Television on Print: A literary conversation with Tom Verlaine
Tom Verlaine is one of the most legendary and enigmatic figures to emerge from New York's underground. The only match for his smart mouthed lyrics is deadpan delivery, which only adds further creedence to his mysterious reputation. While mainly known for his seminal work in Television, Verlaine has had a prolific solo career, some of which was revisited (and visited) last year by Thrill Jockey's reissue of Warm and Cool. 2006 has found Verlaine presenting his first records since 1992 with the simultaneous releases of Around and Songs About Other Things. Dusted's Jane Kim sat down at NYC's Strand Books to talk about something other than music...
Tom Verlaine: I was trying to think of the first book I ever read, and the one I remember is this thing called The Tawny Scrawny Lion, and in this book, the lion is running around eating anything from elephants to gazelles, and the animals all team up and say, “Let’s tell him about this rabbits’ den where there are fat, juicy rabbits hanging out by the hundreds.” And so the lion goes to this rabbit den, but he’d just eaten… and the rabbits say, well, you can eat all of us, we can’t outrun you, but first, let’s go catch some fish. So they go catch some fish, and when the lion gets hungry, they grill the fish up really nice. The lion gets really full, and he realizes that if he eats the rabbits, he’ll have no one to cook for him and he’ll have to chase everything around again. In the end he’s still fat, and all these rabbits are sleeping around him and feeding him all this fish and carrot stew. And I was wondering why I remembered this. As a kid, what was the message?
Jane Kim: I feel like it’s a pretty highly moralistic tale. Because the lion ends up sitting on his ass, unable to achieve his initial goal of eating the rabbits.
TV: But no, the lion is the king, he’s got all this food delivered to him every day.
JK: Maybe it’s just a placating tale of compromise. Compromise between brute power and survival.
TV: Yeah, that’s there for sure, especially to a kid. To me, I think, the message was, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Like if there’s some bully stomping around the neighborhood in third grade, there are other ways, other possibilities. And it also became a song, and there were these records made of yellow vinyl, do you remember seeing these? They broke really easily. And there was a record of The Tawny Scrawny Lion.
JK: Did you read a lot? When you were a kid?
TV: No—My folks had an encyclopedia, and they had a book of the month club thing. I didn’t even go to a bookstore til I was in about 6th grade. I went to this department store, and there was a corner bookstore in the department store, and until then I didn’t really think you could buy books; I thought books were only in libraries.
JK: Did your parents buy you books as presents?
TV: I asked my folks for a book for Christmas. And they got me the first and only Mega-History of the Abominable Snowman, including reports of the Sasquatch in Washington state. That really did something to me, that there might be these monstrous beings in the woods by my house. There must be, because there were reports in Seattle and Ohio too.
JK: At what point did you start developing an obsession with books?
TV:There's no obsession with "books" per se but when I was young...well in fact..even now!...I felt so inarticulate that when i read a great description of anything anywhere...it was really inspiring. When I was about twelve, Someone told me about this place called the Book Barn; this was a barn literally filled with books. And I thought, 'holy mackerel,' I didn’t know places like this existed. And I bought this paperback on jazz for two cents that I thought was amazing. I’d already started liking jazz at that point. And later, my high school girlfriend and I were going there every couple of months. One thing I found there was this book called Zen Bone, Zen Flesh. This was the first kind of paperback, I guess in the late 50s, of zen poems. And this was where I thought, this is how I think. Everything about this book was all a big “Aha” to me.
TV: The other book was a Kerouac paperback, I think it was Big Sur. Everyone in my generation was reading Kerouac.
JK: I think for us it was Catcher in the Rye, by Salinger. Except that I think I read it too late. It was supposed to have a big impact, and most of my friends loved it. But I ended up just being irritated by Holden Caulfield’s screwed up grammar. I read it at the end of high school, or at the beginning of college—
TV: You were too old...
JK: Yeah, it’s a coming of age novel, but I’d already come of age! In any case, I was much more into the classics. Dickens was probably my first favorite author, the one that got me into reading.
TV: I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever read a classic.
JK: They’re not very useful. Although there’s something to be said for reading the important cannon books. I think a lot of people just read them to get them under their belt. And in the end, unless you really end up connecting with them on some level, I think they just become things that you can say you’ve read.
TV: The only thing I remember coming out of school liking was the shorter poems of William Blake.
TV: Of which there were very few in the anthology we were reading, until I went out and found some more.
JK: Was it Songs of Innocence and of Experience
JK: The illustrations that come along with those poems are fantastic.
TV: I think there happened to be a Blake show up at the Tate, in London—I went down there not knowing what I would see. It must have been one of the top ten art things I’ve ever seen.
JK: The Blake reproductions are really good. I have a really cheap copy.
TV: Is it a Dover paperback?
JK: No, it’s not—do you like Dover Thrift?
TV: Dover is a pretty interesting thing.
JK: They’re really aesthetically unappealing—
TV: They’re a real bargain, the prices are ridiculous.
JK: —but I have to love them, because they make literature so accessible. There’s no reason not to love them, I think.
TV: Speaking of Dover books, there’s this book, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, by this guy named Ananda Coomaraswamy. He was at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and he started publishing in 1920, lectures and essays on Asian and Indian art, and I guess Dover reprinted these sometime. That was a really interesting book for me, because even though I didn’t understand aesthetics or any of this type of thinking about art, there were ideas in this book that were somehow inspiring to me. And it came out later that he was really important to people like John Cage and a lot of the abstract painters, because he was coming out with things that people coming out of European art studies had never encountered before. So even in the 30s and 40s, these things were being looked at.
JK: How did you start working at the Strand?
TV: I needed a job. And someone said, well the Strand is always hiring.
JK: And where did you work?
TV: At the time, the Strand was half the size it is now. Where the fiction is was the back wall, and of course there was no second floor. In the basement, where all the review books are now, there was fiction. There were piles and piles of it on the floor. And I think I worked a year packing books. We had mail order stuff. They would bring it down, and we would throw it in a box, tie it up, and send it off.
JK: Now there’s a whole separate shipping department.
TV: Oh wow, really? Back then it was two people. But then, working there, just working in the shipping thing, I noticed books as I put them in boxes. So I don’t know if they still do this, but they used to give employees books for half off—
JK: Yeah, they still do. That’s the only draw, really.
TV: Yeah, so I would buy books then.
JK: Did they have the dollar carts outside at the time?
TV: There were only a few. It’s amazing those carts are still there. Where else in the world can you find little gems for a dollar?
JK: We end up putting some really good stuff out there.
JK: Do you read theory at all? Is it something you avoid consciously?
TV: I have European friends who are masters of theory—
JK: That devour it?
TV: Yeah, and who are amazing at it, and I’ve had looks at it, I’ve had moments of it when I’ve found it exciting, but it probably makes up less than 10% of what I’ve read in my life. When I was living in England in the 80s, I read a Lacan piece.
JK: Lacan is tough to get through.
TV: It’s almost like a state of mind that you need to get through it; you could almost call it a wild poetry.
JK: It is, it is.
TV: But it only lasted two days, I think, and the rest of them I had no patience for at all.
What’s his name, Derrida, these people I found almost… I can’t get through them.
When you’re living in Europe, in an atmosphere where you see the tradition of that, and the respect for it—
JK: A respect which you came to?
TV: It had a nice effect, but I was almost adolescently negative about all of it, but then eventually I thought it something that was interesting in its own field, but not for me.
I did read a little bit of Marxism, when I first got to New York, And I thought it was amazing. Emma Goldman, I think was her name. I don’t retain much of it.
JK: I think theory is incredibly masochistic. So you have to get into it and feel the pain, and I think I embrace that. But it’s certainly not light reading.
TV: My whole thing was, what was the motive for them to do all that, to write all this? There’s a certain kind of tortured mind behind it all, you know, about somebody that spends their life doing that. There’s this Blakeian thing about making your own system or getting enslaved by another. And that might be the whole thing behind that kind of thinking. So through the same kind of language, or specialized abstract nouns, they find something, you know.
JK: I think they’re questing after something, and it takes them thirty years to find it.
And when they die, they’re often left with a huge body of work, but there doesn’t ever seem to be any satisfaction.
JK: Do you read any contemporary lit? What do you read, what do you enjoy?
TV: Like novels? Well, people in the late 80s would say, that song of yours called "Song" is like a Raymond Carver story. So eventually I would read a Raymond Carver story, and didn’t know what it was talking about. I kind of liked it, but I don’t think I own any Raymond Carver books. The only novels I’ve read in the last three years are by this guy Houellebecq. He’s this French guy, totally outrageous. A combination of Celine, and…you have to read it, it’s insanely sharp and cynical. There’s probably a copy of The Elementary Particles back on the fiction shelf. And this Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer – every so often there’s a new translated thing, which I always enjoy.
JK: I take issue with a lot of the fiction coming out these days.
TV: I wish I read more contemporary authors. But I have to say, I’ve been disappointed each time I’ve picked something up. I don’t know if it’s the state of writing today, or if these are all people that come out of writing schools. There’re these massive novels of a young guy plowing about L.A. or a young girl running around New York, and there’s all the same attitude, all the same cheeky crap.
JK: Well, yeah, exactly. And a lot of it seems to take the form of a confessional memoir. You know, “I don’t have much to say about the world, so I’m going to talk about my life.” So people like Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, even Dave Eggers, these people that are celebrated these days, I can’t read. There’s something so self-indulgent about it.
TV: And that’s the good side of it—
JK: Yeah, and those are the good ones…I picked up each of their first novels, and read the first page of each one.
TV: That’s what I did.
JK: And what is it about them that I dislike? I don’t know, exactly. And that frustrates me even more.
JK: I also can’t seem to read biographies.
TV: You have to read a good one. I’m always looking for music bios. But if you’re a musician, you read things about yourself though, and see so many things that are wrong, that you have to think, how correct can it be?
TV: This guy Sullivan wrote one about Beethoven, about both his life and his works, which was really good. A very soulful book. And there’s a book about Ravel, which I thought was really good.
JK: Do you like the classical musicians? Or do you like reading about them?
TV:I think the composer's lives are interesting to read about sometimes. Like I was writing music when I was a kid, and I didn’t want music lessons, I just wanted to write music. I went to conservatory, and I quit, because the teachers were such… they wouldn’t let you write. I had to go home and play these really tedious exercises on the piano. So then I took up the sax, because I figured, “Well, I don’t have to write it down, I can just play it.” That’s what jazz is. That’s what all these composers did, they improvised. They were at a piano, and were improvising or hearing a melody, and working it out on the piano. And Beethoven, being deaf, would hear it and then write it out. Being able to hear these intervals perfectly in their minds—it’s kind of a really beautiful and amazing thing.
JK: So Beethoven, Ravel, you like. Wagner?
JK: And Wagner?
TV: I’ve never liked Wagner. Although I was thinking of the first piece of music that I heard that kind of sent me out there, and it might have been a Wagner piece, or some bombastic symphony, filled with drama.
JK: You don’t like that? It’s so majestic, rich.
TV: Wagner? Nah. Even when I was a teenager, I was finding Wagner too…
JK: Too melodramatic?
JK: I think you have to buy into the melodrama if you’re going to like it.
TV: Well you still have to have a feeling for it. I don’t have a feeling for what he’s doing, whereas with Beethoven and there’s a Ravel piece… they’re more towards some personal ear for beauty. Well, Ravel didn’t write too much, but there’s a Pavane for a Dead Princess, that’s really beautiful.
JK: There’s a Ravel piece called Tzigane that I played for a long while, that’s great.
TV: You played violin?
JK: Yeah, for fifteen years.
TV: Wow. The late Beethoven string quartets… those to me are right up there. They really do it for me.
JK: I don’t really like quartets. But have you listened to the Shostakovich quartets? The No.8 is one of the only quartets that I can say I really love. Dissonant, but not heavy-handed.
TV: I don’t mind dissonance. I don’t like German 1930s dissonance, like Schönberg. I wanted to like it, but I can’t say that I ever did—stuff with no semblance of structure. After the war, it became more interesting—Ligeti, and some Polish stuff, like Penderecki. It still seemed to have a lot more humanness to it.
JK: So a lot of musicians write; do you write?
TV: I write.
JK: Or is that a more painful process?
TV: No, writing’s… I don’t sit down to write, but I write. I should sit down to write, I used to sit down to write, but now I just take notes here and there.
JK: I amass things too.
TV: Most of it’s real dribble.
JK: Yeah. Well, I think in the end, everyone seems to be obsessed with collecting or amassing things. The obsession that comes with finding something to collect, such as books, which I have a huge number of. That obsession, I think, is really satisfying, because it feels productive to have so much of one thing that you feel you’re specializing in.
TV: Would you sell them? Like, if someone offered you—
JK: I’ve never sold anything.
TV: What, really??
JK: Wait, what’s the…why do you sell books?
TV: The way I look at it, when I’m in London, I amass three pretty hefty boxes of books in a year and a half, things you’d find there that were two bucks that were never published here. And five years later, they’re still sitting around in my apartment, and I think, well, I haven’t read them yet, so should I put them in my storage locker, what do I do with them? So every few years, I sell off boxes of stuff. But that might have to do with age, because I won’t have time to read any of it.
JK: Trading makes more sense to me. Although, for me, when I buy a book, it’s to keep. Because ownership is still important to me. So that’s the satisfaction.
TV: What’s your zodiac sign?
JK: Taurus. Why, do we collect?
TV: Yeah, you like to hold on to things.
JK: What are you?
JK: What does that mean? I don’t know zodiac signs very well.
TV: We’re much more chaotic.
JK: That’s funny, because I have a lot of books that I don’t want to let go of, but I can barely even sign a one-year lease.
TV: How are you going to move around with so many books? How many boxes did you have yesterday when you were moving?
JK: Many, many boxes. Yes, there are many books on my shelf that I haven’t read yet. But I have hope that I’ll read them all. I’ll tell you when I’m fifty.
TV: One thing about Gertrude Stein. There used to be this guy who had this poetry and rare bookshop in the West Village, and he had the largest Gertrude Stein collection in the United States. I used to go over there. And one time he was like, I just published a Stein book. And he gave me a copy—it was called Motor Automatism. It’s these two essays she wrote in the 1890s about automatic writing—I looked it up on Abebooks last night, and it was selling for fifteen bucks, which I guess isn’t so bad for what it is.
JK: That would be really interesting—
TV: And I remember reading it and—was she friends with William James, or the James family, at the turn of the century?
JK: Yeah, she was a student of William James.
TV: I think the essays were written for the Psychology Review.
JK: That makes a lot of sense. It’s a strange hybrid of writing and psychology, automatic writing. Do you still have that book?
TV: Actually, after he gave me that book, I bought five more copies. I think they only published a thousand of them, or something. And I’ve been giving them away for years.
TV: I guess Breton was also involved, and also intrigued by automatic writing.
JK: Of course. The Surrealists were really interested by that. Have you read any Breton?
TV: When I first got to New York, I read Nadja.
JK: Oh yeah, we talked about that earlier. Nadja’s one of my favorites.
TV: I actually want to reread that.
JK: I tried, last month.
TV: Was it good?
JK: It’s not that it wasn’t good, But it’s a really intense novel, and it doesn’t pick you up and take you along. I think I needed to read it all in one sitting.
TV: Also, I really love the love poems of Eluard.
JK: Oh, Eluard is great.
TV: Of all the people from that time, I like him most.
JK: Have you read the manifestos from around then? Those are great, because they’re really bombastic and full of themselves, but they don’t try to make it beautiful at all. There’s this book called Manifesto: A Century of Isms, by Mary Anne Caws.
TV: Oh, I know her, she’s good.
JK: Yeah, she’s published some good stuff.
TV: She’s one of the critics that I actually like.
TV: She wrote this book on Rene Char; the joke in France is that he’s the genius of the century because no one can understand him.
JK: Are you sure that’s not Gertrude Stein? Anyway, you should try the Manifesto book—the energy of each individual manifesto is incredible. They all have such passion. And in the end, they’re like nice little packets of condensed energy that the individual writers might have felt at that time, and if you’re lucky, you feel that when you’re reading them too.
TV: Like a charge.
JK: Yeah, like a charge.
JK: Ok, so best dollar book.
TV: I have to say that the best dollar book I ever found was this book called God Struck Me Dead. It’s this collection of 19th century narratives by slaves, farmworkers who had in their own words set down these tales of these inexplicable things where some great force or some great goodness came to them and changed them. It’s a really interesting book of narratives. Very interesting—you should check it out.
JK: That’s the thing though, chances are you can’t find them again.
TV: I’ll pull one out for you if I see one.
By Jane Kim