On Tom Verlaine

The Ramones were great, but Television made their CBs confreres sound like Johnny one notes. Television had chops, tunes, and weren’t afraid to stretch out and solo—they even had arrangements for god’s sake.

It was punk rock for musicians!

Image via Wikimedia.

Unlike many of those who have written movingly about Tom Verlaine since his death at 73 on January 28, I never met him—not even one of those starstruck sightings at the Strand. But if you were coming up in the ’90s and into guitar and songwriting, you were bound to bump into that first Television record: in a cut out bin at the local record store, on a jukebox in a bar, in someone’s dorm room. The four guys looking out from the Robert Mapplethorpe photo on the cover (run through a Xerox machine to burn off some of the color) appeared malnourished, faintly collegiate, with great taste in shirts and jackets. The band name above them in stark white letters brought out the pulp sci-fi aura that hovered around the box in your parents’ living room: Tele-Vision. And then you cued up the LP and something magical happened: it was punk rock for musicians! DIY in attitude and conception, sure, but as angular as Monk, as expansive as Yes, funky in that square way that makes things funkier, and all held together with a biting guitar sound close to Mike Bloomfield’s on Highway 61 Revisited. The Ramones were great, but Television made their CBs confreres sound like Johnny one notes. Television had chops, tunes, and weren’t afraid to stretch out and solo—they even had arrangements for god’s sake. The punk-est part was Verlaine’s unsteady colt of a voice, a hint of Buddy Holly, maybe some Bryan Ferry, but with an adenoidal candor all his own that really was a fuck you to FM radio.

Born Tom Miller, Verlaine grew up in New Jersey and Delaware. In 1968, he moved to New York, where he teamed up with his friend Richard Hell to form the Neon Boys, which in turn mutated into Television, one of the founding bands of the Bowery scene that birthed American punk. (Hell left soon after to form the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders, who’d just left the New York Dolls.). In 1975, they released a two-sided single, “Little Johnny Jewel”—a noir-tinged vignette with a bone-dry guitar sound achieved by plugging directly into the mixing board. Soon after, material for an LP was demoed with Brian Eno. Judging from what can be heard on YouTube, this promising-on-paper collaboration came out entirely flat. They eventually hooked up with Andy Johns (brother of Glyns) who showed up with ideas for a Zeppelin-y drum sound that horrified Verlaine (“No. No. No. No. No,” he is alleged to have said). The approach they ended up with was  the audio equivalent of putting that Mapplethorpe image through a photocopier: tight and composed but with all studio sheen bleached out. Marquee Moon (1977) sounds both dinky and grand, an epic executed in a cube of concrete.

Small miracles of performance and conception can be found all over that first Television record. It helps that everyone plays their asses off. The rhythm section of Billy Ficca and Fred Smith gives the guitars a fluid grid over which to launch a bunch of great ideas: the pinwheeling kaleidoscope that forms the nucleus of “Venus”; those 16th rest gear shifts that slice the chorus of “Elevation” in half; the solo of “See No Evil” which dissolves Framptonish puffery into a minimalist reboot of Chuck Berry; “Guiding Light”’s trad gospel F# triad over a pedal C# (hark—a piano!), over which Lloyd plays a throwback solo that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bob Welsh record. My favorite moment comes eight and a half minutes into the title track, after the two guitars have been squirming and spiraling their way out of the D major counterpoint with which the tune starts, finally defaulting to bare ascending octaves. And then the lost D major returns, only it has changed into a rainbow shimmer of arpeggios, at the center of which there seems to be a bird chirping! How Verlaine manages to get that bird to appear from out of his Fender Jazzmaster remains a source of wonder to me. It’s one of the most gorgeous and mysterious things ever to happen on an electric guitar.

The second Television record, Adventure, has always struck me as a little fatigued, but it has some beauties on it too. The McGuinn-ish “Days,” with its chiming, sun-dappled intro and a divine legato guitar line after the first chorus, is one of the best things in the TV catalogue. The closer “The Dream’s Dream” is full on psych, and the LP’s one nod to expanded structure a la “Marquee Moon.”

The CBGBs coterie was more or less initiated by Television. It was Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, and their quasi-manager Terry Ork who (so the story goes) suggested to Hilly Kristal that his honky-tonk dive could be a suitable hangout for people making new music on the Lower East Side. That the founders of New York’s punk headquarters were unapologetic musos is something of an irony. It undoes the cliché that the performances at CBs were a three-chord missile aimed at the lumbering dirigible of ’70s Rock, or a mere theatre of studied ineptitude. Television’s relative musical sophistication in part stemmed from Verlaine’s starting points in jazz (his first choice to produce Marquee Moon was Rudy Van Gelder). Though a fan of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, he was not usually a note-y, splatter-gun shredder. His solos are closer to Miles: spacey, feline, searching, severe, and happy to hit a clam if it’s the right clam.

As if this weren’t enough, he was also literary! That the author of “Marquee Moon” called himself Verlaine (after the 19th-century symboliste) was one reason you might find half-read (probably not even) New Directions paperbacks of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal and Rimbaud’s Illuminations lying beside copies of The Replacements’ Let It Be and Dinosaur Jr.’s Bug in your bandmate’s filthy apartment. The lit-rock thing was in part a response to the decisive shock of versification that popular music received at approximately the moment Dylan sang “she wears an Egyptian ring it sparkles before she speaks” in 1965. But for us ’90s kids, that kind of songwriting was just as likely to have been associated with Verlaine, whose lyrics could sound tossed off, even as they had been clearly filed to the bone: I remember how the darkness doubled; Broadway looked so medieval, it seemed to flap like little pages; My eyes are like telescopes; Well the Cadillac, it pulled out of the graveyard.

These were the sort of future-noir tableaux the bumpkin magus Rimbaud had prophesied in his wild visions of cities and which run through The Big Sleep, Alphaville, Nova Express and, well, Television. It was enough to make you move from rural Wisconsin to New York City, which I did in 1997, with a Telecaster and a bunch of songs and the hope of finding a red jacket like the one Richard Lloyd is wearing on the cover of Adventure. I did eventually find such a jacket, acquired from a girlfriend in a trade for my hardcover copy of Martin Amis’s The Information. I later learned that the coat had been shoplifted from the J.Crew off the Bowery.

There’s a lot more Verlaine than Television. Starting with his 1979 self-titled debut, he made six solo records marked throughout by shades of rockabilly and early rock ’n’ roll, affectionate hat tips to the Velvets in their lucid third LP mode, and later, period art-pop with requisite doses of synth. Bowie recorded Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come” for his excellent 1980 record Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, in which he tests out one of his most outlandish Ethel-Merman-on-PCP vocal vibratos (which I always took to be his weird tribute to Tom’s singing style). To be targeted by the Ziggy/Aladdin/Duke was of course a badge of distinction, as well as a testament to Verlaine’s auteur-like vision.

Many of the tracks on Verlaine’s solo records fit no recognizable template or genre. My favorite of them, Dreamtime (1981), a set of asymmetric songs bathed in a kind of glowing frost, features bit parts by fictional characters like “Mr. Blur.” The sui generis “Days on the Mountain” from the next record Words from the Front (1982) wholly defies comparison: I will refrain other than to say that Verlaine, or at least the character singing, sounds delighted to be “walking around the inside of a bell.” On “Lindi-Lu” from Cover (1984), he’s singing in a faux-SUN hiccup over pulses of synth and guitar that for some reason make one think of moves in a game of Connect Four. These records show that the electric guitar had become for Verlaine an expanded palette for making mixing desk mini-compositions. A single riff might be three separate takes of three different guitars going through three different amps, panned across the image to create a single impossible part. You can feel the work getting further into the ’80s as the gate reverbs on the drums become more extreme and conspicuous—really, everything sounded like Peter Gabriel’s SO in 1987—but the guitar playing never strays far from Verlaine’s fingerprint.

In 1992, the original members of Television reunited, making an album that picked up where “Little Johnny Jewel” left off. Recorded with the kind of care that had come to mark Verlaine’s solo work—hyper-fastidious guitar and amplifier choices, microphone placement, et cetera—it’s a wonderfully lithe and spooky set of tunes. And they are not just delicacies from the Guitar Lab. Ficca forces everyone to push against the clock, the quartet more than once finding that slight vertigo when backbeat becomes unmoored from the metronome (see the outro of “Shane, She Wrote This”). Verlaine the lyricist is more that usually oblique throughout: I could just sort of not be there. Know what I mean? Not be anywhere.

I saw them at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin when the third Television record dropped. They did the whole thing in order then walked offstage, came back ten minutes later and played “Marquee Moon” and were done. I was awed by that encore. They nailed absolutely all of it, taking things, if memory serves, much further out than on the recording. That year Verlaine also released Warm and Cool, an instrumental album that sounds like the theme music to the Twilight Zone on a blind date with a Morricone spaghetti western score. He went on to make one more instrumental guitar record, and another set of songs, more than ten years later. The great gaps between releases from 1992 until his death only added to allure of the man and his work.

It moves me to think how much Tom Verlaine meant to my friends and I growing up. “This is the longest we’ve sat shiva,” said a close pal when the Verlaine thread was still going a week after the news. We’re all a little hurt and stunned. When someone who wrote music you care about dies, it dawns on you that they played a role in the scary, inductive, unplannable catastrophe of the person you have become. Verlaine shaped the identity of at least one whole generation of artists, writers, and musicians (that is, mine). He was an idealist who, amid the sleaze and cacophony of that cavernous room off the Bowery, could sing of falling into the arms of Venus. His vision casts back through Dylan, Ornette Coleman, and Chuck Berry, to Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Poe, and maybe all the way to the trobar clus of the wandering troubadours. I’d like to think he’s hanging out somewhere with that bird he made appear from out of a guitar.

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