Home TV Tom Verlaine dies at 73; guitarist co-founded the punk band Television

Tom Verlaine dies at 73; guitarist co-founded the punk band Television


Tom Verlaine, a rock-and-roll poet whose lyrical guitar playing, ragged vocals and impressionistic lyrics helped make his band Television one of the most influential groups to come out of New York’s 1970s punk scene, died Jan. 28 in Manhattan. He was 73.

His death was confirmed by publicist Cara Hutchison of the Lede Company, who cited “a brief illness” but did not share additional details.

Formed in New York in 1973, Television helped spearhead a rollicking, artistically ambitious punk movement based out of CBGB, a paint-chipped East Village club that became a haven for bands including the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie and the Patti Smith Group. Although the group released only two albums before breaking up, its music — crystalline and stark, built on jagged rhythms and cascading twin guitars — influenced countless rock acts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Patti Smith, an occasional collaborator and onetime romantic partner of Mr. Verlaine, told New York magazine in 2005, “Tom Verlaine and Television were for me the most inspiring: They were not glamorous, they were human.” Writing about the band and Mr. Verlaine decades earlier, in an article for Rock Scene magazine, she declared, “He plays lead guitar with angular inverted passion like a thousand bluebirds screaming.”

Mr. Verlaine, the band’s pale and lanky frontman, was a producer and singer-songwriter but was perhaps best known as a guitarist. His music drew on the blues rock of the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones — especially their pulsating single “19th Nervous Breakdown” — as well as Indian ragas, Celtic melodies, the jazz of John McLaughlin and the classical recordings of Pablo Casals. In interviews, he seemed more comfortable discussing his love of 20th-century composers like Morton Feldman and Krzysztof Penderecki than chatting about his rock-and-roll contemporaries.

Onstage and in the studio, he marshaled those influences into sonic explorations that defied genre labels. Television’s 1977 debut, “Marquee Moon,” featured a hypnotic title track that lasted more than 10 minutes, showcasing the interplay between Mr. Verlaine and fellow guitarist Richard Lloyd as well as the dreamlike imagery of Mr. Verlaine’s lyrics. “I remember how the darkness doubled,” he sang in a dry tenor. “I recall, lightning struck itself.”

The British music magazine NME described the album as “a 24-carat inspired work of pure genius,” and the record has since been hailed as one of the greatest albums of the 1970s.

“It is a guitar rock album unlike any other,” wrote All Music reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine. “Where their predecessors in the New York punk scene, most notably the Velvet Underground, had fused blues structures with avant-garde flourishes, Television completely strip away any sense of swing or groove, even when they are playing standard three-chord changes. ‘Marquee Moon’ is comprised entirely of tense garage rockers that spiral into heady intellectual territory.”

The band released a more subdued follow-up, “Adventure” (1978), then broke up and reunited for a self-titled 1992 album, followed by occasional live performances that Mr. Verlaine mixed in with his eclectic solo career. He put out more than a half-dozen solo albums, including the critically acclaimed “Dreamtime” (1981), and was covered by artists including David Bowie, who recorded a version of his song “Kingdom Come.”

But ask him about Television, and he would often demur. He had no interest in thinking about the past, he said, although in 2000 he offered one theory for the band’s enduring legacy. “It’s sugar-free,” he said, according to the Seattle alt weekly the Stranger. “Which of course limits the audience! Contains no artificial sweeteners! Which isn’t to say that it’s bitter.”

Mr. Verlaine was born Thomas Joseph Miller in Denville, N.J., on Dec. 13, 1949. He grew up in Wilmington, Del., and was consumed by music from the age of 4, when he heard his first symphony. “I remember being totally transported by it, right away thinking that this is what I want to do,” he told the Times.

He studied classical piano, then picked up the saxophone and guitar. He also immersed himself in poetry while attending the nearby Sanford preparatory school, where he met Richard Meyers, a fellow student and budding punk rocker who became known as Richard Hell. Together they ran away from school, hitchhiking south toward Florida before being picked up by Alabama police and sent home.

By the early 1970s, the two men had reunited in New York, where they saw the New York Dolls perform at the Mercer Arts Center and decided to start a band of their own. Their group, the Neon Boys, evolved into Television, with a roster that included Lloyd, drummer Billy Ficca and Hell, a bassist with whom Mr. Verlaine battled over creative control. (Hell left the band in 1975 and was replaced by Fred Smith, who had played with Blondie.)

Posters for their early concerts included a line of understated praise from Nicholas Ray, the director of “Rebel Without a Cause,” who described the band succinctly: “Four cats with a passion.”

“We were really unique,” Hell said in an interview for Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk” (1996). “There was not another rock-and-roll band in the world with short hair. There was not another rock-and-roll band with torn clothes. Everybody was still wearing glitter and women’s clothes. We were these notch-thin, homeless hoodlums, playing really powerful, passionate, aggressive music that was also lyrical.”

By then, Mr. Verlaine had adopted the surname of French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, whom he said he had never read. “I just liked the sound of the name,” he said. His adopted initials, TV, were mirrored in the band’s name.

Mr. Verlaine leaves no immediate survivors. He could be inscrutable, turning down interview requests and telling Spin magazine, “I like thinking of myself as invisible.” He co-wrote a book of poetry with Smith and played on her debut album, “Horses”; contributed to the soundtrack of the Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” (2007); and collaborated with guitarist Jimmy Rip, performing live soundtracks for silent films by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Fernand Léger and Man Ray, among other directors.

In 2006, he released his last two solo albums, “Songs and Other Things” and the instrumental collection “Around.”

“I don’t identify with being a musician. I don’t practice — I’ve never practiced guitar in my life,” he told Spin in 1987. “With my records, it’s just a matter of trying to create something fresh for myself in a very finite context, which is the pop song. I don’t know anything about the people who buy my records and what, if anything, they get out of them.”

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