Until Forever, Tom Verlaine
In memory of a game-changing artist for Rock history
This article is dedicated to Jimmy Rippetoe, for being a once-in-a lifetime friend for 42 years. And to Tom Verlaine, rock and roll legend, personal hero.
WORDS by Majo Aguilar
"The loss of Tom Verlaine is like losing a piece from the Louvre."
A dirty guitar riff resonates intermittently and strikes firmly, followed by three snare drum kicks that set the tone for bass and rhythm guitar. The mixture turns homogeneous and transforms into a song, one that imperatively declares the words “What I want, I want now, And it's a whole lot more, Than 'anyhow.'" Shaky and loud, it 's Tom Verlaine singing his own lyrics accompanied by the music of his band, Television. Formed in 1973, the New York quartet composed by Billy Ficca on drums, Fred Smith on bass and Richard Lloyd on guitar follow the lead of main guitarist and singer, Tom, in the opening track of their first record, Marquee Moon (1977). To say that Marquee Moon is an influential album is an understatement. Marquee Moon changed the course of rock history from the underground world to modern and mainstream rock, it is a true sonic revolution, one that Tom Verlaine gave voice to.
Born Thomas Joseph Miller on December 13, 1949 in New Jersey, Tom discovered his interest in writing during his adolescence, while his passion for guitar came after listening to "19th Nervous Breakdown" by the Rolling Stones. After discovering their matching interest in poetry and music, Tom and his Stanford School colleague, Richard Mayers, became friends. Both escaped to New York separately and founded the Neon Boys in 1973 alongside Tom’s Delaware acquaintance Billy Ficca. Around the same time, both Tom and Richard changed their names with artistic purposes, their new surnames being Verlaine (borrowed from French poet Paul Verlaine), and Hell, respectively. In 1975 the band kicked out Richard Hell over disputes regarding creative control, incorporating Blondies’ ex-bassist Fred Smith and rhythmic guitarist Richard Lloyd; that same year they changed their name to Television. Before 1977 the band recorded various demos with now legendary producer Brian Eno, among which we can hear early versions of songs that would end up forming part of Marquee Moon, such as "Venus," then called "Venus de Milo." They simultaneously played gigs at the Country Bluegrass and Blues club, most commonly known as CBGB, or in other words, the indisputable birthplace of punk and new wave music.
Early days of Television, c. 1973
There's an issue with Television, and that was defined from the moment they set foot in CBGB. For years, rock pundits and fans have labeled them as punk, but there's something about this band that has made their musical legacy so enduring, and it's precisely the fact that they're not a punk band entirely. Television is a band that unconsciously shares a spectacular quality with one of its greatest influences, the 13th Floor Elevators. Like the performers of "You're Gonna Miss Me," Television is one of those few bands that lived in a future still unknown to the world, even unknown to them. Like time travelers, they were capable of things that were not even contemplated in the musical imagination from the beginning to the mid-seventies, much less at the end of that torrid decade. Just as the 13th Floor Elevators made of music something acidic and capable of making you feel an inexplicable frenzy in the year 1965, years before Hendrix or Joplin even appeared on the scene, years before people could give a meaning to the word psychedelia, Television happened to create an unknown sound in their era. And the issue is not music related only, it gives me chills just to think that Richard Hell already had spiked hair and torn tight-fitting jean clothing in the early '70s, when bell-bottoms and exuberant shirts were popular. Malcolm McLaren, future manager of the Sex Pistols, has repeatedly admitted how shocking it was to see Hell dressed as if he lived a lustrum in the future and has even declared that he copied his look and transferred it to the already pre-planned Sex Pistols. It seems magical and crazy to think that in the era of the rise of Led Zeppelin, the greatest rock band in history, where the hangover of the sixties still had a visual impact on everyday fashion, full of velvet, suede, wool and denim, there was a young man living five years in the future.
The minute Television set foot on CBGB they were branded for life with a tag that said PUNK in big, thick letters. The simple fact of going to the cradle of punk cataloged them as such, the boys had the eerie look, that something that made it seem like they were part of that space, but it clouded the view of their most essential quality, not only they were true originals and innovators, Television had an it factor that separated them from punk bands. They had a class that was all their own.
"It gives me chills just to think that Richard Hell already had spiked hair and torn tight-fitting jean clothing in the early '70s, when bell-bottoms and exuberant shirts were popular."
Richard Hell, 1973
While being a generalization, Punk is often anarchism, rage, anger, and debauchery. Punk shouts at the state, punk screams at the system, punk breaks with all and everything around it. I don't describe this as something unpleasant musically speaking, because I have to admit that it is one of my favorite genres, but Television simply does not fit into that category. The group and their album Marquee Moon are the sound heaven in the middle of the musical tornado that was taking over the late 70s.
Television's larger than life impact in music is because in the middle of that tornado, they created a refined new sound, something never played before, something that sat in the limbo in-between punk and classic rock. So what is Television then? Television is a rarity, a unique piece, it is as strange as being able to see a starry sky in the city, they are an oasis in the history of rock music, a milestone in guitar music.
Television is like that time when Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, in the 16th century there were many painters, all Renaissance, all in the same country, many doing oil paintings which would have replicas made, but the Sistine Chapel would never be reproduced again. Television is that Sistine Chapel of rock, their sound is comparable and equivalent to any novel written by Burroughs or any painting done by Dalí. Without a doubt, the Michelangelo of this unique piece is Tom Verlaine, the true master of overcoming the most terrifying test in history: time.
"Television is that Sistine Chapel of rock, their sound is comparable and equivalent to any novel written by Burroughs or any painting done by Dalí. Without a doubt, the Michelangelo of this unique piece is Tom Verlaine, the true master of overcoming the most terrifying test in history: time."