The powerful music of Tom Verlaine will live forever. And powerful it certainly was. I can’t think of any front person in music, and I must call him music, not rock n roll and certainly not punk rock, because he was genre-less, if that’s a word. Verlaine, somehow with zero showmanship, could keep an audience enthralled. I was in that audience, lucky me, underage, at CBGB for countless shows. High outta my gord, on speed and scotch and sodas. Before there was any ‘record deal,’ or full album out. All we had on vinyl was ‘Little Johnny Jewel,’ a copy of which I still own in my 45 collection.
As a 15 year old in the mid-1970s, I first learned of this band in Rock Scene Magazine, an odd magazine that was on newsstands everywhere, including my Long Island suburban neighbourhood. What was odd about Rock Scene Magazine was that it predominantly featured music and bands no one had ever heard of. Even the musicians who actually graced the covers of the magazine were predominantly underground. It was as if YOU didn’t know about this other world out there going on, in New York City, with faces and musicians that were well-known to everyone except YOU the reader out there. Of course this wasn’t true, these musicians weren’t known to anyone really. There was the odd backstage photo of the editors smiling and acting important themselves, with The Rolling Stones, or Zeppelin for example, but these were never features. The small black and white photos of bona fide stars, next to feature spreads made any music lover want to know what the hell was going on. The editors were making their money writing about stars in bigger publications apparently. They were seasoned. They were born out of the Max’s Kansas City back room table of Lillian Roxon. One of the first rock journalists who covered the music of the 1960s authoring the Rock Encyclopaedia that sat in every library across the USA. My “favourite book” – I even wrote to her – and she wrote me back, which I learned many years later was something she commonly did. I was, at the ripe old age of 15 already a rock n roll veteran, with my collection of 45s mostly from 1968, and a few handfuls of albums.
Eventually, I saw the name Patti Smith in the major newspaper, under a list of concerts coming up in Central Park. It was an a-ha moment, and with a school friend I took myself, just shy of 16 years old on the bus and subways into Central Park. A major moment of my pubescent life, the wild woman dragged my soul out of my young body, and her guitarist Ivan Kral dragged out my heart, the beginning of a lifelong love which started with him becoming my pen pal, and then later, when I was legal age, a lover. The most emotional damage at that show was done to me, during the song ‘Break It Up’. The opening band was Television. Which of course by then I proudly knew of from Rock Scene Magazine. The opening set by Television was a set-up for my emotional reaction. During ‘Break It Up’ Tom Verlaine returned to the stage to play his guitar part that he’d played on Patti’s newly released debut album. Which I hadn’t bought, yet.
I strolled out of Central Park feeling like the coolest teenager in the Universe, which maybe I was, and madly in love with Patti’s guitarist. Over the next year I made those aforementioned countless pilgrimages to CBGB, to see both bands. But Television were always that much more packed, people literally dripping from the walls, and hanging off the ceilings, a scene anyone there can confirm. They were also more than a smidgen bogglingly unique and fantastic than the Patti Smith Group. Verlaine would have no communication with the audience AT ALL EVER. He didn’t even say “thank you” in between songs. He never ‘introduced’ the next song. And there we all were, most older than me and the handful of other under-age kids, an audience used to the showmanship of Motown, and the Beatles and The Stones, and Bowie, but we didn’t care. It was all about Tom Verlaine’s music. His strange voice like a choked chicken was fine with all of us. The guitar playing was out-of-this-world great. Musically it was original in that the only lineage could be traced to San Francisco. There was definitely much in common with Country Joe and the Fish and Quicksilver Messenger, about Tom Verlaine songs and Television. Yet that hippie music structure that was uniquely San Francisco, was injected with a poetry influence by antiquated French poetry (we learned), and we were all here on the Bowery. 1970s Bowery, it’s most desperate, filthy, desolate and disgusting height, or low, as it were. The combination was therefore wholly unique and the actual music expertise of the playing from Verlaine, his side kick “Richie” Richard Lloyd – complete with pinned junkie eyes and Greenwich Village history, bassist Fred Smith, and the perfection of drummer Billy Ficca. No one could dismiss this as University Rock (Talking Heads), or Punk Rock (Ramones), or the sexy allure found in Blondie, or unabashed Velvet Underground affectations (Patti Smith). What the fuck was this? Who knows, I can only call it magic, and a magic I cherish, and it was never to be duplicated. It didn’t even influence anything that came to CBGB afterward, or anywhere. Post-punk CBGB acts like Sonic Youth say they were influenced by Televsion. But hear it I do not. No one ever hit that level of musicianship and combined it with poetry.
I was familiar with every song that eventually got recorded and released on Elektra Records as the Marquee Moon album. Fears abound that it wouldn’t be ‘caught’ on tape for the listening pleasure of the world. They did succeed, I’d say about 90 percent was captured. When we all found out Television had gotten a record deal a mixture of worry and elation (Elevation!) filled us. I told everyone in my high school that Television got a record deal and they were the new Led Zeppelin, they were going to be as big as Led Zeppelin. They could have been. But the era was upon us where the seeds of disintegration of the ‘great’ music business had been sown. A&R that just didn’t have that 100 percent confidence and enthusiasm of the era of Ahmet Ertegun. It didn’t help much that the old timers were still ‘around’ and now ‘old’. Therefore it was fear that went through Atlantic Records for example, about what was going on….in Rock Scene Magazine, not innovation and enthusiasm. What was happening could eventually tank ELP and Yes, and Zep…those executives were still the bosses, and yes, getting ‘old’. So Television, although with a great album out, were not presented with the luxury of hype, but with tours of clubs, and it would stay that way, unfortunately. They remained a cult band for a few years of course before it all petered out. Solo albums were made, Verlaine’s solo albums, and everything after Marquee Moon, including the second Television album were above par to the norm in the music business. However, nothing compared to the magic of the first introductions, our little secret. Television were to us at CBGB the way The Beatles were to The Cavern club. It is tragic that they didn’t get the industry attention that would have had the whole world enjoy them on the level that should have been, while it was happening.
Many Marquee moons later, at age 43 I gave birth to a disabled daughter in Los Angeles. Oddly, outside of my spiritual faith, I had only two forms of medicine. Musical medicine. Medicine that got me through the trauma of the life I had ahead of me. Jimi Hendrix, oddly, perhaps to remind myself that I’m a rock n roll nigger no matter WHAT, and Television, Marquee Moon. It was all I listened to for months after giving birth, confirming the level of power of the music of Tom Verlaine. I never met Verlaine, and he rarely even looked at us out there! However there was one show at CBGB, in the early 80s, perhaps he was already solo, I can’t remember clearly (I was no longer on drugs! Go figure!); I had changed my look. I had cut off all my hair, to a short blonde Beatle haircut. I was debuting my own band at CBGB around that time, swinging a Strat around, and feeling like a boy. At this CBGB show, watching Verlaine, we caught each other’s eye and got locked in a stare – from decrepit stage to my seat. I was flattered and astounded, I guess he noticed my boy haircut and liked it, and understood the juxtaposition, and contradiction, and too much friction…….
Thank you for existing Tom Verlaine, RIP.
Photos Michael Alago
Fantastic memories RoxanneComment by Rupert on 4 February, 2023 at 10:05 am
I was lucky enough to hear Tom in a small club in Minneapolis in his early solo phase (think “Kingdom Come”) with Jimmy Rip on second lead, and he was transfixing, magnificent, total body-rush guitar. But you were luckier, right there at the source. You’re right, his music will live forever.Comment by Thomas R. Smith on 4 February, 2023 at 10:01 pm