Tom Verlaine interview: the Rohauer collection

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This interview with Tom Verlaine was first published in November 2000.

For fans of the premiere rock group Television the thought of seeing Tom Verlaine perform live is like a dream come true. Even though Television broke up in 1978 they reunited for a recording and brief tour in the early ‘90s.

When Verlaine takes a bow this weekend in Houston it won’t be as part of a rock combo, but it’s unlikely that anyone will be disappointed. 

Verlaine comes to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on Saturday, November 18 to perform his score for silent films from the Raymond Rohauer collection.

The Rohauer collection is one of the finest assortments of silent film classics, feature length and short subject, in the world with over 600 films in its archive. Verlaine was contacted by Rohauer curator Tim Lanza with the proposition of scoring some of the predominantly silent films. 

“First it was for a couple of feature length films,” Verlaine says in a phone interview from his home in New York City. ” I asked ‘Do you have any shorts or experimental films?’ It offered the possibilities of multiple styles.” 

Verlaine had seen some of the films in the ’60s at the Museum of Modern Art, “Or somewhere in New York. As a kid I had the score for Ballet Mecanique, because it was one of the first pieces written strictly for percussion. It treated piano as percussion and it had a live airplane propeller and all kinds of sounds; Columbia issued a recording of it, by a composer named George Antheil. It was also a showcase for early high fidelity,” says Verlaine. 

While primarily known for his rock compositions, Verlaine has also scored the movie “Love and a .45,” which came out in 1994.

“It’s challenging and fun. For that film they wanted twangy guitar,” Verlaine says, adding that his interest in scoring modern films include more than guitars.

“That film vanished pretty fast and it’s a shame because it’s funny. It came out the same time as “Pulp Fiction,” and it had a lot of same kind of zaniness.” 

Verlaine admits that the tendency is to be stereotyped, and he gets locked into the role of guitar composer. “I have a bunch of keyboards lying around. Maybe I should do a record of instrumental string music,” he says. 

Television arose as part of the New York music scene that defined that city in the 1970s. That scene included Blondie, The Ramones, and Talking Heads, but even then Television was pointed in a different direction.

“It wasn’t heavy metal chords, and it wasn’t Eagles country slick rock. At the same time it wasn’t three-chord punk. Maybe a lot of younger players took a cue from it,” says Verlaine. 

Attempts to lock down exactly what the scene then consisted of are hampered by the usual interpretations (or misinterpretations) of the time and place. 

“So much of what’s written about rock is stupid,” laments Verlaine. “I don’t mean the people are necessarily stupid, they reference something they read before because they don’t know what to say about it.

“What’s disappointing is that some of these so-called encyclopedias of rock that have appeared in the last 20 years or so are for the most part inaccurate. One says that Richard Hell is playing bass on “Marquee Moon.” All they have to do is look at a record jacket,” says Verlaine. 

For the record, Richard Hell was an original member of Television but went out on his own before Television released the first album. (Hell is known for his own group The Voidoids and such songs as “Blank Generation.”) In the time it took for their first album to come to fruition Hell had been long gone.

Another false lead was the production of the first Television LP, itself a landmark record in the rock scene.

“When Richard Hell was still in the band, late ’74, a guy passing through New York from Island records caught the band. He thought we should do a record,” recalls Verlaine. “I said, ‘Well if you want to do a demo.’ He showed up in New York with a guy named Eno. I didn’t know who he was, he had just left Roxy Music. We cut a bunch of stuff in a studio for two days. The band just didn’t like anything about the way it sounded. Yet the label loved the way it sounded. Finally after six months of trying to get him on the phone they said they wanted to release it as is. They wanted to come back with Eno and record six more cuts.” Though Verlaine refused he still has a copy of that master tape. “Hell left the band shortly thereafter and we recorded the album in ’76, with Andy Johns [producing].” 

As to whether the LP “Marquee Moon” demands iconic status, Verlaine is modest. “I wouldn’t say that, but I don’t think about it that way,” Verlaine says. “But I see it charted on best of all time lists regularly so I guess that’s good.” 

The title song has been acknowledged by groups such as U2 for its influence. (The Edge was once quoted as saying his early guitar practice was spent copying Tom Verlaine licks.) “Marquee Moon” blends two guitars in a way that defies the song’s beat. The listener gets lost in its syncopation as the intro starts out with the two lone guitars, only to fall in place as the bass and drums fall take over the rhythm.

“It took a couple of minutes to syncopate the timing of the two guitars,” says Verlaine. “You don’t know where the downbeat is. The way the guitars start almost sounds wrong to some people. Then the beat falls in and you find out where it is.”

Verlaine played the initial guitar while Richard Lloyd played the second part. “Kind of like a James Brown horn part,” said Verlaine about Lloyd’s part. 

Robert Mapplethorpe, who was recommended by Patti Smith, shot the photography for the album. In short, it was a pretty exciting time to be living in Gotham. 

A club known as CBGBs, an acronym for Country, Bluegrass and Blues Club became a regular hangout for Television on Sunday nights.

”I don’t know if one band can create a club but we were certainly among the first ones to play there,” says Verlaine. “Television would play a set. Then a friend-of-the-owner’s band would play a set, a band called Leather Secrets. It was kind of a biker’s bar some nights and sort of a country bar some nights.” 

More recently Verlaine has released an instrumental LP “Warm and Cold.”

“I tend to write a heck of a lot of instrumental music. These days it’s so tempting to put something out yourself. A major label might love it but they say they can’t market it.” 

Verlaine allows that the score he performs for the silent films is structured, but with pathways for improvisation. He states that the key to scoring the music for the Rohauer collection was spending hours watching the films over and over. Catching the films’ nuances and moods.

“Always the eye is one the film, trying to follow the action,” said Verlaine. 

“There’s a certain style of improvisational music going around New York now where it’s just play anything with anybody. No key, this is really amazingly going on in New York in small clubs with about 15 people in the audience. There’s a real same-ness to it all. Ours is not that kind of improvisation.” 

Verlaine will perform the set as a duo with guitarist Jimmy Rip (who appears on many of Verlaine’s solo LPs). The line-up of films is as follows:

  • “Fall of the House of Usher” (1928), directed by James Sibley Watson. Rythym and multiple exposures are used to interpret this Edgar Allen Poe story. 
  • “Etoile D’Mer/Star of the Sea” (1928), directed by Man Ray, starring Kiki. Opaque imagery from the Man. 
  • “Life and Death of 9413 a Hollywood Extra” (1927), directed by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich. A day in the life of a wannabe actor, influenced by German Expressionism. Strange angles converge and dissolve as our hero wears his number on his forehead. Camera work by Greg Toland. 
  • “Ernak Bakia” (1926), directed by Man Ray. Made to conform to surrealistic dogma. 
  • “De Naede Faergen/They Caught the Ferry” (1943), directed by Carl Dreyer. Commissioned during WWII to make a film about safe driving, pantheon helmer Dreyer turns the story into an evenly paced road race between a young couple on a motorcycle and Death.
  • “Autumn Mist/Brumes D’Autumne” (1928), directed by Dimitri Kirsanoff, starring Nadia Sibirskaya. Poetic essay featuring a woman walking alongside a lake at a park, leaves falling from a tree into the lake, and her memories.
  • “Ballet Mecanique” (1924), directed by Fernand Leger. From the fragmented esthetic of Cubist painter Leger, this film is considered one of the most influential experimental films ever made. The editing is more rapid than the other films in the series and the images play with our conception of space and form. Camera operated by Man Ray. 
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