Tom Verlaine, whose band Television was one of the most influential to emerge from the New York’s CBGB punk scene in the late ’70s, died on January 28, 2023. He was 73.
Back in that fabled era, while many New York-based bands were recycling the venom of various English counterparts, Television surfaced to rave reviews. The enterprising, oblique band was doomed to cult status, but Verlaine’s untrained vocals and complex, circular guitar style distinguished two excellent albums—the classic debut Marquee Moon and Adventure—before Television disintegrated.
Verlaine released a self-titled solo album in 1979 before dropping out of sight. The following year, David Bowie recorded Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come” for his Scary Monsters album. A new music audience had developed, and Verlaine was in a strange position—“art rock” fans who delighted in dropping the names of up-and-comers weren’t aware of Television’s groundbreaking role.
He resurfaced with Dreamtime, a weighty album that showed he hadn’t been twiddling his thumbs. Tunes such as “Always” and “Penetration” retained the best kinetic factors from the Television albums, while Verlaine’s guitar work remained among the most compelling in rock—an amazingly clean, trebly sound that was at once dissonant and dynamic.
He toured the US extensively in the fall and winter of that year, which brought him to the Blue Note in Boulder. He was a static stage presence—not as spooked as he was with Television, he merely stood and played like a kid in his bedroom. But there was no denying his demotic lyrics and the ringing, cutting tone of his chops—his solos verged on drifting to all the wrong places, almost like Jeff Beck trying to play a Charlie Parker riff on guitar. But Verlaine framed his excursions with mercurial rhythms and some solid band interplay, and the result was hypnotic (a casual listener noted that his extended guitar flights sounded “like Devo trying to play Dire Straits”).
“I’m not into theater at all—if it’s good enough, it gets across,” the lanky, pale artiste explained. “I dunno much about my style. It’s just the way I play that comes out. I listened to a lot of Roland Kirk and jazz when I was a kid, and I guess I’m trying to do some of the same things in a rock context. All I know is that I play my solos on a Jaguar—a lot of surf groups used to use them, but I can’t play on anything else.”
Dreamtime was Verlaine’s most commercially successful solo album. He released six more albums that failed to introduce his lyrical, piercing style to a wider audience. But they maintained his exacting standards and his critically acclaimed status—a perfectionate, genre-resistant guitar genius.