When George Gershwin died, his friend, the writer John O’Hara, wrote, “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” I thought of that quote when I read that the writer and composer Tom Verlaine died on January 28, 2023.
“Tom Verlaine” was “Trending Now” on my computer screen on that Saturday and I knew what it meant even before I clicked on the name. Sure enough, there were the obituaries. He died at the age of 73 and his death was announced by Patti Smith’s daughter, Jesse Paris Smith. There’s some poetic closure in that.
I wanted to tell somebody when I heard and realized that I had lost track of many of my contacts who would even recognize the name. Instead, I found myself checking out all of the media coverage I could find and pulling up favorite tracks. Finally, on Sunday, I received a text message from a long-time friend: “Just saw that Tom Verlaine died. Man oh man! … It really doesn’t seem possible or maybe right, does it?”
Television, Tom Verlaine’s band with Richard Lloyd, Billy Ficca, and Fred Smith, was a favorite of mine in the late-70s. The band’s initial incarnation was short-lived – they only released two albums – but their music and lyrics are among the best sounds of that era for my taste. Television transcended the punk rock with which it is often identified.
I’m not sure how I first heard about Television. I probably first read about the band in the Village Voice, the alternative weekly from New York where I kept up with the CBGB scene years before I’d ever been to New York. Maybe one of my more progressive musichead friends told me about them. But I clearly remember being hooked as soon as I heard the first guitar riffs of the title song of their first album, Marquee Moon. It was a more polished sound than that of their raw and aggressive punk contemporaries, embellished by the slightly tortured, yet ethereal, quality of Verlaine’s voice. Patti Smith recently remembered that Verlaine “possessed the child’s gift of transforming a drop of water into a poem that somehow begat music.” As usual, Patti Smith is right.
Verlaine’s death hits particularly hard because Television kinda marks the last time that I was closely keeping up with current trends in music. In fact, when Television announced their split after their second album, Adventure, in 1978, I wrote a letter to Verlaine asking him to reconsider (the only time I ever did something like that). The Night, Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine’s 1976 chapbook, still resides on my book shelf, ensconced with Smith’s more recent memoirs.
I continued to keep up with Verlaine and his solo career and noted when Television reunited for another album in 1992. Verlaine’s guitar stylings were as singular and significant as his voice and his lyrics; his influences were broad and inclusive. I recently listened to an NPR podcast from 2006, “All Songs Considered,” featuring Verlaine as its guest deejay. Among the tracks he played were a jazz cut from Charles Mingus’s Ah Um, a theme from film composer Bernard Herrmann’s The Day the Earth Stood Still soundtrack, and a lush orchestration by Henry Mancini.
After Television, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, and a few others my taste veered more to jazz, instrumental, and ambient music and has stayed there ever since. But it’s always nice to take a U-turn. And I never lost my taste for the music of Television and Verlaine. The two songs that have been running through my head most in the past week are “Venus” (“I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo”) and “See No Evil.” Makes me feel like a kid again.