The New York that gave birth to one of the most explosive scenes in music history is in mourning these days. Tom Verlaine, guitarist, poet and songwriter for Television, one of the most influential rock and seminal punk bands that emerged in the early 1970s in the heat of the iconic CBGB, died Saturday in Manhattan at the age of 73. The news was confirmed to rolling stones by Jesse Paris Smith, daughter of the also poet and singer Patti Smith, Verlaine’s old companion in those dizzying and bustling years on New York’s Lower East Side. Paris Smith did not specify the cause of death, although he indicated that the musician suffered a “brief illness”.
Real name Thomas Miller, he adopted as his nom de guerre the surname of Paul Verlaine, a French symbolist poet of the late 19th century, to whom the musician was devoted. The Television frontman managed to distill a unique style on guitar, once described by Patti Smith as “a thousand birds howling.” He drank from influences as diverse as the rock and roll of the early Rolling Stones, the sax of John Coltrane or the versatility of the clarinetist, flutist and saxophonist Eric Dolphy, a mix that resulted in an ethereal personality, marked by a sharp but melodic sound, lyrical but direct, artistic but street.
Magazine rolling stones placed it at number 90 on his list of the 100 best guitarists in history, where he defined it as “a model for the new generations of guitarists with a taste for punk violence and melody”. The critic of New York Times Robert Palmer wrote about it in 1987: “The purity of Verlaine’s guitar sound is unique in contemporary rock (…) Where other guitarists release a mass of notes, Verlaine lets a simple tremor do all the work.”
Verlaine was one of those musicians with an aura of curses who never succeeded commercially. He didn’t need it: he always moved on the margins of music history, with the pedigree of having been one of the first artists to sense the advent of punk rock, a genre that would shake the foundations of the industry. With Television he only recorded two studio albums in the five years of the group’s life (1973-1978), although they would later reunite in the nineties for some concerts and a third album, TV (1992).
marquee moonedited in 1977 by Elektra Records and considered by critics as a masterpiece, it marked a before and after in the New York underground scene and in all global independent music. His main single, with the same name as the album, is a little gem lasting 10:38 minutes that begins with one of the most singular snails, with two fingers and four notes, in the history of rock. Its sound, with oriental reminiscences, and its endlessly repetitive patterns, manage to generate a sensation of trance, while Verlaine sings verses that speak of a growing darkness, lightning that falls on themselves or “the kiss of death and the embrace of life”.
In 1977, Ken Tucker of the rolling stones, in a review compared to Blondie’s first effort and the Ramones’ second release, scene sister bands, called the Television album “the most interesting and audacious of the three”. Of Verlaine, he wrote: “He plays the guitar in a harrowing, hypnotic style, like a succession of nightmares, and sings all the verses of him like a clever chicken being strangled.” The band’s second album Adventurealso edited by Elektra in 1978, it achieved even less commercial success than the previous one, although it was praised by critics.
That same year, the band broke up and Verlaine embarked on a more discreet solo career. He recorded a dozen albums, the last one in 2006. Although of great musical quality, his new works would never recover the influence of the first two Television albums.
The CBGB Years
Verlaine, born in 1949 in Wilmington, Delaware, was a schoolmate of another heavyweight in rock history, Richard Hell, considered the original model of punk aesthetics. The two would meet again at the beginning of the seventies in Manhattan, where they began to share riffs and poems before ending up forming Neon Boys, the seminal television status, which would complete with Richard Lloyd on guitar, Billy Ficca on drums and Hell on vocals. under. After several disagreements with Verlaine, Hell left the band shortly after to form The Voidoids, being replaced by Fred Smith.
It was a time when everything seemed possible, Patti Smith has written in farewell to her old friend. New York was a city left to her fate: looted, in flames, rotten with corruption, drugs, filth, and crime. The Lower East Side, littered with empty buildings that no one wanted to live in, became the epicenter of a young arts and music scene of kids who moved to the area for cheap or non-existent rents.
It was the ideal breeding ground for a raw and undistilled scene to sprout. Hilly Kristal, a quirky businessman coming off a couple of business failures, knew which way the new winds were blowing. In 1973 he opened CBGB, originally intended to host Country, BlueGrass and Blues concerts (hence its name), but ended up sheltering that handful of flamboyant young people who tried to open cracks with their guitars in the stagnant walls of the music industry.
The same year that Kristal inaugurated the bar —closed in 2006 and considered a musical temple, a mandatory stop for music lovers and mythomaniacs—, Television began its journey, tanning and macerating its sound for years in that club that ended up associated with its name forever . There they were gaining, concert by concert, an audience that was not too massive but loyal —among them, well-known faces such as David Bowie or Nicholas Ray, director of rebel without a cause—. Not only them: between those defaced walls a unique scene took place in which Blondie, the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Velvet Underground or the Dead Boys took their first steps, among many others who made the place a regular stop, such as Iggy Pop or Sid Vicious.
The world of music has turned to remember Verlaine. “I have lost a hero”, has written Michael Stipe, singer of REM, on the band’s social media. They have also joined the farewell Chris Stein, from Blondie, Flea, bassist of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers or kim gordon and Thurston Moore, from Sonic Youth. The latter wrote: “I stopped by the book stalls outside the Strand yesterday thinking I’d see you as usual, have a cigar and talk about rare poetic finds for a couple of hours. I will miss you, Tom. Rest in peace”. Some of the most influential groups of recent times paying tribute to one of the guitarists who started it all. “Thank you for leading the way,” added Jesse Paris Smith.
Verlaine, a guy who appears in old black and white photos as a lanky, disheveled and sharp-featured young man, has closed his latest chapter after writing some of the most important pages in the last 50 years of music history. . He molded a genre to his liking, played with the six strings without haste or virtuosity, sang in a tremendously personal way to the streets of New York, perhaps the city about which the most has been written, and left an incalculable legacy in the form of suggestive verses and immortal riffs. The inheritance for the world of the man whose guitar howled with the force of a thousand birds.
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