In an ideal universe, all rock albums would be titled "Adventure," or at least would try to live up to that label. To Tom Verlaine, whose seminal '70s band Television did indeed claim "Adventure" as the title to its second LP, that's the whole point of the music.
"It always surprises me when I hear so many bands sounding like so many other bands," Verlaine said in a recent phone interview from his Manhattan apartment. "I always felt like there was an obligation to either do something fresh or to do something that somehow was like making something for yourself, really to surprise yourself."
With Television then and in a solo career dotted with infrequent pulses of brilliance, the singer/songwriter/guitarist has created a body of songs that so sharply delineate interior emotional landscapes that they can seem like dreams held in place with a spike.
Using a standard rock instrumentation, Verlaine's recordings construct multitiered architectures of sound, inhabited by a fearless fretboard style that shoves his electric guitar beyond the boundaries of musical reason.
In light of his history of amplified excursions, Verlaine's current move certainly qualifies as adventurous. He has embarked on a solo acoustic tour, which began Tuesday at San Juan Capistrano's Coach House and continues tonight at Bogart's in Long Beach and Thursday and Friday at McCabe's--with intentions of issuing an equally acoustic album later this year. But while at odds with practically everything he has put on record, the acoustic side is nothing new to Verlaine.
"All the songs in the last bunch of years are written on acoustic guitar, and I started playing acoustic shows in '85 in Europe," he said, "It just had a certain appeal to me. Maybe it's an intimacy factor. It really puts you into your voice. And it actually puts you into your body in a way that electric music doesn't. It's a mystery to me, but it's something I like to hear and do."
He initially wanted to do an acoustic album in 1984, but the idea was turned down by his record label, Phonogram in Britain. That proved to be the least of his troubles with the label, which, Verlaine claims, refused to issue one completed album and grievously remixed and delayed his last two releases, "Flash Light" and "The Wonder." The latter, recorded in 1988, wasn't issued in Europe until earlier this year, and remains unreleased in the United States.
If Verlaine's songs seem to be born of a dreamlike reverie, that isn't far from the actual source for many of them. "Pillow" on "The Wonder" is a haunting lullaby made up of fragmentary scenes from a relationship, some observed by a dove outside the couple's window.
"A lot of the ideas I get seem to be when I'm falling asleep at night," Verlaine said. "I often hit this place where sometimes I can remember and sometimes I can't, but something goes on there. And sometimes it's literally like there's a bird there that you're having a conversation with. Often there's music there as well.
"If I can wake myself out of it, or generally I kind of double up out of it--it's a weird state--I'll go to the tape deck and hum a melody, then fall asleep, and the next day I'll hear it and it'll bring some of that back."
When not working on music or traveling--he likes extended visits out of New York, such as the two months he spent in L.A. last year--Verlaine pursues a fascination with the byways taken by the human mind. He says he once spent five months studying various psychoanalytic theories.
"Or I hit moods where I want to learn about how somebody thought things that could be so foreign to me. It could be a poet, a theorist, a linguist, or a composer that grabs you. I was reading some letters by Liszt, and this guy's outlook is just so totally different from anything you would imagine for yourself, very courteous but ferocious, a strong character.
"I don't think these interests color what I write. But I think that it helps keep your brain strong by studying outlooks that are so foreign to your own. I try to work out 'How and why did this person ever develop this?' "
And if someone were to pore over Verlaine's own works with such an intent?
"I think they'd say, 'Well, this guy's method was chaos.' "