Tom Verlaine 1949-2023: Fallen into the Arms Of the Venus De Milo

play me…

Tom Verlaine has passed away, fallen into the arms of the Venus de Milo, exited to that Marquee Moon afterworld, the ‘toy night’ of Venus that he painted so vividly in his music and words. There are some artists and albums that I cannot disconnect from the emotional bond I have with their work. Do not ask me to be reasonable or measured about The Velvet Underground or Tom Verlaine, it can’t be done. That doesn’t mean that I am about to engage in some tear-stained fan girl gushing – Tom deserves better than that, but it does mean that I won’t try to remove myself from the great sadness I feel at hearing the news that the great Tom Verlaine has moved on from this world into the next.

He was always a shooting star, whether solo, or with the glorious Television. I remember the first time I saw Verlaine’s face staring out from the front cover of Marquee Moon in all his callow skinned, hollow-cheeked elegantly wasted opiated perfection. The blurb spouted by various public health organizations tries to claim that no one ever wanted to grow up to be a junkie, but I suppose those kind of people have never let themselves see the glory of Tom Verlaine in 1977, nor heard the perfection of the music and words that were born out of a New York street-junk jazz-punk fusion fairytale.

Born Thomas Miller, on December 13th 1949 in New Jersey, our magnificent punk anti-hero was reborn as Tom Verlaine, in a move he claimed that was inspired by Robert Zimmerman’s earlier name change to Dylan in honor of Dylan Thomas. Verlaine chose the French symbolist decadent poet, Paul Verlaine to steal a name from, though I often think he would have been better served taking the name of Rimbaud. Rimbaud’s Season in Hell could have set up all kinds of delicious word play with his later bandmate, the mercurial Richard Hell. I like to think of a time when there could have been a ‘Season With Hell’ reunion tour, but then I am cheesy and Tom Verlaine was never anything other than hip, and that was part of the whole attraction.

Verlaine headed up the coolest band to never have truly broken through into the big time, despite being the favorite pet of almost ever other music critic than Lester Bangs. Lester once called Television, ‘The Quicksilver Messenger Service of punk’, in one of his usual cutting throwaway comments. Lester was a friend of Hell, and promoted the inferior Voidoids mercilessly, whilst complaining of a world in which he had to share New York with Verlaine, and ‘wash his socks’ in the same laundromat. Bangs was loyal to a fault, and that prevented him from giving the wastedly beautiful swirling guitarwork of Verlaine and his eternal dark-night copping on the block in New York songs the credit they truly deserved. Verlaine remained fringe, cult and cool. He never sold out and tried to sell the story that he never did any hard drugs, unlike certain other of his contemporaries who did make the big time and subsequently distanced themselves from the world that made them both rich and famous. Verlaine was the Real Deal, from his superlative jazz-infused guitar work, to the songs he wrote both in his solo work and earlier for Television, to the period of time when he lived what he preached. Verlaine was a guitar hero, but lacked the intensely egotistic self-promotion that should have attended his skill. His solo work could make the angels cry. He had an ear for tone, for doing the unexpected and for beauty, all with that razors edge that gave his music such power.

I expect like most long-lived junkies Verlaine cleaned up at some point, but it does not negate the fact that he was a shining light to all of us who sailed in the good ship smack, and wanted to hear music that reflected our lives and loves. Who wants to get opiated and listen to Abba for fucks sake? Who wants to walk the streets of New York at night time with friends who suggest they ‘dress up like cops’, with eyes ‘so soft and shaky’ knowing there ‘was pain but the pain was not aching’, and then go listen to Celine Dion or The Bay City Rollers? Let’s be real here: some music is written for the underworld and the people that inhabit it. Tom Verlaine was the engine running on the pure fuel of New York stamped glassine envelopes, Manhattan at 3am on the corner of Lexington and 125 (‘feeling so sick and dirty more dead than alive’ as Lou Reed once sang) , and that deep longing for the ‘guiding light’ he sang about in his most beautiful song.

In the days before fentanyl and research chemicals destroyed drug culture there was a long and illustrious history of junk-artists. From Coleridge and the romantic poets who existed on Laudanum (opium tincture), to the days of the Beat poets and writers with William Burroughs, the author of Junkie, and all the jazz greats who lived via the bag and the needle. Verlaine was part of that artistic underground where artists and musicians were exploring the nature of consciousness and inspiration. Verlaine was of the old school – the Rimbaud and Verlaine symbolist poets, whilst remaining very much part of the emergent CBGBs punk scene that birthed Television.

The front cover of Marquee Moon affected my baby-junkie self like no other album cover managed to. This was aspirational – the smudged eyeliner, the pin-point pupils, the lank hair and devil-may-care leather and decrepitude of the band’s look, with Verlaine out in front, hollow cheeked, one hand held up, perhaps closed around a glassine envelope or a rig, the secrets to the universe or a joint, hiding behind the old before his time visage of the reincarnation of Verlaine, tempting, quizzing, surviving on the razors edge that was to be found in those eight tracks of punk alternative rock perfection. This was a boy who had seen everything and nothing. He looked like a soul who had stared into that sharp black hole and was still haunted by what he found in the smack-abyss. In short, I was already in love with the band before I even threw the record on the turntable. Tom looked like any number of my friends and cohort, in fact he looked like me on a good day. I felt as if this band was playing just for me, that they knew me, and they got where I was and where I was going. I felt as if it might be possible that I had found comfort and empathy, understanding and a soundtrack for the days which veered between contentment and extreme malcontent. Television was a people’s band, that is if your people were junkies and freaks.

The turntable hissed. The first chords struck up, with a tone so beautiful, so harmonious and evocative with just the right amount of fuzz and feedback that I felt as if I had just come home. Marquee Moon stands as one of the greatest achievements of punk. The band was not just Verlaine, but without Verlaine they were nothing. Richard Hell liked to promote his ripped teeshirts, safety pins and unbearable yowling and sure, he was cutting edge alright, but he does not have the depth, artistic sensitivity, the poetic soul nor the sheer musical skill that Verlaine exhibited time and time again. Hell gave the band some grit, but what is grit without a road to ride on, and Verlaine was that jazz infused musical road of great beauty. His guitar is what Tom is best known for, but his vocals are the perfect mix of stylized New York vocalizations and soaring harmonious sweetness, he can switch on the toughness and turn on the charm at the drop of a pin.

There is something seductive about Verlaine’s voice, it does not jar, even when it challenges, and it provided the perfect counterpoint to the unique sound of the band. If you listen to Verlaine you can hear the jut of his jaw, the way his mind sets to the task, the struggle for survival as a supremely sensitive soul in a brutal world. Tom is the sound of the underground, and his voice melding with that of his Fender Jazzmaster remains a thing of beauty forever. Verlaine sounds like freedom. Verlaine sounds like that perfect shot that throws you back into the biggest grin your face can drag itself into, and then the sweetest nod on the darkest night while all the neon shines eternally outside. Out there. Building up to something magnificent, something godly. Something that belongs to us all, and yet floats away as soon as you try and look at it too closely. Tom Verlaine touched perfection in Marquee Moon, and he let us touch it too every time we listened to that strange alchemy that only happened when ‘lightning struck itself’ in 1977 and made jazz-punk fusion possible with the pure white heat white light of Verlaine’s creativity.

His guitar work is like no other. It is not easily reproduced and I have never heard anyone who captured that mix of freeform free flowing improvisation with a natural genius ear for harmony. He knew when to lay off the sweetness and when to lay it on. Verlaine’s guitar was what made Television beautiful and the lack of it in the Voidoids is what makes them mostly unlistenable. Compare Love Comes In Spurts, by the Voidoids, as good a punk title as any and their best song, with the gloriousness of Friction which is every bit as dirty, but has more verve, threat and pent up frustration than is safe to commit to audio tape! Heads get squeezed in fists in the violence of friction and frustration, Tom wails about having to ‘grow up’ and then comes up with one of the best lines in the album: “My eyes are like telescopes/ I see it all backwards, but who wants hope?” Meanwhile The Voidoids track has its charm but is stuck in a 14 and a half year old masturbatory nightmare with no end and no style. Apparently, according to Hell “Though I now know the facts / They still cut like an axe.” Hell looks magnificent, sure, but it is all a child’s bauble compared with any of the Television/ Verlaine-led output.

You see, sometimes the sum of greater than the value of the parts of the whole, and this was true of Television. I truly believe that Tom could have taken any other three punks from the street outside CBGB’s thrown instruments in their hands and made exactly the same album, because what made Marquee Moon one of the best albums of all time was Tom Verlaine, and I will stand on Richard Hell’s fucking coffee table in my best ripped teeshirt with safety pins through my nose and tell him exactly the same fucking thing.

In short, I love you Tom Verlaine. I love Marquee Moon, even if I don’t love Adventure quite as much, but that is ok, Marquee Moon is an achievement for the ages. It is the only punk album which is both as hard as they come and as beautiful as they fall. I love Tom’s solo work, his guitar never fails to amaze, but he seemed to have lost the appetite for commercial success after Television broke up. He was always playing not for the masses, but for the artists and the fragile beautiful ‘mad to live’ souls, after all, someone should. There is a certain dignity to not selling out, as Richard Hell’s continued desperate attempts to sell out and to fail to do so, proves. Man, how much would Hell have loved to have sold out and banked the bucks! Tom, however rarely gave an interview.

His guitar said everything he needed to say. Elevation starts up in a minor key, Verlaine’s guitar twisting a repetitive riff between his plaintive vocals. “I live life on these shores. Elevation, don’t go to my head!” Verlaine sings as the guitar builds up to peaks of highs and troughs of desperation. Tom captured the sound of longing, of wanting and the struggle to keep up with that elevated life. The song saved my life a dozen times over. It is a call to arms, a plea for survival, a lending of strength. Verlaine and his guitar weave an opiated song that sees peaks of sobriety come over the horizon with breath that is ‘burning’ and the ‘cold wild seas have left us turning’ and tossing in the sweaty bedsheets of not having enough to stay well. This is good medicine. This is solidarity. This is comfort in the gutter and the street corners and bedsits. Verlaine’s guitar is like an anchor in a storm, his voice and lyrics are a life jacket in an ocean.

Tom Verlaine, I salute you! I salute your bravery, your embracing of the underground scene instead of denying your involvement. I love your punk heart and your jazz soul. I love the way you made your guitar do things with tone that only Peter Green ever came close to. I love your lyrics and the world of late night movie theatres, New York escapades and that desperate search for the light beyond the Torn Curtain of smack. I love the way that you sneered in every single photograph, but always seemed so gentle and fragile. I love your music and the soul that shines through every note and word. Safe travels. I hope you are with ‘friends from many stages’ in an afterworld where the night is soft and gentle and every eye is ‘soft and shaky’ and there is no more pain to stop aching. “Never the rose without the prick”, sang Verlaine in Guiding Light, reminding us that with beauty comes pain. Tom’s music will remain, guiding us through the long nights, with its immense beauty and darkness, and yes guiding us through the pain too.

Tom Verlaine. 1949-2023. Rest in rebellious punk peace.


Leave a Reply