NEW YORK – Tom Verlaine, whose band Television was one of the most influential to emerge from the New York punk rock scene centred on the nightclub CBGB – but whose exploratory guitar improvisations and poetic songwriting were never easily categorisable as punk or, for that matter, as any other genre – died on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 73.
His death was announced by Ms Jesse Paris Smith, the daughter of Verlaine’s former love interest (and occasional musical collaborator) Patti Smith, who said that he died “after a brief illness”.
Although Television achieved only minor commercial success and broke up after recording two albums, Verlaine had an enduring influence, especially on his fellow guitarists. He was also Television’s singer, primary songwriter and co-producer.
“Verlaine persisted in playing the guitar while those around him were brandishing it as a weapon,” American music journalist Kristine McKenna wrote in Rolling Stone magazine in 1981.
Lenny Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, said in an interview that “Tom was capable of anything”, adding: “He could move from chaotic soundscapes of free jazz to delicate filigree. It wasn’t covered up with distortion. He had a real sense of the instrument and its expressive powers.”
Reviewing Television for the magazine Rock Scene in 1974, Patti Smith wrote that Verlaine “plays guitar with angular inverted passion like a thousand bluebirds screaming”. She also declared that he had “the most beautiful neck in rock & roll.”
Tom Verlaine was born Thomas Joseph Miller on Dec 13, 1949, in Denville, New Jersey, the son of Victor and Lillian Miller. The family relocated to Wilmington, Delaware, when Tom was a child.
He attended a boarding school in Delaware, where he studied classical music and played saxophone. He was equally influenced by rock bands like the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones and free-jazz musicians like Albert Ayler and John Coltrane.
He ran away from school with a classmate, Richard Meyers, later known as singer Richard Hell.
“Our plan was to become poets in Florida where the living was easy,” Hell said in an email. Camping in Alabama, they set a field on fire and were arrested and sent back home.
Hell soon went to New York, and after graduating from high school, Verlaine joined him. They wrote and published poetry together; Miller renamed himself Tom Verlaine, in tribute to 19th-century French poet Paul Verlaine.
Hell, 73, recalled the two friends being exuberant teenagers on Second Avenue near St Mark’s Church in the early days of spring: “As we walked down the street, we’d start rapidly weaving between the parking meters making buzzing sounds with our mouths and flapping our bent arms, fertilising the parking meters. Tom was often lightheaded and whimsical back then.”
In 1972, inspired by the New York Dolls, they started a band called the Neon Boys. Verlaine bought an electric Fender Jazzmaster guitar for himself and picked out a US$50 bass for Hell; their friend Billy Ficca joined them on drums.
In 1973, they added Richard Lloyd, a guitarist, and renamed themselves Television. They chose the name because they had a distaste for the medium and hoped to provide an alternative. Verlaine also enjoyed the resonance with his initials, T.V.
After seeing a performance by Television in 1974, late singer David Bowie called the group “the most original band I’ve seen in New York”.