We interviewed Television’s Tom Verlaine (it didn’t go so well)

He’s no Lou Reed, but Television’s Tom Verlaine can be a notoriously difficult interview, as DAN STEWART discovered while struggling with a poor Skype connection in a work bathroom. Did we mention he wasn’t allowed to ask any questions about punk or CBGB? Well, there’s that too. Television will perform their classic album Marquee Moon at All Tomorrow’s Parties “Release The Bats” in Melbourne next month.

I set Skype up on a pile of empty boxes in the bathroom of work. It was Wednesday afternoon and I was to interview Tom Verlaine about his band, Television. The week before I’d taken the day off work with the joint purpose of convalescence from a late night and the convenience of a quiet room to Skype in, but Mr Verlaine had declined to accept my friend request and I’d sat in the comfort of my bedroom very alone, waiting to ask him about the imminent Australian tour.

Following this unfortunate afternoon, Mr Verlaine and I became temporary Skype friends and he was able to reschedule right in the middle of my lunch break. My brief was pretty straight forward: no questions about punk or CBGB, focus on “music, art, literature, cultures”, and mention the excellent All Tomorrow’s Parties, the festival at which Television will be performing the entirety of their first LP, Marquee Moon.

Marquee Moon is a record to listen to many times if you like the sound of the guitar. I think hearing it first as a “New York punk record” would probably spoil its rare power, and I think this is the introduction most people get. I was fortunately given a fanatical introduction, told to listen to it specifically as something post-Velvet Underground – in the same manner as one would listen to Rocket From The Tombs or the Modern Lovers. And I was also given fantastic visions of the friendship of Tom Verlaine and former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, these two beautiful and sensitive young men with rich poetic sensibilities coming of age in a decaying New York, in love with that city and Baudelaire and Rimbaud and guitars.

At the time I was partial into all the above, so it was a very important record for a number of years and I was looking forward to discussing this record, happy to stay away from punk and CBGB and enthused to discuss the finer points of culture. Were I reclined on a plush burgundy rug in some book-lined study, and not in the bathroom of my work, I may have been a little more effective with my line of questioning.

Verlaine speaks very directly, with that rich New York drawl, and in our time on the phone laughed often – often and openly at me. After a very rocky start, during which I was convinced I’d be hung up on and ATP would receive an email full of harsh invective about my idiotic bumbling, we managed to have a decent chat. We had only 20 minutes to talk in, and a great deal of this was occupied with attempting to deal with “technical difficulties”. But I think you can get a sense of his relaxed and well humoured manner, which should convince you to fly to Melbourne and watch his band and give him some money so he can go to China.

Television now (from left): Fred Smith, Tom Verlaine, Billy Ficca, Jimmy Rip

Hello Tom – can you hear me?

[inaudible grunting]

Fucking Skype. Sorry mate.

Don’t turn the visuals on. I don’t need to see you.

That’s fine, I just can’t hear you. Let me move around. Can you hear me?

[Sound of a plane taking off]

Can you hear me now?

Yes. I can hear you.

Yeah, Skype. Pain in the ass.

Well, at least it’s free, right?

I’ve been asked to stay away from questions about punk and CBGB. My friend Al wanted me to ask about what it was like recording with the Neon Boys, but you don’t have to answer that.

I can’t hear you again.

Fucking Skype. Can you hear me now?

Yes. What did you say?

Don’t worry about it. Let’s start with questions about literature. Have you read a decent book this year?

You know what? I’m going to have to come back to that question.

OK. Well, let me throw one at you: obviously you shared literary tastes with Richard Lloyd [former Television guitarist]. Do you share any such dynamic with Jimmy [Rip, Television’s guitarist for the past decade]?

What? Dynamic? I don’t quite know what you’re asking.

I mean, do you share taste? In books?

[Awkward pause] No.

Tell me about Jimmy.

Jimmy, we did a couple tours of South America, went to Japan twice, Korea, a bunch of shows here and there. It’s fun.

What are the kinds of books and films that you guys agree on?

[Longer pause] We don’t watch films together.

“I actually don’t know much about literature”

No, I mean one aspect of Television I’ve always liked is how you openly shared a mutual fascination with, for instance, Rimbaud. Has that carried onto your relationship with Jimmy?

My relationship with Jimmy? What? A fascination with Rimbaud and Jimmy? [Awkward laughter]

No no no. Have you carried on a mutual fascination with any literary figures with Jimmy, as you did Richard?


That’s a hell of a convoluted question, I know.

[Silence] It doesn’t make any sense to me, to be frank [laughs].

Can you hear me?

Not too well. The transmission is really garbled I can only hear one word out of each five.

This is embarrassing. Let me try again. Tell us about All Tomorrows Parties, you played there in England.

I haven’t found it to be very different than any other festival to be honest with you. So … I mean, I haven’t had any troubles with anybody.

When you were asked to play in England were you asked to curate any of the films they were showing?

No. I didn’t know they showed films.

OK, so they show films as part of the deal, occasionally they ask a band to hook that up. So because I’ve been asked to question you about film, if you were asked to show a film at ATP, what would you show?

Well, there’s a brand new film by a Hong Kong director named Johnnie To. His new film called Drug War. It’s a great, straight-ahead drama. Shot in China, mainland China rather than Hong Kong. I might be wrong, but it concerns mainland more than Hong Kong. Very tough film. Very good.

Have you seen the Chinese film Unknown Pleasures?

No. Never heard of it. I’ll have to check it out. I’ll look into it.

Any new American films that you’d recommend?

I haven’t seen an American film in 10 years. Honest to God. The last time I went to an American film I lasted about 20 minutes and I went to the box office and I said, “You’ve got to give me my money back, this film is absolute crap.” They gave it back to me, I couldn’t believe it.

What film?

Some explosion car chase thing. It was so bad I couldn’t even remember the name of it. Some 40 million dollar film that made 80 million dollars.

Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith

Have you seen any Australian film at all?

For years my favourite director was Peter Weir. I thought if I ever finished my film script I’d get it to him, I thought he was really top notch.

Tell us about your film script, I didn’t know you were doing that?

[Protectively] I’d never tell anybody while I’m working on it [laughs].

Well, you hadn’t seen an American film for 10 years, what kind of films were you watching in that period?

I would say almost 95 per cent Asian films. With YouTube and DVDs floating around, it’s a whole world of film I never saw.

Any other directors you’d recommend?

The Japanese guy Seijun Suzuki, the guy Tarantino stole everything from. All these film titles jumble in my head til I can’t remember anything. Let me try and find a DVD here. [Garbled noises]

I was curious about how your reading history developed. I’m interested in how people who become very interested in poetry at a young age, where do they go from there? Does that make sense? What do you read now, compared to when you were younger? By way of explanation, I think you had a sense of a literate sensibility when listening to a Television song…

That actually isn’t true [laughs]. I read maybe 10 poets. When I was really, really young I was interested in Chinese poets. I don’t have any aesthetic things about poetry, about what it should be and shouldn’t be. One of the first things I read was one of these Chinese poets, when I was 13, 14, it was so plain, I thought it was really amazing. The girlfriend I had when I was 17 had some haiku poetry in English and I was really impressed with that. And later on when I got to New York I got some anthologies of French and German poets translated, but I take issue with the literary world, it smacks of being academic and knowing so much about literature. I actually don’t know much about literature, I don’t like literary theory, I don’t like reading reviews of books so much. There’s a couple books about poetry that I think are really inspiring, there’s a book I read in 1970 called From Baudelaire to Surrealism. That’s a really good book, the guy writes really inspiringly about poetry, not in a dry way. I really like this guy. His name was Marcel Raymond. French poetry. That pointed me to a whole world of writing that I knew nothing about. That was really interesting. When I was a mere youth, that is.

I suppose I should ask you, before we finish, you mentioned Chinese poetry and Chinese films, have you done any travelling there? What is it about that area of the world that interests you?

I have tried to go there. I tried to do book shows there, but the government brings in certain things, which are multiplatinum acts. I wasn’t able to get a show there that would even pay for the flights. It was really tricky.

Well, thanks very much for talking to me.

Ah, I’m still trying to think of a book I read.

Yeah, let’s get back to that one.

It’s about China by a Chinese person, it’s called China In Ten Words by Yu Hua. Look it up.

Dan Stewart plays in The UV Race and Total Control, who are both on the All Tomorrow’s Parties “Release The Bats” bill. Full lineup here.

Television ATP sideshows

Saturday, October 26 – ATP @ Westgate Entertainment Centre, Melbourne

Monday, October 28 – Fly By The Night, Fremantle

Wedensday, October 30 – Enmore Theatre, Sydney

Friday, November 1 – MONA Museum, Hobart

Tickets are on sale now here.