Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
In the introduction to his fascinating new memoir, Everything Is Combustible: Television, CBGB’s And Five Decades Of Rock And Roll: The Memoirs Of An Alchemical Guitarist, Richard Lloyd gets to the heart of an exhausting issue that plagues way too many rock bios. “Some biographies and autobiographies try my patience with fantastic genealogies; how so-and-so’s great-grandfather crossed the Atlantic in a rowboat with 39 cents… I slog through the first third of the book like someone waiting in line to ride a rollercoaster.”
Fortunately for all of us, the guitar icon has lived the kind of life that defies the effects of slog. From nearly the first page, you’re already strapped into the ride, clinking ever higher above the ground as he weaves together thrilling and sordid tales of his time spent in mental institutions, seedy rock clubs, and those formative years as a member of one of the greatest and most impactful bands in the history of rock and roll, Television. I was continuously blown away as he recalls backstage encounters with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, and Led Zeppelin; along with a series of unforgettable nights playing with Blondie, Talking Heads or Patti Smith at CBGB or across the pond over in England.
The style is conversational. The actual experience poring through Everything Is Combustible feels like sitting next to a guy at a bar as he unloads about all the most fascinating and intimate details of his life. At different points I found myself alternately shocked, appalled, fascinated, and doubled-over in laughter. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Lloyd about his new book, elaborate on some of the juicer stories therein, and find out whether or not he might ever play with his one-time bandmate Tom Verlaine again.
When did you decide you wanted to write this book?
Many years ago. I tell stories all the time about events I’ve witnessed or gone through, and people have asked, “Well, why don’t you write a book?” I have an almost flawless, episodic memory, so I began to write down episodes, you know, little vignettes, maybe two-pages of this one or five pages of that one.
You’ve led such an interesting life, have done so many different things, and met so many different people; how did you decide what should go into the book, and what to leave on the cutting room floor?
Well I didn’t really make any decisions. If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. There’s only one storyline. You just grab hold of a part of it, and it comes out. The story comes out on its own.
Going over some of the memories that you recount, one of the most striking to me early on was your experiences in and out of some pretty medieval-sounding mental hospitals as a kid. Your descriptions of these places sound horrific, but you also take a lot of pride in having gone through it all.
I’m very proud of being tied to a gurney for two weeks on Thorozin and Mellarill and all the rest because, it’s like a great adventure. How many people get to be admitted to Harborview? How many people get admitted to Greystone State Mental Hospital? I wanted to go to the moon when I was a kid. I wanted to climb Mount Everest. I wanted to go to the North and South Poles, but I’m not gonna do any of those things, so what can I do? First of all, I can take drugs and become a mystic and a chemist and a doctor and a saint and a sinner all at one time; in one collapsed action. And then I can be crazy and end up in mental hospitals. It’s not exactly fun. Some of the journey is a great struggle. And there’s a great deal of suffering attached to it, but, you learn to appreciate suffering. It’s part of the human experience. Why not delve into it full-heartedly?
You tell a great story about getting punched in the face by Jimi Hendrix. How was his left hook?
It was a flurry. Three punches. Left to the face, right to the stomach, left to the face. I sat down and my first thought was, ‘He packs a pretty good punch for a scrawny black guy!’ Then I was taken with measuring the force of his blows. We were all drunk, but I sat down, and I tried to absorb that energy. There’s a tradition in China where, if you hear someone is a great Kung Fu master, you go and get yourself beat up by them and steal some of their Chi. It was a little like that.
You didn’t try to get back at him?
I didn’t lay a hand on him. He had done all the punching. I stayed for another 45 minutes to an hour [after the club closed] until the guy with a broom or a mop said, ‘You gotta go. I gotta lock up.’ So I leave, and across the street in the parking lot is Jimi sitting in his Corvette. He rolled down the driver side window and cocked his finger to call me over. He took my hands in his and began crying and saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Jimi, go home and get some sleep. Everything’s fine.’ He cried on my hands, so I got a measure of his compassion as well. He was deeply, deeply sorry.
Fast-forwarding a bit, in the book you write about going to see Tom Verlaine play live at Reno’s in New York along with Richard Hell for the first time, but I’m a little bit curious about how the process unfolded between the three of you joining forces to start Television.
I told [Televison manager] Terry [Ork] to put me and him together and he’d have the band he was looking for. Richard Hell worked where Terry Ork was the day-manager of a movie stills shop called Cinemabelia. Richard and Tom would go to lunch together because Tom was working part-time at the bookstore The Strand. So, Terry told Richard, and Richard told Tom. They had tried to get a guitarist, like a year before while I was in LA. They put an ad in the paper, got all these people, and nobody panned out. Richard talked to Tom, Tom talked to Terry and then Richard and Tom came down to the Chinatown loft where I lived and just said, ‘Are you interested in joining the band?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ So Tom and I passed my guitar back and forth. He would do things, then I would replicate them, or I would play leads and he would play leads, just to get a general tone of one another. Then, he and Richard went off together down in the loft near the entrance and whispered to each other for a little while, like, ‘Are we gonna deal with this guy or what?’ Then they came back and Tom said, ‘Well, yes. Let’s do it.’ That was the beginning.
I’ve always been fascinated with band dynamics, and the way you and Tom decided who would take a solo during which song based on the keys seems like such a blissfully democratic way to break it down.
Well, there were some that Tom wanted. That was for sure. Then, there were some that he handed off to me on purpose. Then, there were some where we didn’t know who should play lead, so we would take turns and whoever fell into something better, quicker got that solo.
Can you describe what the dynamic was like between Tom and Richard Hell during those initial years?
We convinced [Richard] to play bass again, which he refused to do because he said dealing with Tom musically was like going to the dentist. He didn’t wanna do it. We talked him into it. I talked him into it. When we were rehearsing, much, much, much of the rehearsal was Tom trying not to get frustrated with Richard’s lack of ability and his refusal to practice. He would rehearse, but he wouldn’t practice. All of the practicing came under Tom’s direction. [He wasn’t] as bad as Dee Dee [Ramone] where they had to put dots with the letter names on the bass. I’d be there sitting around, laying around, playing the guitar and then Tom would be telling Richard exactly what to do.
You describe in great detail just how much you guys rehearsed and played around in the early days, kind of alluding to the fact that it took you a while to get “good.” When did Television become “good” in your mind?
Oh, I think we were good right away, but in a very different way than what ended up on record. I mean, you can go on Youtube and look up super-early… Terry Ork was into movies and cinematography, so he had a guy come down and film us. Part of that film is on Youtube, so you can go there and look at “Double Exposure” and “I’m Gonna Find You” and other super-early Television. If you see it, we’re already quite good, just more berserk.
A lot of people love the berserk!
Yeah, we loved the berserk. I loved the berserk! Tom, at the very, very beginning exulted in the berserk. But, after a while, he got sick of it, before we did as a group.
The way you kind of describe him in the book, Tom Verlaine sounds like a difficult guy to get close to or really “know.” What’s your take on him as a person? Do you guys even talk anymore?
We don’t talk, but we never did except when we were rehearsing or on tour. You’re together for 24 hours a day in those situations and it’s like a marriage, so when we get home, everyone goes their separate ways. Tom did his thing, I did my thing and Fred [Smith] and Billy [Ficca] did their thing. There wasn’t much to talk about, but I think he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. We both used to make jokes and make each other laugh all the time. Everything was funny and he could be hilarious.
Do you think you’ll ever play with him again or would you want to play with him again?
No. You know, in the band he’s like ‘I got the band now as the Tom Verlaine show.’ He’d love to get rid of Billy but he can’t. He needs three members of the “recorded band” to use the name Television. If they were going around as Tom Verlaine they would not draw nearly as much. He’s very f*cking lucky that he gets to use the name Television. You know, if they’re out touring, I don’t get to participate in that but I have other things on my plate. I still get royalties from the records and if they’re touring the record sells more, so I benefit in that regard, but I wish it hadn’t come to what it came to, but I quit. I wasn’t let go of, I wasn’t fired; I left the band.
What made you decide to quit in 2007?
Two things occurred. One is that he wouldn’t make a new Television record. He kept talking about recording, but nobody was fronting huge amounts of money so we never did. He wouldn’t pay for it and in the meantime, he put out two records of his own and one of them, the best song on there, had a riff that we were fooling around with to make a Television song, but then he said, ‘Oh, I don’t like that riff.’ But it came out on his record. Then, there was this article in the paper when he had to do interviews for them to release the two [solo] records, that didn’t sell very well in any case, and he said, ‘It was during our first tour of Europe that I decided that I was not going to pursue the career-thing.’ Which meant he was just gonna pick and choose what he wanted to do as long as it suited him, and he didn’t give a sh*t about us.
What have you been up to lately? You mentioned having a few things on your plate.
Well, the book mostly. I’ve got five solo records and they’re all being re-released on CD. I’ve also got a couple gigs coming up in New York City on October 27, three days after the book comes out. I’ve got some book signings. Then, in December, I’m doing two shows with Dream Syndicate.
Wow, that sounds pretty awesome!
We’ll see. I’ve been playing guitar a hell of a lot lately. There’s two guitars in arms-length of me right now, and after the call one with you, I’m going to play one of them.
The passion is still there.
Sure! I like the guitar as an instrument. It’s a magical instrument.
You can pre-order Richard Lloyd’s new book Everything Is Combustible: Television, CBGB’s and Five Decades of Rock and Roll: The Memoirs of an Alchemical Guitarist here.
On October 16, 1992, some of the biggest artists in rock and roll history gathered together for a once-in-a-lifetime event at Madison Square Garden in New York City to pay homage to Bob Dylan on the occasion of his 30th anniversary in the music industry. Neil Young was there. So were Dylan’s Traveling Wilbury bandmates George Harrison and Tom Petty. Eric Clapton was in the building too, along with Lou Reed, Stevie Wonder, Pearl Jam, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and of course, it’d be sacrilege to honor Dylan without including The Band in the festivities.
Everyone came ready to take on a different Dylan song of their choosing, while the man himself joined them onstage near the end for an admittedly slapdash rendition of “My Back Pages.” As one source told Rolling Stone about the official release of that particular piece footage back in 2014, “Let’s just say that some of the harmonies on that are overdubs.” Nevertheless, it was a seminal moment in the history of rock and a more than fitting tribute to the man who worked so hard to define, then re-define the format time and time again.