Remembering Tom Verlaine

James Wolcott

I was standing on the uptown side of the subway platform when I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders, pressing as if about to shove me onto the tracks. I whirled around – my whirl was much faster then – and it was Tom Verlaine, laughing maniacally. It was a scary prank to play at any time but especially in the mid-1970s, the heyday of the original Death Wish and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, when we were all on edge, waiting for the next demon to pounce. And yet when I realised it was Verlaine, I didn’t make any squawk of protest. Perhaps I was foolishly pleased that Verlaine felt he knew me well enough to pretend to shove me to certain death on the tracks.* It could have been just his funny way of saying hi. Our small prides work in mysterious fashion.

Verlaine and I had become passing, nodding acquaintances in civilian life from CBGB, the holy manger of punk on the Bowery, a former Hell’s Angels hangout that still hadn’t quite aired out. In 1974, I had been dispatched by the Village Voice to cover some raspy raven-haired warbler named Patti Smith, an East Village poet and omnipresent scene maker who was going the rock route with a newly formed band of apostles. I didn’t know what to expect, but no expectations are better than low expectations and Patti’s performance that night was a revelation. I went back again and again, Patti’s midsong patter about Johnny Carson and the Mets changing nightly even if the set list stayed largely the same.

Opening for Patti was a band called Television, a quartet that took forever to tune up and often stopped mid-number to tune up again before launching into a fistful of extended guitar solos that sounded like screech and scrawl with indecipherable lyrics, a blare that drove me to the back of the club to wait until the noise subsided. It was Patti I was there for. One night Patti, noticing my tactical retreats (one mark of a true star is that nothing passes unnoticed), insisted I give Television a real try. I needed to get up close, she said. She and Tom Verlaine were dating then, sometimes holding hands during breaks, and I thought perhaps she was being protective of her sweetie-pie. It might look like a snub, my retreat to the rear, plus I was missing out. Being a good Catholic boy, I didn’t want to be a spoilsport or hurt anyone’s feelings, so I moved to the front for Television’s next set, near enough to catch every fine spittle.

After a dopey introductory joke that Verlaine seemed inexplicably fond of (he told it before almost every set until it took on the nature of a Zen koan), the band broke into its cover version of the 13th Floor Elevators’ ‘Fire Engine’ and by the time they were into ‘Venus’ and ‘O Mio Amore’ every former reservation was routed. The longer numbers, ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ and ‘Breakin’ in My Heart’, completed the initiation. No theatrics, no overt bravado, just a twin helix of guitar dialoguing between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd and vocals that tortured the words until they sounded like graveyard spirits. My mouth formed a big silent wow. I had found religion, the ground floor of exaltation, and swore never to doubt Patti again.

Where the trance effects of the Grateful Dead (to whom early Television was often compared) were communal, Television’s were more of an intimate visitation, made possible by the dark, cramped venue, the sparse, devoted crowd, and the lateness of the hour. Television fans didn’t dance free-form, like Deadheads tripping out, but rocked back and forth, rooted in absorption. Up-close enabled you to observe Verlaine like a super 8 camera: the deep knee bends through a song’s mounting crescendo, the flickering eyelids, the wary side glances, the quick grins, the climactic close that seemed to wash out to sea. Patti aspired to emulate Falconetti from The Passion of Joan of Arc but it was Verlaine who had the bone structure and resolute martyr’s neck.

Watching Television in those pioneer days had a split-diopter effect, however. On stage the band had an invisible line scissoring through it. The bassist and co-vocalist, Richard Hell, brandished his own charisma and showmanship, as he would later demonstrate with the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids, but full-on showmanship was antithetical to Television’s thrift-shop austerity. It was Hell who wore a shirt bearing the message ‘Please Kill Me’, later immortalised as the title of Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s classic oral history of punk, while it was hard to picture Verlaine in a T-shirt that wasn’t plain and soulfully drooping.

As the rest of the band seemed to be bobbing into the astral beyond on Jim Morrison’s crystal ship, Hell pursed his pouty lips and made like a jumping bean. Some CBGB regulars preferred Hell’s sexy moves to Verlaine’s expressive interiorisations but it was evident the two styles didn’t/couldn’t mesh. The friction and frustration between the two on stage, though seldom rising to the slapstick slag-fests between the Ramones, was clear enough that when word travelled on little mice feet of Hell’s ejection or defection from Television, few were taken aback. In any contest, Verlaine’s wilfulness was always going to prevail.

It was nevertheless a breach that reverberated and caused some to choose sides. As everybody familiar with punk lore knows, Verlaine (real name, Tom Miller) and Hell (Richard Meyers) were boarding-school pals in Delaware who busted out together to pursue a life of artistic delinquency and vagabond abandon. After being arrested for setting a field on fire in Alabama, an acte gratuit that the local authorities didn’t much cotton to, Meyers eventually made his way to New York; Miller followed. It was there in the beckoning squalor of the Lower East Side that they adopted the names of poètes maudits, collaborated on a volume of poetry entitled Wanna Go Out? under the pseudonym Theresa Stern (the author photo is of Hell in a sultry wig), and formed a New York Dolls-inspired band called the Neon Boys, the predecessor to Television.

Theirs wasn’t only a friendship but a twinship, which made the sundering so much more traumatic, at least for one party. Much like the showbiz breakup of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, a comparison that never occurred to me until this moment, the dissolution of Verlaine and Hell produced asymmetrical emotional fallout. Decades later, much like Jerry Lewis, Hell was still mulling over and sorting out the impact of this fissuring of artistic collaboration and personal relationship in interviews and his 2013 memoir I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, while Verlaine, like ol’ Dino, seemed to flick off the past and coolly proceed. Breakups are often like that. Once Hell was replaced by Fred Smith, a bassist of the stalwart sentry-duty John Entwistle school, Television became the band Verlaine envisioned it to be.

Post-Hell, the performances at CBGB and other local venues became even more upward spiralling and enthralling, especially the second sets, which might last beyond 3 a.m. before everyone tottered off to Veselka or Kiev or any of the other 24-hour diners in the East Village patroned by the undead. Television, like many jazz musicians (Verlaine was a huge Albert Ayler fan), often performed their best when nothing was at stake and they were free to commune with themselves and follow the damp, intricate underground trails of improvisation. They played more conventional big-deal venues as well. New Year’s Eve found Television on a triple bill at the Palladium on 14th Street with the Patti Smith Band and John Cale (who seemed ready to turn into a werewolf at the slightest provocation). Everything seemed arrowed upward. In 1977, Television released their first album, Marquee Moon, which seemed made of some indestructible alloy.

It should have been the first masterpiece of, if not many, at least a few. Even today, the opening chords of ‘See No Evil’ knock off the hinges into a new vista. But something stalled or stunted the band’s momentum. A tour supporting Peter Gabriel exposed them to a lion’s den of hostile Gabrielites who pelted the stage with projectiles and otherwise made their displeasure known. Television’s second album, Adventure, released a year after Marquee Moon, failed to capitalise on the enthusiastic furor over the first, neither gaining the band any converts nor energising the faithful. To the chagrin and bewilderment of Television addicts, ‘O Mio Amore’ and the tender, leafy ‘Judy’ didn’t find a home on Adventure while newer, more characterless songs pulled the plough. The album wasn’t a steep drop-off from Marquee Moon, but it lacked urgency and the fragmented eloquence of gnostic utterance, being mostly a collection of pretty good songs that didn’t muster a cohesive clout. It would be fourteen years before Television released a third album, such a prolonged interval that the record couldn’t help but seem like a dutiful afterthought, a stately coda. Not enough was done to keep the romance alive.

In between, Verlaine released a series of solo albums, each of which offered outstanding numbers (the first had ‘Souvenir from a Dream’, ‘Breakin’ in My Heart’ and ‘Red Leaves’, with backup vocals by the divine Deerfrance) and inexplicable in-jokes (‘Yonki Time’). Each succeeding album sounded more nestled-in than the one before (exception: his third album, with the momentous ‘Days on the Mountain’), as if the listener were paying a visit to Verlaine’s workshop to admire the conscientious craftsmanship. Such delicately carved guitar phrasings and lyrical filigrees! But where was the sonic mesh? It was when Television reunited for live gigs that the thunder returned and then would be gone again for another lull.

One of the most momentous occasions at CBGB was the weekend when Television and Talking Heads were double-billed. At the time few could have foreseen that the Heads would be the band that would overtake and thrive, break through to popular success, appear in a spate of still-compulsive music videos (‘Burning Down the House’), become the subject of a groundbreaking concert documentary (Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense), and assemble a songbook that would furnish a smash Broadway musical (American Utopia). In the mid-1970s the Heads seemed more quirky and spindly than the sinewy, wood-splitting Television, more likely to pop a spring. Even with David Byrne as their chief auteur, his sense of squad-leader prerogative every bit as forcible as Verlaine’s, the Heads were a more modular construction, less genius-dependent. With their art-school Warhol aesthetic and work ethic, they proved to be more flexible and adaptable, zinging into the populist orgone of the Reagan-America Zeitgeist without pandering or editorialising, expanding their personnel and incorporating new rhythms, genres and influences, each album a new pavilion.

Although Verlaine collaborated with other performers and guitared on some Patti tracks, he chose a narrower circuit and a more liminal role. It is no doubt selfish and churlish to expect more. One stupendous album is all it takes to earn a place in Valhalla, as the Sex Pistols proved, and Marquee Moon is it. And there are all those live bootleg albums of the band and YouTube videos of Verlaine and Television to rabbit-hole down.

Musical fame isn’t everything, and Verlaine didn’t need a guitar slung over his shoulder to exert a James Dean fascination. A lone figure cloaked in concentration, he became perhaps the last phantom of downtown mystique, giving us something to talk about on grey days. It was the late Lester Bangs who once joked that whenever there was a Tom Verlaine sighting, it was officially a Tom Verlaine Day. But like so many New Yorkers with the reputation of being elusive and reclusive (even Greta Garbo back in the day), Verlaine was fairly easy to spot if you knew where to look.

His favorite haunts were the second-hand bookstores that once dotted Fourth Avenue and the Strand, one of the last surviving outposts and still the mother church for literary soul-seekers. I often passed the Strand when I lived in the East Village and occasionally saw Verlaine combing the outdoor stacks for rare finds. I usually just kept on walking, not only because I had somewhere to get to, but because I assumed Verlaine didn’t want to be bothered even by a delight like me during his daily devotionals. He was not given to breezy chit-chat, or so I assumed. But an affecting reminiscence by George Szamuely on his Substack reveals a side of Verlaine that even veteran Verlaine-watchers might not have anticipated. Like Tom, Szamuely was a Strand regular, a connoisseur of esoteric cast-offs:

When Tom wasn’t reading a book he had just picked up, he would be tidying up. Most perusers of the $1 or $2 trolleys are very careless about the way they put the books back: some place the books upside down or back to front, some don’t put the books back at all and simply leave them lying around. This would infuriate Tom. He always wanted to see the trolleys tidy, with books neatly shelved, smaller books at the top, bulkier books at the bottom.

When Tom wasn’t reading, browsing or tidying up at Strand, he would be engaged in lengthy, energetic conversation with almost anyone. He was friendly, charming and modest, and always interested in what others had to say. He would chat happily with a young maths teacher about the space-time continuum, with me about politics, with someone else about computers. He seemed interested in everything. Every so often some musician from the 1970s or 1980s would stop by to chat, as would someone who once owned a recording studio or someone who used to hang out at CBGB or someone who once owned a club in Boston or someone Tom once shared a house with. It was almost as if Tom were the host of a daily Strand party. I would arrive at some point in the evening, stay for an hour or so and leave: he would be there when I arrived and still there when I left.

Learning that our guitar god was such a fussbudget and gregarious open-air salon host shows that even the most distinctive characters can’t be reduced to a character type. Once Szamuely moved out of New York, he was deprived of any more Tom Verlaine Days. And now the rest of us are too. Tom Verlaine died in late January at the age of 73, after what was described as a brief illness. It was as if he had gone up in a puff of smoke. It would be so like him to leave no traces.

* I’ve learned within the last few days that in a 1975 interview Verlaine described me as ‘a really neat guy’, a compliment of the highest order that I will always treasure.


  • 3 February 2023 at 5:35pm
    Alex Abramovich says:
    Far be it for me to quibble with Mr. Wolcott, who was there—and writes beautifully here—but if I'm not mistaken, the author photo of Theresa Stern—

    —was Hell's face super-imposed on Verlaine's (or vice versa). A sort of split-diopter thing.

  • 4 February 2023 at 6:49pm
    William Burns says:
    Do you remember the joke, James?

  • 5 February 2023 at 4:34am
    Susan Klein says:
    I worked up the courage to say hello to Verlaine once, in the long-defunct East West Bookstore on lower Fifth Avenue, circa 1979. He chatted amicably about Persian poets as we ambled down Fifth, til I contrived an excuse to veer off on 8th St, lest I swoon. It is bittersweet to read so many effusive tributes over the last week and I hope he left this incarnation knowing how he was revered.

    • 9 February 2023 at 3:05am
      Don Adler says: @ Susan Klein
      I saw Tom twice on the street, both times on 12th St. , once near 7th Ave, the other near 4th Ave, ca 79-80, so I now think he was probably on his way to or from the Strand...he was another reason why NYC is like no other and so difficult to leave physically and especially psychologically.
      Thank you Tom.

  • 9 February 2023 at 2:54am
    Don Adler says:
    I was at that Television/ Talking Heads gig ca '76 which I believe Television headlined and when Talking Heads was still a trio.
    I taped it, in mono, and still have the cassette, somewhere.
    By the time Marquee Moon was released, they were even better live than the way they sounded on the album.
    Their progression, right through those Bottom Line 'final' shows, where Tom and Richard seemed to be at war with each other, never looking at each other, was remarkable.
    I recall seeing them in '75, thinking they were sloppy, disjointed, didn't take too long to change.

  • 14 February 2023 at 3:13pm
    Gerald Howard says:
    Peak Wolcott -- it doesn't get better than this. Yeah, what was the joke?

  • 15 February 2023 at 6:59pm
    gary morgan says:
    My guess would be a riff on the "If you can remember the 60s then you weren't there."
    Nice to see Mr Miller getting his due here and in the msm. In fact he's garnered more tributes than Jeff Beck! Be inteteresting to know if Wallington's finest knew or met Delaware's. I think they would have got on.

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