RIP Tom Verlaine (1949-2023)

29th January 2023 · 2020s, 2022, Music

Tom Verlaine of Television has died, aged 73.

I’m usually indifferent to the kind of performative public grief that has become the norm since Diana died. I’m sad, but I’m not distraught when a public figure “passes” (to use the horrible word that people prefer now).

Today I’m properly sad because Tom Verlaine occupies a precious space in my emotional life, and is a crucial component in my musical coming of age.

The first time I saw him, the first time I heard him, in his band Television – those angular features, those angular songs, those fluid guitar solos – it stirred something within me.

Buying Marquee Moon and playing it for the first time truly opened up my doors of perception. Especially that title track: I would lie on the floor with my head between two speakers, listening endlessly to those solos (with the record sleeve helpfully advising which was Verlaine and which was Richard Lloyd, and in which speaker).

Television: Marquee Moon – 45th Anniversary Reappraisal

It’s probably the album I’ve played most throughout my life and definitely my “favourite”, whatever that means: different records are the right ones for different times and places – but that one always seemed right.

Strangely, I never felt Television captured their magic on the live stage – the tension of those songs that would be released into the liquid gold of those guitar solos seemed to elude them outside a studio.

But I did see them several times; the first time at the Hammersmith Odeon with Blondie, in 1977,another time at a weirdly underpopulated Town & Country for their 1993 reunion.

In between, I saw Tom play a solo set at The Venue in 1982, though I don’t remember much about that one except that it climaxe with versions of Marquee Moon and Prove It, And once I saw him give a kind of guitar masterclass at the 100 Club, where he tried to explain some of his secrets.
Then there was another Television reunion for the Bowie-curated Meltdown in 2002 and another for Patti Smith in 2005. Yet the most fascinating time was when he played as a guest with Smith and her band.
Which was apt as the very first time I heard his guitar playing, even before Television’s early single Little Johnny Jewel, was when he played guitar on her song Break It Up from Horses.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall that night Tom sat almost unnoticed in the shadows on the edge of the drum riser crouched over his guitar, watching Smith intently, and subtly embellishing her band’s sound with harmonics… playing purely by intuition.

He really could make the electric guitar sound more beautiful than anyone or anything. He had one of those instantly recognisable tones, and a way with arpeggiated solos that spiralled heavenwards – like this one, from one of his underappreciated solo albums.