Richard Lloyd didn’t set out to write a rock & roll memoir. While his debut book, Everything Is Combustible: Television, CBGB’s and Five Decades of Rock and Roll: The Memoirs of an Alchemical Guitarist, rarely skimps on musical detail, his philosophical aim stays clear. As Lloyd recounts his run-ins with Keith Moon, Buddy Guy, Keith Richards, and dozens more, details his youth, early days in Television, work with Matthew Sweet, and documents his considerable struggles — with drugs, the music business, and murky areas in-between — his sharp, spiritual eye remains trained on deeper meaning of it all.
Think less Keith Richards’ Life, and more Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Or maybe, Lloyd suggests, Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
“It’s very much an autobiography of his inner life,” Lloyd says over the phone. “How many memoirs do you get to write? I didn’t want to write a book about CBGB’s and Television. There’s plenty of that. What I could add, I added, but there’s a lot left out. I could have done just strictly that, but that’s such a limited audience. Mojo said in their review that it approaches great literature, which I’m very proud of.”
Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Lloyd to discuss his psychic outlook, thoughts on Television’s ill-fated sessions with Brian Eno, and that time Jimi Hendrix beat him up.
Aquarium Drunkard: How did the process of writing Everything Is Combustible work for you? Did you sit down at one point and formally start writing a book, or was it more haphazard than that?
Richard Lloyd: I knew I was going to write a book years ago but I procrastinated and procrastinated. I couldn’t figure out how to actually write it in an ordinary way. So what I did was write little stories, a page and a half, two pages, three pages, of various events I remembered. I just stored them on a computer. I didn’t actually type; when I first got a computer it started bothering my wrist. As a guitar player, I don’t want that. So I went out and bought a voice recognition software program. So, I talk.
AD: You speak the stories out and transcribe them?
Richard Lloyd: Exactly. It’s an oral tradition. The whole book is written orally.
AD: Does that make its way into the conversational tone of the stories?
Richard Lloyd: You can’t type the way that you speak. You just can’t. No matter how fast a typist you are, the typewriter, as an instrument, doesn’t allow free flow of thought to go through it. Speaking does.
AD: You played drums before guitar. What drew you to the instrument, away from percussion?
Richard Lloyd: I took drum lessons for over three years. Learned big band-style, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa type stuff…[but] I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and I wondered what was the magic element that allowed four young men singing non-invasive love songs to create such a worldwide energy movement, like a war, only in a different direction. Records started coming out a couple years later with the guitar as the central voice, like the first Grateful Dead, the first Hendrix, the first Pink Floyd. They were all guitar-oriented. So I began to understand that the guitar was the key to a magic door of whatever rock & roll was. Plus, I was playing drums one day and it was very colorful to me. Different drums sounded different tones. I have synesthesia. But I was playing drums and all of the sudden the color dropped out. It became chiaroscuro, just black, white, and shades of gray. I had an audio hallucination that said, “You need to play a string instrument.” The obvious was the guitar.
AD: That’s a fairly dramatic revelation.
Richard Lloyd: It was. I’ve had audio hallucinations throughout my life. Voices that are not mine. But they’re not evil. They’ve never told me to go kill anybody or anything. They’ve always just told me either something that’s true or going to be true or advice.
AD: Early on you were picking up tips from your friend Velvert Turner, who was picking up tips from Jimi Hendrix and then relaying those to you. How did that work?
Richard Lloyd: Jimi lived about six blocks from me in ’68, early ’69, in an apartment in New York. Whenever he was around he would give guitar lessons to my friend Velvert Turner, who was my best friend because I believed him. A 17-year-old kid claims to know Jimi Hendrix, everybody laughs at him. Thought he was joking. But I looked at him and said, “Well, he knows Hendrix. That’s for sure.” After the guitar lesson, Velvert would call me up and come over to my house and use my guitar to practice. We’d pass the guitar back and forth, doing the stuff Jimi had shown him, mostly based on his own songs…but also just general verticle knowledge, turn-a-rounds and stops. Mickey Baker’s jazz book — we went into that for a while. Jimi got to know I was best friends with his little protege, so I got to hang out with Jimi even when Velvert wasn’t around. Like in the studio and at some concerts.
AD: You guys even got into it at one point. Or rather, he got into it with you.
Richard Lloyd: What do you mean?
AD: You write about getting punched by Jimi.
Richard Lloyd: Jimi was under the influence of his business manager, an English gangster named Michael Jeffery. Things happened like Jimi went to a meeting and said, “I’m so tired, I don’t want to do this American tour. Everybody wants me to dance like a chicken and you know, put me in a box. I need some time off to think about what I want to do.” And Michael Jeffery said [affects English accent] “Oh, do you like your little fingers, Jimi, with which you play your little electric guitar? Because if you do, if you like your fingers Jimi, you’ll do exactly what I say. There’s a great deal of money to be made here and you’re going to make it Jimi. You’re going to go do this tour. And there will come a time when you’ll be worth more to me dead than alive. And that time will come, Jimi.”
So that was the Sword of Damocles hanging over Jimi. [So one night] we’re all drunk at a party…and he began talking to me about how he wasn’t long for the world and couldn’t do anything he wanted. I tried to cheer him up. I thought he was just drunk and [acting] self-pitying. Every artist can suffer from that. But finally it caused something in me to snap and I started talking back to Jimi. Not backtalking, but saying “Everybody loves you, man. Forget this business about not living long.” I guess he took umbrage with that. When the night was over, the lights came on and we got up and everybody groaned. It was close to four o’clock. He got up, but his silk jacket got on, turned around and punched me three times. I sat down and thought, “Well, how do I absorb this energy and not lose it?”
I know that in China, you’ll know of a martial artist who’s very good. You’ll go and get beat up by them on purpose, just to steal their style or chi or whatever. I already knew that, and yoga and all the rest. I was thrilled he’d hit me. He packed a pretty good punch for a scrawny black guy. He waited for me to apologize, about an hour/45 minutes, till the janitor made me leave. He called me over to his Corvette, rolled down the window, took my hands and wouldn’t let go of them. He was crying on them, really crying, saying, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
He was coming up on having to do a record for Capitol because of a dollar contract he’d once signed, that the courts had deemed [valid]. So that’s when he did Band of Gypsies. Michael Jeffery didn’t like that at all — his bread and butter was to steal the money from Jimi’s Experience. [Jimi] must have been in a terrible state …he was in an emotional state for sure. I kept telling him, “Jimi, go get some sleep. Go home,” till finally, he let go. As soon as he disappeared, Velvert popped out. He said, “You know why he hit you, right?” I said, “I don’t care. No. Why did he hit me?” And Velvert said, “I know, but I’m not going to tell you. You’ll have to figure it out yourself.” It took me years.
AD: Was it because he felt like you were patronizing him?
Richard Lloyd: I guess that’s the word you’d use. I was trying to fight that drunken, maudlin state that people that use too much alcohol get into.
AD: I especially appreciated the part of the book where you write about a night with John Lee Hooker in Boston. He explained to you the secret of the electric guitar, which is a pretty handy thing to have.
Richard Lloyd: He said, [adpots blues patois] “Come on over here, Richie, I’ll teach you the secret of the electric gee-tar.” I went over and he cupped his hands to my ear and said, “All those cats with the six strings, they ain’t shit. The secret is, you take off all the strings but one. You play that one string up and down, down and up, bend it and shake it until the women go ‘Woooo.'” That’s verbatim what he said. “Then you put on the second string and go up and down and down and up, and bend it and shake it until the women go ‘woo’ and the men go ‘ah.’ By the time you get to six strings, you’ll be a master.”
AD: Did his advice shape your playing?
Richard Lloyd: Definitely. That advice and what we learned from Jimi influenced my ability to see the guitar vertically as well as across the board.
AD: Eventually you end up hanging out with Terry Ork in the nascent days of what we now think of as the punk scene. In those early days, was it less defined?
Richard Lloyd: The journalists wrote about it and they called it new wave. They didn’t like that. They were hunting for a label. When Punk Magazine came down and started printing things on the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, and etcetera, the CBGB’s scene, only a few bands really bought into the title, “punk.” The Ramones, who didn’t really like it that much, but they saw its advantage, and the Dead Boys, and a few other crazy acts bought into the “punk business.”
AD: Within Television, did it just feel like rock & roll to you?
Richard Lloyd: Yeah. It felt like rock, but from a different planet.
AD: Television toured with Peter Gabriel. Did you see what you were doing as congruent with art rock or even the progressive rock thing?
Richard Lloyd: I don’t think we thought much like that at all. We just did what we did. It was Peter Gabriel’s first tour outside of Genesis. So while we were playing, people were screaming for Peter Gabriel. And about three songs into his set, they started screaming for Genesis songs. [Laughs] Nobody could win.
AD: Your playing with Tom Verlaine on Marquee Moon is the ideal sound of two guitars playing in tandem. Totally connected, weaving in and out. How did playing with him feel?
Richard Lloyd: It was a tremendous amount of fun. When Hell was in the band, it was like we ran off to join the circus. After he left, the music got better. It was absolutely terrific, though Tom’s aloofness embarrassed me more times than I can count and his tendency to expose his contempt for things…to me…that wasn’t in my soul. But the band had to keep a single face, so I had to put up with a lot in that area.
AD: Richard Williams of Island arranged for Television to record a demo with Brian Eno. I know you weren’t a fan of the results, but what was working with Eno like?
Richard Lloyd: At the time it was useless. He had all these crazy studio ideas and we were like, “Just record the songs, man. We know what we want to sound like.” The studio we were in was so dry. It’s like the sound came out of the amplifiers and fell into the carpet. A real lifeless recording. Really, to my ears, it was unconscionable to release it as a Television record. Tom came to rehearsal one day and said, “I can’t believe it, Richard Williams called me and asked when are we coming back to do the second half of the record. The second half of the record? that was a demo!” But [Williams said] “Oh no, everybody at Island loves it and wants to put it out.” Hell was on his way out of the band; he’s on that demo. It’s just not representative of what we wanted to present to the world.
AD: It’s easy to imagine an Eno-produced Television record as being great, but it doesn’t sound like it felt that way.
Richard Lloyd: The opposite. Maybe after we’d made Marquee Moon. But that was the beginning of Tom wanting to be the band, just fiddling around in the studio on our money. [That’s what happened with] Adventure…
AD: I think Adventure is a great album.
Richard Lloyd: Me too. I wish “Adventure,” the song had been on it.
AD: Is that one of your biggest regrets about that album, that the song was left off?
Richard Lloyd: After it was decided we wouldn’t finish that song, I had to let it go. I wasn’t terrifically disappointed, but I think it would have been a better record, but as far as Tom was concerned, “Adventure” had too much me in it.
AD: After Television disbanded, you went solo.
Richard Lloyd: We were signed to Elektra for six or seven records, as a band or individually. That’s the reason why I couldn’t use my own name on [Ork single] “(I Thought) You Wanted To Know,” which came out with Chris Stamey’s voice on it, but I played most everything else.
AD: When you listen to that first record, Alchemy, what kind of person do you hear?
Richard Lloyd: I hear a young person making the first record he’s ever made. He’s a romantic. It has great sentimentality in it. On purpose, it didn’t sound like Television. I didn’t want those colors. I didn’t want people to think I was just doing a third Television record, though that’s what it counted for contractually. I think by the time I did Field of Fire in Sweden, I allowed a lot more of that really pushy, dramatic stuff out. The softer elements of Alchemy were subsumed into this energy outlet that was Field of Fire. Very strong. I didn’t know it at the time, because I was in Sweden for a year, but Bryan Adams, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, all those cats were playing anthemic rock. Field of Fire would have fit right in. A&M were going to sign me, but my manager at the time screwed up the deal. They had a big meeting to see if they were going to buy me out [of the Elektra deal] but he wanted too much. Then it turned out the contract was worthless, for legal reasons I’m not going to go into. The contract wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. But they didn’t know me — they were going to sign me. It’s just another turn of events in my life.
AD: You don’t spare much in the book: drugs, sex, anything like that. But I’m especially interested in how often you explore religious concepts in this book. Particularly the idea of “suffering.” When you talk about a bad contract or legalese preventing greater commercial success, it feels tied to that idea. What did you want to say about suffering as a spiritual practice in this book?
Richard Lloyd: My idea of suffering and the creative genius — being a tortured creative person — you know, it’s very much in my vocabulary. You look at Vincent van Gogh. He pretty much never sold a painting except to his brother, who couldn’t even resell it. The suffering of that must have been intense. And yet his output is completely prolific. If you go the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, it’s incredible how many paintings he did. I don’t know where he got the money for the paint.
AD: Do you feel that art is in some ways fueled by suffering?
Richard Lloyd: Absolutely. It’s like centripetal and centripetal forces. Equal and opposite reaction. What is country music? It’s always driven by heartache. Rock & roll on the other hand, often exudes a kind of celebration of rebelliousness and debauchery. But what comes after debauchery? Agony. You can’t have one without the other. They call that big angel, big devil where I come from.
AD: You give guitar lessons via Skype. What’s one piece of advice you give to most all your students?
Richard Lloyd: I don’t give “advice.” I have a curriculum we pass through as quickly as the student is able to. Most people are not going to so-called “make it” in the music industry. Especially now. There’s so much a flood of instantaneous viewing. There’s no place to woodshed and hide from the public until you can garner an audience. Right now it’s either swim or sink. And most things sink. I would never advise…I think if I was pressed to advise someone who wants to make music their profession, I’d tell them they need to make good friends with Lady Poverty. They’re going to have to learn to suffer for their art and they can’t A) get married and have children and B) have a job or career. It’s going to harden around their ankles like cement and not allow them to be free-flowing in the wind. They have to burn their bridges behind them. Most people that study with me either already are already doing well, musically, in whatever realm they come from. In fact, I had a guy who was the keyboard player in the Broadway show [Mamma Mia!]. I told, “I only teach guitar, and I teach by number, not by letter.” He said, “Well, I want to learn the music theory.” He took lessons with me for nine months because I have a special view of musical theory that is very alchemical.
AD: People like Hendrix and John Lee Hooker helped you. Are you interested in sharing your knowledge with players?
Richard Lloyd: Absolutely. In the Middle Ages, there were guilds and mentors. The more well-to-do artists would have students. Nowaways, you’ve got rock people and they don’t want to partake of any of that mentorship. It’s like, ‘It’s my hot lick from heaven and I’ll bless you by showing it to you.” I mean, that’s ridiculous. words/j woodbury