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I wrote an extended version of my interview with Jane Birkin in which she talked about Serge Gainsbourg, motherhood, and the subversive legacy of Je T'Aime.

This Case Is Closed: The Enduring Enigma of Tom Verlaine

One of the great punk records is Marquee Moon by Television. Of course, that's a contradiction. There's nothing punk about Television really, except that they appear at the right time, in the right place, and Richard Hell is briefly in the band, and he has some claim to be the inventor of the punk look, with the spiky hair and the safety pins. But there is only one TV in Television, and Hell is gone long before Marquee Moon appears.
Marquee Moon doesn’t need a category. It’s a record of jagged imagery in which the voice is a nagging shadow and the guitars - of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd - do the talking. Patti Smith compares Verlaine’s guitar to a thousand bluebirds. What they are talking about, I still can’t fathom. Marquee Moon is a timeless mystery.
I talk to Tom Verlaine on the phone. This is probably better than talking to him in person. On a transatlantic phone line there is an excuse for the delays and the hesitations and the awkward silences. We are talking a full decade after Marquee Moon, and Verlaine’s solo career has been patchy. There is some talk of record company problems, of unreleased albums, “due to the whims of particular people”.
Verlaine is spiky.
“Have you mellowed?” I ask him.
“I wouldn’t use that word,” he says.
“Are you less alienated?”
“I don’t know what it means to sound alienated,” he says. “Do I sound like a screeching reptile?”
I ask about New York. “The city is, I guess, my home,” he says, "but many of the things that go on there are a bit … Oh, I don’t know how to put it.”
He adds, almost warmly. “My father was born in Glasgow. This is a little known fact, but it’s true. He moved at the age of two months. But my grandparents had the Scottish voice, so when I hear a Scottish voice I think of my grandfather.”
“Your real name is Miller?” I ask.
“Yup. Actually, if you want the real story, my real name is Russian, because my great grandparents were Russian. They went to Scotland to work in the coal mines. It’s Miller … I can’t tell you how to spell it. M, I think A, L, I, R - things got changed - and then with a Scosvich on the end, so it’s like Maliroscosvich. Curiously, in the last 10 years, every time I see films of Russian people, there’s a recognition that I can’t explain, and I don’t know what it means. But I’m more at home in New York than I am anyplace in America. Do I feel relaxed? Sure.”
“But your music often isn’t.”
“But I don’t think music should be relaxed,” Verlaine says. “I think it has the options on all sorts of things. There’s a lot of things it can do.”
I suggest to Verlaine that there is a sense of distance in his songs. He sounds surprised at the thought.
“Me? Well, I think the two big issues in life are pursuit and distance. Those two things are in there. I wouldn’t say I pursue distance, though.”
“Nothing is known about your private life,” I say.
“That’s about right,” says Verlaine.
“And that’s how you want to keep it?”
“So it would be a waste of time asking.”
“Well, it depends.”
“Are you married?”
“Have you ever been married?”
“Do you ever want to be married?”
“Em, I think I was married … here it is … I think I was married sixty times for approximately a minute and a half. That’s a very high moment.”
We talk about motivation. He has more of it. We talk about skill. He has more of that too. These two things are complimentary, he suggests. “If you can get somewhere in 20 minutes, you’re more motivated to go than if it takes five hours.
“Actually,” he says almost absent-mindedly, “I never saw much glamour in it, remembering how I started.”
We talk for a while about the start of Television, and their first record, Little Johnny Jewel, which came out in 1975. It is the strangest record, a single that was too long to fit in a seven-inch 45. There is speculation that the words are a tribute to Iggy Pop (real name James Jewel Osterberg), but when Verlaine ventures to explain it he refers to a person living in a greater state of freedom, someone like William Blake.
“I think it’s one of the earliest rap songs,” Verlaine tells me. All I can remember about that is wanting to have two simple chords to play a solo on, and having something very - I don’t know what the words is - rhythmic, to do a talk on. We threw it together and started recording it right away.
“We were pre-punk. It’s ironic, because I never cared about it. It was always ‘here’s a solo, uh-oh, away you go’, have a cup of coffee and play it. Coffee and cigarettes have been major contributors to the style. Also, I came out of playing saxophone and piano rather than guitar. I didn’t have a guitar as a kid, so I never learned how to play the guitar or rock’n’roll. I just learned how to play.
“That seems to have been the difference from a lot of guitarists. A lot of guitarists play by imitating records. I started with the piano, and I really liked jazz, so I took up sax. Then I had always written little things, and I thought if I played guitar I could sing and play; it would be a good combination.”
Back then, Verlaine never listened to rock. His brother would play Motown, but he was happier with John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. “I felt like a kindred spirit to that sound.”


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