Why Tom Verlaine Was the Ultimate New York Guitar God
Farewell to Tom Verlaine, for some of us the greatest American rock guitarist not named “Hendrix.” Verlaine, who died Saturday at 73, could hit cosmic heights that no other guitar virtuoso could reach. He made his bones in the 1970s with Television, the garage band who created a new kind of psychedelic sublime in the CBGB punk scene. Television made two of the Seventies’ best guitar albums, Marquee Moon and Adventure, until they fell apart, just as they were hitting their musical peak. But the music Verlaine got out of his Fender Jazzmaster remains a guiding light.
In 1974 Patti Smith wrote, “He plays lead guitar with angular inverted passion like a thousand bluebirds screaming.” For once in her life, Patti was guilty of understatement. Tom Verlaine always had his own sound, whether jamming with Television in “Marquee Moon” and “Kingdom Come,” or solo in “Breakin’ In My Heart” or “Days on the Mountain.” If you’re looking for a cheat sheet to sum up everything that made him a legend, just listen to the first three minutes of “Little Johnny Jewel,” the definitive 1978 San Francisco version from Live at the Old Waldorf — his urgent upper-register twang sounds like it’s ripping holes in the sky.
This is a painful loss for anyone who loves the guitar, especially since his final years proved that Verlaine never lost a stroke as as a virtuoso, right up to the end. He proved it (just the facts) every time he was in the mood to pick up his axe and blow people away, which was never often enough. But at each show, he did something you’d never heard him do before. As Verlaine told Rolling Stone in 1977, “There are any number of ways to get from one place to another on the neck of the guitar that I don’t know about.” Every time he played, he was looking to go somewhere new.
Verlaine was the ultimate New York guitar god and Television were the ultimate New York band, mystic guitar boys dressing up like punks and singing like poets. With Richard Lloyd on Strat and Verlaine on Jazzmaster, they jammied like CBGB’s answer to the Grateful Dead. They didn’t last long, but they’ve been hugely influential ever since. Tom Verlaine’s guitar was the lightning that struck itself, giving off sparks that kept turning into great new bands, all over the world: R.E.M. down in Georgia, U2 in Dublin, Wilco in Chicago, Pere Ubu in Cleveland, Pavement in California, Sonic Youth on the Lower East Side. But these bands don’t really sound like Television, because nobody else ever duplicated the unique shimmer of his guitar. One of the highlights of Pavement’s 2022 reunion shows was how they would turn “Folk Jam” into a medley with “Marquee Moon,” with Stephen Malkmus and Spiral Stairs lashing away at the guitar groove that made them and so many others dare to dream big on guitar.
He grew up as Tom Miller in Delaware, getting kicked out of prep schools with his best friend Lester Meyers. They ran off to New York to become decadent poets, changing their names to Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell. Naturally, they started a band, the Neon Boys, with fantastic glam-trash nuggets like “High Heeled Wheels” and “That’s All I Know Right Now.” The Neon Boys got tougher when they turned into Television, obsessed with the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane. They famously started the NYC downtown rock scene at CBGB, where they collared owner Hilly Kristal, talked him into giving them a weekly gig at his biker bar, and literally built the stage. They decorated their fliers with quotes from the early-adopter fans they drew, from director Nick Ray (“four cool cats with a passion”) to David Bowie, who called them, “The most original band I have seen in New York. They have it.”
Patti Smith was an artistic (and romantic) comrade in the 1970s, when she and Television shared many bills — he played on her debut album Horses, in the classic “Break It Up.” In 1974, she wrote about Television in the mag Rock Scene, hailing the band as “a movement of inspired mutants that will take the slop out of rock.” But she singled out the weird dude up front. “Tom Verlaine (initials TV) has the most beautiful neck in rock & roll,” Smith wrote. “Real swan like — fragile yet strong. He’s a creature of opposites. The way he comes on like a dirt farmer and a prince. A languid boy with the confused grace of a child in paradise. A guy worth losing your virginity to.” She added, “He is blessed with long veined hands reminiscent of the great poet stranger jack the ripper.”
Right from the start, they loved to jam. “It was just being onstage and wanting to create something,” Verlaine said in Clinton Heylin’s 2005 book From The Velvets to the Voidoids. “So I would play until something happened. That much more comes from jazz or the Doors or the Five Live Yardbirds album — that kind of rave-up dynamics.” His tone was clean to the point of feeling eerie, invoking the Byrds (especially Fifth Dimension), Mike Bloomfield (especially “East-West”), Jerry Garcia, or Quicksilver Messenger Service — so much of his sound comes from John Cippollina’s break in “How You Love.”
Television released a local single in 1975, on the indie Ork label, “Little Johnny Jewel.” (Just a shadow of the live monster it would become.) Hell and Verlaine had a bitter falling out by the time Television made their classic debut. But their 1977 debut album Marquee Moon was a full-blown masterpiece, with funny lyrics swiped from film noir and symbolist poets in “See No Evil,” “Guiding Light,” and “Prove It.” Verlaine’s strangled voice was perfect for deadpan lines like “If I ever catch that ventriloquist/I’ll squeeze his head right into my fist.”
“Marquee Moon” is rightly his most famous song, translating the late-night urban dread of Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” into a guitar solo — what Dylan would call “that thin wild mercury sound.” In so many ways, Television were to NYC punk what Eric B. & Rakim were to NYC hip-hop — always looking to take off into the mystic, dropping abstract poetry on an audience that came to dance, and Marquee Moon always sounds like a twin to Paid In Full.
“Marquee Moon” was an actual Top 30 single in the U.K., where their follow-up Adventure made the Top Ten. Adventure was nearly as great, with frantically funny raves like “Glory” and “Careful” (“Your wine is just sour grapes/Pour me a glass any time I’m not there”), along with fragile ballads like “Carried Away” and the R.E.M.-inventing “Days.” They kept getting fiercer on the road in 1978, as documented on bootlegs. The best “Marquee Moon” ever is the 17-minute version from the Portland show of July 1978; the best “Little Johnny Jewel” is the 11-minute version from San Francisco a few days earlier. The posthumous live tape The Blow Up has their version of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” But one day in 1978, Verlaine mumbled, “I just want to do something else,” for no special reason, and that was that.
Verlaine always had a reputation as a high-strung control freak, especially since he didn’t do drugs, which made him seem downright weird at a place like CBGB. But he shrugged off his reclusive image. “People who think I am a hermit are people who got to clubs all the time, and I just ain’t crazy about sittin’ around clubs,” he told Rolling Stone. He always seemed to take pride in coming off frosty, even on occasions that seemed to call for a little sentiment. Television played a shared bill with Patti Smith at the Roseland Ballroom in 2004, which she treated as a grand reunion of kindred spirits, yet Verlaine remained his ornery, hard-to-please, eager-to-split self.
His onetime best friend Richard Hell ends his memoir I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp with a sad tale about accidentally running into Verlaine on the sidewalk, outside the East Village’s Strand Bookstore, rummaging through the dollar bins. The two men chat, make awkward jokes, avoid saying anything the least bit personal, then stumble away in different directions. At a 2011 NYC literary event, Hell read this chapter to a hushed room, saying it had just happened the previous week. He sobbed all the way through. “We were like two monsters confiding, but that wasn’t what shocked me,” Hell wrote. “It was that my feeling was love.”
When Verlaine ended Television, his “something else” definitely didn’t mean being a rock star. His 1979 solo debut had gems like “The Grip of Love” and “Souvenir From a Dream.” It climaxed with “Breakin’ In My Heart,” with killer rhythm guitar from the B-52s’ Ricky Wilson. “Kingdom Come” (different from the Television song of the same title) inspired David Bowie to cover it on Scary Monsters. Any other artist might have milked the Bowie fandom for some publicity — but definitely not Verlaine.
He kept refining his sound in cult faves like Dreamtime and Words from the Front, which has the herky-jerky rocker “Present Arrived” and the bizarrely beautiful ballad “Postcard from Waterloo,” his skewed idea of a love song, crooning, “There was something in that look of yours/Something like a play on words”). His most underrated solo album is Cover from 1984, a synth-pop experiment with glossy grooves like “Dissolve/Reveal,” “Rotation,” and “Swim.” Fittingly, he played on Patti Smith’s 1996 comeback Gone Again as well as the soundtrack of Todd Haynes’ Dylan fantasia I’m Not There, with a spooky version of “Cold Irons Bound” from Time Out of Mind.
But even as Verlaine opted out of the rock hustle, his guitar sound became a permanent part of the rock soundscape. As the Edge of U2 told Rolling Stone in 1989, he was inspired by “guitar bands who didn’t use blues cliches. I was listening to Tom Verlaine to figure out how to make tough music.” You can hear Verlaine all over Wilco (“Impossible Germany”) or Yo La Tengo (“I Heard You Looking”) or Parquet Courts (“She’s Rolling”) or Horsegirl (“World of Pots and Pans”). Verlaine summed this up perfectly in 1993, when he told Rolling Stone, “Maybe it’s seeing everything as one giant song that you can take pieces out of, which then also become songs.”
Television reunited in 1992 for a self-titled one-off album, with witty grooves like “No Glamour For Willi,” then broke up again. But they resumed in the 2000s, doing shows that were sporadic but excellent. In 2002, they played their first NYC gig in a decade, the same week their old CBGB pals Talking Heads and the Ramones went into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Verlaine was in a playful mood, introducing himself as film noir tough guy Richard Widmark. And of course, they took forever tuning up between songs. “We haven’t changed,” Verlaine told the crowd. “The time between the songs is longer than the songs.”
The last time I ever saw him live was July 2018, at the Brooklyn club Elsewhere. He was furious after the band played “Marquee Moon,” complaining they made a mistake during his epic solo break. So he made them play it again — but only his epic solo break. It was an eccentric moment — absolutely no one in the crowd noticed anything wrong with that “Marquee Moon.” But then, nobody was mad about hearing that solo again, and yes, it kicked even harder the second time. Then he sent us all home happy by wiping the ceiling clean with “Psychotic Reaction.” (He also thanked the club for their excellent sound system, perhaps a career first.) I was already looking forward to the next gig. But sadly, it turned out to be the last NYC show he ever played.
The room was packed with superfans who knew his music inside out — the fan standing next to me was Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo — but nobody was looking for (or getting) any kind of nostalgia. All anyone cared about was seeing where Verlaine would take these songs tonight, simply knowing it would be somewhere new. Nobody could make that happen like Tom Verlaine.