On Tom Verlaine.

this case is closed.

On Tom Verlaine.

His real name wasn’t Verlaine. I think I knew that but I also loved the idea so much that someone named for the poet was making this kind of music, was part of punk rock (don’t). I listened and I heard subtraction and transmutation, I heard the key to my heart in a different way and suddenly everything sounded different, like of COURSE this was the next logical progression. You sit there silently pretending that whatever interminably noodling prog rock bullshit you tried to at least PRETEND to like– I tried, I tried, I tried – was so great and I did not like it. But my god I liked Television.

Those three intro notes to “Little Johnny Jewel.” That declination that then pops back up — it’s just three notes but it is also not just three notes, but it instantly transforms your entire body when you hear it. It makes you feel like you’re already inside the song, there’s no warming up or intro, BOOM, straight into the song, like the song had been going for 10 or 15 minutes when you came in. In college I knew someone who had a cassette a friend made with a bunch of punk songs and he recorded part 2 instead of part 1 and no one ever believed me, when they came back to my dorm room to listen to my single they just made fun of my all-in-one stereo and left.

(Now I think about how much real estate I gave up in a dorm room I shared with a roommate to have that stereo and the two large speakers it came with but there was never any question that it was coming with me. I gave up the entire top of a dresser or a bookcase to have that thing with me.)

I think about the clarion call that is the intro to “Marquee Moon.” You can pogo to it or you can do the frug. It was another anthem, either you knew what it was or you didn’t. When R.E.M. covered it it was a delight, but it was also a flag planted in the sand, a declaration of intent, but it was also the kind of rendition you slam danced to because while R.E.M. are a lot of things, they were not Television-level guitar wizardry, but it also didn’t matter because it was about attitude and it was also about paying homage and also making it very clear what side of the bed they got up on.

The whole record was a differentiator, you either thought it was an instant classic or you thought it sucked. There was absolutely nothing in between. Either you were completing the sentences on the chorus of “Venus” and yelling “HUH” across the bar at the Holiday -- okay that’s a bad example because you weren’t in the Holiday unless you were already on Team Bowery. But it was the kind of thing you could see people mouthing along to when you were record shopping. Because that was the only other place you were going to be hearing Television in public. (Or “confidential” during “Prove It.”)

There are some words that are always top of mind for me in crossword puzzles because of song lyrics. One of them is “unction” (from “Catholic Boy” by Jim Carroll) and another is “Friction” by Television, the way Verlaine spit out the letters at the end before the guitars set your ears on fire. Marquee Moon was one of the first records I bought on CD (others: Exile, Quadrophenia, London Calling) because I wanted to be able to fall asleep to the whole thing instead of having to choose a side (and my tape player made a really sharp noise when it got to the end of a tape and it always woke me up).

The end of “Marquee Moon” is some kind of magic that somehow I forget how heart-swelling and emotional that ending crescendo is, revving up into that heartbeat guitar army and then POOF, it’s like harps and angels and rainbows. But it doesn’t just fade out like some hippie jam: “I was listening to the rain/I was hearing something else.” That could describe exactly what it felt like to listen to Television. It was weird and different and it was ours, motherfuckers, it was ours.

(The fun thing about punk rock was that because none of the bands sounded like each other, no one could really make fun of you for any sweeping characteristic except “it sucks” or “they can’t play” or “they murder their girlfriends” or “they put safety pins in their face.” Go listen to the first Boston album again, chucklefuck.)

It wasn’t just what he played, it was what he didn’t play, like that Neil Young quote. The notes he subtracted, the space he left. It’s still like nothing I have ever heard, despite how many hundreds or thousands of people who picked up the instrument because of him, because of Television specifically. I remember the first time I heard U2 on WNYU, driving home from my after-school job, and screaming at the radio because oh my god someone has heard of Television and is trying to play like Tom Verlaine!! HOLY SHIT. Obviously Edge took it somewhere into the stratosphere but I couldn’t understand back then why others didn’t see the connection. How could you not? How could you not.

I’d be lying if I said that the first person I thought of wasn’t Patti Smith. When I saw the rumors of Verlaine’s passing, the first thing I did was check her account. And of course, I thought of the beginning of “We Three”:

Every Sunday I would go down to the bar where he played guitar.

I don’t remember not knowing that that was about their romance, the bar of course being CBGB’s. Doesn’t everyone know that? I was gently checked by an editor once when I wrote about it with that assumption, me not wanting to condescend by assuming you all did not know.

it was just another Sunday and everything was in the key of A.

I love how she sounds singing that line. It’s her best torch song, and I always found it interesting that Verlaine got the torch song while Fred got Motown. As I have mentioned, I deeply admire her ability to repair and maintain relationships with her former paramours, and I was sorry I didn’t get to see any of those 95/96 shows where Verlaine was part of the band, but I did get to see them together onstage together, most notably when he joined them at BAM for the 30th anniversary Horses shows. But my heart goes out to her not just because she lost a friend and co-conspirator but for the same reason it felt like I’d been kicked in the chest when I heard the news: we are losing our people.

Travel well, Tom Verlaine. You changed this place for the better.

I wasn’t in the country in 1992 so I didn’t see that Television outing but I did get to see the post-ATP reunion outing at the EMP in Seattle, and got to cover the gig for the Village Voice in 2015 when they played across the street from my house in Brooklyn.