Tom Verlaine, visionary rock musician, dies at 73

tom verlaine dies

Tom Verlaine, in a 1987 publicity photo.

Tom Verlaine, best known as the frontman of the rock band Television, has died at the age of 73.

On Rolling Stone’s 2015 list of the greatest guitarists ever, he was listed is No. 90. The description of him quotes his friend Patti Smith as describing his guitar sound as the sound of “a thousand bluebirds screaming” and says “he remains a model for generations of guitarists with a taste for both punk violence and melodic flight.”

Richard Barone of The Bongos posted on Facebook that he was “Heartbroken and stunned to hear of the passing of Tom Verlaine. What an inspiration to so many guitarists, of which I was one. Brilliantly melodic, intense, orchestral, and groundbreaking. Thank you, Tom. R.I.P.”

Steve Wynn of the band Dream Syndicate posted that Verlaine “was my guitar hero at a time when I needed one most” and that Verlaine’s playing “showed me you could be a virtuoso and dangerous at the same time, more (John) Coltrane or Ornette (Coleman) than the arena rockers of the day. It was a revelation and I was hoping my Jazzmaster could somehow channel his when I played the solo on ‘Halloween’ on the first Dream Syndicate album.”

Michael Stipe of R.E.M. thanked Verlaine for, among other things, “the rigorous belief that music and art can alter and change matter, lives, experience. You introduced me to a world that flipped my life upside down. I am forever grateful.”

Television — also featuring guitarist Richard Lloyd, drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith — released two albums, Marquee Moon (1977) and Adventure (1978), before disbanding in 1978, then reunited from 1991 to 1993, releasing another album, Television (1992), and doing some touring. The band also has done some more occasional performing, starting in 2001.

Verlaine also released nine studio albums under his own name from 1979 to 2006.

Television’s original lineup included bassist Richard Hell, though he had been replaced by Smith by the time the band recorded Marquee Moon. Though Television was part of the remarkable CBGB-based scene of the ’70s that is closely associated with the rise of punk, its raw-nerved but elegant sound was unlike that of any other CBGB band.

Television was closely aligned with The Patti Smith Group, though. Verlaine and Smith co-wrote “Break It Up” — from Smith’s 1975 debut album Horses — together, and Verlaine played guitar on it. Smith and Verlaine published a book of poetry together, titled “The Night,” in 1976.

Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith, in the ’70s.

Following Verlaine’s death, Smith posted, on Instagram, this photo of them together, along with a poem:

a time
when all
Tom, aloft
the Omega.

Verlaine was born in New Jersey, as Thomas Miller, and spent the first six years of his life in Denville before his family moved to Delaware. Like Bob Dylan, he changed his last name to the name of a famous poet (Paul Verlaine), though, also like Dylan, he has said the change was not intended as some kind of tribute, or statement of poetic ambition.

“It was strictly for the sound … that name … not any associations,” Verlaine said in a 2005 interview. “In retrospect it would have been better to have picked ‘Johnson’ or something, since 30 years later folks still ask about it!”

The cover of Television’s “Marquee Moon” album. Verlaine is second from left.

Marquee Moon — No. 128 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list — remains Verlaine’s main claim to rock ‘n’ roll immortality. Just this month, Robert Forster of the Australian band The Go-Between’s wrote on the British web site that that album’s “Venus” is “the most perfect song of all time,” and described the album this way:

“It combined every great flourish of cool 60s rock — extraordinary guitar work with out-of-this-world lyrics, adding the crunch of late-70s rock production and a quality to the songwriting that many mythic 60s bands just didn’t reach. Pacing my bedroom in excitement, sitting down at intervals to absorb the music’s overwhelming beauty, I knew I could never write songs as textured and intricate as the band’s singer-songwriter Tom Verlaine, who also happened to be a virtuoso guitarist. But I was inspired.”


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