Tom Verlaine (1949-2023)

Tom Verlaine (1949-2023)
Tom Verlaine of Television @ The Phoenix in Toronto - June 2006

Tom Verlaine has died.

Frontman and guitarist of Television, Verlaine – born Tom Miller – was a musician and guitarist whose influence on modern rock music is immeasurable, despite his band always remaining a cult – albeit a large cult – concern. He has certainly been one of my favourite players, alongside bandmate Richard Lloyd, for over a quarter-century now and his passing, even amongst all the musical giants we’ve lost over the past few years, feels extra personal and painful.

And that is despite him only releasing one record in the time I’ve been a fan – 2006’s Songs and Other Things, which I’ve never heard. The number of times I’ve listened to Marquee Moon and Adventure, however, can’t be counted and their deeply underappreciated 1992 self-titled reunion record isn’t that far behind. After that, Television seemed to exist only casually. Tours were occasional – I count myself lucky to have seen their 2006 show at The Phoenix in Toronto, the second-last with the original lineup.

To say Verlaine has been an influence on my guitar playing is both a huge understatement and overstatement. The former because the relative simplicity of some of his parts on paper is so at odds with the otherworldiness of the music they represent, I can say I know how to play “Marquee Moon” – thank you July 1999 issue of Total Guitar for a solid transcription pre-internet – but obviously it’s not magic. And the latter because, well, after all these years I’m still not that good a guitarist and proudly hide behind a slew of pedals while Verlaine drew down lightining from the skies by just plugging a Fender guitar into a blackface amp. But he was always inspiring.

In the last few years, I’ve made a point of exploring his solo discography, discovering that while it doesn’t have the same two-guitar alchemy that made the Television records so potent, they’re all full of his signature spiky guitarwork and elliptical songwriting and essential listening for Television fans who need more than just their official output. Ever since I started this blog I meant to do some posts exploring those records – at least the “pop” ones from 1979’s Tom Verlaine through 1986’s Flash Light. Critical response to his work from 1990’s The Wonder forward isn’t especially kind, and as none of it is on streaming I can’t easily get a hold of it to listen for myself. Even those earlier records have spotty representation online, and I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know 1984’s Cover even existed before yesterday (obviously it’s a hold in my collection that will be filled posthaste). And bizarrely, it showed up on streaming services today. It definitely was not there on Saturday; I listened to it the first time via YouTube stream.

I wasn’t sure how much I’d tried to cram into this post, but will opt to save some for the future when I’ve had a little more time to process, and instead will just direct you to some of the excellent tributes that have been coming out over the weekend.

Patti Smith has penned a farewell to her friend, lover, and collaborator for The New Yorker:

He Was Tom Verlaine @ The New Yorker

Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield pays marvellous tribute to the main in their obituary:

Why Tom Verlaine Was the Ultimate New York Guitar God @ Rolling Stone

And Alexis Petridis also does him justice with his piece for The Guardian, while Chris Forsyth marvels at his unique guitar technique:

Tom Verlaine: Television’s perfectionist guitar genius always kept punk guessing @ The Guardian

Tom Verlaine: a guitar antihero whose sensibility was more classical than Clapton @ The Guardian

Pitchfork and SPIN’s tributes to the man are also worth reading:

Television’s Tom Verlaine Changed the Guitar for the Rock Underground @ Pitchfork

Tom Verlaine Was More Than Just Television’s Frontman @ SPIN

Billboard and BrooklynVegan do good work collecting tributes from Verlaine’s peers, fans, and followers:

Television Frontman Tom Verlaine Mourned by Patti Smith, Michael Stipe, Flea & More: ‘I’ve Lost a Hero’ @ Billboard

Read tributes to Tom Verlaine from Blondie, Michael Stipe, Steve Albini, Dean Wareham more @ BrooklynVegan

The Guitar Magazine pays tribute by pointing at what they rate as the best of his solo records, Dreamtime:

The Genius Of… Dreamtime by Tom Verlaine @ The Guitar Magazine

While Premier Guitar has also collected their thoughts on the massively influential player:

In Memoriam: Tom Verlaine (1949–2023) @ Premier Guitar

Guitar World is late to the party with their feature-length tribute, but that’s print publishing schedules for you. It’s thorough and well-done, so worth the wait:

Remembering Tom Verlaine, the cult hero who reconfigured guitar and inspired generations of alt-rock players @ Guitar World

Uncut ran a feature on Verlaine last year that talked to his collaborators and bandmates rather than the man himself – he was not much for interviews – and in addition to being probably the final article on the band as a living entity, got the last and probably final word on that apocryphal fourth Television record from guitarist Jimmy Rip:

In December 2007, Television snuck into the studio to start making a new album. The band spent two or three days recording ideas at New York’s Stratosphere Sound. Sadly, the long-overdue successor to 1992’s Television stalled right there. And hasn’t been touched since.
“We did around 14 things,” reveals guitarist Jimmy Rip. “They don’t have vocals on them and there are no guitar solos, but they’re songs. And some of them are great, I really love them.”
Rip puts in a call to Television leader Tom Verlaine around the same time each year. It’s become something of an in-joke over the past decade or so, a larkish reminder of unfinished business: “In the week between Christmas and New Year, I’ll call Tom up and say happy anniversary. He’ll say, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I’ll go, ‘I’m talking about those tracks!’ But it’s never had any effect. He’s like, ‘Well Jim, some day old Tom will just have it all finished.’”

Guiding Light: Tom Verlaine RIP @ Uncut

I think it might have actually been through Verlaine’s guest spots on Luna’s Penthouse that I first heard him play. It’s fitting that it ranks on American Songwriter’s list of Verlaine’s best guest collaborations, along with this interesting note about how Verlaine was invited to play on David Bowie’s Scary Monsters – which would include a cover of “Kingdom Come” from his first solo record – and did this with the opportunity:

Invited to appear on the Scary Monsters sessions in New York, Verlaine instead engaged in the kind of wilful perfectionism that might otherwise be construed as self-sabotage. According to producer Tony Visconti, Verlaine spent the entire session trying out around 30 different guitar amps, repeating the same musical phrase on each in search of the ideal sound in his head. There was so little time left for recording that his contribution, if any, remains unheard. Nor did he return the following day.

Guiding Light: Tom Verlaine RIP @ Uncut

And Luna’s Dean Wareham has offered up his thoughts on Verlaine as both influence and collaborator, and how his guest spots on Penthouse came to be:

Encounters With Tom Verlaine @ Counter Punch

Wareham also chimes in on this excellent compendium of musician tributes across genres and generations at Aquarium Drunkard:

Guiding Light: A Tom Verlaine Appreciation @ Aquarium Drunkard

Television guitarist Jimmy Rip has expressed his grief over on Instagram:

Former bandmate Richard Lloyd hasn’t commented directly on Verlaine’s passing, but did post this musing on the fragility of life at his Substack:

death @ Richard’s Substack

And if it’s not gauche, I’ll offer up some of my previous Television posts over the last few years.

Goodbye Tom, and thank you.

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