Guiding Light: On the Neon Adolescence of Tom Verlaine
The Television Frontman Passed Away on Saturday
Jan 30, 2023
The jazz-tinged art punk of Television marked a turning point in popular music, with the New York-based quartet being hailed as the new Velvet Underground in its time. Since Television’s emergence in the late 1970s and the release of their timeless debut Marquee Moon, the forward-thinking group has remained an influential force, its presence as crucial to rock as the more mainstream names often credited with furthering the genre. Television as an entity, however, would have lacked the penetrating electricity so often associated with its music and image if not for the efforts of its charismatic frontman Tom Verlaine.
Born Thomas Miller in 1949, the precocious, young multi-instrumentalist claimed to have taken up playing guitar after hearing The Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” as a teenager, just as the music of Stan Getz moved him to learn the saxophone as a child. This personal dichotomy—the intersection of rock and jazz—remained inherent in Verlaine’s music and lyrics, embodied most prominently on Television’s signature track, the epic “Marquee Moon”—itself a study of dichotomies, namely between the urban and arcadian, civilization and nature. For all intents and purposes, Verlaine experienced the very mythical adolescence later conjured in his music. He met Television co-founder Richard Hell at the Sanford School, a preparatory academy in Delaware, from which the two eventually escaped. In the early 1970s, Verlaine relocated to New York City, where he and Hell reunited. Verlaine abandoned his original surname in favor of that of a prominent poet, à la Bob Dylan, and haunted the East Village, rubbing elbows with members of the local underground, including Patti Smith, Dee Dee Ramone, Deborah Harry, and Chris Stein. The aspiring poet cycled through various bands with Hell before the duo formed Television alongside guitarist Richard Lloyd in 1973. By the release of the critically acclaimed Marquee Moon, however, Verlaine and Hell had since fallen out, and the latter departed the group before recording sessions for its debut had commenced.
Verlaine’s distinctly neon-lit vision of American youth, which shone brightly throughout the music of his 40+ year career, was perhaps no better demonstrated than on his first two albums with Television, released in 1977 and 1978, respectively. As a guitarist—he was among his generation’s finest—Verlaine used his jagged, seemingly intuitive playing style as a sensuous veil for his notorious perfectionism. Indeed, he was as much a classicist as he was a punk, returning once more to the numerous dichotomies informing his personal and creative lives. The lanky, expressionless, nearly extraterrestrial being extending a pale hand on the album cover of Marquee Moon was, in actuality, one of modern music’s most educated and expressive aesthetes, an innovator who, like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Paul Simon before him, introduced serious poetry to popular music. One is compelled to return to Television’s finest tracks—“Marquee Moon,” “Guiding Light,” “See No Evil,” “Venus,” “Glory,” “Torn Curtain,” “Days,” “Carried Away”—to witness Verlaine’s literary prowess and songwriting expertise merged so exquisitely. An otherworldly quality is consistently emitted from these tracks, which have inspired many yet remain impossible to successfully emulate. Such is the magic of Verlaine’s enchanted urban nether realm: a place of neon light and monochromatic shadow, of polluted night skies and naked vulnerability in the city streets below, of cement sidewalks and fathomless water flowing freely, a place both ultramodern and of the past, yet existing out of time. Even in death, it seems, he resides there.
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