Interview: Television’s Richard Lloyd
Television’s renegade former guitarist on his wild ride from Jimi Hendrix’s studio to CBGB and beyond.
Richard Lloyd may have remorse about certain things that have transpired during the four decades since his former band Television helped kick-start the punk-rock revolution, but one thing he certainly doesn’t have is regrets.
“There’s a big difference: Regret is a sad feeling, wanting to go back and have things be different, but remorse gives you an opportunity to change,” he says, dressed in a dark pork pie hat, a matching shirt and red pants while sitting on a barstool in Relix’s New York office. “Remorse is: ‘I’m gonna use that as a sounding board so I don’t do that again.’”
The onetime Television guitarist is currently back in the city he’s most synonymous with to promote his new solo LP, The Countdown, and has a few boxes to check on his itinerary. (Up next, he could really use a classic steak.)
As one of his former band’s co-founders and twin lead guitarists, Lloyd helped put CBGB on the map, honing in on a mix of art-rock melodies, angular improvisation and antagonist attitude a generation before the current indie-jam movement. His recent years have been rockier; he participated in Television’s 1990s and early-2000s reunion shows, before announcing his departure in 2007 and ultimately missing what was slated to be his final date due to pneumonia. Since then, he’s toured as a solo act, but has been hospitalized as recently as 2012 due to his longtime struggles with mental illness and drug addiction.
Lloyd talks openly about his turbulent career and early experiences with Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead in his 2017 memoir, Everything Is Combustible, which was recently released in paperback. He also continues to be an inspiration to younger musicians like Jeff Tweedy—“One year, his wife Susan called me up and flew me into Chicago to give him a guitar lesson, which lasted all day,” he admits—and continues to create at home in Chattanooga, Tenn. “You can change the past in the now. It’s about perception.”
The Countdown mixes some new numbers with some older ideas. In your mind, what ties those two sets of songs together?
I started working on this album when they [Plowboy] signed me. Half the record was written recently, then I had a few older songs that had never seen the record button before. I was gonna do a record called Love Songs I Never Recorded, so I just folded some of those into this one. But there’s also a few pieces that are improvisational—all feedback and spontaneous—with an off-the-cuff lyric, if you’d call it a lyric. Some of the players are session guys from down [here in Tennessee]. They don’t get to play rock all that often, but they like it.
My wife’s parents are in Chattanooga, but we had to leave [New York] anyway; it was getting too crowded. I basically grew up in Greenwich Village, so I’d been there for 50 years. It was time to go someplace else. The rock-and-roll vibe has taken foot there. I’ve lived other places—in Boston for two years, Los Angeles for two years, Stockholm for a year, London for a year—but I consider New York my home, even though I’m down South. I don’t have a Southern accent. I am still very New York.
CBGB is known as the birthplace of punk-rock, but Television were also improvisational pioneers. What was your gateway into that form of music?
I listened to Charles Lloyd. I listened to Dave Brubeck. I listened to all kinds of different styles of music. In rock-and-roll, there was The Who and Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. And in the blues, there was Buddy Guy and the “Three Kings”—Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King. [Laughs.] But the thing about Television, especially, is that there was much less improvisation than you might imagine. We would work on a song for a year and a half, and it pretty much had a form, though there was room for improvisation during that. After we did the record, I would often play a solo that was different from the record, but it usually wasn’t as good as what was on the record, so I’d just return to that. I could always return to it and leave it.
What inspired you to write your autobiography?
I’ve always told stories and I’m finally at the middle of my life, so I thought I should write them down and get them in a place for my son and the other people who kept asking me, “Would you tell me the story about such and such again?” I wanted a memory jogger, but nobody would do it. I asked some people if they’d be co-writers or editors, and all of them said that I had a writing style that was strong enough that I didn’t really need that. So I got voice-recognition software, and I spoke the book—just told stories to the computer and it typed for me. I took typing in high school, and it sucked. Then the computer came along and everybody’s gotta type again. Now that I have all that stuff in a 400-page book, I can’t remember anything. It’s finally clean-out-the-attic time.
In Everything Is Combustible, you mention being a fly on the wall while Jimi Hendrix was recording. How did you meet?
A guy named Velvert Turner—a scrawny black kid from Brooklyn. He said he knew Jimi Hendrix, and I thought to myself: “Well, he must know somebody on Earth. Why not this kid?” He looked the part, and he did know him. We ended up going to a bunch of concerts and following the rock stars around. Steve Paul’s The Scene—it’s a porn shop in a basement now. [Laughs.] Amazing things happen in small places.
I was in the studio with Jimi. I remember listening to an eight-minute version of “Izabella” backward. His store tapes tailed out, so when he would go into the studio to listen to yesterday’s tapes, he had the engineer play it backward first. I remember him talking to the engineer; he wanted to do a song that would be four bars forward, four bars backward throughout the whole song, and the guys said, “Jimi, we can’t do that. It’d take a year of cutting tape.” Jimi’s slumped in his chair like, “What a drag that I can’t do that.” But we can do it now in the digital realm.
You were also on the guest list for some of the Grateful Dead’s first New York shows.
I saw them about eight times around then, [including] at the Fillmore East when it was still The Village Theatre. They played for so long that I made a bet with myself that I’d beat them and stay awake, but it never happened. Finally, I would leave at 3:30 a.m. and be like, “They’re never gonna stop.” It was rawer than the hippies back then; the hippies followed that and came up with flower-power. The Dead were the elder spokesmen for that movement, but not part of it. I went to a soundcheck and I didn’t have a ticket, and I asked Jerry—because they didn’t have security back then—if he could put me on the guest list. I yelled out at him: “I got an allowance, but I can’t buy a ticket.” And he said, “Well, mine’s full of business people.” Then he turned to Phil [Lesh] and said, “What about you?” And Phil said, “I don’t know anybody in New York. What’s his name? I’ll put him down.” So I had some backstage adventures then.
Television always fell between scenes. You recently said: “I never felt the angst necessary to be a punk. I was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie. I like to say I’m an anthropologist from another planet who is observing human nature and expressing my observations through rock-and-roll.”
I was too young to be a beatnik, chronologically and old enough to not really fall for the hippie trip, although I went to the love-ins, the be-ins in Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park. One time we went down to something called the League for Spiritual Discovery [LSD] and saw Timothy Leary sitting on a silk pillow waxing philosophical. And we were like, “Where’s the acid, man? Give us the real deal!” And they didn’t have any, so we split. [Laughs.] Nobody was the same at CBGB. It was all original music; there were no covers. That was the real law: You couldn’t play covers in there. When Television first formed, we wore torn shirts and ratty clothes—and I called it the glamour of poverty. Think about it: We’re playing in a dingy bar under a flophouse on Skid Row. You didn’t see anybody with a suit on for about two years. We couldn’t get the music-business people down. They were like, “I’m not walking over no bums.” Now it’s a restaurant at Newark airport.
This article originally appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.