Rick Rizzo Remembers Tom Verlaine

Angular, innovative guitarist, singer and songwriter leaves lasting legacy

Tom Verlaine on July 7, 2011 at Beco in São Paulo, Brazil. (Photo: Liliane Callegari)

There’s a point on “Little Johnny Jewel” where things get somewhere near the angels; the music finds an artistic secret, a universal truth, Tom Verlaine leading the way with a blinding white light.

I’m so sad to learn he has passed. Long before I learned to play guitar, I worshipped at the altar of Tom Verlaine. Some of my Lexington punk friends found Television not punk enough, too artsy, but I was smitten from the first grooves of Marquee Moon. I was already a Patti fan, and happily scarfing down any Rimbaud or Genet lit I could get my hands on because of her lead, so I found this skinny guy, Verlaine, extra intriguing. C’mon, I was in college. Once I did pick up the guitar, I’d be lying if I said I never tried to do those melodic runs or string bends or volume knob fades. I once made a list of all the guitarists who influenced me, and Tom is pretty much tied for first.

I wasn’t a friend and had no deep relationship with Tom Verlaine. But I was a fan.

A Polaroid of Tom Verlaine taken at the Paradise in Boston in 1977 on the Marquee Moon tour. (Photo: Jeff Matthews)

I was lucky enough to meet Tom, a couple of times. I was incredibly shy and nervous. The first time was backstage at a show we played in New York with the Meat Puppets. That was pretty brief. But then, when we tracked El Moodio at Sorcerer Sound in NYC, we walked in and saw Television’s gear waiting to get loaded out after their sessions there. A few days later, Tom was there to pick up some tapes. Eleventh Dream Day’s bass player Doug McCombs and I saw him from a distance in the hang-out area where there was a pool table and decided we would go “play pool.” Tom was quite nice and we had a bit of a chat.

The live shows though were all special. I missed out on Television’s first go-around, but I got to see Tom play in Los Angeles in 1981. That show was around the release of Dreamtime, and i pretty much had an out of body experience that night, the band and set were amazing. Saw Television a couple of times post nineties, including the Tortoise curated All Tomorrow’s Parties gig. Tom let the rest of the band come out waaaay before he sauntered out and made quite a performance of setting up his pedals while Richard, Billy and Fred did their thing behind him. It was magic.

The last time I saw Tom play was at Double Door some years back and it was up there with all the other great shows. This was intimate though, standing just in front of the stage in a not too crowded room, marveling at his amp and sound. It was truly the best sound out of an amplifier that can be made.

Thank you, Tom Verlaine, for your music. I owe you much. And now, I am off to begin a Verlaine marathon. I may start with Warm and Cool because that one feels pretty right.

“Sleep, darksome, deep

Doth on me fall:

Vain hopes all, sleep,

Sleep, yearnings all”

-Paul Verlaine

Tom Verlaine of Television, June 16, 2007 (Photo: Paul Bachmann/Flickr)
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Rick Rizzo

Rick Rizzo is the founding guitarist and singer of Chicago indie band Eleventh Dream Day. Their most recent record is Since Grazed.

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