A tribute to Tom Verlaine


THIS is writer James Rogers’s reaction to the death on Saturday of Tom Verlaine.

The darkness has doubled, lightning has struck itself – Tom Verlaine has passed on. The Cadillac puttered back into the graveyard, and this time Tom did not get out. He was inside it, in a box. One of the most enigmatic rock of stars has passed on aged 73. He told us, “Look here junior, don’t you be so happy, and for heaven’s sake don’t you be so sad”.

It’s a line that encapsulates the guitar playing of Verlaine and his partner Richard Lloyd (like Scott Gorham in tandem with Brian Robertson or Gary Moore of Thin Lizzy, you’re never exactly sure who is playing when, but it sounds glorious). They produce a wondrous, perfect contradiction; the pitch is doleful and compels self-contemplation, but is simultaneously soaring and inspiring. Their guitar breaks create delicate hurts that should never conclude; like drinking a fine malt whisky in front of a blazing fire, being mesmerised by the flames, getting sweetly pished and never wanting to reach the end of either the music or the whisky.

I reach for Marquee Moon every now and then, and it never fails to make me ask myself why I never learnt to play the guitar and write songs; but of course, as the album progresses, the songs tell me exactly why. The guitar is so simple, it distills each song into a purging, cleansing spirit, but also – as this number clearly establishes – advises would-be imitators of their inadequacies, leaving them frustrated, just as Salieri compared himself unfavourably to Mozart and went mad.

Hearing Verlaine’s (or Lloyd’s) guitar is like being out in sylvan countryside in the middle of a clear April night with four degrees of frost and a full moon. The pure, bright light combines with the cold to silver the landscape; but it is not malicious December weather, for the air carries the crisp, benign, uplifting smell of spring’s renewal, rather than of autumn’s odour of decay. It’s a scene that probably few will have ever seen, or certainly appreciated, but once experienced, one never forgets it. Television’s guitars are the same. Verlaine was a master of both melody and melancholy. 

The wonderful songs Marquee Moon and Elevation may have serpentine structures and impenetrable lyrics, but not all their songs are like that. Listen to Foxhole from the Adventure album. It’s clearly about the trials of being an infantryman, and its opening chords commence a riff redolent of Dire Straits’s Money for Nothing, but then, magically, a supplementary guitar interjects five lines of angelic perfection to take the piece in another direction. This guitar work, and Verlaine’s slightly unsettling warble, are the fount of Television’s sui generis. 

How on earth can they call Tom Verlaine a ‘punk’? Because he was a regular at CBGB’s? There can be no comparison of Television and the New York Dolls or the Ramones. Verlaine’s music, has no jarring nihilism, no spikiness, no angry energy and no lascivious lack of couth. There is always a subtle, gentle intellect at work in his songs, all underpinned by a desire to commune – but commune with what? Tom Verlaine and Television may be rock music’s Thomas Tallis. They touch your soul, but unlike Tallis, they offer it little nourishment, beyond an agreeable sense of forlorness. Ultimately rewarding, it can still be rather puzzling.

There aren’t many bands who have achieved the ability to place us in a zone of shimmering sombreness, making us feel coincidentally enraptured and desolate. Some may see The Replacements as the heirs to Television, and true, Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson and crew certainly had the gift of generating wistfulness, but were too wild and raucous to sustain any notion of being Verlaine’s kindred spirits. Perhaps The Sundays – Harriet Wheeler’s voice and David Gavurin’s guitar is similarly sad and lucent. Most likely, Fairport Convention offer the most appropriate comparison. Richard Thompson’s guitar achieves the same effect, and their song Who Knows Where The Time Goes offers the same sweet sadness. On the whole, the song’s subject is glum, but one is still left intensely grateful that one has heard it – and Thompson’s playing – before taking leave. 

As Shakepeare wrote, “Oh wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is. O brave new world that has such creatures in ‘t”. Tom Verlaine, and that small, but superb catalogue of material he produced in the late-1970s, might have inspired him.

If my thin words do not convince then read Nick Kent’s review of Marquee Moon for NME in 1977. He was ridiculed at the time for going over the top. Yet it cannot be doubted that he was both sincere, and perceptive.

Lastly, one of their less well-known songs, but still a gem – who on earth can call Tom Verlaine a punk?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *