KEXP Exclusive Interview: Richard Lloyd of Television

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photo by ©GODLIS

by Annie Zaleski

Legendary Television guitarist Richard Lloyd says in the prologue of Everything Is Combustible that his new book is a “memoir — not an autobiography. I’m not sure I know the difference, but I can imagine that an autobiography traces a person’s own history somewhat chronologically, factually, perhaps even objectively, whereas a memoir is based on first-person memory… Autobiographies are meant to delineate a person’s life; memoirs allow you to understand them a bit and to share their lives from the inside.”

Everything Is Combustible is a rousing success. The memoir contains plenty of entertaining musical tidbits — including the time Lloyd was punched by Jimi Hendrix, whom he knew via his friend, Velvert; Television’s genesis and tumultuous existence; and his work with artists such as Matthew Sweet and X’s John Doe.

But Lloyd is also clear-eyed about his own existence and place in the world, which is just as fascinating. Extremely perceptive and self-aware, he holds nothing back and freely discusses being hospitalized in psychiatric wards and his drug use.

On a recent morning, Lloyd checked in from Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he now lives, to chat about the unorthodox way he wrote the book, how his memories surfaced for the memoir, and how he feels now that it’s completed.

What was the impetus for you to sit down and write this book?

I’d been telling stories all my life. People were interested in my history, and some of [these stories] I began to write down and store on the computer. [Typing] was bothering my wrists, and I’m a guitarist, so I went out and I got some voice recognition software. It was version four or something — and now they’re on version 12, and it’s much, much better. It’s like having a good secretary, except you have to speak the pronunciation like you’re a news broadcaster. [Laughs.] And you have [to speak] the periods and the commas and hyphenated, et cetera. New paragraph — you say it. It types at 120 words a minute. So it was easy for me to talk the book into being.

It took a couple of years, and I procrastinated. I looked for a co-writer or an editor. Basically, I wanted somebody to jog my memory, but it turns out everybody said I had a strong voice. I didn’t need a co-writer, and I just barely needed an editor. Turns out, we didn’t edit the book at all. So it really worked out for the way that I like to work.

And that’s one of the reasons why reading the book… In a way, it’s easy, because it’s somebody talking to you. You can’t type the way you speak because you speak too quickly, and when you’re typing you’re thinking about all this other junk, like the keyboard. I’m not too good with the QWERTY. [Laughs.]

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Television in 1977 // photo by ©GODLIS

One thing I like about the book is that it is conversational. And because you wrote it this particular way, you have to be very precise about what you’re saying and thinking about. So it’s almost like you’re editing before you’re even committing something to paper.

I remember events very well. I have a lot of sensory impressions from those memories — the feel of things, the color of things, the type of room I’m in, the people I’m with. I can remember pretty much verbatim what people said, like, 30 years ago. Stuff like that. I’ve got a good memory. I’ve tried to efface it, but nothing I’ve ever done has effaced it in the slightest.

From reading the book, it seems you’ve really had that sort of perceptive personality built into you from the second you were born, which was so interesting.

I’ve always had a third-person outlook on myself. I’d say one of the problems in the world is that people take themselves personally, and I’ve never done that too much. I’m always an outsider looking at Richard Lloyd doing… I mean, when I discovered that Richard was a common name, and not my personal moniker, I had an existential moment. And when I found that there were labels on my clothes—that I couldn’t dress hip and be by myself, like an individual, that no matter what fashion I pick, somebody else had invented it — that drove me nuts, too. [Laughs.]

What did you do to jog your memory about things that you wanted to include, or wanted to make sure you didn’t forget to include?

First of all, I didn’t — I just picked the memories that came to me. Then when it was finally going to be published, when there was a publishing house, Beech Hill, that was interested in me and the book, I had to go back and fill in the blanks, as it were. Make it a little more chronological, although it’s not really a stream-of-consciousness, in a way, about memories.

It’s very much influenced by Carl Jung’s Dreams, Memories, Reflections, his own autobiography. It’s quite good — it’s very much an inward as well as an outward look. In fact, it’s more inward-looking than outward-looking about his internal impressions, and his internal responses to the external world. He says at one point, the external world didn’t make an impact on him as much as his own internal reflections on it. It’s a fascinating book — I encourage you to read it if you like mine.

The other thing about writing it audibly was that it’s very similar to the punk book, (Legs McNeil’s) Please Kill Me, which is an idiom of other people telling stories. I’m in it, and so are like a thousand other people. This is like a Please Kill Me, but only written by one person. [Laughs.]

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Richard Lloyd in 1977 // photo by ©GODLIS

I really like the whole oral history format, and when you get different voices and memories. It’s more interesting that way — you get more color and perspective.

This is like that, only it’s just myself. It’s lucky that I’ve had a lot of internal reflection all my life about what the hell am I doing here on this weird planet, in a body that doesn’t obey me.

I could always see through the surface of things, to the gist of whatever situation I was in, which is one of the reasons why I recognized immediately that [my friend] Velvert knew Jimi, when everybody else said he was a bullshit artist. They said he was lying, that he must be out of his mind and nuts, that nobody of his age would know Jimi Hendrix. And the first time he walked in the room, I knew he did. It was undeniable to me, to my eye.

People often ask me why I knew, and I can’t explain it, except that I have that kind of perception. I can usually tell the truth from nonsense.

Reading the book, it’s incredible to read how many you know amazing experiences you’ve had in music. You mentioned Jimi — and then you also write about all the people you’ve encountered and played with.

That was what I wanted. I didn’t want to necessarily become friends with anybody that was famous or renowned in my field. But I wanted to get close enough to absorb some of their atmospheres, or check them out and see what it is that they had beyond their musical ability. Like the Beatles: I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and although I liked them a lot, my first thought was, “How are they doing this? Four young men, singing love songs — how are they creating this force field that was changing the world?” I mean, the whole world got influenced by them. It was like the same energy that you’d find in war, only it was turned around, and it was moved towards a different direction entirely.

And that flabbergasted me, as an outside sort of anthropologist — which is one of the things I consider myself. You know, a sociologist, anthropologist — any of the sciences, I’m very much into. And I wondered how these four guys could do that.

A couple of years later, listening to records and stuff, I realized that the guitar was sort of a magical instrument that all this was built upon. I’m sure you’ve seen The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Disney, where Mickey Mouse plays a broom as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Well, I felt like I was a sorcerer’s apprentice with a guitar.

[ Laughs.] That’s a great analogy.

That’s how I really felt, that these people were magical people. And if I can get close to them, I could absorb some of the magic. I’ve always been one to not dismiss magical thinking because it puts us where we are. I mean, that’s very big right now. You are what you think; you create the situation of your own life; you’re responsible for the good and the bad because you’re doing it. That’s very in vogue right now, but it wasn’t in vogue in the ’50s and early ’60s. That’s the way I thought — and that’s the way I still think.

After the book was said and done, was there anything that you realized you should have included or that you forgot to include that that you wanted to get in there?

No, by the time the book was done, I was exhausted thinking of memories. [Laughs.] You know, I’ve been asked if there’s anything else and I’m like… I mean, sure, there are other memories I could conjure up, but I don’t feel like the book is incomplete. Maybe I’ll write a memoir, part two, when I’m like 90, to cover the next couple decades. But I don’t know.

This is pretty comprehensive.

There are a lot of high points in my life that stuck out to me, so I remembered them easily.

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Lloyd in the hospital, 1977 // photo by ©GODLIS

As you were editing, did you have to take anything out, because people said, “Nah, you can’t do that—legally, we might get in trouble”?

There were one or two names that had to be removed because somebody might get their pants in a flurry. But pretty much no. The whole thing comes across without — I mean, I’m not really pointing fingers at anybody in particular. Even if I engage in a bit of psychoanalysis of another person, I tend not to include much of that.

And then there were a few situations that it was thought that somebody might harp on, you know, especially in the area of sex. So we just deleted them, one or two stories. [Laughs.] That went over the top. Not to be revealed, in other words.

I’m pretty honest — if there’s a flaw, that’s my honesty. To me, like being in a nuthouse does not have connotations of, “That’s terrible.” I don’t have the connotations, “Oh, that’s so awful.” To me, you’re either living a divine comedy or a tragedy. And I’d prefer to think of myself as living in a divine comedy, where these things happen — and they may not seem humorous at the time, but they certainly are because you’ve lived through them. I mean, after all, I’m still living and breathing. So I’ve got to take everything that’s happened to me in that light, and in which case it suddenly becomes funny.

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Lloyd, 1977 // photo by ©GODLIS

Do you have any music percolating? What are you working on?

I have about half an album done — not recorded, but the songs are there, and most of the lyrics. We’re contemplating what to do next. We’re playing a couple of dates in December, and then I know I have a date in New York in April. We’re going to work around that and see what we can do. I have to go to New York a number of times in the near future to do some book readings and to do some gigs. I wish I could get out to the West Coast, but it’s just been feasible of late. So Seattle will have to wait, and it’s an important market. I mean, it’s a very important place both in music history and in general. I’ll look forward to getting there.

I did notice in the book you mentioned that it was always sunny when Television played Seattle, which I think beats the odds.

Same with London — [there’s been] very little rain when I’ve ever been there. It’s pretty peculiar. We did the West Coast a number of times. We were very popular on the West Coast, in Chicago, Cleveland and in New York, and then the rest of the country pretty much didn’t know who we were. We were ahead of our time.

We told the record company, “Please send records to college radio,” and they said, “College radio doesn’t sell any records.” We asked them to let us make some T-shirts, and they said, “We’re not a merchandising business.” And five, six years later, everybody was breaking through college radio, and merchandising came to the fore and went crazy in the ’90s. We were asking for that kind of thing when the record company wouldn’t give it to us.

We were ahead of the curve. Marquee Moon still sells — it’s never been out of print. And [it’s] still on top records of all time lists, which makes me proud and happy.

It turned 40 years old this year—and it doesn’t sound 40 years old to me.

No, it was recorded [with] not a lot of effects. It still sounds the way it did when it came out, as opposed to—you know, you’ve got those 1980s-style snare drums, gated reverb, dated keyboards, stuff like that. You don’t have any of that on there. So it’s going to sound pretty timeless.

A lot of the records of the late ’60s still stand up, which is why classic rock is so popular. Those records were recorded really well for the technology they had at the time, and yet they were recorded without too many whistles and bells. Not too much production in the way of the music.

Everything Is Combustible: Television, CBGB’s and Five Decades of Rock and Roll: The Memoirs of an Alchemical Guitarist by Richard Lloyd is out now via Beech Hill Publishing.

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