Tom Verlaine, the lead vocalist and guitarist for the distinctive, ambitious, and ambiguous New York band Television, died on Saturday in Manhattan.
Together, they were responsible for two of rock’s most celebrated albums. He was 73. Former manager John Telfer, who announced Verlaine’s passing to The Times, said it came after “a brief illness.” Longtime Verlaine collaborator Jimmy Rip stated on Instagram,
“At the end, he was surrounded by love and went gently with the hands of myself and four more of his nearest and dearest friends on him. “The personal loss, for me, is completely terrible. The world will suffer an irreparable loss without this most original, renowned, and copied artist.
Verlaine wasn’t a fan of punk since, in his words, it was “simply amplified bubblegum with angrier lyrics,” even though Television originally gained notoriety at the New York punk rock bar CBGB. Verlaine and fellow guitarist Richard Lloyd did not avoid solos, which was one thing punk bands avoided. Verlaine and Lloyd were rated seventh on a list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time in 2012 by Spin magazine, which compared their soloing to that of the Grateful Dead. Verlaine was ranked 34th in a comparable list by Mojo magazine, one spot ahead of Jerry Garcia, and 90th by Rolling Stone.
The first two Television albums, “Marquee Moon,” which came out in 1977, and “Adventure,” which followed a year later, were sufficient to establish the band’s mystique. The band split up when their albums failed to find a market, but they later came back together to record “Television,” their third album, in 1992. Even after Lloyd quit the band in 2007, they continued to go on infrequent tours because Lloyd was fed up with Verlaine’s resistance to writing new songs.
Ideas that were presented on television persisted for decades. The bridge to the magnificent 10-minute track “Marquee Moon” foreshadows much of Sonic Youth’s output, and the cascading arpeggios in “Days,” from “Adventure,” seemed to inspire R.E.M.’s first decade. Subsequent generations of musicians appeared to base their styles on one song, or even just a portion of one.
Especially jazz saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, classical composers Henryk Gorecki and Krzysztof Penderecki, and cinematic composers Bernard Herrmann and Henry Mancini were among the musicians whose harmonically complex work inspired Verlaine. He also enjoyed literature, particularly the works of the French Symbolists of the late 1800s, such as the poet Paul Verlaine, to whom he paid homage when he created a pseudonym.
Thomas Miller was born on December 13, 1949, and spent his childhood in Wilmington, Delaware. After studying piano and saxophone, he turned to the guitar. Victor and Lillian Miller, his parents, enrolled him in boarding school, where he made friends with Richard Meyers, a troublemaker. With $50 between them, the two came up with a plot to go to Florida. Acting primarily as teenage Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, they hitchhiked their way there.
The two made it to Alabama, where they camped out in a field one night and built a fire to stay warm. Unsurprisingly, when they started throwing flaming sticks about the field, it started to catch fire, and they were taken into custody.
Before relocating to New York in the late 1960s, Verlaine completed high school and slogged through a year of college. Verlaine and Meyers, who had changed his name to Richard Hell, frequented seedy New York bars like Max’s Kansas City and the Mercer Arts Center, where they watched the New York Dolls.
In the punk rock oral history “Please Kill Me,” Hell said that “We Were Inseparable.”
Both worked at Cinemabilia, a business run by Andy Warhol’s assistant Terry Ork, who occupied a large Chinatown loft. Hell encouraged Verlaine to form a rock band after noticing him performing on an acoustic guitar at hootenanny events across the city.
Verlaine remarked, “I didn’t see anybody who was doing anything in New York then.” “It was all glitz, all images.”
Hell, a beginner whom Verlaine trained to play bass, and Billy Ficca, a drummer that Verlaine knew from Delaware, established a group they named the Neon Boys and recorded two songs that weren’t published until 1980. After they split up, Ork introduced Verlaine to Lloyd, completing television’s initial cast.
In March 1974, the same month that Verlaine contributed guitar to Patti Smith’s debut song, “Hey Joe,” they performed at the Town House Theater for the first time. The next year, he also contributed on guitar to her debut album, “Horses,” and the two started dating.
Verlaine and Lloyd discovered a dingy pub on the Bowery that was located above a flophouse that was unconvincingly dubbed the Palace while searching for a venue where they could perform frequently. Verlaine and Lloyd lied to club owner Hilly Kristal, stating that they performed that genre of music, in order to get entrance to the establishment known by the initials CBGB, which stood for country, bluegrass, and blues. Smith, Talking Heads, Blondie, and the Ramones began performing there soon after. The Bowery never again was the same.
Television changed his appearance to have short hair, a sad disposition (which could have happened naturally), and messy, occasionally torn clothing at Hell’s suggestion.
The shredded T-shirt screamed of sexuality and violence, and the harsh style, according to British critic Jon Savage, “spelled danger and refusal.”
“Filmmaker Mary Harron once remarked that “there was something very, very contemporary about that hostility on television. “”So harsh and chilly.”
Hell and Verlaine alternated lead vocals, but the latter didn’t appreciate the rivalry and believed that Hell’s unimpressive bass playing was holding the band back. Onstage fighting occasionally occurred. Verlaine then expelled Hell and brought in Fred Smith, a musician who had been performing with Blondie. For their 45, “Little Johnny Jewel,” a seven-minute tune divided over two sides, the band received funding from Ork in exchange for amps and studio time.
According to Patti Smith, Verlaine had “the most gorgeous neck in rock ‘n’ roll” and was tall and lanky. His peculiar, labored voice ensured that television would never receive a large amount of exposure on commercial radio. Adele Bertei, a singer, characterized it as “all uncomfortable and angular, like the voice of puberty shattering,” while singers Lloyd and others compared it to the sound of a goat that had had its throat cut.
Television signed with Elektra Records for their first two albums, which were not as well-received at the time as they were later, when record labels started shopping madly at CBGB. However, “Marquee Moon” was complimented by The New York Times for “building mysterious, fascinating edifices of sound from clanging electric-guitar fundamentals.” Frequently towards the top of lists of the best rock albums is “Marquee Moon.”
Even its producers were occasionally perplexed by this odd sound. Verlaine was once questioned by Andy Johns, who also oversaw the premiere of Television and produced the Rolling Stones: “What is this? Is this music from a New York subway?
Their concerts often have a sweeping, grandiose feel about them. “Marquee Moon” can take much longer than 20 minutes to perform live.
They served as Peter Gabriel’s first solo opening act, and they were greeted with cries of “You stink!” Lloyd declared his desire to leave the group once Verlaine made his intentions known. In 1978, they split up on a full moon.
“We wanted to break up under a full moon since Moby Grape did,” Verlaine added.
Bands that were fans of television didn’t try to disguise it. “See No Evil” was recorded by R.E.M. and Joe Jackson, “Friction” by Echo & the Bunnymen, “Little Johnny Jewel” by Siouxsie & the Banshees, and “Marquee Moon” by the Kronos Quartet. On their most recent album, the Canadian indie rock group Allays has a song titled “Tom Verlaine.”
Grunge and strange guitar rock were in vogue when Television got back together in 1992. They had been overtaken by music, yet, although brilliant, their reunion record was more about flickers than explosions. No song was more than five minutes long. The solos weren’t very long. Even Verlaine’s singing exhibited a calmer tone.
Verlaine was renowned for being picky about music. David Bowie performed “Kingdom Come,” a song that Verlaine had previously recorded on his solo debut, for his “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” album in 1980. Verlaine was invited to play guitar by Bowie and producer Tony Visconti, but according to Visconti’s memoirs, Verlaine spent hours experimenting with various guitar amps to find the proper sound. Verlaine was still tinkering with amps when Bowie and Visconti departed the studio at 7 p.m. after eating lunch, watching some afternoon television, and taking a break.
If we had recorded him, according to Visconti, I don’t believe we ever used a single note of his playing. After that day, we never saw him again.
Few individuals did. Observers claimed to have seen Verlaine searching among the shelves at the Strand Book Store. He contributed to albums by Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, Japanese guitarist Yasushi Ide, Luna, Cars vocalist Ric Ocasek, and folk-punk band Violent Femmes, among others, in addition to TV programs and uncommon solo albums.
In a vintage newspaper profile, Verlaine was characterized as “proud, a little protective, and very much a loner.” Verlaine remained unnoticed even as Television’s fame expanded and their magnificence was praised by U2 and several other bands. The final of his nine solo albums was published in 2006. When a reporter asked Verlaine to characterize his career that year, he discreetly replied, “Struggle not to have a professional job.”
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