Tom Verlaine, who redefined rock guitar in the punk era of the 1970s with his band Television, died Saturday in Manhattan. He was 73.
Verlaine’s death was confirmed to the New York Times by Jesse Paris Smith, the daughter of Verlaine’s peer and former partner Patti Smith. She shared that the musician had died “after a brief illness.”
Staking out Hilly Kristal’s funky club CBGB on New York’s Bowery as its laboratory, Television advanced an expansive, ecstatic style that counterpoised Verlaine’s askew, chiming playing against fellow guitarist Richard Lloyd’s more conventionally bluesy yet equally lyrical work.
Critic Robert Palmer noted in “Rock & Roll: An Unruly History” (1995), “When the punk rebellion began taking shape in the mid-seventies, Television in particular carried on the [Velvet Underground’s] legacy of street-real lyrics and harmonic clang-and-drone, with appropriate nods to John Coltrane’s modal jazz and the Byrds’ resonating raga-rock from lead guitarist Tom Verlaine.”
Though the band never found great commercial success, the impact of Verlaine’s freewheeling, jaggedly inventive playing and Television’s combative two-guitar assault would later be widely felt in the music of younger acolytes, from such New York-based bands as the Feelies and Sonic Youth to West Coast-bred players like Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate and Nels Cline of Wilco.
“He was my guitar hero at a time when I needed one most,” Wynn said in a statement. “I spent the entire year of 1981 practicing daily to Marquee Moon. Tom Verlaine’s soloing (and Richard Lloyd‘s as well, of course) showed me you could be a virtuoso and dangerous at the same time, more Coltrane or Ornette than the arena rockers of the day. It was a revelation and I was hoping my Jazzmaster could somehow channel his when I played the solo on ‘Halloween’ on the first Dream Syndicate album. Such an immeasurable influence on me and, of course, on so many of fellow guitarist friends.”
Signed to Elektra Records (after the departure of Verlaine’s close friend and co-founding member Richard Hell), Television issued its groundbreaking debut album “Marquee Moon” in 1977; the collection’s 10-minute title track – written by Verlaine, who also played an extended solo and contributed a distinctively throttled, wobbly lead vocal –was an anomaly among the short, intensely focused songs of such CBGB contemporaries as the Ramones and Talking Heads.
Increasing tension between Verlaine and Lloyd led Television to disband after its second album “Adventure” (1978); the group would reunite for a self-titled 1992 album for Capitol Records and sporadic live appearances. In 2007, Lloyd was replaced in the touring unit by Jimmy Ripp, who had for many years supported Verlaine on his solo albums and tours.
On his own, Verlaine released eight solo albums, which extended the cryptic authorial voice he developed in Television, on Elektra, Warner Bros., Virgin, I.R.S., Fontana and Rykodisc from 1979-1992. A 14-year studio hiatus followed, until the guitarist reemerged in 2006 with the vocal collection “Songs and Other Things” and the instrumental set “Around,” released simultaneously on the Chicago independent label Thrill Jockey.
He was always a reluctant rock star and guitar hero. In a 2006 New York Times story, Ben Sisario wrote, “When asked how his own life should appear in a biography, Mr. Verlaine thought for a moment before offering his preferred self-deprecating epigram: ‘Struggling not to have a professional career.’”
He was born Thomas Miller in Denville, N.J., on Dec. 13, 1949. His family relocated to the working class suburb of Wilmington, Del., in 1956. A love of symphonic music led him to the piano as a child. In 1963, he took up the saxophone after gravitating to the music of jazz avant gardists Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Roland Kirk and Albert Ayler.
Only after his twin brother John played the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” and other contemporary rock records for him did Miller rethink his preferred instrument. “Up until then, the guitar was a stupid instrument to me,” he recalled in a 2001 interview with Mojo. “Those records made me think the guitar could be as good as jazz.”
By 1966, the aspiring musician had become proficient enough on guitar to start a short-lived band with local drummer Billy Ficca. At Sanford Preparatory, a Wilmington boarding school he attended as a day student, Miller encountered Richard Meyers, a rebellious, under-achieving Kentuckian. The two became close friends, and made an attempt to run away to Florida that was squelched by the police in Alabama.
In 1968, after abortive studying at Erskine College, a Christian school in South Carolina, and some bumming around in Delaware, Miller rejoined Meyers, who had moved to New York and was living in Greenwich Village. They tried their hands at poetry and pranks – at one point publishing a book together as “Theresa Stern,” featuring a composite portrait in drag. But the New York Dolls’ glam scene inspired the pair to form a band, the Neon Boys, with Meyers on bass and Ficca recruited as the drummer.
The group fell apart in 1973. But a year later the three musicians reconvened, joined by guitarist Richard Lloyd, whose benefactor Terry Ork employed Miller and Meyers at his Village memorabilia store Cinemabilia.
Armed with original songs by the guitarist and bassist, the quartet debuted at a small Times Square theater on March 2, 1974, with crudely short-cropped hair and, reflecting their ongoing penury, shredded, safety-pinned clothing. (The look was soon exported to England by Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols.) Meyers had renamed himself Richard Hell; Miller took the stage name Tom Verlaine, after the 19th-century French poet; and the band, in acknowledgement of Verlaine’s handle, was renamed Television.
Looking for a regular hitching post, Hell and Verlaine convinced Skid Row bar owner Kristal to give them a steady CBGB gig, and the Bowery shows began to attract attention, as well as other young bands looking for a local slot for their original music.
An early press rave was penned for Rock Scene magazine by Patti Smith, then developing her own reputation as a musician; the review was a virtual mash note to Verlaine, whom she said “plays lead guitar with angular inverted passion like a thousand bluebirds screaming.” The two were soon involved romantically; Verlaine guested on guitar on her 1975 debut album “Horses,” for which he co-authored the song “Break It Up” with Smith, and they collaborated on the book “The Night” in 1976.
Television’s increasingly forceful live performances brought interest from Island Records, but a 1975 demo produced by Brian Eno failed to secure a contract. At the same time, Hell’s agitated stage style and burgeoning heroin habit and Verlaine’s reluctance to play his songs prompted a split. (Some of Hell’s songs for Television were heard on “Blank Generation,” the 1977 debut by his band the Voidoids.)
With Blondie’s original bassist Fred Smith enlisted to replace Hell, the band recorded a storming seven-minute track that was issued across two sides of a single released by Ork on his eponymous label in September 1975. One of the earliest indie singles issued on the New York punk scene, “Little Johnny Jewel” ignited new major label interest in Television, and the band was ultimately signed by A&R exec Karin Berg to Elektra Records in July 1976.
The “Marquee Moon” album and its ambitious title track were both instantly acknowledged as defining statements. But, despite the fact that Television gelled into one of the most formidable live acts on the scene, neither the debut LP nor its successor “Adventure” managed to enter the American charts, and the group dissolved within weeks of the end of its 1978 U.S. tour.
Though he always boasted a devoted cult fan base, Verlaine never succeeded in attaining a commercial foothold on the charts; his 1981 sophomore solo album “Dreamtime,” his lone entry, peaked at No. 177. After the “Television” reunion album and the instrumental set “Warm and Cool” in 1992, he opted out on recording for nearly a decade and a half.
In the interim, the guitarist made appearances in 2001 with Television at All Tomorrow’s Parties in the U.K. and Chicago’s Noise Pop Festival. In the studio, and on tour, he frequently served as accompanist to former paramour Patti Smith, and appeared on her albums “Gone Again” (1996), “Gung Ho” (2000), “Twelve” (2007) and “Banga” (2012). Sessions he produced for singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley before his 1997 were excerpted on the posthumous album “Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk” (1998).