Happy Birthday, Tom Verlaine

Tom Verlaine, guitarist and leader of the band, Television, was born on December 13th, 1949, which means that today I am wishing him a happy 70th birthday.

With his band, Television, Verlaine helped to usher in the New York City punk & New Wave scene. Television began playing at the infamous club, CBGB’s, in 1974. Soon after, other bands followed in Television’s wake, debuting at the club, such as: The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and The Dead Boys.  CBGB’s became the place to be among people in the know. 

Television at CBGBs

On Verlaine’s first publicly released recording, he played guitar on Patti Smith’s rendition of “Hey Joe”. A short time later, Television released a single entitled, “Little Johnny Jewel;” a song too long to be contained on one side of a seven inch single, and so it was divided into parts one and two on either side of the record. An odd choice for a single, but it revealed that Tom Verlaine and the band would insist on doing things as they saw fit, with no compromises. 

In 1977, Television released their debut album, “Marquee Moon.” The record experienced low sales in the United States, but was a hit in the United Kingdom. In retrospect, the album is now viewed, not only as one of the greatest debut albums by a band, but also as an essential rock album. Several guitarists, such as U2’s The Edge and Will Sergeant of Echo & The Bunnymen, have cited the album as a huge influence.

The reason for this adulation is the sound of the album, the seemingly new sound, that Tom Verlaine and fellow guitarist Richard Lloyd extracted from their guitars. The interplay between the two of them has often been referred to as telepathic. The combined guitarwork was jarring and different for a rock album. Guitar parts came together in such a way that the listener could barely tell which guitarist played which part. Fortunately for us, the album included credits on the inner sleeve, so that we could read which guitarist took which solo on any particular song. 

Following the release of a second album, “Adventure,” the band Television broke up and Tom Verlaine embarked on a solo career. From 1979 to 1990, he released six solo records, on almost as many different record labels. All these records featured his signature guitar sound, a sound which is subtly different than his work with his former band. The guitar parts on the solo records seem to consist of layers of parts, the obvious rhythm and lead parts, but underneath also little squiggly bits that appear in the mix, adding a bedrock to the sonic presentation.

The lock-step guitar work changes with his third record, “Words from the Front,” became looser, acquiring an almost groove on some songs, while being easily recognizable as the work of Tom Verlaine. Following the release of this album, he relocated to London, and later remarked in an interview that he began to pick up the guitar and play every day. This was a habit he had not adopted previously, apparently only picking up the guitar to rehearse or play a performance. This oddly resulted in the release of his album “Cover,” which was keyboard-heavy, yet still had jarring and heart-lurching solos. 

Following “Cover” there is a bit of a gap, which I later discovered was due to the fact that he had recorded an album worth of songs that were rejected by his record label, and he was dropped. Verlaine then signed to Fontana records and released his fifth album “Flash Light,” which included singles, such as “Cry Mercy Judge” and “A Town Called Walker.”  His sixth album, “The Wonder,” included the single, “Kaliedoscopin’’” A few of the previously rejected songs became B-sides for those singles, and for my money, are among my favorite songs he has ever recorded and released. 

Sadly, Verlaine was dropped by Fontana records just as they released “The Wonder,” and he toured the United States doing uncharacteristic acoustic shows. I had the pleasure of seeing him on the acoustic tour in San Francisco and can honestly say it was a delight. He spoke of perhaps releasing an acoustic album, but that never happened, much like his rumored book of prose work, “41 monologues,” was never completed and never published. I am sure I am not alone in wanting to read a book written by Tom Verlaine. As before he started playing in bands, Verlaine and Richard Hell were “working” as poets in New York city. 

1992 brought a resurgence to Tom Verlaine, one the general public might not have even known they needed, with the release of his instrumental album “Warm & cool,” which has a jazzy and cinematic feel, and the reformation of the band, Television. 

Television played a few festival shows in England, then released their third album, which is self-titled. The album was generally well-received and featured the lead off-track, “Call Mr. Lee.” One friend of mine remarked to me that the album contained every great guitar sound. Despite the accolades the band had acquired over the years, the band did not magically become a household name. I would guess that very few if any regular rock radio stations added the album to their playlists. 

In subsequent years since that release, the band has not released a fourth record. I am sure I am joined by many in decrying that fact. I would love to hear a new album by Television. The band has continued to play and tour since the reformation, although Richard Lloyd departed from the band in 2007, and was replaced by Jimmy Rip, who had played with Tom Verlaine on several of his solo records, and also on the project, “Music for experimental films,” which saw the two guitarists adding a live score to seven vintage silent films. A performance of this piece came to Portland, and I of course attended; it was delightful. A favorite moment of mine was that, as Jimmy Rip and Tom Verlaine walked down the aisle heading to the front of the theatre, Jimmy Rip referred to Tom Verlaine as “Tommy.” 

I had never pictured him as a “Tommy”. Over the years he has always remained an enigma and a serious artist to me. The idea of friendliness and humor in his daily life had never occured to me. He does not often give interviews, and when he does, the answers to questions are often deflective and less revealing than I would prefer. Most of what I know of the man himself comes from remarks made by ex-bandmates. These statements, while possibly true, are often wrapped in bitterness and frustration; which is understandable, after all they are ex-bandmates.

Although when I mention Tom Verlaine in general conversation I am greeted by blank and unknowing faces, he is my favorite guitarist; always interesting, with a sound and sensibility that is uniquely his own. Repeated listenings of his recordings have brought me decades of pleasure. I hope you will join me in wishing him a happy birthday.

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