There is the much-repeated anecdote, often attributed to Brian Eno, that the Velvet Underground’s first album sold only a few thousand copies but everyone who bought it started a band. The same idea could be applied to Television and their debut Marquee Moon (1977), another group defined by a tension between artistic and commercial impulses and whose impact was immediate and meteoric, lasting briefly but informing the work of generations of musicians. As a reminder of this influence, the sudden passing of Tom Verlaine, a founder and the key songwriter for Television, on 28 January at the age of 73 hit like an unexpected blow, a declamatory moment that had a spectrum of musicians from Thurston Moore, to Steve Albini, to Vernon Reid, to Susanna Hoffs expressing their connection and debt to the seminal guitarist.
Though his public presence had been increasingly muted over the years, the death of Verlaine furthermore symbolized the continued denouement of a certain period of New York City history, a time when the word “bohemian” still held some meaning, when one could pursue becoming a writer or becoming a musician without the anxieties (or shallow seductions) of conventional careerism. Verlaine, originally Thomas Miller, named himself after the 19th-century French poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). There was a certain purity to Verlaine but without sanctimony, instilled by the fact that he was an iconoclastic guitarist and songwriter and that was enough.
Though frequently invoked, the application of the term “punk” to the music of Television or Verlaine isn’t entirely helpful. In a number of ways, it is misleading. True, Television was an indispensable fixture of the live music scene in New York centered on CBGB, which served as a vital crucible on the American punk landscape during the mid- to late 1970s. However, Television on vinyl has little resemblance to the cliches of spiked hair, black leather, and two-or-three-chord rhythms that shaped the ethos of bands like the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. The usual sartorial or musical reference points didn’t apply.
Verlaine’s bandmate and childhood friend, Richard Meyers (better known as Richard Hell), who left before the recording of Marquee Moon, more fully embodied this stereotypic style and would indulge this punk aesthetic in his own way in the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids. That resulted in the iconic Blank Generation (1977), its title track becoming an anthem for the People’s Republic of the Lower East Side.
In contrast, Verlaine cut a more restrained, urbane presence. Letting his guitar work speak for itself, his stage and album cover charisma abandoned the fashion visual cues that predecessors and successors adopted to instead impart a non-descriptive, inscrutable quality, which nonetheless inspired even more curiosity. Later bands like the Feelies and Yo La Tengo would inherit this homespun, intellectual vibe.
Yet there is an exuberance to Marquee Moon that more than fulfills this speculative interest, a teetering quality of barely controlled/uncontrolled energy that implied the chaotic drive of their live performances. This is the essential punk strain of Television. At their best, the bellicose melodic-counter-melodic interplay between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, Television’s estimable second lead guitarist, feels combative, both conciliatory and quarrelsome at once. Indeed, this argumentative sound reflected tensions in the band—Billy Ficca and Fred Smith completed the lineup on drums and bass, respectively—that led to their dissolution after Adventure (1978), their second LP. Verlaine’s Cale to Lloyd’s Reed? Or is it the opposite? It doesn’t really matter.
What of those of us who bought Marquee Moon, but didn’t start a band? Though I knew Television by name, with their vinyl album sleeves occupying the music shops and the rock section of the central public library in my hometown of Austin, my first encounter with Verlaine was not through Marquee Moon but through his solo album Warm and Cool (1992). It’s an instrumental work that bared little resemblance to the recording he did during the 1970s, at least it seemed so on the surface. When a publicity copy arrived at the college radio station I was working at, I remember it stirred some polite interest given Verlaine’s canonical reputation, but its sound was also antithetical to what was receiving high rotation at the time. The considered instrumentation and clear, intricate melodies contrasted with the emphasis placed on distortion and decibel volume embraced by numerous bands in the Pacific Northwest and the UK, whether Nirvana or My Bloody Valentine.
The return of Television shortly thereafter with their self-titled Television (1992) also came and went with little notice. What appeared as a calculated attempt at reintroduction and seizure upon the energies of the burgeoning alternative rock scene that had quickly unfolded came in confrontation with the groundswell of interest in new, younger bands, even if the Velvets, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and Television were covered as esteemed predecessors.
Of course, this is unfair. This is how cool operates. Cool isn’t constant. Cool and uncool modulate. Timing can be everything, and lightning didn’t strike twice. Maybe the fact that I first listened to Warm and Cool rather than Marquee Moon, which I dove into while in grad school, explains why I never started a band. History. In truth, three recordings mattered more to me than these albums at the time, providing a glimmer of the power of Television.
The first two recordings were Richard Lloyd’s guesting on two albums by Matthew Sweet, Girlfriend (1991) and 100% Fun (1995). In both instances, on tracks like “Divine Intervention” and “Sick of Myself”, Lloyd’s lead guitar provided a propelling, rough-edged muscularity that veered this way and that, seemingly stress testing the careful pop orchestrations Sweet had put together. Indeed, the guitar solo at the end of “Sick of Myself” is repeated not once but twice by Lloyd, as if dissatisfied with the first take and, further, telling Sweet the song is unfinished, it needs to go on. Let me take over, young friend, we are not yet done is the tacit message.
The third recording is Verlaine’s appearance on Luna’s third album, Penthouse (1995). In the track “23 Minutes in Brussels”, Verlaine goes in exactly the opposite direction from Lloyd. Rather than stretching the songcraft structure employed by Dean Wareham, Verlaine’s lead guitar colors in the blank spaces like a painter might. After a steady percussion intro, a single, foregrounded guitar comes in, dropping curlicue notes and noodling tones in a manner reminiscent of Jackson Pollock working a canvas with his drip technique, letting intuition, exploration, and happenstance take over in a way that complemented and enhanced the overall sound.
It’s unmistakably Verlaine. Indeed, the argument has been made that some musicians have echoed the methods of Abstract Expressionism. Songcraft is less about replicating past traditions, and instead about breaking those traditions down into elementary parts, to the essentials, the direct physicality or aurality at hand, to understand paint as paint and notes as notes. No ideas but in things. This approach can apply to Verlaine. If figures like Glenn Branca or Thurston Moore or Lee Ranaldo executed a de Kooning-like method of integrating broad brushstrokes of dense feedback, Verlaine often traced the contingency of the individual line like Pollock or later post-Abstract Expressionist artists like Cy Twombly.
Taken together, these brief occasions cited are but footnotes in the lives of Lloyd and Verlaine. The impact of their mutual sound is more widely observed in New York musical acts stretching from Talking Heads to the Strokes. I can’t feel the unsteady tempos of Talking Heads without sensing Television’s parallel repertoire, nor can I listen to David Byrne’s off-kilter, ironic singing without hearing Verlaine’s tentative, trembling vocal line.
Further afield, the minor-key opening riff of “Elevation” on Marquee Moon and the counter-melody that follows prefigure the groundwork of “The Killing Moon” (1984) by Echo & the Bunnymen. The rollicking vitality of “See No Evil” can be found in any number of tracks from R.E.M.’s early albums. Songs like “1,000,000” and “Gardening at Night” from their Chronic Town EP (1982) and “Laughing” and “Sitting Still” from Murmur (1983) have the same kinetic quality and pacing, if at a lower, more subdued volume. The cascading, Hijaz-inflected solo that opens Verlaine’s “Friction” is practically the root DNA for Peter Buck’s established style in songs like “Feeling Gravitys Pull” from Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), while “Green Grow the Rushes” from the same album seems to flow downstream, to my ear, from the lovely jangle pop of “Days” on Adventure.
But more than this, Verlaine’s longer career created a space for solo guitarists who favored willful experimentation. Verlaine’s less discussed instrumental albums like Warm and Cool— with its astonishing, nostalgic opening “Those Harbor Lights”—and later Around (2006) legitimated this artistic path, appealing like intimate soundtracks from an unfinished Wim Wenders road movie. The quiet, meditative moments of beautifully rendered tracks like “The O of Adore” or “Meteor Beach”, which spills over into “Mountain”, from Around conjure a cerebral landscape, revealing a melancholic spirit and psychological point of view absent from his early recordings with Television.
There tend to be two kinds of guitarists: those who create rhythm and those who create melody, or, more abstractly, those who structure and those who explore. Many, through the demands of working in a band, form a compromise between the two. Verlaine, however, continued to push the boundaries of the latter approach, minimizing or dispensing with other instrumental accompaniments to lead the way for like-minded guitarists such as Alan Licht, David Grubbs, and Jim O’Rourke. He provided and exemplified that kind of aural freedom.
I could say more. It is customary by this point in an essay of this kind for the author to describe their experience seeing the artist firsthand. Yet I concede that I never witnessed Verlaine on stage, let alone watch Television erupt with their wild inventions in front of an audience. This essay is in part about my failure as a listener, a betrayal after coming around to their music. I remember once noticing an advertisement for Television during the past decade but deciding not to go. In Austin? Philly? New York? I can’t recall exactly where now, perhaps my mind’s success at suppressing a misbegotten decision. Lloyd had left by then, so I felt it wasn’t the same. But still. Left to my own devices, I have since scoured the internet time to time for recordings and video over the years to make up for that failure to act.
In this, perhaps I idealize Verlaine. Feeding the myth shaped by those who knew him like Patti Smith, who has been the chronicler of other essential lives of a fading New York, whether Sam Shepard, Robert Mapplethorpe, or her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. Or feeding his own myth, with Verlaine out-Dylaning Dylan by naming himself after the language poet who fell in love with Rimbaud, who left his wife and son to spend a life of art and libertine transgressions, only to later attempt to murder him. Tom Verlaine’s actual life, his interior life, was surely more mundane and more interesting and more difficult and more humane than this or any other second-hand story might offer.
But for those of us, hapless souls, who never got to experience him, we are in an increasing majority now. Along with the music and the myth, we are becoming all that is left.