Air Couldn't Touch Us: Remembering Tom Verlaine


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Air Couldn't Touch Us: Remembering Tom Verlaine

The creation of the band Television is an immense fairytale. When Tom Miller and Richard Meyers met at the Sanford School in Delaware, they both ditched the place in favor of becoming poets in the Big Apple. They didn’t migrate together, but they both landed there with parallel dreams. However, the scene the two boys aimed to become a part of was seriously changing. The Beat Generation faded out at the turn of the 1960s; Frank O’Hara passed away in 1966; John Ashbery’s prolific output was beginning to slow down. It’s as if Miller and Meyers had gotten to where they needed to be just an inch too late. Of course, other poets, like Audre Lorde and Eileen Myles, were still examining and reinventing verse within the city. It’s just that the art of New York City was transitioning. Gone were the days of folk musicians and day-drinking writers moseying around Manhattan. A new type of counterculture had arisen, an art community that embraced the avant garde in a way not seen since the days of the Warhol Factory and the Velvet Underground.

Miller and Meyers began making music together under the name the Neon Boys in the fall of 1972. Miller changed his last name to Verlaine and played guitar and sang, while Meyers started going by Richard Hell and played bass. They soon hired Billy Ficca to man the drum kit. It wasn’t until the next spring that they became Television, brought Richard Lloyd in to play guitar alongside Verlaine and hired Terry Ork to be their manager. Ork got them a gig playing shows at Hilly Kristal’s CBGB in the East Village. CBGB stood for Country, BlueGrass, and Blues, but was, ironically, much more instrumental in promoting some of the greatest American punk acts ever: Blondie, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, Patti Smith and Verlaine and Hell’s Television.

Of course, the Television we love didn’t come until after Hell left the group. Verlaine wasn’t in love with Hell’s live antics, and he sometimes felt like the music played second fiddle to their disastrous arrivals. Hell spiked his hair high and wore a shirt that read “PLEASE KILL ME,” embodying the punk stereotype that Freaks and Geeks embellished in “Noshing and Moshing” 20 years later. Verlaine was his contra, with a much more laid back presentation, often sporting button down shirts and a good bowl cut. It didn’t help that Verlaine was also, very often, opposed to playing Hell’s tracks at shows. So Hell left and started the Heartbreakers with members of the New York Dolls before later fronting the Voidoids and then, even later, retreating from music to focus on writing books. Anyways, Television. After Hell was gone, they brought on Blondie’s Fred Smith to take over bass-playing duties. And that combination was the one that worked.

Television made a full-blown, dynamite record for Elektra in 1977, Marquee Moon. It was released into one of the greatest eras of New York music, where Suicide set out to destroy rock and roll, the Dictators were more quintessential to the city than the Ramones but got half the flowers and Cleveland transplants the Dead Boys, behind their cool-as-hell-named guitarist Cheetah Chrome, became one of the most violent, ungovernable live acts around. So it’s too bad that Marquee Moon didn’t have a place among any of that. Instead, the record transcended beyond the punk rock that critics, historians and fans have long associated with the scene Television came up in. Verlaine may have been late to the poetry party in New York, but that miss helped him grandfather a new, unique sound in the city.

He was really influenced by jazz, and it shows on that first Television record. While bands around him were getting off on unkempt, imperfect guitar work, he was making these clean, fine-tuned recordings that didn’t just flaunt his prowess with a Fender Jazzmaster, but his ability to make songs that truly obliterated the sound that had become the norm in his immediate surroundings. He assembled a debut A-side of “See No Evil,” “Venus,” “Friction” and “Marquee Moon” like an absolute madman. The title track off Marquee Moon, particularly, is the greatest guitar song this side of Hendrix’s death. You can make the argument that it is also one of the greatest rock songs ever. But what is terrific about “Marquee Moon” is that it just keeps going. For nearly 11 minutes, Verlaine and company build upwards to a breaking point that never arrives. The song is one gigantic swell of cosmic guitars, or if the Byrds took a bunch of Adderall and locked themselves in a studio. “Marquee Moon” is a craftsman at his peak; a band immovable from their mountain of improvisational, beautiful chaos.

Marquee Moon goes far beyond its title track. As a single organism, the record is one giant coming-of-age testimony heavily inspired by Bohemian poetry. Verlaine loved to use double entendres to make his observations of Manhattan less opaque. Quite often, Television songs were open-ended and as bright as they were cynical. Verlaine used puns to write about his future, finding deep reflection within the intersection of fine art and romance. The lines “My eyes are like telescopes / I see it all backwards, but who wants hope? / If I ever catch that ventriloquist / I’ll squeeze his head right into my fist” spoke greatly of his employment of contradictions. He was walking art awash with the uncertainty of a midnight sky; a poet gleaning geographical imagery into his pastorals as if he was his city’s only architect.

The band had hired Andy Johns to engineer and produce Marquee Moon because Verlaine was uninterested in having a popular producer’s name attached to the record. In the years prior, Johns had worked on Blind Faith, Led Zeppelin IV and Exile on Main St., but he was never the poster boy of the production team. Johns’ track record spoke for itself: He knew how to make a great guitar record. And thus, Marquee Moon was able to outrun every other punk record from the late-1970s. Television wanted to make records that sounded like the Velvet Underground jamming with John Coltrane. Of course, that isn’t how the music turned out. Instead, it was something much more peculiar and alluring. Verlaine became a creature on tape, plugging in this great, rapturous drawl that strangled the microphone. It was unlike anything New York had ever seen; it’s something no band has replicated since, though many have tried (here’s looking at you, R.E.M.).

I was introduced to Television sometime in college, when I discovered art-punk and New Wave bands that existed beyond what the radio played. To come to Verlaine’s work as a 20-something is a gift, because his songs speak greatly of someone growing up without a clear direction. The songs he wrote were very momentary, all stuck in place but eager to peer far into the corners of each night and every sound. His cynicism sprung from being young and in a city at its bleakest.

With Verlaine passing away last weekend, his genius is again at the forefront of the music world. I wish it was happening under better circumstances, but I also have loved seeing my Twitter timeline aglow with musicians remembering Verlaine warmly. The cultural impact of Television is immense. Without them, the Strokes wouldn’t exist; neither would Pavement. Nels Cline-era Wilco wouldn’t be a thing, and Sonic Youth likely wouldn’t have made “Teenage Riot,” one of the greatest guitar songs ever. The celebratory posts are aplenty, as are solemn notes of grief. From Susanna Hoffs to Flea to Steve Albini, the music world took to their phones to say goodbye to their fallen hero. The influx of hurt speaks to Verlaine’s impact on not just the world of rock and roll, but the population who long consumed its riches.

I’ve taken this time to return to Adventure, Television’s often-overlooked sophomore record that is, in many ways, better than Marquee Moon. The record hit shelves 14 months after the band’s debut and was met with disappointment from critics. Rolling Stone dismissed it because of its supposed lack of tension or drama; The Village Voice remarked that Verlaine’s lyricism didn’t have the edge it did a year prior. It is true, Adventure was much more of a “songbook” record than Marquee Moon, but it’s that approach that makes it so wondrous. The jangle pop of opener “Days,” the smooth as all get-out piano on “Carried Away” and the blistering rock riffs on “Foxhole” pointed to Verlaine’s greatest achievement: He actively subverted the mission of punk rock and bent it to fit his own creative agenda. Sure, he wasn’t writing about sculptures and heartbreak like a starving French poet anymore. Instead, he was having fun making a chameleonic record that best matched the idyllic, quotidian resolutions he sought to find in the mundanity of his daily life.

In turn, I think about Verlaine’s poetic roots often, how he fashioned himself like a detective moonlighting as a spoken-word performer. He saw the world at its bleakest and most hopeful, yet he translated both parts through one beautiful command of language. Verlaine saw reflection as not a means to an end, but a vehicle that could make any drab circumstance much more compelling. Losing him, even if he hadn’t put out a record in nearly 17 years, meant that there was one less person with such a down-to-earth, nose-to-the-grindstone look on life. The beauty Verlaine took note of was grounded; the love he found was as circumstantial as walking down the street, or breathing. Can you imagine if he had stayed in Delaware and lived forever as Tom Miller? How thankful we should be that he heard “19th Nervous Breakdown” in high school.

I have listened to and gushed about Television sporadically for most of my adult life. Adventure is 20 years older than my existence. So few bands have made two masterpieces and then packed it up. Television would return in 1992 with a self-titled album that had a great payoff in the context of a reunion record. It was no Marquee Moon, but the record showcased how Verlaine had grown in the previous 15 years, with refined guitar work and edgy lyrics dulled by a necessary maturation.

If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that sudden passings like this will continue. I, myself, have morbidly been considering how I might react when those times come. When our phones light up with the notifications announcing death.

I have wondered why we react so emotionally to the deaths of strangers, even the ones who have made generational art. In the hours after Verlaine passed away, I realized that it is often so hard to accept that a world might have to exist without a person who made a very special thing no longer in it. Verlaine wrote Marquee Moon and Adventure, and it saddens me to know that he is no longer in a place where he might hear just how special those records are to the rest of us. He probably didn’t care much about that sort of adoration when he was alive, given that he mostly checked out of the glitz and glamor of rock stardom after the ’90s. I’m sure he knew, though. There is a joy peeking through all of this, in that the rest of us left on Earth can still see his footprints, in the curlicue of heroic guitar riffs, uptempo yelps and the arms of Venus de Milo.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s assistant music editor, and a poet, essayist, and culture critic from Northeast Ohio. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.

Listen to an exclusive solo performance of Tom Verlaine at Tramps on June 12, 1996.