I write original content each weekday for five different music series. I have been doing so for quite some time now. Having five consistent topics to discuss each week helps to keep me organized and allows me to easily switch between the five series because of the comfort and familiarity I now have with each. However, over time I have learned that what I gain from being highly organized I trade away in terms of spontaneity and flexibility. I like to tell stories about music and the people who make it, but as time has gone on there is one aspect of my coverage that I have felt restricted from addressing properly, and that topic is mortality. Many of the musicians I write about are ghosts by now, or else they are senior citizens drawing ever closer to the Light. Lately, it seems as though my heroes are dying one right after the other. While this has been happening, I have felt unable to adequately address those deaths using the format structure I presently employ. So, starting today, I am announcing the launch of a new series. This series will be called Peace Be With You and will serve as a way for me to stop whatever is on my pre-determined schedule and pay tribute to a person who has dedicated their life to the creative endeavour of making music. Peace Be With You will not be a regular column but it will appear as needed whenever someone of note from the world of music passes away. I am going to resist temptation and not go back in time to write about those who have recently passed. I will let those good people rest in whatever form of peace they managed to find. Today, for the inaugural post in this series, I will start with a performer who passed away mere days ago, Tom Verlaine. So join me now as we honour the life and career of a man worth knowing.
You may be forgiven if you are hearing the name Tom Verlaine for the first time today. While Tom Verlaine was a hugely influential creator and performer, he was no music star. He fronted a band called Television who performed in the late 1970s and early 80s. Television released only two albums and never had a single song of theirs reach the charts. There were no grand national tours for Tom Verlaine, nor were there appearances on American Bandstand or on the cover of Teen Beat Magazine. And yet, Tom Verlaine is a name that dropped easily from the lips of folks like David Bowie, Bono, Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Kurt Cobain when they spoke about role models who inspired them and informed their craft. So who was this man who cast such a large shadow on the music scene, yet for many, was invisible? Here is his story.
Tom Verlaine was born Thomas Miller in 1949 in New Jersey. As a child he studied the piano, but in his teen years he discovered Jazz and switched to the saxophone as his instrument of choice. But one of the things most noteworthy about the young Miller was his singularity of vision. Even as his love of Jazz grew all throughout his teen years, so did a feeling of being trapped by the musical limitations that defined the genre. He felt that the definition of the “Jazz style” was arbitrary, and consequently Miller sought ways to break those boundaries down. His main influences during this period were Jazz giants such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Miller’s first hint that more was possible occurred when he began listening to the Bluesy, Jazzy early records from The Rolling Stones. Incorporating Rock n’ Roll into the world of Jazz opened up new opportunities for him to explore. To this new world, Miller added his own poetry. Melding musical genres in new ways and adding that to the result of his own creative words allowed Miller to take the first initial steps toward becoming what he eventually became: an artist in his own right.
As high school was ending, Miller made the first of several important personal connections. He became friends with another student who would go on to name himself Richard Hell. Hell would go on to front a band called Voivoid and would be one of the early forces in New York City’s burgeoning Punk Rock scene in the late 1970s. Miller and Hell became friends. They found that they held similar passions for certain writers and musicians and artists. It was as high school was ending that Miller and Hell decided to follow their own muses and head off to blaze their own creative trails in New York City. Miller’s first act of independence was to change his last name to Verlaine. He did so to cut all ties with his past and to move forward in an artistic manner by donning the name of a French poet that he liked named Paul Verlaine. As Verlaine entered the underground world of the New York Arts scene, he found contemporaries in people such as Lou Reed, John Cale, Deborah Harry, various members of The Ramones and, most importantly for Verlaine, poet/musician/photographer Patti Smith. At the time of this confluence of creative personalities, New York was about to be the scene of brand new forms of musical expression that would then explode across the nation. Punk, Disco, Hip Hop and Alternative music all burst forth from the New York underground music scene of which Tom Verlaine was a charter member. Verlaine’s impact on American music was wide ranging and varied but one of the very first moments that caused him to stand out from the crowd occurred when he convinced the owner of the influential CBGBs night club to allow for rock n’ roll to be played there (Until Verlaine interceded, CBGBs was mainly a Country and Western bar). Bands such as Blondie and The Ramones got some of their big breaks because of performances put on at CBGBs, which never would have been possible if not for Tom Verlaine.
But Tom Verlaine was much more than just the man who opened CBGBs up to rock. He was a musical enigma which suited him just fine. When he started creating his own music, many wanted to label him as being a punk rocker. But, while Verlaine may have had the punk rock sensibility of wanting to knock down the walls that currently existed in the world of popular music, he was no punk. He never donned the uniform of ripped clothes, shaved or spiked hair, piercings and the like. He was very tall (well over six feet), handsome, relatively clean cut and possessed hands the size of meat hooks. That he didn’t fit in with the exploding Punk scene aesthetic bothered him not in the slightest. Verlaine had his own artistic vision and never sought to tailor or alter that in any way to “fit in” with any crowd or scene. All the while he was starting his band, Television, he was also hanging out with other people such as Patti Smith. Smith is a person who has carved out a space in the cultural history of America that uniquely belongs to her. Her most commercially-popular song was the oft-covered “Because the Night”, which Bruce Springsteen and Natalie Merchant both sang to great effect. But, generally speaking, Patti Smith was a feminist in the truest meaning of the word and lived her life completely on her own terms. Consequently, she was respected and admired by a wide range of people who were also artists in their own right. For example, before starting his band, Nirvana, Kurt Cobain sought out Patti Smith as a sounding board to see if he was being as authentic and true to his own Art and poetry and music as he hoped he was. When she became his friend and mentor, Cobain felt as though his life choices were vindicated and he proceeded accordingly with a career that skyrocketed in time. While Cobain and others such as Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth were seeking out the company of Patti Smith, she was living with Tom Verlaine as peers…as equals.
Verlaine and Patti Smith became a couple not long after Verlaine and Richard Hell had moved to New York City together. Together they discovered a mutual love of authors and poets and dancers and painters who often were known for being a combination of talented, obscure and fiercely independent. In each other’s company, they reinforced the closely held conviction that the expression of true Art was the purest form of Love imaginable. Thus, both Verlaine and Smith pursued their individual artistic goals knowing that they had the support of the other should such support ever be needed. Tom Verlaine channeled his vision into the music of a band called Television. As mentioned earlier, Television had no breakthrough hits. In keeping with Verlaine’s sense of creating Art for the sake of being creative and his unwillingness to conform to existing norms or to seek the approval of those for whom money trumped creativity, he cared not in the slightest that his music didn’t chart. In many ways, the music Tom Verlaine ended up producing was meant as much for the purity of making an artistic statement as it ever was for the consumption of the record-buying public. This is not to say that the music Verlaine created was without commercial merit. It was. In fact, Verlaine’s music ended up being as impactful and influential as his presence as an artist ended up being. The main thing Tom Verlaine became noted for musically was his guitar playing. For starters, Verlaine played a type of guitar called a Jazzmaster which is an electric guitar that was never meant to be played in a rock n’ roll format. Secondly, his style of playing was excellent and, at times, virtuosic. As a guitar player, Verlaine influenced a whole range of fellow guitar players that followed in his wake. His style was unique to him at the time. When you watch the video that follows at the end of this post, note how lost in the music Verlaine becomes as the guitar playing takes over from the lyrics (about the 4:00 mark). He becomes almost trance-like. I noticed several moments where the bassist and rhythm guitarist shared looks between them as they wondered where Verlaine was going with his playing and how much longer they would have to maintain the foundational beat to the song. The closest comparable guitarist I thought of while watching would be someone like Carlos Santana, although a case could be made for Jimi Hendrix as well. Having said that, Tom Verlaine had a style and a stage presence all his own, though. More than anything, it was his steadfast adherence to his own musical vision, regardless of what was going on around him, that came to be his signature style.
It is never easy to be an island amid an ever-changing and challenging sea, but Tom Verlaine was such a rocksteady presence in the world of music. There were very few like him to have ever graced the stage. His death has left a void in the world of music. This is not because of the strength of his song catalogue but because of how pure an artist he was all throughout his life. His unwillingness to ever compromise his artistic integrity in return for commercial gain makes him unique among performers. He never made millions from his music, but Tom Verlaine remained rich beyond measure just the same. May peace be with you, Tom Verlaine. Thank you for a life lived well.
The link to the official website for Tom Verlaine can be found here. ***Not surprisingly, this is a fan site. Verlaine had no website of his own. 🙂
The link to the official website for Patti Smith can be found here.
The link to the official website for Television can be found here. ***Not surprisingly, this site is run by others as well. There is no Television band website. 🙂
The link to the official website for CBGBs can be found here.
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