Watching Television and Seeing Tom Verlaine
Tom Verlaine and his band Television were already inside, behind the stage, in what some might loosely call a dressing room. CBGB was buzzing, the vibe—anxious and electrified. The band’s landmark album, Marquee Moon had yet to be released but the crowd already knew and loved every song.
I pushed my way toward the bar, grabbed a beer and washed down the Jack Daniels I smuggled into the club. It was summer 1976 and CBGB, the Bowery bar that had become the epicenter of the PUNK explosion, was packed. Roberta Bayley was up front at the desk and Godlis was outside on the street. Kate Simon, Allan Tannenbaum, Julia Gorton and Bobby Grossman were still somewhere else. Regardless of their location or time of arrival they all had a camera.
Everyone else was ready and waiting to fall “right into the arms of Venus de Milo.”
Richard Boch: When I look at your photos there’s a strong sense of connection with the person you’re shooting. What drew you to Tom Verlaine besides a love of music and a connection to the scene happening on the Bowery?
Kate Simon: By the time I took this picture of Tom Verlaine, I had already photographed him many times, and he was very comfortable being photographed by me. He was always a good collaborator and you couldn’t take a bad picture of him. He had a beautiful, mysterious expression. He was a delight as a photo subject and he liked to tease me. I remember he once said that whatever photo was used on an album cover was irrelevant—I obviously disagreed.
Richard Boch: You worked the front desk at CBGB and eventually picked up a camera. You had the opportunity to see the band as much as anyone. How did you come to take this beautiful photo?
Roberta Bayley: I first saw Tom Verlaine with Television in early August 1974. Television were like nothing I’d ever seen or heard before—raw and chaotic, dressed in torn clothes with short, spiky hair, sleek and spare and going a hundred miles an hour. Tom played keening, ethereal guitar, looking like a sullen John Boy Walton but with Katherine Hepburn’s cheekbones. Richard Hell jumped and careened around the stage uncontrollably. Richard Lloyd had green hair.
In May of 1976, Tom asked me to take photos of the band, Hell having been replaced with Fred Smith. I shot five rolls, which was a lot for me—I’d only taken three rolls in a session with the Ramones. Tom picked just one photo, which was also my favorite. I didn’t think he’d choose that one because his eyes were closed, but he did. No one other than Tom would have chosen that image. Eventually, the photo was used by the record company for publicity. I got $300, more than double what I got for the Ramones’ first album cover. I was on my way. Thanks, Tom.
Richard Boch: There was a time in the mid to late 1970s when you were hanging at CBGB or some other club every single night. Luckily for us, you always had your camera with you and were able to get some remarkably candid photos. How did a somewhat reluctant star like Tom Verlaine respond to you snapping a photo?
Bobby Grossman: Early on, even before my first visits to CBGB in 1975, when I was first invited down to NYC by Talking Heads, I would frequent a shop called Cinemabilia. It was there that I recognized everyone from the pages of Rock Scene magazine. I’d eventually run into Tom Verlaine at The Strand and Gotham Book Mart and not long after I saw his band Television, along with Patti Smith, Blondie, Ramones and so many others. I’d often pass Tom on the street corner at Fifth Avenue by the Lone Star Café, or in the neighborhood running east towards Third Avenue. I always felt the vibe to leave him be, receiving a nod of acknowledgment at best. But on a few occasions at CBGB I would stop in my tracks by the bar and smile at him; he’d comply and stare back for a photo opportunity.
Richard Boch: You took so many great photos of some remarkable people including Tom, as you navigated those long-ago nights on the Bowery. Somewhere between the candid shots and the up close and personal you really captured him. What was it about Verlaine, beyond the sound of his guitar, that spoke to you?
Julia Gorton: Perhaps it was the sound of his Delaware accent? Tom grew up a mile from me in a 1960s development called Westgate Farms where many of my friends lived–including Rick Brown–my high school boyfriend. Rick left Wilmington in 1975 to attend NYU and mailed me updates about the gigs he was catching each week in the city; Talking Heads, Patti Smith and, of course—Television. When I arrived the following year to attend art school, my first stop was CBGB. At that time, nobody interesting seemed to come from Delaware. It felt like if Tom could make it, maybe I could too!
I always loved taking photos of Tom whenever I saw the band perform—or of just him by the side of the stage hanging around and watching another band play. Seeing him felt like when you bump into that senior boy you have a crush on at the mall on a Saturday afternoon—a bit of a thrill.
The original Polaroid of this image was underexposed, but I kept it anyway—safely packed away for years in a dark box. When digital retouching came along, I was able to revisit the image and pull Tom out of the shadows, even though they did suit him quite well.
Richard Boch: History was made inside CBGB, on the sidewalk outside and on the nearby streets of East Village. You were seemingly in all those places at once—and the sound of Television was there too. Beyond sound, lyric and the lasting impact of their album Marquee Moon, what was it about Tom and the band that offered inspiration? The visual impact of your photos of them is casually intimate yet oftentimes intense.
David Godlis: When I photographed Television, in the fall of 1977, I was in the midst of setting down on film what I was seeing all around me every night on the Bowery at CBGB. Television were the first band I saw there. But by the time Marquee Moon came out, and I could really hear the words, their songs became a soundtrack for what I was trying to do with my camera. “Tight toy night, streets so bright.” That record played in my darkroom while I was creating what was to become the look of my pictures. “Broadway looked so medieval, it seemed to flap like little pages.” Was I taking inspiration from Tom’s lyrics? Was it a mutual love of film noir? There’s no doubt in my mind that in some way I was trying to make my pictures look like what Television sounded like. “Just trying to tell a vision.”
It was that fall 1977 when I got a call from my friend Deerfrance that the band was interested in having me photograph them. I had a shooting strategy of sorts. “What I want, I want now.” We all met up on St. Marks Place near dusk and I immediately shot them walking up the block, myself walking backwards. Tom seemed a bit confused at first about what I was up to and no one in the band really talked to me. Perhaps that was Tom’s strategy? I carried on. “The world was so thin between my bones and skin”.
We strolled up First Avenue where the neighborhood was full of good backdrops. My plan was to keep them on board until I could shoot them lit up under street lights. My style of sorts. This shot was taken at that final location. Near Second Ave. and 19th Street. For me, this was it, “…a whole lot more than anyhow.”
Richard Boch: Allan, You and I have shared a lot of interesting moments over the years whether your camera was involved or not—and your eye for capturing an image has always been pretty remarkable. What was it, other than documenting this incredible scene unfolding in front of us that inspired to photograph Tom Verlaine, his band and his co-conspirators?
Allan Tannenbaum: Working as the chief photographer for the Soho Weekly News was the best job in New York back in the ’70s and early ’80s. We were curious about everybody and everything new on the downtown scene. Patti Smith was one of our discoveries in early 1974, and it was my photograph of her at Frank Zappa’s birthday party in October 1974 that introduced me to Tom Verlaine. They were holding hands and Patti is dressed in a very girly lace dress while Tom is wearing a harlequin leather jacket. Patti performed that evening with Lenny Kaye while Lester Lanin’s orchestra waited onstage.
I believe it was 1975 when Michael Goldstein, publisher of the Soho News, asked me to photograph Television at the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park. It was a sunny but cold winter’s day when the band and I trudged uptown to take some shots. The band looks quite stiff in the photos—perhaps they were too cold to move.
Being a denizen of CBGB led me to photograph many bands both onstage and backstage. In 1977 I was able to make a nice group portrait of Tom with Richard Lloyd, Billy Ficca, and Fred Smith in the cramped backstage dressing room. Tom looks very much like his sensitive and intelligent self. It’s sad that such a brilliant musician has left us so soon, and I think what’s giving this more attention than expected is the shocking fact that so many of our favorite musicians seem to be departing at the same time.
By the way, Patti chose this photo with Tom Verlaine as a full page in her new book, A Book of Days.
INTERVIEW Richard Boch
FEATURED PHOTOGRAPH Tom Verlaine NYC 1979 © Kate Simon @katesimon
Richard Boch writes GrandLife’s New York Stories column and is the author of The Mudd Club, a memoir recounting his time as doorman at the legendary New York nightspot, which doubled as a clubhouse for the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Debbie Harry and Talking Heads among others. To hear about Richard’s favorite New York spots for art, books, drinks, and more, read his Locals interview—here.