’d ever seen him, even taking requests from the audience. When the show ended, I walked to the front and asked if I could go back to say hi to Verlaine. The guard at the front asked me to write a note. I did and explained who I was. Verlaine came out, looked at me with that inscrutable stare/glare – I don’t know if he recognized me or purposefully dismissed me. I felt rejected and deeply regretted printing his name. I helped build his fear of the press. And, I think, ended what might’ve become a real friendship. Still, it didn’t change how I felt about his music or his genius. As you’ll read in the interview, Verlaine was highly ambitious and confident of the band’s future success. In later interviews, Verlaine would proclaim things like, “I’m struggling not to have a career.” The Hamlet’s ghost I imagined whispering in his ear in 1975 now, remorsefully, had become “Tom Verlaine.”
In listening to the interview and writing this piece, I finally realize I’ll never possess the words to capture the emotional earthquake of seeing Television for the first time, ’cause, as John Sebastian once wrote, “It’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll.” I’ll let others describe the wonders of Marquee Moon and Adventure, both in my pantheon of greatest albums. Still, the album I listen to the most is The Blow Up, which was first a bootleg then a cassette released by ROIR. It’s a live recording and, for me, comes closest to transporting the band’s live sound and dark energy. I love Television’s cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” but I don’t believe in heaven so I doubt Tom did any door-knocking on Saturday. What I do believe and will until the day I die is that 100 years from now when someone listens to a Television album they’ll be carried away to that transcendent dimension where only great art can take you. In the final moment of his passing, I believe Verlaine knew that, too.
Bruce Bauman is the author of the novels And the Word Was and Broken Sleep. He is at work on his new book, The True Story of My Fictional Life.
Interview with Tom Verlaine
by Bruce Bauman with Dave Schulps, late 1975
Some notes about this transcript: Verlaine asked a lot of questions, so the italics can get confusing. There was no point separating which questions and comments were Bruce’s (most of them) and which were Dave’s. The interview didn’t quite end where the transcript does, but what’s been cut was of no real value here. The whole thing has been lightly edited, slightly condensed and annotated when references might be obscure.
At the time, Television did not have a label deal and had only released the single, “Little Johnny Jewel,” on their manager’s label. Richard Hell was already out of the band, replaced by Fred Smith, who Verlaine poached from Blondie. The “drummer” who he doesn’t identify is, of course, Billy Ficca.
Patti Smith had released Horses earlier in the year, but none of the other Bowery bands — the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads — had any records out.
There’s a guy in every company that loves us [but] can’t convince the rest of the company. There’s a guy at Atlantic, there’s a guy at RCA, there’s a guy at Arista, there’s a guy at Warner Bros. They’re really nuts about us. We’ve done a couple crappy demo tapes. They always play it for the head of A&R and he always goes, “Well, I like it but I don’t know” and he just hands it back to them and that’s the end of it.
When we were in England we heard some of the demos from Island.
Who played them for you? Richard Williams?
When I ever get some money and a lawyer, man, I’m going to get them back.
You never got the demos back?
I’ve got a copy of it. We never got the masters back.
Because those were good. I thought.
You liked them? I thought they were horrible. I thought they were really horrible. I have cassettes of them. You really thought they were good, huh? You liked the texture and the sound?
Of all the demos I’ve heard of other groups, it was much better.
Well, it was done in a 16-track studio. To me, it sounds like it was done on two tracks. It sounds like both guitars were plugged into one amp with the same tone settings.
Compared to other demos, they were a lot better. Your voice came through. You understood all the lyrics on there.
Yeah. The voice was well-recorded, and the drums and the bass were, but the guitars were so clicky. It’s all right for a couple numbers, but for a whole tape of just this flat sound … Eno doesn’t do his records like that.
It was just the voice … When I’ve seen you onstage, it’s never come through so clear and I was getting all the lyrics and I was laughing …you just get one or two sentences and I’ve never heard all of it.
Right. I really thought Eno would do something neat, though. Eno’s real sly. You ask him to do something, and he goes, “That’s a great idea” and then he never does it. Over and over again. It’s that whole English attitude. I don’t know what to make of it. They think we’re noble savages. That’s what Island Records think we are.
I think that’s what the English think Americans are.
I think you’re right. Really gets on my nerves.
We’re just the heathens. All the crooks that they sent over to America have grown up.
John Cale quite likes us. He wants to produce us, but he’s not technically oriented. He’s really good as the guy in the other room to make you go nuts. To really get you to do it in a room, instead of on a stage, but he doesn’t know which buttons to push. He’s always too high to know how to mix, and he’s always like, “Add the guitar, voice louder than…” He’ll have the voice going so loud that it sounds like the drums are inside somebody’s vocal cords or something. Patti had to mix that whole album herself. Have you heard that record?
Yeah. Do you really like that album?
I think it’s exciting.
What do you think of Patti’s lyrics?
Well, she’s a good friend of mine.
What it is is just stream-of-consciousness. Sometimes it’s an inspired stream of consciousness and sometimes it’s just a little brook running through the woods.
I really like her album, though. I mean, especially on the radio when you hear it between the Fogelberg and Garfunkel or something. It really wipes you out, especially over a speaker this small. Have you ever heard it over a small … like a transistor?
I like “Kimberly.” There’s an example of Cale, man. They had this fantastic four-part harmony at the end of that song, it goes from “the palm trees” [fall into the sea], and there’s like this Tahitian harmony, like [sings] “palm trees fall into” … and Cale just wiped it off. It was just fantastic, too.
I think she sings best on that cut than on any other cut.
Yeah. I like “Free Money,” too.
“Free Money” is really good rock writing.
It should be a single.
That’s the closest thing to a single. I didn’t like the way she did “Gloria” at all.
I never cared for that number.
Her lyrics are very different for rock lyrics. I’ve never seen her onstage.
Oh, you’ve never seen her?
She’s a real ballsy performer. Just totally [makes noise] unh! unh!
I heard they cut down a lot of her stuff, like “Land (of 1000 Dances).”
“Land” is actually longer than her live … “Land” feels like it’s 15 minutes live but if you time it, it’s really only about seven or eight. On the album, it’s, what? It’s about 10, isn’t it? 10 or 11.
I’ve been listening to it over and over again. Some of the stuff wears pretty thin quickly whereas “Kimberly” grew on me. I really like that.
Did you write the music to “Break It Up”?
Yeah. I wrote the melody, not the whole thing. I helped her put together the words on it, too. I didn’t write the words. I just helped semi-coordinate it. I don’t like the ending … I like the ending the way it came out, but I’d rather … Did you ever hear her do it live?
When I showed it to them, it was supposed to be with this thing with this real heavy guitar on it but nobody in the group could play it, so it always came out live like a cocktail bar song, with just a real light piano. People are saying, “What happened to that song?”
It was so effective on the album.
Clive really liked it. Clive Davis. He’s heard us a couple times now, too.
Does he like you?
I don’t think he knows what to make of us.
How can he know what to make of Patti but not know what to make of you?
Well, he doesn’t know what to make of Patti. He just realized that there was something … That she was getting all this attention in the press. “Well, she’s getting all this. Someone must want to hear a record.” That’s basically how Clive signs people. He signs people that either have this real strong press reaction, public reaction, or else he signs these people who have what he called a track record, like people who have been dropped from other labels.
You’ve been getting a lot of press attention.
Yeah. I don’t think we got enough for him, though, yet.
Did you see in the Voice Choices thing where they said, for the concerts this week, Television and Talking Heads, this is New York’s top tier, check it out. That’s the kind of thing where a lot of people are going to look at that and finally make a decision after seeing the ads all these months and years.
We’ve been in that before. They always say the strangest things, though. Like Christgau. You know what he said last night? He was talking to [James] Wolcott, who is really a neat guy. He’s just a writer for the Voice and he writes for Creem now. He really loves us. Christgau was sitting with him.
I asked Wolcott what he was talking about, and he goes, “Christgau says, what do you think this group’s chance of making it are?” Wolcott goes, “Well, what do you think?” Christgau goes, “I’d say it’s four to one.” What does that mean? Four to one? Does that mean four companies would come and one would sign us? What the fuck does it mean?
Where are you from originally?
Up in Delaware. Grew up in Wilmington. You know Bob Marley lived there? He lived in Wilmington. I left there in ’68. He says he lived there three years in the late ’60s and he worked in a Chrysler plant.
What were you doing before you left?
Our drummer was from Delaware. I used to play with him. I was just trying to get a rock band together. I started playing guitar in about ’65. I was really crazy. I learned as much as I could real fast. I was always trying to get a band together, but nobody wanted to really do it. Nobody would commit themselves to it at all, forget rehearsals and all that kind of stuff. Plus I always loved New York, so I figured I’d come here and try.
There was a great band that came out of Wilmington in like ’67. It was called Friends of the Family. They used to play in Philly. They were a lot like Buffalo Springfield, even better, and they did half a record for Capitol but it was never released. They were really a tight, great group, though. Lots of weird changes. They had a lot of really good harmonies. That was the only thing that ever came out of there.
One of those big jazz organists came out of Wilmington. Maybe Johnny “Hammond” Smith. [Nope, he was from Kentucky. But ] One of them guys. I don’t know which one.
How long have you been in New York now?
When did you start the group?
I started the group … It’s like, what’s this, November? It was like two years ago this Thanksgiving. We started playing live about three and a half months after that. I think in about February is when we started playing live. We figured we’d practice a lot. We figured we’d get these two sets together. Then we went and played and it was so awful. Our first job…It was in this little… theater that sat 96 people. It was a private screening room for Fellini films or something like that on 46th Street. [Townhouse Theater on West 44 St, March 2, 1974.] We had guys that liked us … Like this guy directed Rebel Without A Cause, Nick Ray. He came and he really loved us. He gave us this quote, that kind of stuff. We really packed them in on our first little job. We were so awful. We were all real nervous.
They had this PA that said “Alice Cooper” on the side. It was about 20 times too big for the room. It was this enormous PA, and the room wasn’t as long as this whole apartment was really. It would be about three times as wide but real short. That was real funny.
You opened with “Fire Engine.” Where did you get that song from?
I loved that album [The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators]. I can remember that album from Delaware. There used to be this place called Happy Harry’s. It was a drugstore that also sold records. I used to go there on Saturdays. You know? I used to work in this department store, counting dishes and stuff like that. On Saturday, I’d go over and see what records [came in].
Remember the notes on the back? It had these really heavy philosophical notes. Like, “Man was born for the evolutionary…” I go, “What is this?”I loved the sound of that record. It sounds like two Stratocasters through hi-fi speakers or something. Just this clang and clattering sound. I liked the guy’s voice. It sounded like a white James Brown.
I couldn’t make out the words he was singing at all, so the only line we used from it is the opening line. Did you read what that line really is? It’s not, “Let me take you to the empty space.” It’s, “Let me take you to DMT space.” [laughter at the synthetic psilocybin reference]
They’re like the only band in Texas at the time that were heavy, really heavy into drugs, and so every song of theirs had all these stupid things like that. DMT space. It’s real funny.
He just made a single, that guy [Roky Erickson]. Have you heard it? He just released a single, the lead singer. One side is this sort of dumb ballad. The other side is this really horribly produced … It sounds like it’s six Les Pauls on 10 clanging the same chord. He just keeps screaming, screaming, “The two-headed dog, two-headed dog, I’ve been working in the Kremlin with a two-headed dog.” Wait till you hear this thing. It’s on Mars Records. I don’t know where you can get it. Somebody sent it to me from California.
Roky, the lead singer [of the 13th Floor Elevators], I think, to get out of a jail charge, did something like he sat in the police station and said, “You know, there’s a lot of clowns coming across the floor” and totally convinced them that he was hallucinating all the time, so they threw him in a mental institution. That’s how he got out of his jail sentence.
The guy who owned that label, a guy named [Lelan] Rogers, what was it, International Artists, was apparently a real crook and nobody ever saw any money from anything on that label. They never had a good manager, from what I hear. That’s the tough thing to find.
We don’t really have a manager. We have this guy who just helps us out. He had a loft that we could play in. That’s how you keep a band together is just having a place where you can play. Otherwise, you’re always scrubbing money trying to get…
We play about three nights a week. When we’re working on new stuff about five nights a week.
How do you support yourself?
Well, I had unemployment for a while. I don’t know. It just sort of trickles in. I hate working. I worked in the Strand bookstore for like two years when I first came here. That bookstore is huge. Yeah. It’s a maniac place for a maniac.
What do you think of the whole New York rock scene?
What do you think of it?
What do I think of it? I really like it.
You like all the groups? I mean, you go see all the groups?
Well, I have a few favorites that I generally go back to see. I really think it’s a whole thing. We were debating whether if Patti’s album made it big, all the groups would be snatched up [by labels].
There is some kind of belief like that.
According to the walking lobotomy, Lou Reed, that’s what he said.
Did you talk to him?
Yeah. I talked to him before.
Last night, did you have a hard time talking to him?
Yeah. He’s a very nervous man. He’s involved in all these lawsuits. I’d like to hear his new record. He invited me over. It’s like two guitars, bass and drums again.
It’s not another Metal Machine Music?
That I never heard.
Oh, you got to listen to it.
Is it like Stockhausen or something?
Not even close. Stockhausen you can listen to, and if you listen to more than three minutes of Metal Machine Music, you’re something…
Two records, isn’t it?
Did you read the liner notes? He admitted he couldn’t listen to the whole fucking thing. [“No one I know has listened to it all the way through including myself” is what Reed wrote.]
I like John Cale’s records. His two records on Island. That’s why Patti thought he’d be so good, because the sound on those records is good. Turns out it’s a guy named John Wood, who mixes and engineers them. He’s a real ace. I’d like to get him for a record. He flies over here and only charges $600 a week, which isn’t bad. Producers cost, what? $50,000, $60,000.
What do you think of the Velvets?
Oh, yeah. Loved them in Delaware. The Velvets’ biggest following is still in Kansas and the Midwest.
Oh, yeah. Cleveland, they love ’em. We were in Cleveland.
Yeah. How did that go?
That went good. Really.
Because we spoke to someone who didn’t think it went so good.
He writes for The [Cleveland] Scene.
Which guy, not Peter [Laughner]?
No, Raj [Bahadur].
How old is he?
They expected the New York Dolls. You walk in the room and they’re going, “Party. Party.”
This guy from Cleveland, who has a band out there, he’d come here and heard us and said, “I’ll get you a job.” People say that all the time, but he actually did it.
Where did you play?
The Piccadilly Inn. They mic-ed the drums and the bass but they didn’t mic the guitar amps. I have no idea what it sounded like out front, really. I don’t think people knew what to expect.
You didn’t like the New York Dolls?
I didn’t like them at all. Thought they were really…bad jive. A lot of acts just jive, but they can really do it well. They didn’t have the ability to do it well.
You played with the Planets once. Do you think anything of them?
Nuh. They’re too fixated on English groups. Your magazine is an English paper. Yikes. [laughs] That’s the whole thing, you know, it seems to be in New York, they’re all fixated on something. All the groups from out of Manhattan seem to be fixated on English bands.
It’s an obsessive place but it’s obsessed with itself. You’re not a New Yorker, but is Richard [Lloyd] from New York?
Yeah. He lived across the river and then he went to high school in Manhattan somewhere.
Did he really?
21st Street. I don’t know. Talk to him about it sometime.
I’ve seen that kid and the first time I knew, I told you I know him from high school, and I couldn’t remember his name.
He went to school with the guy in the Wailers, Al Anderson, the lead guitar player. They went to the same high school.
How old is he?
He’s 24 now. I’ll be 26 next week.
How come you always end your set with “King Kong”?
“Kingdom Come.” I always call it “King Kong.” It drives me nuts.
Why does it drive you nuts?
Because it sounded like a broken IRT subway.
I thought that was a good version. What didn’t you like about it?
Most of it. You’ve played so much better lead guitar, especially Richard. He played one note over and over for at least 30 seconds.
I can’t even hear what he’s doing. All I hear is my own guitar and the bass.
I felt like I was at Lynyrd Skynyrd or Mark Farner doing that one night over and over and over. He’s so much better guitarist than that.
Where was this? Right into the drum solo?
Yeah, which is another thing that’s wrong with that song.
Well, they’re being a little conceptual really. It’s at the end of the night when you don’t feel like … When you just feel like letting it all loose. You know? That’s really what it is. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Some people like it, some people don’t.
Because the song that ended first set was much better when you were jamming.
Well, there’s a much more set arrangement of “Marquee Moon.” It has a much more set arrangement on that. It’s not that it’s written out note for note, but everybody knows that there’s a few parts where things are going to happen.
Saturday night, we broke strings, so we just let it feed back. I’m glad you weren’t there then.
That would be okay. There’s a certain innate cool to broken strings but there isn’t to one note playing.
Well, see, I’m not aware that he’s over there playing one note.
He did it a few times. He didn’t have to do that. You were twirling around and around and around.
I enjoyed that.
I love playing rhythm guitar. I love playing lead, too, but I love just getting into rhythm guitar. I can do it for an hour.
I really like it. I really like it.
You mean the lead style?
Yeah. It’s the most inventive lead style I’ve seen in years but you come about it … I mean, you come in from left field. You’re playing a different sport. It’s great.
I think where it comes from is I grew up … When I was a kid, I really loved Wagner and all that kind of stuff. I liked classical stuff, that sense of melody. Then I went into jazz, like when I was, say, from seventh grade to like 10th grade, I was really into [John] Coltrane and [Albert] Ayler. I would read everything about ’em… Ayler used to say “I got to get out beyond the notes.” [laughter] I think all that stuff influenced me. It’s really hard to pinpoint an influence. I think all that stuff and Eric Dolphy, all that stuff, really. I never liked guitar players, I didn’t like guitar in jazz or anything. “19th Nervous Breakdown,” that was the first song that really grabbed me. It was the first real rock song that totally grabbed me like a Coltrane record or something. At the same time … What’s that other one? The Kinks song that had a great guitar solo, “All Day and All of the Night.” Hearing those guitar solos really…
You come to rock real from an inverse kind of [direction].
Yeah, I do.
From Wagner to Velvet Underground. I think it’s good. I don’t particularly like classical music but I think …
I don’t get real excited by classical music, but there’s a lot … I listen to it. I listen to it even more lately. There’s so many rock records that are good, but you exhaust them so fast. You know what I mean?
I want to try a few questions about the lyrics but I don’t know enough of the lyrics. When we heard them, that was the first time that I ever got ‘em. They’re some of the most inventive lyrics …
Well, I’ve always been a writer. I love writing.
I want to ask about your literary influences as well as musical ones. Why Verlaine?
I just like that name.
I thought because Patti was into it.
No. I had the name before I knew Patti. I was using it months before Patti. Really not that many people have heard of Verlaine. Not many people have really heard of Rimbaud. Not in America.
I don’t know about literary influences. The thing about Rimbaud to me is this feeling. It’s not really what he says. It seems like he always feels so intense that he’s totally really unconscious of what he’s writing.
He’s just tearing apart everything.
Right. Himself, mostly.
I read Season in Hell like 12 times before I finally got an inkling of what he was talking about.
To me, it’s really hard to write deliberately, to say something. You know? I’ve never been able to do that well. Like decide I’m going to say this and then work it out so you say it in so many words. I think John Lennon writes like that.
Sometimes. You can tell when he does.
Yeah. I’m not knocking him because I really like a lot of his stuff. I love his rhythm guitar playing. Great rhythm guitarist.
Yeah. He writes like that, but he also writes some pretty unstructured stuff. I don’t think he set out to say anything straight-ahead in “I Am the Walrus.”
I forgot about that stuff.
Or “Strawberry Fields.” That just comes out of his mouth. I think that’s his best lyrical stuff where, as you pointed to, “Imagine” John Lennon “no possessions,” he’s just trying to write that on purpose and that’s shit.
To me, all this stuff is kind of expression. You know? It’s really what it is. It’s all mood, something at a certain time.
How did “Venus de Milo” fall out of your mouth? A lot of people don’t even know about that statue.
I know. I was thinking of trying to put a little picture of it on an album cover somewhere.
I had a postcard when I was in France, I was going to bring it back. A lot of people don’t know, and you lose all effect if they’ve never seen the statue.
There was this one guy in the club one night, and he goes, “That’s a really great song, that line.” I go, “Yeah. You know …” I said, “Did you know it didn’t have any arms?” He goes, “What?” He looks all around the room and he goes, “Doesn’t have any arms? What do you mean?” He was really stoned out of his mind. He’s walking around the room. [laughter]
When you played in July, at the end of the rock festival you had at CBGB? The set you played that night was one of the best sets I’ve ever seen. Did you think that was very good yourself?
I think that was because we just got back from Cleveland. It was just as we got back.
I really like playing out of town. In New York, [although] it’s getting less and less for us because I think we’re getting a different audience now, in the beginning, it was often an audience that came and wanted attention as performers. The old people from Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, this whole group that wanted attention as an audience in a certain kind of way. Out of town’s not like that. They come to hear this band and they really want it. It’s much easier to just give it to them.
Have you played anywhere else besides Cleveland?
Not really. I really want to.
I’m surprised you can’t get to Boston.
All they want there is like this virtuosity because of the Berklee school or else really tight funky blues like J. Geils. There’s really not much room there.
But there’s thousands of kids going to college there.
Yeah. They really go for a certain kind of … Our drummer lived in Boston for two years. I’d like to play Philadelphia, too. I was hanging out in Philly a lot when I was growing up.
Some DJ bought it at some convention, and I heard they were playing it but I don’t know his name. I heard that he really liked it.
Why did you choose to put “Little Johnny Jewel” out as the single?
Everybody says that. It’s just that we figured it’d be something we wouldn’t put on an album. Plus, it’d be real obvious to do just two songs. It’d be just like another rock and roll single. We just wanted to do something that was sort of like a miniature album.
Television’s unique sound…
In the ’60s, if somebody had a recognizable sound, they were grabbed immediately, because they knew that’s what would connect. Nowadays, they’re all afraid of it.
The easiest way to describe you is to compare you to the Velvets.
Do you think we sound like the Velvets, really?
Yeah. If you had to be compared with anything, it would have to be the Velvets.
Even the soft songs.
Our drummer, though, is real Chick Corea-oriented. Sometime when you come, you should just focus on him for like three songs. He’s really an amazing drummer. I never really listened to him [but] I was listening to him on our single. He’s really got so many little things going.
He doesn’t drum like a rock drummer.
No. He doesn’t. Not at all. He’s really fantastic.
Last night, the first set, your voice was kind of lost. The second set, it came in through a lot.
Oh, I think I was singing too close on the mic. Was it real foggy? Sort of muffled sounding?
It was muffled and it was just … You were just toned out.
That was a toned-down set, matter of fact. The first set last night. All our first sets tend to be a little … You get the feel of a room. It takes a while.
Are you writing much new stuff?
Yeah. We did four new songs this weekend, I think. “Mi Amore” is new. that “Torn Curtain” song is a couple weeks… we did that at Max’s. That “See No Evil” song is new, the first one in the second set, that is sort of Velvety, I guess.
Yeah. That was pretty Velvety, which is okay by me.
I guess what it is really is the rhythm guitar/bass sound is sort of Velvet-y. They never really had any lead pattern going.
How did the group get together?
A year before we actually got together, the summer of ’72, I was going to start a band. The drummer was in Boston and I hadn’t seen him in about five years, so I called him up and said, “Why don’t we get a band together?” Nobody is doing anything. It’s all this crappy folk rock, country shit.” He goes, “Yeah. Yeah. I’m up for that.”
Then we looked for a guitar player and all we found was guys who played like Leslie West, or else they couldn’t play a strong rhythm guitar. We would have taken a guy who played really great lead or else a guy who could play really strong rhythm, but we couldn’t find either. We couldn’t find a really smart bass player either, so this guy Richard Hell, we were like best friends, so I said, “Why don’t you learn how to play bass?” I said, “I can teach you all this stuff. If you practice, in six months by the time we have a real tight set together, you’ll be good enough to play it. Because it’s putting your finger here and there. I thought it was that simple at the time, but it wasn’t that simple. He said, “Great.” He said, “Do you mind if I sing, too?” I said, “Yeah. What do I care?” It just didn’t work out so good. About six months later, we went and made this tape, and I really couldn’t stand Hell’s voice at all. I just didn’t think he could sing. Period.
How much was he singing?
At that time, every other song, we’d trade off. I’d do one, he’d do one, and this and that.
Then we had a big fight. Then the drummer left, because he was fed up with playing with a guy who couldn’t play. I started just going to these clubs and singing songs with an electric guitar, figuring that somebody in the audience would end up liking it, and maybe they’d want to play with me.
I did a set at Reno Sweeney’s one night. I was playing this Fender amp on 10. Just playing as if it was a whole band. They really hated me then. They’re all throwing water on me and really silly, stupid-ass stuff. But then this guy, Terry Ork, came, and a friend of his works with Lloyd. You know? Lloyd really liked it and Ork said he’s got some money, he can buy some amps and we can play in his loft. It was really Hell that wanted to do it again. He goes, “Look, this guy’s got a loft. We’ve got a place to play. We’ve got this guitar player and we’ll get Billy [Ficca] back.”
A year later, I didn’t want to kick Hell out, but we had already been playing with this other bass player. I don’t know if he got wind of it before he quit or not. It was just a matter of time. I kept cutting down the numbers he would sing in a set. I don’t know if you saw us when we first started, I used to stand at the side and Lloyd would be in the middle. Did you ever see us when we were like that?
No. Not like that.
It was a real weird thing, because we didn’t have any focus in the group at all. You do have to think about that kind of stuff of like, “Well, this guy is here, and this guy is here.” It’s got to look like something. Hell was always worried I was taking over the group, and I was getting fed up with his singing and he never practiced his bass and all this shit. We made tapes and his voice was … I thought it was really awful. Island Records thought his voice stunk and they thought the bass playing stunk. You know? It just became clear that we had to get more serious about how we were doing things.
Are you still friends with him?
No. He wouldn’t talk to me for about … He says hello now.
He was at the concert in July. He walked out and he was so high.
What about the mythology that you and Hell met when you burned down a farm together or something like that?
We ran away from school together and we were gone like three weeks. We were out in Kentucky and all.
When was this?
This was in ’66. We were in high school. It was this boarding school; he stayed at the school and I commuted to the school. The school was in my neighborhood, but it had some kids from out of town.
Was this in Delaware?
Delaware. There was like a dormitory there and all that crap. He goes, “Wouldn’t it be great to run across that field and not come back?” I go, “Let’s do it. Let’s do it, come on.” He goes, “Are you serious?” Then we got all hyped up. “Yeah. Let’s go. Let’s go.” I go, “I’ll call this friend of mine. He’ll take us down to the train station. I can steal some money at home.”
So I went home, got about $10 and we took this train to Washington D.C. It’s just all totally down and out. We had no money, eating stale peanut butter sandwiches and picking shit off plates. Anyway, like three weeks later, we were in Alabama, and we figured out we’d go to Florida for the winter.
So we’re in Alabama and there’s this drive-in movie. We were freezing. Behind this drive-in movie, there was this big pine forest, so we decided nobody would see us from the road, we’d go over there and start a fire and try to fall asleep and keep warm. So we started this fire. It wasn’t no big flame. It was just a little fire. Then the cops picked us up. We gave them phony names and all but somehow they traced us down.
We got all kinds of stories. For a while, we were attracting nothing but sadomasochistic women. For five, six months in the history of the band, we were attracting these girls who were really weird. Hell and Lloyd got in a cab with this girl one night. She’s not real well-known but she’s got a few books out and everything.
She puts her legs up in the stirrups of the taxi cab, the hand handles, and she starts laying all this stuff on Hell and Hell is just sort of looking at her. Lloyd was really getting into it. I don’t know what happened to … Lloyd told me about some of that stuff from that night. She loved to get tied up. There were a whole lot of girls like that, that were insinuating all this kind of stuff. I think that’s when we were real raw, when we were real killers. Now it’s gotten a lot better. For a while, it was a strange crowd.
Does Robert Christgau like the band?
I don’t know. His wife liked us. She was beaming. I don’t know if he really liked it. It’s really hard to tell.
I think he understood it but he doesn’t like to admit that he does because he’s afraid that too many people won’t and he wants to represent those people. He wants to represent the majority. He really does.
He really likes Patti, though.
Lester Bangs loves Patti. He’s done a big review for Creem.
What about Lisa Robinson?
Yeah. She really likes us. Both of them. Her husband, too. Yeah. She’s great. I really like her. She doesn’t really understand music at all. She knows a good sound. You know? She’s got a lot of heart. She knows something good when she hears it. She supports it. A lot of people like it but they don’t support it.
You guys like the Ramones?
That’s one band I haven’t seen.
You haven’t seen them, either?
Right. Well, you could probably get into Hilly’s very easily. Do you know Danny Fields at all? You could waltz in there very easily. Hilly lets anybody from any magazine in, because he figures it’s good for the club. The Ramones are just… [Imitates the sound of the Ramones.]
I used to play with that bass player [Dee Dee Ramone] at one time. He tried out for the Neon Boys, that band me and Hell and the drummer had. He was playing guitar. He came in. We were doing a lot simpler stuff than we’re doing now. I said, “Okay, this is a C” and he’d hit an F, and I’d go, “No, a C” and he goes, “I got you” and then he’d hit an A. God! [Now] he plays bass in the Ramones.
How did you get Television as a name?
Hell thought it up.
It is a good name. Yeah. It is dangerous, though, because some promo guy in a company that we sign with is going to want to pull the most corny stuff with it. I can see it happening now. You know? He’s going to put dials on the album cover. That’s why you got to get a contract that gives you complete control of that stuff.
You can get them. They break them. You can get them and they say it and then they end up fucking around anyway. You can get pretty good control. In the ’60s, the great … It was the San Francisco groups who started that stuff. The Grateful Dead wouldn’t sign until they had a contract that gave them total control of every detail. People want to get their fingers in it. This guy wants to put this on the album cover and this guy …
What company would you want to sign with?
I would have liked Island, but Island now may not release Eno’s and Cale’s albums? Did you hear about that? The thing about Island is that Chris Blackwell is great. He’s the owner. He’s the guy who started it. He loves Roxy. He loves Marley. He loves the Maytals. He loves Sparks.
I don’t think Sparks is ever going to make it. Have you heard the records at all?
Well, they really … Island really promoted them like crazy. Big ads everywhere. It wasn’t the right group to do it with. If they had done that with a group like us, they might have us in the charts. I do think we can sell records. A lot of people don’t seem to think so. I think they’ll be surprised … I don’t really think we’re that far out of the mainstream. Maybe we are. I don’t know.
Do you guys make any money on that magazine yet?
No. We’re losing at a pretty good rate. I don’t know how long we’re going to be able to keep up. We’ve only been doing it for two years.
How much does it cost now? A buck and a half?
There was one [issue] I missed. There was one I wanted to see.
The one with Patti on the back? Did you see that one?
Yeah. I saw. Who took that picture?
Our co-editor’s girlfriend.