I HAD wanted to ask Television’s Tom Verlaine about his recent collaboration with David Bowie. For the latest Record Store Day, Bowie released a cover version of Verlaine’s Kingdom Come (with the New Yorker’s original as the b-side). However, Verlaine doesn’t wish to discuss his famous chum. Instead, the notoriously media-wary singer and guitarist is determined to steer our exchange in a direction of his choosing.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. From the moment Television emerged from the New York underground of the mid-1970s, Verlaine has not played by anybody else’s rules. His band’s arch, angular debut album, Marquee Moon, was an instant classic — but rather than build on that early success, Verlaine has steered a highly individualistic route. Pandering to fans and critics, he has made constantly clear, is not a feature on his agenda.
He is also ambivalent regarding Marquee Moon’s status as a classic of new-wave rock and a touchstone for generations of pallid young indie bands. The group have been name-checked as an influence by U2, Franz Ferdinand, Pixies and others. Verlaine isn’t sure if that is a compliment he wishes to accept. “It’s not really for me to say,” he demurs. “Actually, I’ve heard very little of those bands.”
Marquee Moon’s place in the pantheon is assured. Bono has named-checked the 1976 LP as a personal favourite; Rolling Stone and VH1 shortlisted it as one of the greatest albums of all time. However, it was also a one-off. Escalating drug use among some of Verlaine’s bandmates destabilised the group and their second album, 1978’s Adventure, was unfocused and unforgettable. They broke up soon afterwards and did not play again until 1992. They would never release another long-player.
Verlaine has a theory as to why Marquee Moon is so highly regarded. It has less to do with songs than aesthetics: the record is taut and understated, in contrast to the blousy style popular in the mid ’70s.
“In terms of less distorted guitar tones, some guitarists like it for sure,” he says. “We aren’t a ‘blues-based’ band. We weren’t bashing a lot of big chords through every song: a lot of it was intricate, though in a minimal style — like piano or violin.”
Verlaine has stated on many occasions he does not wish to live in the past. Nonetheless, he looks back fondly on mid-’70s New York, where he was a contemporary of Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Blondie and others. Above all, he recalls the city as extraordinarily welcoming of impoverished artists — in contrast to Manhattan’s modern incarnation as playground of the one-percenters.
‘The ’70s were easy in some ways. My rent was $35 a month — so I’d quit a 40-hour a week [day job] by 1971. Nowadays musicians have to have real jobs and live two or three to an apartment just to get by. Low rent means time for solitude — minimal time at unwanted jobs. It gives you the freedom to develop things more.”
Television are regarded as laying the ground-work for punk. This isn’t strictly accurate — their music was too nuanced and accomplished to sit comfortably alongside the New York Dolls or Sex Pistols. Verlaine feels he must shoulder some of the responsibility for the misapprehensions.
“One of the first interviews I ever did was around 1974. I told the journalists we were punks — meaning sort of ‘non-bullshit’ guys. We didn’t care about glam rock or any of that show-biz stuff. The term meant nothing to me in application to music then. I suppose it’s a genre — it’s descriptive of an ‘energy’ but doesn’t speak to to any sounds or styles we ever played.”