MARQUEE MOON RISING
Legendary New York band Television are about to make their first visit to Australia, to play their landmark 1977 album Marquee Moon in full for ATP's Release the Bats festival. The band's Tom Verlaine tells Christopher Hollow they might even bust out a version of Sink the Bismarck too.
“A shit-stir? What’s that?” Tom Verlaine asks, laughing. “Shit stirrer. It must be a colloquialism; I’ve never heard that one before.”
Despite his ornery reputation, it’s a real pleasure to talk to Verlaine from his Manhattan apartment. His custom is to do his rare interviews late, around midnight, New York time. As expected, he’s tinder dry and funny and loves talking music, not necessarily his own. He also enjoys put-ons and this chat includes random references to Johnny Horton, Pavarotti and melatonin.
“Interviews are not always fun,” he says. “But, in retrospect, they’re always funny.”
This one is very true to form. Following our chat, Verlaine sends through a photo (right). “Make sure your editor puts this in with the article [no worries Tom - Ed]. This little fellow seems to be have been arrested in 1924.”
I heard recordings from your shows in Argentina where the audience, en masse, is singing along in full voice with Marquee Moon and the other tunes too. Not to the words but the guitar parts …
It was really kinda thrilling. It was funny at first and then just thrilling. I wonder if they sing along with the Ventures, if they ever play there. I never expected it and I don’t expect it again [Laughing]. It was very interesting.
Are you surprised by the way people in different countries respond to these songs?
Well, I guess, if they like the songs, I like them.
In Australia, you’re playing Marquee Moon in its entirety.
We’ve never done one show with all the songs. We’ve done all the songs in different sets in different shows but not as a kind of concert.
Do you think people would notice if you slipped in Glory, Foxhole, Always or Breakin’ In My Heart?
Well, I think if they’re buying a ticket then they really are listening. You never know what’s going to happen but I wasn’t thinking about it.
Marquee Moon overshadows your other work. Are you OK with this?
I don’t know. You sound like a doctor, you sound like a psychiatrist [Laughing]. I haven’t ever been on a shrink’s couch.
Isn’t that part of the Manhattan experience? Doesn’t everyone have a shrink?
Maybe it was before my time. I think that was in the 1950s. I think that’s Woody Allen’s generation.
What’s the song that you still connect with most, emotionally? I do sound like a shrink!
[Laughing] Yeah. Well, it’s the song we left off Marquee Moon, it was a cover version of a song called Sink the Bismarck, which was a kinda honky, country, rocky tune by a guy named Johnny Horton. He had two big hits – Sink the Bismarck and North to Alaska – both those songs are very dear to the Television guys. We thought it wouldn’t quite work on Marquee Moon so we left it out. We’re thinking of doing a 20-minute version in Marquee Moon because that’s the real Marquee Moon is that cover song, which really says it all about us.
You’re taking the piss…
[Laughing] Not me, no! I’m sorta yanking your chain. We couldn’t put it on the record and we sorta forgot about it but with our new guitar player [Jimmy Ripp], he plays it so flawlessly that we were thinking we should do it like the secret Marquee Moon song.
What is your favourite cover version off Marquee Moon?
My favourite cover version? Hmmm. Believe it or not, Echo and the Bunnymen did a cover of Friction. It may have been recorded live and it was a b-side or something in the 80s. That was a really, really good version. That guy [Will Sergeant] really got the guitar bits down and the guy [Ian McCulloch] sang it really well. I was most impressed with that. It wasn’t just like a bashed out, one-take thing. It sounded good. It sounded really good.
Who would you like to hear do a cover?
Well, I would’ve chosen Ray Charles and I would’ve written a song for him but I always thought I wouldn’t be able to write a song good enough. Now he’s gone and it’s too bad for me. Even if he’d been the slightest bit interested you know. I think he could’ve done a good version of Kingdom Come and I also think, strangely enough, he could’ve done a good version of a song called Swim. It’s the last song on the record called Cover. It’s almost like a "50s song but I think Ray Charles could’ve done that really great, somehow.
What’s the last record you bought?
Well I just got a record via a friend via eBay. It’s a Chinese record from the 60s, just a woman playing solo pipa. Do you know that instrument? The thing it most resembles is a banjo. It has a guitar-y kind of sound. It’s usually played solo but there are people who have written music to back it up and, in recent years, you often see people doing pipa concerts with a piano player. There’s tons of it on YouTube. The record I got is by a young woman but there’s a master of it, I can’t remember the guy’s name. Actually, no, it’s a woman. I’ve also got a Chinese record of their one-string violin instrument called the erhu. If you look that up on YouTube you’ll find this older guy doing concerts that’s really amazing.
If we were to come over for dinner, what’s the song you’d play?
There’s a Brother Jack McDuff live record and there’s a cut called Rock Candy. It’s a very up-tempo jazz organ instrumental and that’s definitely on the Prestige label. That’s a really great, instrumental jazz thing. It’s at least six minutes long, maybe more.
Jazz is always brought up as a big influence for you but surely surf music should be too?
No. ‘Cause I didn’t get into surf music until the late "80s. I didn’t know that stuff. Guitar just didn’t really cut it with me ‘til about "65 or so. Up ‘til then it was saxophone music and some classical music, occasional soundtracks, even some electronic stuff. Then, I sorta started to like guitar, but I more liked songs, it wasn’t that I liked guitar so much as songs that somehow got me to take certain rock things more seriously and actually like listening to them. So the early era rock n’ roll, I didn’t know anything about until the late "80s when I would pick up records for a dollar here and there. As a kid, I would listen to Mozart string quartets, Ravel and then it was more jazz stuff because there was a jazz radio station late at night that I could listen to in my bedroom. I would put the one speaker radio next to my head and fall asleep to jazz.
But the solo to There’s a Reason [off Tom Verlaine] definitely pays homage to the Sandals’ Theme From Endless Summer, right?
There’s a funny thing. I just heard about that record two days ago. God, who mentioned that record? I haven’t heard that record. They said, ‘Oh, you have to hear it, it’s really unique.’ Even taking away the ocean, surf element from it and listening to it, they said it was a really unique record. I can’t say anything about it; I hear it’s good though.
What can Tom Verlaine do that Tom Miller never could?
Wow, you ever take melatonin when you fly to different countries? It works pretty good against the time zones, but some people are taking so much of this crap that they’re hallucinating. It’s really crazy. Some people take 10 milligrams at a time. I don’t even take a single milligram and it kinda makes me snoozy. Good thing I didn’t take any tonight so I could stay awake for this interview.
[Laughing] You’re loving this interview!
[Yawning] Uh-huh. Excuse me.
You’re just going through your Woody Allen schtick…
Woody Allen is a genius, you’ve got to hand it to him, he’s a genius.
The live album on A Miller’s Tale is one of my all-time favourites … does it hold up for you?
That’s an ugly story. That was illegally released and never paid for. To this day, they don’t pay a royalty or a dime on it. It’s crazy considering it’s on a major label. So when I go to England in November, I’m going to hire a lawyer and basically cut a deal where he gets a big piece of it, if he can get any money out of them. That’s kind of a sore spot. On the other hand, the extra cd in it, with the odd songs that I recorded in England, I really like a lot. I just wish they’d paid me for it.
Jimmy Ripp plays on that live record. He’s been with you, off and on, for a long time.
Yeah, a long time. Since "79, "80, maybe "81.
He came to Australia in the "80s with Mick Jagger. He did the full-on Keith Richards pirate act. Was he taking the piss?
[Laughing] I don’t know, you should ask him. That’s a really good question for him, actually.
What did you think of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles?
It was good, light read. It was a good airplane read. I thought he certainly never needed to do that. The very fact that he did it, I thought was kinda nice. Of all the people who are writing books about their early days, the tone of that one, in many ways, was the nicest one. The general tone is so upbeat and considering how much he went through with different people, bad managers and creepy things, I thought he did an okay job. It’s not cynical or complaining or poking fingers at anybody. It’s kind of a cool book.
What about Richard’s book – I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp – has your interest been piqued?
Well I get people in Manhattan all the time asking me about it. I haven’t read but for a couple of pages. That was enough for me, I kinda knew what to expect with that one. What I read was not opposite to Dylan’s tone, it seemed to be a book that somebody wrote for money and they also got to vent all their little things in it as well. But, like I said, I only three pages here and one page there and I thought, ‘Oh, I see what this is’. One page, I was surprised he got historical facts wrong. I thought, ‘Gee, he got that kinda mixed up’. I mean, I know what his frustrations and his, you might say, his problems have been over the years. It’s not really the book I want to read. Maybe in 10 years [Laughing].
What criticism of your music do you accept?
If I were to read it, I’d probably accept it all.
People have asked you to play guitar on their records. What about sing?
Pavarotti asked me to a duet records with him. Pavarotti’s rehearsal guy said I was an excellent tenor voice. But, you know, as much of honour as that was, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Plus my Latin is bad, my French is bad, everything about opera with me is bad, so … but I think that was the only time. Well, there was some other singers that asked me but I’m not going to talk about it.
What’s the weirdest place you’ve heard one of your songs being played?
Hmm, the weirdest place. I’ve never heard one of my songs being busked. I can’t remember an anywhere place.
I hear the Andy Warhol Museum is booking you to soundtrack some of his films.
Yeah, that’s the kinda thing I love to do. I guess they found some hours of footage of his and Dean Wareham is putting together this program of people playing along with short films. They’ve booked three or four art museums. That’s around a year from now I think. That’ll be fun. My contributions will be in the vein of the instrumental records I’ve put out.
Tell us about one of those instrumental records, Warm & Cool.
That was when I finally got smart about the music business. I actually own that record so not only did I make the money back instantly, but actually paid the rent with it for a few years. That record was something I always wanted to do, but I never had the opportunity with a major label because they had no interest in it. But when I got off Phonogram, I thought, ‘Here’s the chance to do that kind of thing’. That record was literally recorded in one takes, except for one which was two takes. I think it was all recorded in one night and maybe two hours the follow day. It’s great to make records like that. My favourite tracks on that are Spiritual and I like the little bouncy melody on Boulevard. And the first cut on that record [“Those Harbour Lights”]. I like all of that record still.
You produced Jeff Buckley. How do you feel that your name is now linked with Jeff Buckley’s?
I’m not aware that it’s always linked with him. I mean people, in interviews, always ask about him. He was a great guy, great singer, great songwriter. I thought he was the one guy of that generation that was really super-gifted, to tell you the truth. I don’t know anyone else that was like him.
Jeff Buckley and Australia had a special bond. We were the first to give him some big success.
Yeah. I knew it. It’s true. He would mention Australia a few times, not about a special bond but he asked if I’d been there, I said, ‘No’ and he said, ‘Oh, it’s a really great place to play.’ Etc. etc.
What are you expecting from Australian crowds?
I’m not expecting anything. I just hope they don’t throw shit. There’s certain countries where sometimes people throw shit because they think it’s friendly. It’s not fun.
ATP's Release the Bats festival, featuring Television, the Breeders, Sleep, the Scientists, Fuck Buttons and more, on Saturday October 26 at the Palais Theate, St Kilda, and the Prince Bandroom, St Kilda. The event is now sold out. Details here.