Guiding Light: Remembering Tom Verlaine
The legendary Television guitarist never stopped looking for adventure
Tom Verlaine, who died this past week after a short illness, was one of the small handful of architects who laid the foundational stones of punk – a feat that’s all the more impressive, when you consider the fact that he never played the stuff in the first place.
When young Delawarean Tom Miller moved to New York City after a short stint in a tony private school in New Jersey, he didn’t really have a music scene to latch onto. Sure, he could’ve fallen in with the stragglers of the Greenwich Village folk scene, but that held little appeal. So, instead, as many of his contemporaries have said, he spent his days alone in his cold-water flat, playing a Fender guitar and formulating his vision. When he finally emerged, Verlaine was transporting himself – and his listeners — to planes seldom explored.
His vehicle? Television, a band that redefined guitar rock for the new era on its epochal debut album, Marquee Moon. The set was defined in many ways by the interplay between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, but also by the lyrics that Verlaine spattered, Pollock-like, amid the notes. He borrowed a bit from the debauched poet whose surname he appropriated, and a bit from the classics of pulp fiction and film noir. It all comes together on the key cut “See No Evil,” which gives Verlaine the chance the chance to play with the twin themes of nihilism and optimism, progressing as he does from acknowledging “I understand all destructive urges/and it seems so perfect” to the final exhortation to “pull down the future with the one you love.”
But even at the onset, the (no pun intended) “Friction” at the band’s core was evident to those who (literally) read the fine print. Marquee Moon’s lyric sheet, for instance, carefully detailed which guitarist was responsible for each individual solo. And while Television returned quickly enough with the more subtle, underrated follow-up, Adventure, lack of sales and pallid reviews proved too much for the quartet to overcome.
Verlaine got back into the game relatively quickly as a solo artist, releasing a self-titled solo album peppered with unrecorded songs from Television’s later days. That pattern would continue through his next few releases, mostly solid, if unspectacular rock collections buoyed by a reliable cadre of backing musicians – including old bandmate Fred Smith and Jay Dee Daugherty (who probably spent just as many years in Verlaine’s orbit, thanks to his association with Patti Smith). He didn’t really hit his stride, however, until he hit pause and pivoted to a place where he could focus on his more experimental side.
Verlaine was notoriously reticent to embrace the spotlight. In fact, he disappeared all-but-entirely for a good chunk of what could have been his most productive years. Between 1992 and 2006, he swore off recording entirely. Aside from a few spectacular cameo appearances – such as the careening solo he contributed to Luna’s 1995 classic “23 Minutes in Brussels” and his uncharacteristically aggressive work on Patti Smith’s Grammy-nominated “Glitter in Their Eyes” – he largely eschewed having his name up in lights. That’s not to say that he downplayed his own work: When asked, by NPR, to name his ten favorite songs, he came up with an eclectic list including Henry Mancini, Charles Mingus and no fewer than four from his own catalog.
Yes, he reunited Television – with longtime collaborator Jimmy Rip holding down the second guitar slot – for several tours that demonstrated he hadn’t lost his improvisational spark. There was even talk of a fourth album being near completion, though not a single note has ever leaked. Over the past decade, Verlaine was seldom seen or heard from – although he clearly remained close to his friends and colleagues of longest standing (like one time muse and love interest Patti Smith, who was by his side when he passed). Still, he remained tethered to the one thing that mattered most to him – the music.
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James Mastro, co-founder of the Bongos and longtime Ian Hunter collaborator, recalled his long association with Verlaine – a relationship that began in his Hoboken store, The Guitar Bar. As Mastro recalls, “His storage lockers were caves of treasure, floor to ceiling with guitars, amps and other musical oddities. My van would make multiple trips to load the booty, as we dug through the layers of boxes and cases, finding things he had forgotten he even had. Tom seemed happiest when talking about tubes, microphones, guitars, amps. I learned a lot, laughed a lot, and value the times I’ve spent with him over the years. There is no other guitarist like him, and his music is like that cave of treasure – always another gem to be found upon another listen, always more discoveries to be made upon digging just a bit more.”
Tom Verlaine never stopped digging, never stopped looking, as he put it in song, for “a new adventure.” He left a legacy that ensures we can always find one in the work he left behind.
He was 73.
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