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Sonic Transmission Chapter 12: Little Johnny Jewel

Through July and August 1975, Television continued to play at CBGB and in August Patti Smith began recording ‘Horses’. Verlaine contributed guitar on one track, making only a brief appearance in the studio in the process (producer John Cale recalls having ‘zero interface with him – except via a fleeting Patti entourage’149).

There was already more than enough confrontation in the studio, anyway, where the joint presence of Smith, Allen Lanier and Cale (‘I wasn’t sure if (Patti) wanted to bed me or have me record her,’149 Cale says) had already raised the emotional temperature to boiling point. On that song, ‘Break It Up’, Verlaine’s contribution is distinctive but far from definitive, with short, preparatory runs and then climactic surges that almost overload Smith’s vocals. His solo, too – unexceptional and slightly ragged – shows little sign of what was to come from his own recorded work. Once more, he seemed to be keeping his real capabilities under wraps.

On the night of August 19th, Television were sitting around in Patti Smith’s rehearsal room, down the hall from the offices of her Wartoke management company, and Verlaine decided that it was time they they recorded their own single. Having saved up some money from their live appearances, they now had, for the first time, enough in hand to make the proposition economically viable. Verlaine had Smith’s recent ‘Piss Factory’ as a successful precedent, not to mention the recording of ‘Horses’ to spur him on – a reminder that, once again, his band were behind the pace.

That night, six possible contenders were recorded, with each band member playing in a separate room (‘We’d hear each other through the walls,’ Fred Smith later recalled3), and Verlaine plugging his guitar directly into the four-track recorder they were using, which had been borrowed from Smith’s drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. The band recorded a couple of their older songs, ‘Hard on Love’ and ‘I Don’t Care’, the newer ‘Friction’, ‘Prove It’ and ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ (on which Verlaine overdubbed some piano and organ) and a version of ‘Fire Engine’.

‘Fire Engine’, like ‘Psychotic Reaction’, the other cover version in their live show, was a garage-band song dealing with altered states of mind. Both these songs explore the effects of the kind of derangement of the senses that Rimbaud had espoused as a way of finding new truths. Mental dislocation was a subject that Verlaine had already dealt with in ‘Poor Circulation’ and also in ‘Double Exposure’, a dramatisation of what he was later to say was the root of insanity: