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Music Consumption: Tom Verlaine
12/04/2002 Tom Verlaine: Music for Film

I'd forgotten about this review, which I'd been working on but got too busy to finish. We're almost a year after the event itself, but here it is. Three years ago, I got a chance to see the Columbus show, which was one of the first film soundtracks shows, if not the first. (New York may have been first...in any event, it was the first time I saw Tom live.) If I had to compare the two, I'd say this latest show was significantly better than the 1999 show, due to more spirited playing, better tone, and a seemingly more relaxed Tom.

We brought a few friends along to this one, one of whom was a recording buddy who's been listening to Tom about as long as I have, and this was a first time for him to see Tom as well. The show was publicized a bit, but it didn't seem to have quite the general market awareness that it could have had. Nonetheless, the room gradually filled up--pretty much every hipster in Pittsburgh was there--so I was glad that we came early. We went down to the front seating row, which was the second row (the first row had been taped off, as Tom and Jimmy were seated directly in front of it), and my recording compadre and I went to the center to check out the gear.

Jimmy's using what looks like the same Strat he had in Columbus, as is Tom. Tom's FrankenStrat has the sanded-down body (or possibly an unfinished replacement body), a Jazzmaster neck (headstock finished in a kind of greenish-gold, probably an aged original finish) and actual lipstick pickups. Tom had the Tube Screamer, plus some other effects I don't recall at this remove (a lost opportunity, I know...I also should have checked out Tom's string gauges to see if he's still using heavies); Jimmy was using the Ibanez Modulation delay, a Line6 DL-4 delay modeler, and a Line6 distortion modeler (the yellow one), among other effects.

The big news--and one of the main contributors to the evening's high quality--was that local shop Pittsburgh Guitars had donated matching Fender DeVilles for the night. As a result, both Tom's and Jimmy's tones were much, much better than they were in Columbus (Matchless and Line6 then, respectively).

Considering our fine vantage point, we opted to sit in the middle, right between Jimmy on the left and Tom on the right. Unlike Columbus, they were facing the screen, backs toward us, and they weren't on any stage (although it looked as though one had been set up to the left of the theater)--they were right on the floor in front of the first row of seats, close enough that Tom could easily have swung around and nailed me with the FrankenLectroStratMaster had I yelled out a request for "Yonki Time" at the wrong moment. About the only other tragic flaw with this position was that I was going to spend the evening with my neck craned up so I could see the screen.

We had to wait quite a while before things got underway. While I'm not sure of the reason for the delay, it worked out--the room filled up with scene makers, and I got a chance to kibitz with a local musician who currently books one of our higher profile clubs. (By the end of the evening, I was offered a chance to curate two evenings of electronic music for a festival they're doing there in January--an interesting benefit to fandom.)

Etoile d'Mer

This soundtrack begins with Jimmy providing volume swells as Tom states the peaceful theme. The theme occasionally goes into relative minor, but resolves back to major again. This being a Man Ray film (another one of my heroes), there's not what you'd call a narrative--in fact, there are moments of inversion of typical relationship films (Kiki--Man Ray's lover at that time--disrobes in her room before a male suitor, who...leaves. Rather amusing in the moment.) And most of the film is shot through rippled glass.

The B section is more of a minor figure, with a bridge that reminded me of the Byrds in super slow motion. Occasionally Tom's soloing pokes out, and in peaking revealed his TONE--we were really listening to Tom Verlaine live.

Eventually, the next section features train wheels, and Jimmy's train whistle and wheel scraping sounds really fooled me--for a moment I forgot that we were watching a silent film with a live soundtrack. Jimmy kept the DL4 repeats high enough to allow for a bed of noise, while Tom played pizzicoto notes over it.

The following section was a more ambient version of the B section, minor, but consisting more of volume swells than plucked notes. This gradually became more microtonal and dissonant, with a menacing air. Both Tom and Jimmy are masters of the slide, I'd say. Ultimately, this section resolved into a restatement of the main meditative theme, dissovling into more volume swells, until it culminated in a final restatement with long sustain. Quite beautiful.

The Fall of the House of Usher

This film for me marked the return of the film library theme of ascending chords that Tom and Jimmy played in Columbus, although they were a bit less playful with them this time. I should also mention that while in Columbus, Tom signalled his readiness for the next film with a low-E hit, this time he waved a pocket flashlight on the darkened screen. Each time he'd wave it in a different playful pattern, and this first time he turned around slightly and said to the audience, "This is our light show." I took this as evidence of Tom's good mood.

The soundtrack to this one was creepy as I'd remembered it, much more toward the dark ambient than the others. Both Tom and Jimmy did dissonant volume swells, with Jimmy doing the bong-bong-bong hammer strikes symbolizing the actual disintegration--he struck his fist on the upper horn of his Strat. I recall him using the Ibanez delay for this in Columbus, but didn't hear it in evidence at this show. Tom's own sound varied between these dissonant swells and dark, loud low notes with amp tremolo. Lots of delay on this one.

Ultimately Tom played a creepy obsessive minor key figure on the low E string while Jimmy struck the Strat body again, some more volume swells, and then that dark tremelo figure again, before dissolving in further swells. The film itself is your classic German Expressionist take on the story, perhaps a bit heavyhanded in places, but then again Poe doesn't necessarily invite a light touch.

Man, Tom and Jimmy are versatile, I must say. Someone seriously would benefit from contracting them to do a feature film. (But make sure the studio has Fender amps.)

The Life and Death of 9413--A Hollywood Extra

This was a welcome interlude of lightness after Usher, even though this film is a black comedy. Hey, at least it's a comedy. Tom's theme wasn't quite as "happy bumpkin" as I'd remembered it, and in fact the bridge to this theme was quite moving, revealing a great compassion for the film's lead character.

Emak Bakia

Some fine rocking moments, stronger than I'd remembered, with the added bonus of Jimmy's well-timed pick drags for the collar-ripping sequence. Afterwards the lights came up, and Tom announced that there'd be a few minutes of intermission so that the reels could be rewound. He then rapidly made his way up the aisle, presumably to avoid having awkward contact with the fanboy contingent.

They Caught the Ferry

While the minor E-string driving theme is the one I recall most vividly (and it's still one of the all-time great riffs), I found that the relative major theme for the earlier part of the drive is also a fine one, and it was during that moment I realized how happy I was to be there at that moment, hearing this playing. It's that good.

(Later a fellow audience member observed to me that there's a bit of a resemblance between Tom and the hearse driver in this film. Hmmmm.)

Autumn Mist

More atmospheric, a cooling-down piece after the aggressive film before it. Very pretty, but there's not a whole lot going on in the film, and the music consequently tends more toward the ambient.

Ballet Mecanique

At this remove it's hard to recall all of the parts of this soundtrack, but it began with Jimmy playing a fast U2-ish delay riff, with Tom laying melodic solos over the top. A fine climax to the evening. The lights came up, Tom and Jimmy stood and gave quick waves and half-bows before disappearing. A great evening indeed.

01/16/2000 Tom Verlaine: The Miller's Tale

While I have everything from the studio disc on either vinyl or CD (mostly vinyl), the live disc is well worth hearing, in the absence of a commercial release of the Ritz show from the previous year. I've heard tell that this has been deleted, but you can still pick it up with some effort.

11/20/1999 Tom Verlaine: live film soundtracks

I managed to realize a longtime desire by seeing Tom Verlaine perform live. This was at a program of live improvisations of soundtracks to avant garde silent films from the 20s and 30s--a favorite era and milieu for me, since I'm also a fan of Man Ray, two of whose films were on the bill. Never having been there before, I have to say that Columbus is a nice town, and it's an extra bonus to have friends there.

Saturday night we were at the 7:00 show at the WexnerCenter in Columbus, Ohio. Tickets guaranteed admission, but not necessarily good seats, so we showed up early. After a bit of a wait outside the theater in the center's lower level, we saw Tom come out with Jimmy and Tim Lanza, walking swiftly past the crowd on some errand or other. Tom's really tall. There's no mistaking him for anyone else, and he doesn't look like someone who's about to turn 50.

The theater was smallish--maybe holding 200 people max--and covered in neutral gray carpeting. I picked an aisle seat in the third row, which turned out to be an ideal spot. There was a low stage at the front with a video monitor on the floor at center stage, two amps (Tom: borrowed Matchless combo, Jimmy: Line 6 combo) on chairs, chairs for Tom and Jimmy, guitars (Tom: sanded-down Strat with chrome-plated pickup covers and no vibrato arm that I could see, and a blond Tele he didn't use; Jimmy: Strat), and assorted effects (mostly a bunch of Boss and Ibanez stuff; Tom was using a Tube Screamer, and Jimmy had an Ibanez modulation delay; others were hard to identify as I didn't want to get too close and make anyone nervous about the gear).

Tom didn't really acknowledge the audience much, addressing all his comments to Jimmy or Tim Lanza. Between films he'd take a swig from a coffee mug, retune, and introduce the next film with a low-E hit and the ascending jazzlike arpeggio. With each film, the arpeggio would be made strange in some way--heavy vibrato, Jimmy playing "wrong" chords over it, etc., making it seem like an inside joke of sorts.

Etoile d'Mer

This one began with technical difficulties. After signalling the projectionist with a low E hit, Tom's guitar cut out. It turned out to be the Tube Screamer--Tom borrowed Jimmy's, they rewired, cracked a few inside jokes, and got going again.

The soundtrack to Man Ray's surrealist relationship parable began with wistful sparse, sad lines. Very Warm and Cool-ish. As a Man Ray fan, I was looking forward to this one, although the film-through-rippled-glass effect gets a bit old. About halfway through, the film segues to a journey by train, to which Jimmy supplied the wheels-on-tracks sound (muted strumming through the Ibanez delay), and Tom put in some surprising Roy Buchanan style pedal steel licks. For some reason, I'd expected Tom's volume swells to be from a pedal, but no--just pinky on the volume knob. The man's a master.

Fall of the House of Usher
Creepy as you'd expect, this one featured lots of slide and digital delay--very "dark ambient." Tom laid in some screeching slide work (shades of "Break It Up"), and Jimmy did some guitar-as-percussion in time with the recurring hammer motif of the film. Tom also banged his slide between the neck and upper horn for extra creakiness. Overall, a heavy atmosphere of dread, and rather unlike the stuff Tom's known for. I'd definitely like to see this one released.
Emak Bakia
Man Ray again. A 3-chord rockin' tune, with Tom holding down some leads that verge on Hot-Rod/Surf territory. It occurred to me that this is definitely the guy who once said that "Music from the Twilight Zone" was his favorite LP. At times I wondered what he might do if there were a full band behind him on this one. Jimmy did an amusingly appropriate pick-drag for the ripping of the collars section.

They Caught the Ferry

Again, 3-chord rocking tune--Track 7 from the Cambridge MA Middle East show from October 98--with a low-E and -A based lead from Tom. Someone needs to release more of this guy's instrumental stuff. Definitely cool music to hang out to, and I've had it lodged in my head since. I can imagine this film getting infuriating if left completely silent, but the soundtrack's ascending changes built tension perfectly in what would otherwise be driving-around-the-countryside scenes.
Autumn Mist
Wistful sad music to go with a post-breakup meditation. Excellent mood music.
The Life and Death of 9413--A Hollywood Extra
This began with happy-bumpkin-in-the-big-city music, kind of like a parody of "Boulevard." Whenever the lead character moved his lips, Jimmy did a Peanuts-style wa-wa-wa-wa talking effect. The ending of the film--involving the afterlife--featured some of those creepy etherial slide whoops.
Ballet Mecanique
For some reason, a blank in my memory, but I do have recollections of swirling delayed melodies.
No encore; Tom seemed happy or at least bemused by the sustained applause, but certainly in a hurry to get out of there. Needing a smoke before the next show? I've talked a lot about Tom, but Jimmy impressed me greatly also. I don't know if I'd say he has a distinctive sound (certainly I wouldn't be able to pick his playing out unannounced), but I would say that he's very versatile. What I've heard on record with Tom didn't sound like the blues solo tune I heard on the radio once, and neither sounded like his performances in the soundtracks. The playing chemistry between those two guys is impressive (to me, anyway).

While I did have a connection to the guy who loaned Tom the Matchless (co-worker of a friend), I didn't get to meet Tom or Jimmy. I did hear that there was an emergency last-minute run for patch cords, but that's about the extent of the gossip that filtered out to me.

For tone-heads on the list, I'd say Tom's tone in this show was definitely more toward the Warm and Cool side than the hotter, edgier tube overdrive sound (Ritz 1981, or even track 7 of Middle East 98; see above). This may have been due to the Matchless, which was more powerful than could comfortably be cranked, I think. The overall volume level was perfect for me--I didn't need to put in the hearing protectors.

I'm really glad I went to this--definitely catch the performances closest to you, if possible, and rope other people into it, too. My wife counted it as one of the peak live music entertainment experiences she's had--truly entertaining. And we've both sat through enough experimental film to know how sorely some of it needs the kind of structure these soundtracks gave it. Well done.

05/18/1998 Tom Verlaine: Tom Verlaine

Forced Exposure is selling a German reissue of Tom Verlaine's debut album. While "Yonki Time" is a joke, and "Mr. Bingo" is just ok, the rest of these tunes are essential.