Rock 'n' roll has produced few mystery men as inscrutable as Tom Verlaine, the guiding light behind the seminal art-punk rock band Television. Early on, CBGBs compatriot Patti Smith sealed his fate as a keeper of secrets in an October 1974 issue of Rock Scene when she wrote that Verlaine's "long veined fingers" were "reminiscent of the great poet strangler jack the ripper."
Since then he's been leaving a trail of unsolved cases that have infuriated fans and critics for decades. How come the only official release of Television's twin guitar epic "Little Johnny Jewel" was on a 45 you had to spin both sides to hear in its entirety? What were the arms of Venus de Milo doing on Broadway, on "tight toy night" no less? What the hell is a "tight toy night"? Or "Yonki Time"? Why did Verlaine release an album called Cover and then never put the title anywhere on the cover forcing Warner Brothers to make a sticker? Did he think we wouldn't get the joke? Would it have sold more copies if he'd named it Sticker? Why didn't Richard Lloyd show up for his own farewell concert in Central Park last summer? Why did so many of his brilliant solo records go unnoticed?
All admittedly dumb queries but nonetheless ones that will remain unanswered as I'm only allotted 15 minutes to chat with Verlaine by phone and under direct orders not to talk about the "old days." Fine by me, since I'm not up to interrogating one of my musical heroes as if he were an enemy combatant last month's free concert in Central Park, where Jimmy Ripp filled in for a bedridden Richard Lloyd, would seem to be the last word on Television for a while.
And besides, there's plenty else to talk about. There's uh, light bulbs. And this latest project he's undertaken with guitarist Ripp, who has played on and off with Verlaine since 1984 when he cowrote the college radio hit "Five Miles of You."
Taking time out from a late afternoon rehearsal, Verlaine seems relaxed and nonplussed about what is essentially a low-key, low-pressure project, scoring new instrumentals for old European silent films ranging from Brumes d'Automne, a 1928 character study of a woman who burns some old letters as her memories come alive on the screen, and Ballet Mécanique, a 1924 short by cubist painter Fernand Léger that the American Film Institute called one of the most influential works in the history of experimental film. (Not your typical tying-Pauline-to-the-railroad-tracks silent fare.)
"We've been doing this show since 1998 in various museums. Not more than three a year," Verlaine says. "We did it in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, but we've never been able to do it in Hollywood. It's like there's no venue there that wants to do it. It's really strange. We've never had an offer."
That the film capital of the world wants nothing to do with Frenchmen obsessed with shapes and turn-of-the-century chick flicks should probably come as no surprise. Maybe it's the way that people watch films today with one on hard-drive, the other on iPhone that makes silent films seem so problematic.
"Could be," he laughs uneasily. "I don't know what people do anymore. So many people have grown up playing video games they're so used to things jumping like crazy all the time. I don't know if they have the patience to watch a film that doesn't do that."
One of the few American films featured, The Life and Death of a Hollywood Actor, owes much to German expressionism and avant-garde French cinema. "When you see it," Verlaine says, "you see a lot of little special effects and most of this is from cardboard bottles director Slavko Vorkapich's made and shot in his kitchen. So the creativity going on there was really pretty amazing. The whole film cost $96 to do.
"And there's a horror film based on Edgar Allen Poe's story The Fall of the House of Usher, which is really actually kinda spooky."
Had Verlaine been a longtime fan of these films?
"No, I hadn't seen any of them in my life except the Ballet Mécanique I saw in the '60s." Verlaine was tapped to add his creative fire to these early experimental films by the Douris Corporation, a foundation in Columbus, Ohio, and the exclusive worldwide distributor of the Rohauer Collection, one of the largest and best collections of film art. The prints that the Douris Corporation have provided for this show are in excellent condition and a DVD of the films with Verlaine's soundtrack is due out in the fall. (The show's called Live in Concert: Tom Verlaine & Music for Film.)
"I guess I don't know how these copyrights work," he says with some puzzlement. "I guess anyone can take these films and throw a soundtrack on them and sell them. I actually saw some of them on a cable TV show one night with some kinda noise band playing a soundtrack. I think they were more or less using it as a background to throw noise against."
As for his own recording career, he ended a 14-year drought with a pair of albums on Thrill Jockey last year. "I've gotta start another record late summer. (Pause) It's so hard to know what to do everything's so damn different now. Basically people are just saying don't bother doing a CD. Make some tracks at home and put 'em on the Internet. Don't bother going to a studio. You can do this or that and it's all going to be this one giant database of sound.
"Just getting used to the sound of digital stuff is a whole different ballgame. It's exhausting to mix digitally; after two hours I don't want to hear it," he laughs. "Even if it sounds good it just sounds bad. Nothing like listening to tape, which actually contains much more detail."
Once during an interview, Byrds founder Roger McGuinn explained to me that the difference between digital and analog sound is like the difference between an incandescent light bulb and a fluorescent one. The fluorescent one is cycling, going on and off 60 times per second. But the incandescent bulb, because the coil is cooling down, still glows. Similarly, digital sound fools your ears that it's continuous sound but there are holes in it like 44.1 thousand times a second.
Verlaine suddenly perks up. "It's been proven that digital sound makes people more irritable. They've actually done tests on people who listen to CDs for two hours and it's not good for your nerves. Just like fluorescent bulbs. Did you hear Australia has this legal movement to get rid of light bulbs because they're not as energy efficient as the flickering jobs? But they don't realize fluorescent lights have a poisonous gas in them. If you break a fluorescent light you get that white powder, you don't want that crap anywhere near you. You don't want to breathe it, all that shit's going in the dumps where is all that powder gas going? Christ!"
"These movements to get rid of light bulbs, it's like going digital too."
Suddenly I realize I'm talking light bulbs with the guy who put one on the cover of his 1994 instrumental record, Warm and Cool. And silent movies with the guy who wrote, "I remember how the darkness doubled." For the moment all would seem all right in the world ... fluorescent gases notwithstanding.
Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Ripp perform with several films, starting at 8 p.m., Friday, July 13, one show only, at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237.
Serene Dominic is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]