Everyone knows that Television was instrumental in creating New York’s punk scene — that CBGB’s would not have existed as a venue without their intervention — but ever since their debut Marquee Moon came out in 1977, critics wondered if there was anything punk about the band at all. Maybe that’s why, for all the classic punk records released in the late seventies, this is the one that seems as relevant and modern today as it was then; it is not dated by slogans, fashions or sounds.
If we back up a couple of years to the Neon Boys (the pre-Television trio consisting of Verlaine, Richard Hell and Billy Ficca), well, yes, it sure sounds like they were inventing punk rock. But they soon evolved. Punk bands played short and played fast. Television’s first single, “Little Johnny Jewel,” recorded while Richard Hell was still in the band, runs nine minutes and was broken up over two sides of a 7” single.
In his memoir, I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp, Richard Hell discusses being ousted from the band that he and his friend Verlaine had started. Television’s early sound was a “glorious racket,” he says. “That’s not what Tom was interested in anymore. He heard these crystal-clear crisp sweet-guitar suites of highly arranged series of time and dynamics in his head, and they were about specific parts constructed for effect where everything was subordinate to what his guitar would be doing.”
Hell was pushed out, and this worked well for both of them; Television became the band they were meant to be and Hell went on to front the Voidoids with another unique guitarist (Robert Quine), and anyway “Love Comes In Spurts” and “Venus de Milo” don’t really belong on the same album.
The band is touted for the long, intricately mapped guitar duels between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. But I’d put Tom Verlaine’s singing (not to mention the lyrics) high on the list of what made them sound so unusual. If there is anything punk about Television (after Richard Hell’s departure), it’s the way he attacks the vocals with attitude and energy, not with a throaty rock growl, but doing something entirely more off-kilter and modern. Listen to him sing the opening lines of “Friction” for confirmation, in fact everything great about the band is right there in the first 60 seconds.
The best albums are more than a collection of good songs, they are a sealed world where only that kind of music seems possible, a gathering in time and space. I’m thinking about records like Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants, Big Star’s Sister Lovers, the V.U.s third, Dusty in Memphis — I could go on — they have a personality, a mood, a unity of purpose. Records like this are not recorded in ten locations over a period of two years; they are created in one (or maybe two) short bursts of time, in one space, and we get to inhabit that space too.
Marquee Moon is like that, recorded and mixed in six weeks at a small studio on west 48th Street, and officially co-produced with Andy Johns though according to Lloyd the band clashed with him more often than not; he would dial up the big drum sound he was famous for — but they wanted a small drum sound. At any rate, they had been rehearsing the songs daily for weeks before Johns showed up, and knew what they were doing, they really only needed someone to get it on tape.
In 1994 my band Luna was tossing around ideas for a producer for our next record for Elektra Records. We wanted someone who would make the band sound natural (if there is such a thing). We were not keen on eighties drum sounds and textures, and we didn’t like the modern alternative/grunge production either. One we could agree on was Television’s eponymous (re-union) album from 1992, engineered and mixed by Mario Salvati and containing tracks like “1880 or So” and “Call Mr Lee.”
We tracked down Mario, who was working out of Sorcerer Sound on Mercer Street in Soho, and after a trial EP with him (“Chinatown”/“Bonnie & Clyde”) we soon got to work on the whole album. One thing we asked Mario — do you think Tom would guest on the album? Mario worked out a deal for us. We had the studio blocked out for four weeks, but since we liked to work days, while Verlaine liked to work nights, Tom would play on our record if we’d let him use those wee small hours to work on his own material.
Tom arrived with a small case filled with vacuum tubes, a Fender Stratocaster, a green Guild Starfire hollowbody (with the Dearmond single coil pickups), a no-name electric 12 string with high action that I found completely unplayable, and a small amplifier that someone had built for him; Tom knew well that the right amp is at least as important as an expensive guitar. There were no effects pedals, no bag of tricks, only a pick, his fingers, and his controlled use of the guitar’s volume knob to achieve his unique sound.
His friend Patti Smith said somewhere that Verlaine “plays lead guitar with angular inverted passion like a thousand bluebirds screaming” — but that says more about her than it does about him. Richard Lloyd (in an interview with Damien Love) gets to the point, “he used the classical vibrato. It’s technical to describe, but it’s like on a violin: you move your wrist back and forth, the finger doesn’t move, but the pitch goes up and down. I don’t know where he got it. It was more like a sitar player, but that was Tom’s style, this magnificent classical vibrato. He’d never do whole step bends, always micro-bends.”
I could guess at a few possible influences on his playing. I know he liked the Ventures. There’s Jeff Beck (who also creates beautiful, controlled swells and stabs with vibrato and a Stratocaster), and John Cippollina, maybe even Jerry Garcia, but all you can really say is that Verlaine’s playing is instantly recognizable; it could only be him.
It was beyond exciting to watch Tom play his piercing solo for “23 Minutes in Brussels” in one long take. He then had Mario back up the tape and drop him in to fix a couple of sections where he thought he had lost steam. All in all it took him about twenty minutes to record a dazzling solo.
“That’s a good guitar solo,” he said. “But you should do an edit on the song, it’s too long.” We took his advice.
Next he plugged in the unplayable 12-string, and laid down a short (20-second) melodic solo on “Moon Palace.” The song is in the key of D, but he played a major pentatonic run starting in A. Go figure. Guitar solos are out of fashion with young indie bands — and I get that, it is generally an exercise in cliché— but for me those twenty seconds of electric 12-string are the highlight of the whole Penthouse album.
I didn’t see Tom again till about 2011, when a mutual friend and recording engineer Patrick Derivaz invited me to lunch at a Middle Eastern place on Atlantic Avenue, and Tom showed up with him. I reminded him of his 12-string solo, but he had no recollection of it — “I played a 12-string? I remember the other one. . .”
In 2013 I was hired by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh to collaborate on Warhol Exposed — following the earlier Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests)— this new show would present previously unseen, short, silent films by the artist, with live accompaniment by five different artists. I was to curate the musical side, picking five artists to score three films each and perform them live on stage while the films played on the big screen. My first thought was Tom Verlaine, I knew he had some experience playing to silent films, and the other performers were myself, Martin Rev of Suicide, Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, and Eleanor Friedberger.
Tom and I met for lunch again, this time at an Indian restaurant just off Lexington Avenue, somewhere in the east 20s. I told Tom I wanted to get Martin Rev involved too, and he thought that was a great idea, he didn’t know them personally but he had seen Suicide at the Mercer Arts Center — which must have been 1973 or earlier.
The first Warhol Exposed shows took place in 2014 at the Carnegie Music Hall (in Pittsburgh!), UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles, and three nights at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Tom was the first one on stage each night, and performed solo, sitting on a chair at the side of the stage, while watching the film and improvising. He seemed to have a vague structure for each piece, but he never played them the same way twice. He started with a film he had requested: John Washing, which is four minutes of poet John Giorno, naked in black and white, slowly washing the dishes in a kitchen sink. It’s a beautiful film, and was brought to life by Tom’s delicate, minor pentatonic noodling. Tom’s piece half reminded me of the desert love scene from Zabriskie Point, scored by Jerome John Garcia.
Verlaine did not carry himself like a rock star, he was reclusive or downright shy around people he didn’t know. He mostly kept to himself during these shows, and asked to sit in complete darkness while on stage, but the show’s designer wasn’t having it; the compromise was a soft light focused on him so the audience could at least see what he was doing. He agreed to this, but despite repeated cajoling, would not take part when the group took a bow at the end of the show. “That’s show business!” he told me dismissively. By the time we took that bow at the end of the night, he would be in a taxi on his way back to the hotel.
In 2016 we took Warhol Exposed to Europe, with shows in London, Nantes and Paris. Bradford Cox had dropped out, but the rest of the group was intact, and Tom was in good spirits, now traveling with people he was familiar with from the first run.
In London he took Britta and me out to dinner. He had a specific Indian vegetarian restaurant in mind, a place he used to frequent back in the ‘90s when he lived in London. But he couldn’t remember the name, or exactly where it was, so we walked, and walked, a couple of miles, doubling back a few times till he found it, a modest student-frequented all-you-can-eat establishment. I guess we all like to return to places where we ate happily. We talked about authors we both liked (Lawrence Osborne was one I remember), but also his time living and recording in London.
Tom’s favorite thing to do in Paris was walk, or sit in the park with a book and a self-rolled cigarette. On the final night of the tour he joined us at Au Boeuf Couronné, a famous old steak restaurant near the Philharmonie, for a late meal and a glass of wine. We talked about doing more of these shows but that turned out to the last one.
During the pandemic year 2020, our former Luna bassist Justin Harwood suggested we try recording “Marquee Moon” (the song) remotely, piece by piece, from our home studios. I thought this was a nutty idea — how can you cover something so perfect, almost sacred? You can’t really shorten, or re-write — you wouldn’t change a Beethoven piano sonata either — so we would need to do it pretty faithfully. I reluctantly agreed to do it, Lee Wall got it going with a drum track, Sean Eden played the bulk of the guitars, Justin the bass, and I was left to add some atmospheric guitar flourishes, and sing, which I figured would be easy enough. But when I came to do the singing, I realized that the vocal was out of my range, or at the very least it was out of my comfort zone. It came down to that odd phrasing and the weird adolescent/aggressive tone of Tom’s voice. I couldn’t cop that without sounding a fool, but I found if I sang/spoke in a lower octave, and added another vocal behind me, mechanically shouting the lyric, I could make it work.
“Oh yes,” Tom told me later, “I can’t hit those notes either — when we play the song live, we drop the key.”
Britta and I last saw Tom in December 2018 when I was in New York for a gig. We had a late lunch at an Italian restaurant in Chelsea (he lived nearby), and Tom talked about how the neighborhood had changed. He hated that the ambulances were now equipped with super-bright LED lights that flashed through his fifth-floor windows at night. But his chief gripe was the new sign in Clement Clarke Moore Park on 22nd street, where he liked to sit with a cigarette, now prohibiting adults except those accompanying children. As such, he had recently been accosted by one mother who told this tall 68-year-old guitar legend that he had to vacate the park.
Verlaine left a lot of music for us to examine. I dwelled on Marquee Moon because it is absolute perfection but Adventure is terrific, as are the numerous bootlegs of the band around this time, the eponymous 1992 album contains some gems, and Tom’s solo work too (especially the 1979 debut on Elektra) and 1992’sWarm and Cool, out of print), and there are a whole lot of songs I could point to, “Postcards from Waterloo,” “Cold Irons Bound” from the film I’m Not There. Tyler Wilcox’s Doom and Gloom from the Tomb is a good source for Television and Verlaine rarities, bootlegs, demo tapes, and some stellar live duets with Jimmy Rip, and hopefully some of this stuff will get a proper release beyond the much appreciated Youtube and Tumblr posts where they currently reside.
I’m reminded of that story about Ernst Lubitsch’s funeral, where William Wyler remarked “No More Lubitsch” and Billy Wilder answered “Worse. No more Lubitsch films.”