Tom Verlaine 1949-2023

I was sad to read late last night that Tom Verlaine, the great singer and guitarist with New York new wave band Television, had died, aged 73. Television shone only briefly in the mid to late 70s, but how brightly they shone. Their 1977 album Marquee Moon is one of the classics of the era, and remains one of my favourite albums of all time. I return to it frequently, and especially the epic title track.

Naturally I wrote about the band and the album in my book I Was There – A Musical Journey. It followed a piece about Velvet Underground – hence the reference at the start.

There was some of the Velvet’s epic quality in a band that jumped out of the New York new wave in 1977 with an album that was truly different, truly original.  It was one of those albums that sounded like nothing that came before and hasn’t been matched, even by the band themselves, since.  Plenty of bands have been influenced by it – notably The Strokes in the US and early Razorlight here in the UK – but no-one has ever come up with quite the same sound as “Marquee Moon” by Television. The band were part of the New York punk scene, supported The Ramones at CBGB’s, featured Richard Hell for a while, etc, etc.  So where did this music come from?  It wasn’t punk: no two minute three chord bashes here.  It was a set of fragile, intense songs, anchored by the title track, a ten minute epic of swirling, filigree guitars and anguished vocals, driven along by a metronomic, jerky bass line.  The metaphors that come to mind are all about delicacy but also sharpness: shards of glass, diamond edges… cold and pristine… but on the edge of breakdown. 

 The singer, writer and lead guitarist was Tom Verlaine. Good name – that French touch seemed right for the music. I don’t know how he was feeling when he made this album, but it could have been intensely happy or intensely sad.  Or both.  But intense, sensitive, raw – it wasn’t just the day job.  That guitar sound had to come deeply from within.  The only sound which I think is comparable, and might have been an inspiration, is the epic soloing of Neil Young on songs like “Cortez the Killer” and “Like a Hurricane”. They have a richer, deeper guitar, but have the same visceral quality, and the same layering of sound, like a meandering river in search of its destination.

 Each song on “Marquee Moon” felt like a lament, or an argument, or just bewilderment.  Fragments of icy guitar intertwined with anxious vocals, leading nowhere in particular. Songs without resolution, hanging on a nervous ledge.  Songs on the edge.  “Torn Curtain”, “Venus”, and my favourite, after the title track, “Elevation”.     

“Marquee Moon” was ecstatically received in the NME.  The great Nick Kent wrote the canonising review.  Television were the new heroes… until the next album.  “Adventure” was given the classic build-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down treatment.  Julie Burchill was brought in to bring it down, to destroy the myth.  Television were no longer the untouchable heroes.  And the truth is, that second album wasn’t great and the band didn’t do much after that.  Tom Verlaine released some decent solo albums where the guitar runs occasionally reached the heights of “Marquee Moon”; but it looks like genius touched Tom Verlaine for just a short while.  Enough to make one of the great albums, an album like no other, a diamond amongst pearls.  But just the one.

Tom Verlaine was born Thomas Miller in New Jersey in 1949. He went to a private boarding school, Sanford, in Hockessin, Delaware, where he made friends with Richard Meyers, later Richard Hell, who is often credited with starting punk’s ripped clothes and safety pin style. They formed a band called the Neon Boys in New York in 1972. It didn’t last long, but Television emerged from the ashes. Richard Hell soon left, to be replaced by Fred Smith. Another guitarist, Richard Lloyd also joined the band. I discovered after I wrote my book that Richard Lloyd was responsible for a lot of the intricate guitar-playing on Marquee Moon. I also didn’t mention their first epic song, Little Jimmy Jewel. Like Marquee Moon itself, it is an amazing, discursive track, quite sinister. The two songs are Television’s masterpieces.

I had the pleasure of seeing Tom and his band play at the Roundhouse in November 2013. It was a wonderful concert, the only time I saw the music of Marquee Moon played live. They did Little Johnny Jewel too. You can read my review here.

Roundhouse, November 2013

Tom made a number of solo albums in the 80s and beyond. I remember Words From The Front with affection – there were some good solos on that! He collaborated with all sorts of artists along the way, including Patti Smith, David Bowie and Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth. But he will be remembered most of all for Marquee Moon, the album and the astonishing ten minute track. As Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, no stranger to long guitar workouts, tweeted on hearing about Tom’s passing:

Tom Verlaine was a true great. His role in our culture and straight up awesomeness on the electric guitar was completely legendary. Name 10 minutes of music as good as Marquee moon. You can’t. It’s perfect.

Rest in peace, Tom Verlaine.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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3 Responses to Tom Verlaine 1949-2023

  1. I’m fond of saying this: “Marquee Moon is the best kind of Television” 😬

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