Tom Verlaine doesn't talk much. A fiercely private man, he answers questions with allusive, elliptical statements that seem designed to complicate rather than illuminate the issue. When asked in a 2000 interview about the lasting popularity of his seminal '70s punk-art rock band Television's music, he replied, "It's sugar-free! Which of course limits the audience! Contains no artificial sweeteners! Which isn't to say that it's bitter." He's not aggressive, though, speaking almost entirely in a soft, half-amused voice that seems to come half from 57 years of wisdom and half from the 8-year-old kid from Delaware who still lives inside him. He always seems like he's slightly somewhere else.
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Patti Smith, in a recent New York magazine interview, says, "Tom Verlaine and Television were for me the most inspiring: They were not glamorous, they were human." I never saw it that way. The first time I heard Television's near-perfect 1977 debut, Marquee Moon, I was sitting in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike and I was stunned. There were parts I got—the ebullient harmonies, the striking lyrics ("The world is just a feeling you undertook"), and, most of all, that near-angelic guitar work of Verlaine and partner Richard Lloyd. Still, when I reached the end of the album, I felt confused, as though I'd just seen this ineffable, amazing magic trick. Television was never a band you looked at and said, "Hey, I could do that." You watched and listened and were amazed. How did they do that? It was beautiful, yes, but it was complex and somewhat unapproachable.
In the 16 years since his last traditional album—1990's The Wonder—Verlaine has moved even further afield. Granted, he's joined his former Television bandmates for a few shows and reprised his keen guitar work on Patti Smith's tour de force Horses for its 30th-anniversary tour. His passions, however, have led him in other directions. He's been listening to free-jazz icons Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman and researching the last surviving Shaker communities in the U.S. He's pondered how the sci-fi/philosophy book Flatland relates to composition and written scores for films by Man Ray and Cubist painter Fernand Léger. Most of what he's been doing, however, is working on instrumental pieces and touring with his guitar-jazz combo—1992's Warm and Cool (recently rereleased on Thrill Jockey with some extra tracks) presents a nice sampling of these adventurous and sometimes beautiful, largely improvisational compositions.
So he's into free jazz, avant-garde film, nearly extinct religious sects, and slightly cracked geometric philosophy. What he hasn't been into as much is rock and roll. Why? Verlaine answers the question with his usual concision: "Just lazy, I guess." But in 2006 Verlaine has been working hard. He's just dropped a good ol' rock-and-roll record on Thrill Jockey. It's called Songs and Other Things, and, yes, it begins and ends with instrumental tracks (similar to much of the work on Around, an instrumental album released concurrently that continues in the vein of Warm and Cool), but in between, it's all challenging, elevating, and passionate rock. If you close your eyes, you can almost see the young Verlaine, cool in the harsh spotlight of CBGB, playing notes you didn't even know existed, blowing you away, opening up the world to further exploration.
Smith famously described Verlaine's guitar playing as "a thousand bluebirds screaming," and while he's toned it down a bit in these later years, evidence of his virtuosity is ever present on Songs. Just turn to the dirty, blues-influenced lick that begins the sinister, sexy "Heavenly Charm"; the almost effortless, strangely Dire Straits–sounding "Blue Light"; or the smoke-and-mirrors tempo switching of the cryptic "Lovebird Asylum Seeker." Verlaine's still working that magic, and I still don't know how he does it.
And in place of the lyrical, yet wordless compositions he's been focused on for the past decade are the same kind of poetic, slightly off-kilter lyrics that made Television's two main releases and parts of Verlaine's subsequent solo records the gorgeous, maddening, inspiring classics that they are. In perhaps the best song on the album—the sinuous, metaphorical "The Earth Is in the Sky"—Verlaine deadpans over his bell-like guitar, "I've come to see that perhaps I've not said much, but when next we meet I'll untie this tongue of mine." After 16 long years, it's good to hear his voice again.