Peace Be With You: The Life and Music of Ryuichi Sakamoto

Ryuichi Sakamoto passed away this week. He was 71 years old. He died after a valiant fight against throat cancer. There has been an outpouring of sadness from around the globe at the news that we have lost one of the world’s great keyboardists and film scorers. Ryuichi Sakamoto was never an artist who sought the spotlight. Fame and fortune were not factors that motivated him to pursue excellence in his music or in his art, yet the impactful nature of his life’s work helped change the way we view music today. Here is a brief overview of his life and his accomplishments.

Yellow Magic Orchestra: Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi.

Ryuichi Sakamoto first came to the attention of the music world in the 1970s as a member of the important Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra. Yellow Magic Orchestra was a trio made up of Ryuichi Sakamoto (on keyboards), Yukihiro Takahashi (drums) and Haruomi Hosono (guitar and lead singer). Yellow Magic Orchestra is a prime example of the notion that music is a universal language. In the 1970s they were part of a global musical movement that introduced synthesizers into mainstream use. At the same time as prog rock bands such as Genesis and Yes were creating their twenty-minute epic masterpieces and Alternative bands such as Depeche Mode, The Cure and Yazoo were using synthesizers to create music that was lighter and bouncier, Yellow Magic Orchestra was doing the exact same thing in Japan. (You can listen to the song called “Rydeen” here).To say that Ryuichi Sakamoto was the Japanese Vince Clarke of his time would be an appropriate comparison to make. But to characterize Sakamoto as simply being a keyboardist in a Pop band would be wrong. He was so much more than that.

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s interest in music extended beyond the production of hit songs. It went much deeper to the actual way that individual sounds could be manipulated. Sakamoto was on the leading edge of those artists around the world who recognized the potential that digitizing music had in terms of its ability to allow composers to manipulate sounds in ways that would be more difficult if attempted while playing live. As a result, Yellow Magic Orchestra became one of the first bands in the world to employ digital technology, along with their synthesizers. If you listened to the sample track of theirs from the link above, you will have heard how familiar it sounded to music you are used to hearing from North America and Europe during the early 80s.. The fact is that digital technology had an impact on the world of music that was global in nature. One of the leading voices behind this global movement was Ryuichi Sakamoto from Japan.

David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto as seen in the movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

In the 1980s, Ryuichi Sakamoto left Yellow Magic Orchestra and began releasing solo albums, as well as collaborations with musicians from all over the world. In addition to that, he decided that the poetry of the cinema spoke to him so he began creating musical scores for big budget movies. The first film that he scored was the 1983 movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. (You can watch the trailer here). That movie starred Tom Conti and David Bowie as British POWs in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II. Ryuichi Sakamoto also acted in the film. His musical score won the award for Best Score at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts ceremony that year. A few years later, he provided much of the musical score for the Academy Award winning movie The Last Emperor. (You can watch the trailer here). That movie swept the Academy Awards the year it was nominated. As part of the awards sweep, Ryuichi Sakamoto won the Academy Award for Best Score, making him the first composer from an Asian country to be so honoured.

Sakamoto with his Oscar for Best Score for the movie The Last Emperor.

Ryuichi Sakamoto was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. Despite the ravages of the disease and the treatments to combat it, Mr. Sakamoto continued creating and performing right up until the final months of his life. In the video link here, you can watch Ryuichi Sakamoto giving the final piano recital of his life. In the video he plays the theme to the movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. The music is lovely. It is all the more so when you watch him play and realize that he is in pain and only months away from death. He was a very special man, indeed. The world was made richer because of his musical contributions to it. We are the poorer for him being gone. Peace be with you, Ryuichi Sakamoto. Thank you for a life lived in pursuit of Art and beauty and sound. You have earned your rest.

In 2018, a documentary about Ryuichi Sakamoto was released. It was called Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda. You can watch the trailer here. It looks amazing.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Peace Be With You: The Life and Music of Mr. Burt Bacharach

My wife and mother-in-law were chatting on the phone last night. In the course of their conversation, they discussed the day’s weather…it had been a rainy, dreary day. Then my mother-in-law said that the dreariness of the day wasn’t helped by the news about Burt Bacharach. My wife responded by asking, “Who?” I looked up from what I had been doing. My mother-in-law paused, clearly caught off guard. In that instant a generational divide had been revealed in my home. My wife had no idea who Burt Bacharach was. In fact, she had never heard his name before it was spoken by my mother-in-law. My wife turned to my eldest daughter to see if she had heard of this name before and she hadn’t, either. My mother-in-law and I both offered up some scant details about the man such as he was someone who wrote many, many hit songs. My mother-in-law stated a few of them. All legendary tunes or so we thought. But my wife and daughter just shrugged their shoulders. Obviously, the life and death of Burt Bacharach was only news of note for us older folks. So, today’s post is being written for my wife, Keri and daughter, Leah. Burt Bacharach lived a full and impactful life and is someone worth knowing about. As for those of you who know the man and his work, feel free to read along and celebrate the life of one of the entertainment world’s most accomplished artists. Here is the story of Burt Bacharach. Enjoy.

Burt Bacharach was 94 years old when he passed away this week. Over the course of his legendary career as a singer/songwriter, Bacharach won six Grammy awards and three Academy Awards. He had been awarded the Gershwin Prize for songwriting twice. A list of the songs he wrote on his own or with his writing partner, Hal David, reads like a Hall of Fame roster of musical classics. His work included such hits as “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”, “(They Long To Be) Close To You”, “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)”, “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance”, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, “Blue on Blue”, “Walk On By”, “(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me”, “What The World Needs Now”, “What’s New Pussycat?”, “Casino Royale”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”, “Heartlight”, “That’s What Friends Are For” and many, many more.

Burt Bacharach and Marlene Dietrich

Bacharach began his career in music while in the US Army during the 1950s. It was while in the army that he met singer Vic Damone who, at the time, had quite the reputation as a crooner. Damone invited Bacharach to play piano for him in his band, but after a short time, Bacharach’s skill outshone his supporting role and he struck out on his own. One of the first influential people he met and began a working relationship with was legendary movie star and performer, Marlene Dietrich. With her, Bacharach served as musical director and composer. Together they toured the world during the latter half of the 1950s. During this period, Bacharach got to work with musicians from all over the world. He particularly enjoyed his time in Russia, Israel and the Scandinavian countries because of how highly music was esteemed in those countries. As their professional partnership ended, Dietrich stated that her time with Bacharach, although strictly platonic, was, in her words, “like seventh heaven”. She went on to say, “As a man, he embodied everything a woman could wish for. How many such men are there? For me, he was the only one”.

Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick

Throughout the early part of the 1960s Burt Bacharach was one of the many incredibly talented songwriters employed at The Brill Building in New York City. (You can read a post about that scene here). It was while employed at The Brill Building that Bacharach met his lifelong professional partner Hal David. Together they wrote hit songs for Country star Marty Robbins as well as for crooner Perry Como. But it was when they began working with singer Dionne Warwick that their careers as songwriters really took off. Over the course of her career Dionne Warwick sold over 22 million albums. Almost every single one of her hits was written by Bacharach and David including, “Walk On By”, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “Alfie” and more.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David with their Oscars for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”.

As the 1960s progressed and Bacharach’s reputation for songwriting continued to grow, he decided it was time to expand his repertoire and began releasing his own music. His initial records had a distinct Jazz influence to them and, as a result, his own music became popular with accomplished Jazz players, including such huge stars as Stan Getz, who released an entire album of Jazz standards based on Burt Bacharach’s tunes. But that was not all! The 1960s saw Burt Bacharach’s career explode in many different ways. For example, he began writing music for Broadway shows and for Hollywood movies, too. In fact, he wrote the first “James Bond” theme song in the history of that storied franchise when he wrote “Casino Royale”. That led to further soundtrack work such as “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”, which won Bacharach his first two Academy Awards for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (One for Best Song in a Movie and the second for Best Score). A decade or so later, Bacharach would win a third Academy Award for the movie, Arthur.

In his private life, Burt Bacharach was married four times and had a total of four children. In 1999 he was selected as People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive”. In all, Burt Bacharach wrote almost 200 songs that became hits on radio, in film and/or on Broadway. He stands as one of the most prolific and successful songwriters in the history of modern music. Bacharach’s music is part of the cultural fabric of America and the world and will remain so, even in death. Burt Bacharach’s life was well lived. He has certainly earned his rest. Peace be with you, Mr. Bacharach. Thank you for dedicating your life to music and the craft of songwriting. We are all the better for your efforts.

The link to the video “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David as sung by B.J. Thomas can be found here.

The link to the official website for Burt Bacharach can be found here.

Peace Be With You: The Life, Music and Art of Mendelson Joe

In 1982 I moved from a town of 20,000 people (Glace Bay, Nova Scotia) to a city of over 2,000,000 (Toronto). As you can probably imagine, it isn’t easy to make a move of such magnitude without there being some fairly significant adjustments to make along the way. One of the biggest adjustments (and fastest) that I had to make had to do with my cultural references. I left home to attend university. Specifically, I left home to enroll in the Radio and Television Arts Programme at Toronto Metropolitan University (Ryerson, back in the day). It didn’t take long for me to realize the truth behind the oft-repeated accusation that those in Toronto feel as though it is the centre of the universe. My broadcasting course was being taught in Toronto by media professionals who had made a name for themselves in Canada’s largest city. It shouldn’t have surprised me that the course would be Toronto-centric in so many ways. But it did.

I grew up on Cape Breton Island in the 1960s and 70s. Because those were pre-internet times, we got much of our news and cultural information from national broadcasters like the CBC or CTV. Thus, I grew up knowing national celebrities such as Anne Murray, Tommy Hunter, Wayne and Shuster and so on. But, I also grew up knowing performers such as Winnie Chafe, Lee Cremo and The Men of the Deeps. Because of how information was disseminated in those days, I felt as though I knew my local celebrities every bit as much as I did my national heroes. So when I arrived in Toronto to begin my broadcasting course, I naively expected that my teachers and classmates would have the same cultural background as me. Instead, their cultural markers were completely different. Not only was their cultural background much different from me because of the wide variety of ethnicity on display, but just as importantly, it was different because everything was so Toronto-oriented. I was completely lost in terms of a shared history. It was almost as if I was a stranger in a foreign land.

Let me give you a couple of quick examples. My very first assignment in a course called History of Broadcasting was to list all of the radio stations in Toronto, describe their music format and provide a brief bit of background such as corporate ownership, how the station was doing as far as “the numbers” went and so on. To those from Toronto, this was probably an easy first assignment because they had grown up listening to these stations all of their lives. For me, it was horrendously difficult because I had never listened to any of them, so I had no idea who did “Talk” and who did “Rock”, which were AM and which were FM, and on and on it went. A second example was from a course that consisted of us listening to guest speakers who worked within the broadcasting industry in Canada. The very first guest speaker was a man named Dick Smyth. My Toronto area classmates were super excited that this man was coming. To me, I hadn’t a clue who he was. That he was a famous columnist and radio personality meant absolutely nothing to me because we never listened to Toronto radio or watched local Toronto television or read Toronto newspapers when I was growing up in Glace Bay. With my classmates’ mocking laughter ringing in my ears, I was determined to stand and fight for my place in the course. To do so, I immersed myself in as much Toronto culture as I could. Luckily for me, I got a big break the very next week as our industry insider guest speaker was a man named Moses Znaimer. He was working hard to change the way broadcasting was being presented to viewers. Because of him, I started to learn about Toronto.

Moses Znaimer

Moses Znaimer once worked for the CBC but left them in the late 1970s to start a new Toronto television station called CITY-TV. At the time, Znaimer’s ideas were deemed as being radical. He believed that democracy was a participatory process and that broadcasting was a fundamental part of healthy democracies. As such, he felt that citizens needed to be invited into the world of broadcasting so that they could see themselves represented properly and hear their stories being told. One of the first symbolic things he did was to install glass windows in the exterior of his studios so that passers-by could watch what was happening live on air such as at news time. Znaimer also created numerous shows that focussed on local issues and on the people making a difference in the city itself. After hearing him speak, I decided to start watching CITY-TV. One of the first shows I started following was called The New Music Magazine. The first episode I saw involved a segment about the emerging underground Arts scene in Toronto. The segment featured a poet/songwriter named Robert Priest and highlighted a song of his called “Congo Toronto”. The political nature of the song/video caught my attention. Because of the fact that I looked to find out more about Robert Priest, I ended up being introduced to someone special named Mendleson Joe. Initially a Toronto-area local celebrity of sorts, Mendelson Joe went on to become one of the most original and noteworthy members of Canada’s Arts scene. He was a musician, songwriter, poet and visual artist over the course of his life and there was truly no one else like him in Canada. The irony for me is that Mendelson Joe was not comfortable in the company of most people, and therefore he lived for the majority of his life in a cabin in the woods. The ironic part is that I found him when I needed someone the most at that moment in my life. I was adrift in a strange new world, but once I found Mendelson Joe and, by extension, Robert Priest, then I found King Cobb Steelie and Rough Trade and through them, I found the beginnings of my own voice. So even though we never met in person, I have always felt as though I owed Mendelson Joe a debt of gratitude for helping to ground me when I was spinning and for being every bit the outsider as I originally felt and waving that flag ever so proudly for all to see.

Mendelson Joe as part of McKenna Mendelson Mainline

Mendelson Joe began his career as a singer and songwriter. He released dozens of albums as a solo artist and as part of a band known as McKenna Mendelson Mainline. This band was a Blues-based outfit that had its initial success in England in the 1960s before returning to Toronto in the 1970s. While they had no chart-topping hits, they did manage to score gigs opening for the Jeff Beck Group and filling in for The Jimi Hendrix Experience once in Belgium. As part of the chain of connections that first brought Mendelson Joe to my attention via CITY-TV’s New Music Magazine show, when McKenna Mendelson Mainline returned to Canada after touring in England, they recorded a live Blues album in a burlesque hall. That album was mixed at studios owned by Moses Znaimer before he founded CITY-TV.

Mendelson Joe with Rick Mercer and a painting of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as an a**

But as the years rolled by, what Mendelson Joe became most known for was speaking his mind to those in power. Like Moses Znaimer, he felt that it was a civic duty to participate in the functioning of the democratic process as part of the cost/obligation of living in Canada. He often used his music to make points about how more women should be elevated into positions of authority in our society and about how we all need to care for the earth if we are to survive as a species. He was an ardent follower of the CBC: especially the radio arm of the corporation. He often wrote letters to the editor in local newspapers, as well as to the CBC radio shows that he listened to. In the mid-1970s, he began painting. In time, Mendelson Joe became known for his portraits of famous Canadians that he respected. As well, he became known for his politically charged paintings of politicians of all affiliations, most of whom he dismissed as liars and cheats. His portraits of them reflected his views accordingly. While he was active in making “good trouble” via his music and art right up until recently, he did begin to find it harder to do so because he contracted Parkinson’s disease which, as you may know, causes you to lose control of your gross and fine motor skills, often shaking uncontrollably. The more the Parkinson’s took over his body, the less Mendelson Joe saw in continuing to live. Thus, he made the decision to end his life on his terms with a medically assisted death (or M.A.I.D., as it is legally called in Canada). With those he loved most around him, he ended his life this past week. With that final act, he departed for the next world, leaving a world of goodness in his wake.

Mendelson Joe’s death saddens me a little because the world needs more people like him, not fewer. However, his life serves us all as a reminder that living a life of silence serves no one well in the end. If we have gifts, then we should share them with others so as to brighten their world and perhaps inspire them to develop and share their own bounty with others in a cycle of upwardly flowing positivity. But, the biggest lesson I learned from encountering Mendelson Joe over forty years ago is the importance of having that hoary cliché of a growth mindset. Traveling and living in different parts of the country has broadened my mind and helped to make me a more empathetic person. For the first third of my life, I lived on an island called Cape Breton and thought I knew a lot about Canada. Then I moved to Canada’s biggest city and found out that I knew very little after all. The people I encountered or learned about in those early days in Toronto helped ease my transition into a bigger world and because of that, they helped me grow as a human being. For that I am eternally grateful.

I have tried to give a sense of who Mendelson Joe was, but there are others who have already done so with greater eloquence that I can muster. So, I am going to leave you with three videos and one special website link below. The first is a short song sung by Mendelson Joe called “The Canada Song”. It features a lot of his landscape art. The song is cute but has a good point in the end as well. The second video comes from a segment on the life of Mendelson Joe by famous Canadian comedian Rick Mercer from his former TV show, The Rick Mercer Report. (In this video you will get to see some of the political paintings Joe did of politicians that he felt were liars). The third video is simply one in which Mendelson Joe talks about one of his portraits…Bruce Cockburn, I believe, and how he views those who speak out on behalf of the environment. The final link is not a video at all but, instead, a link to his official website which is curated by his friend and partner Karen Robinson. Pinned to the front page of the website is a farewell letter written by Mendelson Joe himself. I can think of nothing more appropriate than allowing Mendelson Joe to have the final word in this post.

Thank you all for reading about this important Canadian. Peace Be With You, Mendelson Joe. Thank you for living a life filled with Art and creativity and strong personal principles.

The link to the video for the song “The Canada Song” by Mendelson Joe can be found here.

The link to the video about Mendelson Joe that aired on The Rick Mercer Report can be found here.

The link to the official website for Mendleson Joe which contains his farewell letter to the world can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Peace Be With You: The Life and Music of Charlie Thomas

Today’s post is the latest in a series that seeks to celebrate those who have passed away after dedicating their lives to making our world better through music. Please join me in celebrating the life and music of a true gentleman and a very soulful singer, Mr. Charlie Thomas.

R & B and Soul singer Charlie Thomas passed away this week from stomach cancer. He was 85 years of age. The story of Charlie Thomas is one of the more interesting stories that I have told so far since I have started writing about the most famous songs of all time. In a previous post about the Drifters’ classic song, “Up On The Roof”(which you can read here), I discovered the unusual story behind the creation and subsequent evolution of the Drifters as a singing group. In order to appreciate the major role that Charlie Thomas had in the world of R & B and Soul music in America, I strongly urge you to stop where you are and read the previous post about “Up On The Roof”.

The Five Crowns. Note: Charlie Thomas is at the bottom of the frame and the man listed as “Ben Nelson” is, in fact, the man who later gained fame as “Ben E. King”.

The short strokes of his story are that Thomas was originally a member of a singing group in NYC known as The Five Crowns, along with Ben E. King and three others. At one point in the history of the original Drifters group, there arose a legal dispute about royalties and salaries that resulted in the entire band being fired. Ben E. King, Charlie Thomas and the rest of The Five Crowns were invited to replace them. They agreed and from that moment on they were known as Ben E. King and the Drifters. The vast majority of The Drifters’ biggest hit songs such as “Up On The Roof”, “Under The Boardwalk”, etc…, were recorded by Charlie Thomas and his friends under The Drifters banner. While the Drifters’ lineup remained in transition all through the rest of their history, Charlie Thomas remained as a talented, soulful, loyal member of the group right up until just recently when ill health finally silenced his golden voice.

Charlie Thomas was enshrined in The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 as a member of The Drifters. May peace be with you, Mr. Thomas. Thank you for living such a soulful life in harmony with others.

The link to the video for the song “Under The Boardwalk” by Ben E. King and the Drifters can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the official website for Charlie Thomas turned out to be a Facebook page. If you have FB then, you can find his page by searching for “Charlie Thomas’ Drifters”.

The link to the official website for The Drifters can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Peace Be With You: The Life and Music of Tom Verlaine

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.

Artist Tom Verlaine

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.

CBGBs as it appeared from the stage.

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.

Tom Vervain and Patti Smith

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.

Tom Verlaine’s high school friend, Richard Hell.

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 video for the song “Marquee Moon” by Television can be found here. The lyrics version is here.

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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