It is truly remarkable that former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd is still alive today after you finish reading Everything Is Combustible, his fascinating and recently-published memoir. Like Keith Richards, Lloyd had his share of years of hard living, particularly involving drugs, that would've killed any other mere mortal. And that's in addition to him surviving some near-death experiences, from being knifed on the Lower East Side; to overdosing a couple of times; to facing life-saving surgery for a weakened heart. Then again, there's really no other person quite like Lloyd who, as an important fixture of New York City '70s punk rock movement, lived by his own rules often to the extreme. “I hate being told that I can't do something—it really rattles my cage and I will often do it anyway just to prove that it could be done without dying,” he wrote.
As described in Everything Is Combustible, which contains his vivid memories going back to when he was a toddler, Lloyd grew up as a rebellious and curious teen. An incredible self-belief system and confidence allowed him to survive being in mental hospitals and sneaking into shows and backstages to rub elbows with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Buddy Guy, and John Lee Hooker. After a stint on the West Coast in the early 70s, Lloyd returned to New York City where the downtown punk scene was developing. He played a huge role in that scene as a member of the hugely influential band Television with fellow guitarist Tom Verlaine (thus forming one of rock's greatest twin-guitar tandems). The group's debut Marquee Moon, released exactly 40 years ago, remains one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time.
Lloyd's story isn't exactly conventional, although it does follow the familiar script of sex, drugs and rock and roll, which there are plenty of. The book is almost Zen-like in its philosophical and spiritual outlook, with Lloyd's experiences—both good and bad—feeding his ever-curious nature. “When a man learns to walk he must learn to fall, so perhaps falling comes first in learning,” he wrote. “Learn to fall and do not be frightened of the heights from which you fall.”
Since leaving Television in 2007, Lloyd, who now resides in Tennessee, has led his own band; on December 2, he and his group will be opening for The Dream Syndicate at New York City's Bowery Ballroom. In this interview, the guitar hero elaborates on just some of the many interesting highlights from his book.
Why did you want to write the book?
I've been writing pieces of my memories and storing them on the computer for a couple of years, building up a series of vignettes, as I call them, just flickers of memory. When I had about 400 pages, I decided I would look for a publisher. I sent it to somebody, and it turns out I sent it to a person at a company that does geography books (laughs), so they turned me down. I went back and wrote more stories.
It was a matter of filling in some holes chronologically. The book is not strictly chronological but it is in terms of the chapters following one another, sort of through a timeline. I was really influenced by Carl Jung's autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections. It has to do with his experiences from the point of view of his interior life. I wanted my memoirs to follow something like that--to have an objective look at what was going on, rather than a regular CBGB book.
Your memories are really sharp, especially your early feelings as a toddler. You were really aware of your surroundings.
That was one of my first thoughts, especially when I tried to stand up, and I thought, “Oh my God, I have to be here for 40-80 years. And I have to walk and talk and interact with these other people, these so-called 'adults' who were all screwed up (laughs). How am I going to prevent myself from falling asleep and lose consciousness?” It was important to me that I didn’t lose consciousness. Half of my drug adventures was taking things and then fighting a spiritual battle—take downers and then try not to go to sleep, or take uppers and try not to go crazy. It was always seeing how far that you could extend consciousness.
You started taking drugs at a very early age. Was it due to curiosity or a need to experiment?
I wanted to know why adults took poisons, because they smoked and coughed, and when they drank, they got stupid. (laughs) I wanted to find out what was going that. So I snuck a cigarette when I was 9, and I broke into the liquor cabinet when I was 10, and I was taking ups when I was 10-and-a-half or 11. My grandmother had some speed, but she didn't like they way they made her feel. So I took it because I was reading James Bond and Sherlock Holmes and they all took ups.
The descriptions about you being institutionalized – including a stint at Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital--were very harrowing.
I'm diagnosed bipolar now and I suppose I was bipolar then. I would go into manias and end up locked up in some way shape or form. My parents would put me in the hospital. How I got to Creedmoor was really bizarre. I was at Roosevelt Hospital on 59th and 9th [in New York City], a cushy place for troubled teenagers and adults. They gave me passes, and they made me use them--I didn't want to go home. So I would walk around for the four hours that they demanded and then I'd go back. And when I got back, I was acting giddy to be back. The doctor thought I was back on drugs and sent me to Creedmoor. I thought, “Well, if you think I'm nutty now, watch.” I really went berserk. I hate it when people have power over you and don't listen to you.
Were you ever in danger of losing yourself?
No, never. There's two of me. There's the part that’s experiencing whatever I was going through, and then there’s a part that isn’t troubled by anything. It was all curiosity and wonder. I wasn’t going to go the moon, I wasn’t going to climb Mount Everest. I wasn’t going to go to the North Pole. So what could I do that would be as dramatic? And being locked up in a mental hospital or being tied to a gurney for two weeks is tantamount to that kind of experience and adventure. You don’t know if you are going to come out of it scathed or not.
Through your friend Velvert Turner, you met Jimi Hendrix in New York City when you were a teen.
He was a very shy person on the outside. The kids used to hang out on a corner of 6th Avenue and 11th Street, and he lived a block a way. We used to see him walking through the Village with a girlfriend or by himself, and somebody would say, “Hey Jimi,” and he would go, “What' up?” That was the extent of that contact. In New York, you don't get bothered if you're famous.
While you and Jimi Hendrix were hanging out at a New York City club, he inexplicably punched you.
He punched me in the face, the stomach, and the face [again]. I sat down and I thought, “How do I absorb this energy?” It was a taste of his strength. I thought to myself, “He packed a good punch for a scrawny guy.”
You've met some other famous people during your younger years, including some situations where you sneaked into a show or backstage. Of those folks, who impressed you the most?
All of those guys.I pick Jimi as the most magical and powerful person, followed by Anita Pallenberg, and then Keith [Richards]. He was on the to die list for so long, the list died.
You traveled from California to New York upon hearing about a band called the New York Dolls, who were playing at the Mercer Arts Center. But by the time you arrived to see them, the venue literally collapsed. How did you know about the Dolls?
It was like anything else. You're in the scene in Los Angeles and you hear about this band in New York that seemed to be ruffling features and drawing an audience, and somebody says there’s a whole scene around them at the Mercer Arts Center and other bands at the time. When I got back [to New York], it was all gone. I did see the Dolls I think at the Diplomat Hotel. That's when I found Max's Kansas City, which was the place to be. The Warhol people—artists, writers, rock stars—would hang out there.
You and your friend Terry Ork went to a New York City club called Reno Sweeney where you saw a guitarist named Tom Verlaine perform. Before then, you were playing guitar on your own.
Terry said, “There's this guy [Richard Hell] at work and he knows this guy [Tom Verlaine] who plays guitar on his own, he doesn't have a band. Do you want to go see him?” As it turned out we went and I knew this guy had something at the time. I could tell he had something, but he was also missing something. He would've gotten to a certain distance, but he wouldn't have gone all the way. And the same with me—I said to myself, “Are you that talented to you make it all on your own?” The answer comes back, “Well It would be better if I could combine my talent with somebody’s else talent, if they fit.” And Tom was a perfect fit to what I was doing. So I told Terry, “Put the two of us together and you'd have a band.” Because Terry really wanted to have a band and start a scene and create havoc and energy, very left-wing kind of guy (laughs).
Had you not decided to go to Reno Sweeney that night, Television may have never happened.
There would be no Television, that's for sure. There would have still been CBGB but I don't know what it would've been. There were no bands like us or Talking Heads that were playing there. I broke a [guitar] string [at home], that’s why I went [to Reno Sweeney]. I didn't have another string. So these things happen. I knew something like that was going to happen, I didn't know what it was going to be. When I saw Tom I thought, “Well that could be it.” It turned out it was.
You and Terry had a considerable role in booking the acts that played at CBGB during that period of New York punk.
Terry had a big part of that. Hilly [Kristal, CBGB owner] didn't know. Hilly would defer to Terry, and when Terry was unsure, he would defer to me because I was his roommate. He would ask me what I think of this band or that band, and I'd say, “Yeah, they should be in the roster of bands,” or “No, I don't think they fit.”
One of those bands that you knew had to play CBGB was the Ramones.
I was sitting at CB’s and someone said, “Do you want to hear a new band?” Well, I got nothing better to do, so we went up [to a performance space] and saw the Ramones. They were great. And even though I'm in a great band and there was certainly some amount of competition, I recognized that they should be playing CBGB. I was very good friends with Dee Dee, and then Joey and Tommy. But Johnny was the aloof one. It was like every band had an aloof person: Johnny Ramone, Tom Verlaine, David Byrne [of Talking Heads]. These were the aloof people. Everybody else got along. We were all in the nest together, we were like a bunch of eggs in a nest waiting to hatch...It would be hard to do that today. There's no place to hide and build your audience or your build strength. You had to have it right away.
Until reading your book, I didn’t know how focused and meticulous you guys were in making Marquee Moon in terms of the production, a contrast to the spontaneous nature of punk.
Absolutely. We knew the record we wanted to make. We had played those songs now for three years. We had done some demos of some of that material. We waited and waited until a record company came along that was going to be good for us. We picked the label [Elektra] that had The Doors, Tim Buckley, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and what a great label it was at that time. We were really focused to get this record just right.
Did you had any inkling that this album was going to be special?
I did. Tom would’ve said, “Nah, it’s just gonna flop” (laughs). That’s the way it was. I knew that CBGB was gonna explode and become worldwide. I knew Marquee Moon was gonna last as a record.
In retrospect, Marquee Moon sounds more like art rock than punk.
There’s no punk in it. All the journalists were squirming because they had to write about this scene and they didn’t know what to call it. For a long time it was New Wave, and then Punk Magazine came along, and there were a few bands that bought into the punk thing big time, like the Ramones and the Dead Boys, and a couple of others [like] Suicide. So punk became the moniker for all the music. I mean, Blondie certainly was not punk, Talking Heads were not punk. Television was not punk in the way you think about punk music.
Why do you think Marquee Moon still resonates 40 years later?
There wasn’t much effects. The biggest effect was me playing things twice that gave a chiming element. But the fact is you listen to it now and it doesn’t sounds dated. And that’s one of the reasons it survived. Plus there was an innate energy and outward energy to it that we didn’t recapture, which I thought was a pity. But that’s the way it was.
Television recorded its second LP, Adventure, and then broke up in 1978. You made your first solo album Alchemy, which was a terrific and accessible rock record. Unfortunately it didn't make a commercial impact.
That’s my fault. That one I can blame for, because I was reaching the nadir of my personal life at the time, going down in the soup as it were. From 1980 through 1983 was really a nadir of my drug experience and social experience. Everything after that got better.
Around this period, you were being treated for endocarditis and it got so bad that surgery was planned to insert a pig's valve to help your ailing heart. You sang Bob Marley's “African Herbsman” to yourself one night at the hospital and then you miraculously recovered.
That’s the power of something. Bob sending me help.
Was that the turning point in which you decided to stop doing drugs?
Oh I don’t know. Probably not. I can’t describe the moment, but there was such a moment. It’s not in the book. It was in the fall of 1983 and it took me to the middle of 1984 to really get a handle on myself. After that, I got a phone call from Sweden saying there was a guy who had the biggest independent record company there and wanted to do a record [with me]. And that became Field of Fire.
Field of Fire was a hard-rocking album compared to Alchemy.
After being in Television, I wanted to show a completely different side to myself [in Alchemy], and do a record that was like a debut record as a solo artist, in a way quieter with a different focus. I got a chance to do Field of Fire, and by then I was brimming with energy. I was in Sweden doing the record but in America all of this anthemic rock was doing well: Springsteen,Tom Petty. It was arena rock and it fit right in. That’s what came out. It was supposed to come out on A&M, but my manager screwed that up. I’ve been the recipient of bad fortune. I have disaster and success and they go hand in hand--you can’t have one without other. I guess I experienced those to the full.
You played with Matthew Sweet and appeared on several of his records, including his 1991 breakthrough Girlfriend. What was he like to work with?
I like Matthew a lot. He’s wonderful to work for and to go on the road with because I was the just lead guitarist. I didn’t have to worry about the rhythm guitar, I didn’t have to worry about singing. I didn’t have to worry about anything except for playing leads. So it was an easy gig for me, and I like his music a lot.
Television later reunited and released its self-titled album in 1992 via Capitol Records. From your book, it seemed like Tom made certain decisions that affected the commercial/financial fortunes of the band.
I remember him at the record company actually getting up on the table and telling everybody that he knew how to make records and he knew about marketing. All all these people in the marketing and publicity departments were like, “What are we gonna do with this guy? What are we gonna do with this band?” But as it happened, everything changed at Capitol. Three months after we handed the record in, they had this huge turnover in their own internal offices and they dropped six acts. And we were one of the acts.
You called that third album 'Television-lite' in your book
It was softly record, comparatively speaking. Tom was screaming, “I’m not gonna make a rock record! I’m not gonna make a pop record!” He quit the band [the first time in 1978] because he wanted to be everything. Originally he thought, “I could have all the money and I don’t have to split it with these guys.” And when he had his [solo] run and nothing was happening for him, putting together Television for him, I guess, was just a cash cow. Putting it together for the rest of us [myself, bassist Fred Smith, and drummer Billy Ficca] was something else entirely.
He's a very stubborn guy. He can be funny as hell. I love him to death. But there’s aspects of his behavior that embarrassed and humiliated me through the years. There's nothing I could do about it. If you have a band, you gotta have a single face. And he was the singer, so he was the face of the band. You can't argue there.
Was it difficult for you to leave Television in 2007?
Actually it wasn’t, because I had The Radiant Monkey [my solo album] half recorded, and I love that record to death. Television hasn’t recorded since 1992. It was a long, long time. Tom kept saying 'no' to all these gigs that were being offered because he didn’t need the money. I finally got tired of somebody else determining my income. Even if in the long run I earn more by staying with the band, it just wasn’t worth it anymore. I told them I’m leaving the band. They did the one show [in Central Park], and then they didn’t do another show for three years or something.
Have you kept in touch with the other members of Television?
I talk with Fred and Billy. I haven’t talked to Tom, but we've never talked anyway.
But there's no denying that you and Tom had such great chemistry.
Musical chemistry. We had a great time together. We would be in the van, the bus and the airplane, and we would be in the same hotel and we would be on the same stage. After you’ve done that, you want to go home and have some peace.
You have your own band now. I assume you play both your solo material and Television songs as part of the set list?
More my stuff than Television stuff, but we do some of the Marquee Moon songs. It depends. If we’re opening, we probably won’t play as many as we would if we were headlining. Still, we got a good chunk of time to play.
Do you like calling the shots as a band leader?
I enjoy that. There’s a different pressure involved, but I like it.
I follow you on Facebook where you often share articles, particularly ones that have to do with science and technology.
In fact, the son of a friend of mine on Facebook at one time told me: “My son said, 'Guess what? Richard Lloyd the Science Guy plays guitar.” Well, I went to an all-science high school [Stuyvesant, in Manhattan]. I’m interested in all kinds of sciences. I’m sharing them because I’m finding them. A lot of stuff I don’t know. Unfortunately I’m not in any of those fields as a professional. But it’s also fortunate because I can skirt all those different disciplines and enjoy them all.
You moved to Tennessee a few years ago after living New York City for a long time. Do you miss the Big Apple?
Not much. I was back there a couple of times and I don’t miss the amount of people and the expensiveness of it. That’s my hometown as far as I’m concerned, I lived there for over 50 years. But I like it down here, too.
The Richard Lloyd Group will be playing at the Bowery Ballroom on Saturday December 2. Everything Is Combustible: Television, CBGB's and Five Decades of Rock and Roll, published by Beech Hill, is out now.