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Remembering Tom Verlaine

A look back on the life of guitar hero Tom Verlaine through his punk epic Marquee Moon.

Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, the music industry underwent a creative renaissance. Folk, disco, soul, jazz fusion, rock, and all its new regenerations and reincarnations blossomed from coast to coast, laying the foundation for the next several decades of musical innovation. A great proportion of this groundwork happened in the depths of New York city’s underground punk scene, where the roots of Television read like a Dickensian fable for the 1960s American teenager. Two boarding school kids ran away to New York City to become poets; frontman Tom Miller christening himself Tom Verlaine,  after an 18th-century French poet, and Lester Meyers as Richard Hell. Their interest in marrying avante-garde poetry with the soul of rock and roll recalled punk messiahs The Velvet Underground, who had mastered the art of it on 1967s landmark The Velvet Underground and Nico. The Velvets, who were the first high-profile blueprint for New York’s anti-hippy offering of counterculture, are a clear aesthetic inspiration; on the cover of their debut record Marquee Moon, they are ashen-faced and dressed in black, a fitting emulation of their idols. They look like the Velvets’ malnourished, Beat-generation-obsessed younger cousins.

It’s disheartening to see Marquee Moon reduced to dusty record bin status. Far more than a guest on a middle-aged father’s road trip playlist, the record is an essential contribution to the punk canon. It is the glorious unravelling of an experiment that pays off. Cutting the blues from 60s rock and roll while keeping a raw garage sound, they were playing what would later become the classic punk aesthetic. Some say this set up for the next two decades of post-punk; others claim they played post-punk decades before such a label existed. 

Verlaine and Lloyd’s extraordinary guitar alchemy was what made the record so unique, rightfully taking precedence above lyrics as the centrepiece. On ‘Marquee Moon,’ both players complement each other like seasoned dance partners, while a seamless relationship between drums and liquid guitar runs builds to a euphoric climax. As Verlaine moves steadily up the neck, it’s so intoxicating you barely notice the song’s 11-minute run time. 

The record is unquestionably psychedelic from start to finish, with semi-mystical lyrics and crescendo after crescendo. This all begs the question; if Television were so many things, were they really ‘Punk’ at all- and does it matter in the end? Be it proto, post or something else entirely to punk music, multiple genres will cite them as founders. In new wave, alternative rock, neo-psychedelia and every form of punk, there is a seed of Tom Verlaine’s vision planted in this very record. 

Like many formerly underground giants, the scope and scale of Verlaine’s influence is only coming to full light after death. He had a curious and humble relationship with his instrument, shown by his belief in trying something new with each live performance. There were “a number of ways to get from one place to another on the neck of the guitar that I don’t know about” he told Rolling Stone in 1978. Verlaine’s estimation of his talents is modest here, but he said it best on Marquee Moon’s title track; ‘I recall lightning struck itself’. With its electric amalgamation of clean and raw, mystic and screeching, contained and bombastic, it’s a perfect description of everything the record does right. 

Image Credit: “Tom Verlaine at Telegram” by Donna Balancia is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.