The Miller’s Tale
By Monica Kendrick
Scenes–dramatic, romantic ejaculations of zeitgeist–have been all the rage ever since Sir Thomas Malory decided that King Arthur’s court might have been a really cool place to hang out. There are those who dream of smoking opium with Byron and of being there when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein on a dare, of jouncing along in that big ol’ beater down Route 66 with Jack and Neal. Boiled down to the raw bones of legend and art, stripped of hunger and hangovers and all those days when nothing much happened, it all seems more exciting than our own lives–and easier and safer than creating something memorable ourselves.
One of my favorite scenes, the underground rock world of New York in the 70s, has recently taken on a lot of cachet. Whether or not this is when and where “punk” was invented, well, that’s for social historians to arm wrestle over; I’m inclined to believe that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins invented it, and the rest is just a cyclical urge to return to basics. But plenty of music that came out of that place and time still sounds great, and to pin it like a butterfly to a subculture-specific phenomenon is to do it a grave disservice. When punk got a name, it became a commodity, and now 20 years later it has at last become profitable.
There are plenty of problems with scene obsession, foremost among them that the vicariously minded drift like dandelion fluff toward spectacle–Johnny Thunders’s rigor mortis, Dee Dee Ramone’s ex-girlfriend turning tricks–and pass right over all those tedious hours spent writing and rehearsing and recording. That’s what’s never mentioned in the gossip books or the fashion spreads: ideas may happen by accident, but art never does, and the grunt work is rarely glamorous. Oh, sure, there’s the moment when it catches fire in front of an audience, and it can look spontaneous–but it isn’t.
I’ve always liked Tom Verlaine because he’s never pretended otherwise. As manic and raucous as Television could get onstage, Verlaine never hid those long teenage hours in his boarding-school bedroom struggling to decipher Coltrane solos (even briefly attempting to play the sax), and he’s known to be a studio perfectionist. Combine that with his side projects as a poet and his legendary reclusiveness and you have all the makings of someone likely to be called a pretentious snob, particularly by those who have a stake in defining punk as narrowly as possible. Very possibly he is a pretentious snob, but if that’s what it takes to create a record as radioactively beautiful as Marquee Moon (1977), then so be it.
Verlaine’s passive-aggressive stance with regard to the possibility of celebrity (the booklet for this two-CD anthology, The Miller’s Tale, prominently quotes him as saying “I never really had any illusion about being commercial”) has always been part of his charm; there’s something unbelievably sweet about someone who at one point must have believed that simply making good records would be enough. It worked in England–the two Television studio albums went top 10 in 1977 and ’78. They never dented the top 200 here.
In the very early days of Television (which as everyone now “remembers” was the first rock band to play CBGB) Verlaine and original bassist and cowriter Richard Hell embodied a creative tension between perfectionism and punk chaos, a tension that Verlaine appeared to take upon himself when Hell left. You can hear it plainly enough on Marquee Moon, and it becomes even more evident on the posthumous live release The Blow-Up (ROIR), where Verlaine stops worrying about the clarity of the mix and his occasionally god-awful voice, and points his guitar toward the stars.
It’s something he’s done all too infrequently since–without the raw foil of someone like Hell or Television second guitarist Richard Lloyd, Verlaine seems frightened of his own powers. Not that his solo records are bad–they’re all quite good–with lovely unexpected melodic twists and sophisticated wordplay and just enough sporadic flashes of great to make you want to shake him. Liner-note writer Clinton Heylin (author of the refreshingly intelligent From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World) and whoever compiled The Miller’s Tale are well aware of this and have wisely chosen to present Verlaine’s career as a matter of polarities.
The first disc is a fiery live performance from 1982 in which everything comes together as it should: his band hits just enough notes to keep the pop songs from falling apart, and Verlaine’s strangled, still strangely adolescent voice becomes a perfect vehicle for thwarted passions while his guitar expresses the real deal. The second disc is a compilation of studio material: one track each from the original Television albums (“Venus” and “Glory”), two and an outtake from their 1992 reunion album, and the rest from Verlaine’s solo oeuvre (including several more outtakes).
Some of the choices (both omissions and inclusions) are so inexplicable that I suspect the mercurial Verlaine of doing all the choosing himself–maybe out of a hat. “Words From the Front” is every bit the eerie tour de force I remembered, with Verlaine completely at home in his terrified-young-soldier persona, dread in every note. “Five Miles of You,” with its bittersweet tension between ambivalence and desire, is maybe the most beautiful of all Verlaine’s love songs; and the segue between the last verse (“Walking out in the wind and light / Before me I see only you / Walking out in the wind and light / Into the mystery of you”) and the final choruses, where Verlaine’s guitar and voice well up out of the rhythm track, is one of the most transcendent moments in postpunk pop music. There are other great picks here too, but there’s also some dross–there are fascinating songs on The Wonder but “Stalingrad” is not one of them. Oddly, none of his instrumental work is here, not the gorgeous “The Blue Robe” from Dreamtime (1981) or anything from the all-instrumental Warm and Cool (1992).
Of course anyone familiar with an artist’s body of work is going to have quibbles with any given compilation, and if the purpose of this one is to present a primer, it serves well enough. It boosts Verlaine’s unjustly neglected status as a pop craftsman and offers up tantalizing glimpses of his mad genius. Interestingly, it doesn’t cash in on his status as an O.P. (Original Punk). Verlaine might have made himself at home onstage at CBGB, but he was never at home with the way that scene was defined after the fact. He was a musician’s musician in a scene that was often antimusician, never given to behavioral excesses in a scene that came to demand them, and he is still an introvert in a business where extroversion pays. When his old flame Patti Smith dragged him out of his cave to play on her comeback tour last summer, he lurked in the wings so much that some who saw her show claimed to have heard him but not seen him at all.
They say history is written by the victors, and the history of rock outside the mainstream is no exception. As much as punk originally might have been the refuge of the unfashionable, awkward, and weird, it has been resold to the chic and shapely at high prices many, many times over. That process was already well under way by the time Television broke up in 1978. Since then, Verlaine’s own victories have all been artistic, arguably moral, and somewhat Pyrrhic–the history he helped to create has largely been told by others, and this version, which may be as close as he’s come to his own telling, is available only as a British import. There’s nothing inherently antiglamorous about Verlaine: he’s good-looking, he dresses well, and when I saw him on his only other American tour this decade (the short-lived Television reunion) he turned out to be rather charismatic. It’s just that he understands the game either not at all or all too well.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Album cover, photo of Television by Lynn Goldsmith.