On the eve of the release of Richard Lloyd’s memoir, Everything Is Combustible, he talks to PKM about faith, drugs, mental illness, his years in Television and how Tom Verlaine’s controlling nature affected the band’s success
To say that Television built the scene at CBGB’s is not much of an overreach. In fact, they literally helped built CBGB’s, itself. One of the early bands to play the legendary music venue, they also convinced Hilly Kristal to move the stage from the front to the back…and then they provided the physical labor. They also came up with the format for the bands that started the punk scene: only two bands per night, each playing two sets.
Television only released three albums over the course of their career, but helped start the local punk scene that spread throughout the world. At the time, the band also launched the careers of three strong personalities: Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, and Richard Lloyd. After 40 years of making music and art, guitarist Richard Lloyd reflects on his life in a memoir released this week, Everything Is Combustible: Television, CBGB’s and Five Decades of Rock and Roll, published by Beech Hill Publishing. Lloyd will play this Friday, October 27, 2017 at Bowery Electric.
Lloyd’s new memoir is filled with anecdotes of growing up in Greenwich Village, his encounters with such music legends as Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Led Zepplin, John Lee Hooker and others, as well as harrowing stories of his experiences in mental institutions, and his life as a downtown music legend. I sat down with Richard recently and asked him some questions about his life and career.
PKM: What prompted you to write your memoir?
Richard Lloyd: I’ve been telling stories since as long as I can remember, which is to say I’ve been talking about my birth and everything since. Many people have asked me if I would write a book not just about Television, but about my memories. I was influenced by Carl Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and so I wanted it to be somewhat stream of conscious, but in small reflections and vignettes so that people didn’t get bogged down in a long lengthy diatribe. It’s a book you can open almost anywhere and find an enjoyable story.
PKM: You claim to recall being in your crib as a baby and trying to stand and as having a “distinct knowledge” of being elsewhere “before this body.” That’s fairly heady stuff. Can you explain and expand on this?
RL: My memory of first standing up is very strong and I remember the feel of the crib bars and the soft bottom of the crib. And I can see the living room where I was and how difficult it was to stand up holding onto the bars, when my pudgy little hands let go because they couldn’t hold on any longer. And I fell over backwards and was afraid to hit my head because I would lose consciousness, and consciousness was precious to me. So I remember that, and I remember thinking that I had been somewhere else with much greater freedom than this planet with its gravity and stuck in a human body that does not obey your will. It’s like that for me. I tried for the longest time to still my thoughts and follow that thread back, but it was always on the tip of my tongue and never really got fully formulated where I had come from. Perhaps they were womb memories.
PKM: You were fairly rebellious at an early age – quitting karate and judo instead of cutting your hair. You hated sports as a kid. You wrote, “I don’t even like ping pong because somebody wins and somebody loses and I would prefer to lose and get it over with.” Where do you think those innate feelings or attitudes come from?
RL: I have great compassion and see human beings flounder in their id and egoism and I wanted no part of it. Everybody is always trying to win and when I stood up I had to fall down. So I learned to fall down a great deal. It’s the first thing you learn in judo – how to fall without hurting yourself. It was the mid 60s and there was no way I was going to cut my hair just because someone asked me to or told me to or demanded it. I just turned around and walked out and that was the end of it. I did the same thing to the Boy Scouts when it interfered with my pot smoking. I left the scouts at first class with three merit badges – pathfinding, cooking and survival studies where you go out and build bridges and things out of the natural surroundings. I loved the Boy Scouts but it finally got in the way of my drugging. One of them had to go….
PKM: You experimented with drugs at an early age, but were pretty judicious about it. You even researched marijuana – in the public library – for two weeks before actually smoking it. Can you talk about you early experimentation with drugs?
RL: Well, after studying up on it I came to the conclusion that the adults were wrong and that marijuana was not harmful. Some of the other things I took were amphetamines that my grandmother had to lose weight, but she didn’t like the way they made her feel so I took them while I was reading James Bond and Sherlock Holmes. They both used amphetamines or cocaine (stimulants) so is only natural that I should try them – they were some of my heroes
PKM: How did you first end up in a psychiatric hospital and how have you handled your mental illness over the years? Where you ever diagnosed as manic depressive or bi-polar?
RL: I was sick of being in my parents’ house, so I poured all their pills down the toilet and told them I had taken them. But of course I’m not suicidal so I didn’t, but they took me to the hospital and the guy pumped my stomach and then they put me in the psychiatric ward. That was the beginning of a long string of psychotic episodes brought on by lack of sleep and drugs. They thought I was schizophrenic at times but I was really bipolar. “Manic depression is a frustrating mess,” to quote Jimi Hendrix.
PKM: Will you talk about your friendship with Velvert Turner and how it led you to Jimi Hendrix?
RL: Well, Velvert came over to a friend’s house I was at, claiming to know Jimi Hendrix and when everybody laughed at him he called the hotel. But Jimi didn’t pick up until Velvert passed the phone around saying “I tried – he must be out.” When I was holding the phone I heard it ring twice and then it got picked up and Jimi’s voice was on the other end saying “Hey man, what’s up? Who is this, man?” There was no point in telling them I was Richard Lloyd so I stood up and said. It’s Velvert, Jimi” and handed the phone over to Velvert who then went and whispered in the hallway. When he came back he said that Jimi was in town to do a show and that he was invited and could bring someone in. Of all the people there, I was the only one who believed him so he took me and we went to a Jimi Hendrix show out in Queens. It was like looking into a nuclear furnace – otherworldly and everybody was freaking out. It was the first time I ever saw a wave because the stage rotated. When Jimi was in front of your side, you stood up and everybody screamed and yelled and then when you couldn’t see them anymore you sat back down and there was a new group standing up. Very funny, but Jimi got dizzy and threw up after the show so we couldn’t say hello to him. I got to meet him later. I was able to go into the studio when he was working sometimes. They let people in for the first hour or so while they were setting up and listening to the previous music they had recorded the day before.
PKM: You write about a belief you hold – something called a “true wish,” which you call “the most powerful thing in the world.” In your case, you claim that your true wish allowed you to become a “renowned guitarist, and to make an irrevocable impact on rock ‘n’ roll.” Can you unpack this for me?
RL: I would say that it is conscious faith in something plus intuition plus willpower plus a wish. At 15, I made the conscious wish to become a famous guitarist and to have an impact on rock ‘n’ roll music that would be historic. I didn’t know how it would happen or exactly when, but I was certain that it would and that the world would turn until it happened – but that it was going to happen no matter what.
PKM: Television was together for almost 3 years before signing to Elektra. Why did it take so long for Television to get a record deal?
RL: We wanted to make a record our way. We didn’t want a separate producer, so we hired an engineer who was becoming a producer and gave them co-production credit. Really he was just the engineer, but one of the best in the world who had recorded everybody in England – all of the great guitar players and drummers of the classic rock era. He recorded Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones and Traffic and Cream and many others. So we knew that the record would sound good. That was all we needed. We knew exactly what we wanted to record.
PKM: You write a good deal about Tom Verlaine’s controlling nature. What is one of your most memorable experiences of this?
RL: My most memorable experience of that controlling nature was probably in his reticence and paranoia that everyone was out to steal his ideas, were to copy his style. And Richard Hell said that he didn’t want to play bass with us because working with Tom was like going to the dentist. I soon found out what he meant because Tom was very controlling and would write songs with us and then throw them out if he didn’t like them after a couple weeks. We wrote many songs that never made it to vinyl, and we went into record and Tom refused to record more than the bare minimum that the record demanded. I asked him to do other songs so we would have B-sides or additional material to put out later, but he refused. He didn’t want the record company owning anything else. I think that was incredibly shortsighted because he wouldn’t let anybody film us either at CBGB’s or record us before our record came out. That I can understand, but the film I don’t understand except that he said that people were going to make money off of us. I understood that having film in the can meant that we would be of more historical import than refusing all the time, but Tom could be incredibly stubborn and that was that.
PKM: How did you and Richard Hell handle trying to have creative input with Tom designating himself in charge?
RL: Well, Tom taught Richard almost every note that he played on bass, but with me it was a little freer. I could bring in my own parts to begin with and then we would work on them. I wrote the main riff of “Friction,” but he wouldn’t give me songwriting credit on it. And I did all the real work on “See No Evil,” but again I got no songwriting credit. Finally, I wrote the underpinning of “Guiding Light” and insisted upon songwriting credit. When he refused, I said that he couldn’t use the part – but the song was built on the part, so he had to give me credit and is been trying to renege on that ever since, basically perpetrating theft. Don’t forget he’s a guy who took The 13th Floor Elevators song called “Fire Engine” and put his own name onto it, changing the title to “The Blowup.” That is just absolute out and out stealing and it makes me sick. But when I was in the band I had to keep my mouth just to pick my battles carefully.
PKM: You worked with Andy Johns (Glynn’s younger brother) on the making of Marquee Moon. What was that experience like?
RL: I thought Andy was great, but he was a real rock ‘n’ roll child and spent the time drinking and such, which drove Tom nuts. Andy was used to bands that partied in the studio and that took their time and Tom wanted to be all business. Once he rented a television to watch a movie in the studio, which meant that it cost us $500 just so he could watch the fucking movie. Pathetic.
PKM: What caused Television to break up after recording just two records?
RL: Tom never wanted the band signed, but Elektra refused to sign Tom as Television and insisted on signing all four of us. After the second record didn’t do so well in the U.S., Tom called me up and said he was leaving the band. I told him that I was thinking of leaving the band too, so why didn’t we just break up and call it a day. When we did our last group of shows, we were the only people who knew we were breaking up. And they were great shows at the Bottom Line. But afterwards, we all met for lunch the next day and said goodbye and I didn’t see him again for 10 years.
PKM: You credit Bob Marley for helping you through a near fatal case of endocarditis and eventually getting you off heroin. How did he do this?
RL: The doctor came in and said that they were going to put a pig valve in my heart if I didn’t improve over the weekend – that he would operate on Monday morning. That evening, a song by Bob’s called “African Herbs Man” came to me and I started singing it over and over again with the line in it that goes “and that old white slave trader, with a transplanted heart – well guess how soon him have to part” and it just became a loop in my head and I sang it all weekend. When the doctor came in on Monday, put his stethoscope on me and took a jolt and said I don’t know what happened, but you are getting better. Whatever happened, don’t lose it, but we’ll have to go to the surgery and I’m keeping the operating room ready every morning this week. If you turn sick again, we’re going to operate, but we never had to. I simply got better.
PKM: How did you and Tom Verlaine come to getting Television back together in 1992 and why did you leave the band in 2007?
RL: Tom’s manager and my manager at the time both were at a party and began speaking with each other asking, “what’s Richard up to?” And my manager said, “Not much. What about Tom?” And Tom’s manager said, “He’s not doing much either. Why don’t we try to get them back together?” I had a demo, which was going to be shopped for record deal by Fred Davis, Clive Davis’ son. Then Television got back together and I took the band to him. Twenty-three record companies wanted to put out the third Television record, so we got a good amount of money to do that. That became the third Television record which is a pretty soft recording I call “Television Light”, but the songs are dynamite to play live. I got a couple of great solos in it like “1880 or So,” “Call Mr. Lee,” and “In World.” So the touring after that got to be a lot of fun. But we only did the shows Tom wanted to do, and he passed on a lot of opportunities. The rest of the band needed the money, but Tom didn’t, so he would say no. By 2007, Television had not put out a record since 1992, which is like much too long with no new material, or very little no prospect of recording. In the meantime Tom did two records – one was songs on it and the other instrumental and had a Chicago label put them out. He put two records out on his own, but wouldn’t work on a Television record. I had finally had it and told the band I was leaving. In the meantime, they haven’t put out another record and I’ve put out four or five. They don’t sell as well as a Television record would, but at least I’m still being creative and not just touring the world doing Marquee Moon.
PKM: What is your current relationship with your old band mates?
RL: We’re all on friendly terms.
PKM: Though Television as a band was critically acclaimed, why do you think you never had the commercial success of other bands that came up with you at CBGB?
RL: Because of Tom’s shortsightedness and lack of touring. It’s that simple. Plus we only made two records before breaking up for a decade. I certainly think we could’ve been much bigger if we had been willing to work, but Tom doesn’t like to work unless he is being paid a fortune.
PKM: You were great friends with Anita Pallenberg who recently passed away. What, to you, were her greatest qualities?
RL: She had IT in spades and was a magical woman of great power. She was honest and forthright and was a great friend to me for many years.
PKM: What’s next for you musically?
RL: I’ve been concentrating on the book so much I haven’t thought about it, but I play the guitar all the time. I got a few shows lined up and there’s some talk of recording another record next year, perhaps co-produced with somebody else that’s well known and friendly. We’ll see. I don’t see playing with Television again because Tom is happy with the way things are now, with his best friend playing my parts. But if he came to that, perhaps…. But I don’t want to mislead anyone because it probably won’t happen. I’d love to go out on tour just as a guitarist again, as well as do my own material. I’ve got a band and a show in New York on October 27, perhaps a couple of gigs in November and a couple in December, so I’ve got work ahead of me. There’s also the audiobook version of my memoirs to do, probably coming out right after the softcover comes out and Kindle and the e-books. Those are the things on concentrating on now.
I’m going to start painting again next month. You can see my work at the Facebook page Richard Lloyd Painting Page. I’ve sold quite a few paintings in the last couple of years, and would love to do some shows with that when I find a gallery I can like and trust. And I’ll never stop playing music in one form or another, or the guitar. It’s too much a part of me. It’s my meditation and prayer. I get guidance from the guitar as well as from my guardian angels.
Photographer David Godlis at Godlis.com