“He bowed his head, gripping his Jazzmaster, releasing billowing clouds, strange alleyways populated with tiny men, a murder of crows, and the cries of bluebirds rushing through a replica of space. All transmuted through his long fingers, all but strangling the neck of the guitar.” There probably isn’t a more poetic way of describing the music that Tom Verlaine made with his seminal band, Television, in the 1970s. The words are those of musician and poet Patti Smith, Verlaine’s one-time lover, collaborator and life-long friend, eulogizing her friend in a New Yorker article a few days ago.
Verlaine died on 28 January, after a sudden illness, at the age of 73. It was terribly sad, and as far as Verlaine’s music is concerned, characteristically uncanny: I had been playing Television’s peerless debut album, Marquee Moon, from 1977, just the previous evening. It was part of a pattern; every few months, I just have to have the album on repeat, luxuriating in Verlaine’s odd, haunting songs, sung in his high, slightly wavering voice. Only this time, it turned out to be a wake.
To listen to Marquee Moon is to embark on a sonic experience like no other. I immerse myself in the roiling, turbulent, melodic guitar solos that he and bandmate Richard Lloyd spin out on songs like See No Evil, Friction, Venus, Torn Curtain and the eponymous epic: Marquee Moon. Deeply romantic, exceedingly mysterious, undeniably catchy and propulsive, Television’s music has a groove, a sensuousness and an erotic charge that surpasses anything else that came out of the New York punk scene of the Seventies.
Verlaine’s very un-punk band (at least musically), was one of the groups at the forefront of the scene though, helping turn Manhattan’s CBGB from a country and western club to one of the most storied rock venues in the world. And although some of their contemporaries like Smith, the Ramones and Blondie had all released their own influential debut albums much before Marquee Moon, to my ears, it surpasses them all. Verlaine’s songs drip with the influence of French Symbolist poetry (he changed his name, after all, from Thomas Miller, in a nod to the French poet Paul Verlaine), hardboiled film noir imagery and even William Blake’s poetry. But instead of sounding indulgent or precious, the songs are muscular, dangerous and exciting things: evoking a mood of cold, rainy nights, alleys shrouded in darkness and rattling subway trains.
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Much like their predecessors the Velvet Underground, Television’s debut album didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, but, again like the Velvets, Television became the band that launched a hundred other bands. Hugely influential for everyone from REM to Wilco to Pavement to The Strokes, Television’s distinct sound and sensibility is pretty much indie rock’s cornerstone.
Marquee Moon sounds nothing like its punk contemporaries: this isn’t the album for your fix of two-minute squalls of noise, lyrics of disaffection, or simplistic chords. Rather, Television sound like the jam band of the punk scene. Multiple key and tempo changes, long, inventive solos filled with modal lines that ring out deliciously, and that evocative voice just hooks you and carries you along for the entirety of the album’s 46-minute runtime.
The centrepiece of the album is the song Marquee Moon itself, one of the greatest rock performances ever put to tape. Sonically, it is the platonic ideal of a rock band made flesh. The song’s nearly 11-minute runtime is stuffed to the gills with musical hooks, right from the intro that builds one instrument at a time before coalescing into a fantastic groove. Over it, Verlaine sings, “I remember, how the darkness doubled, I recall, lightning struck itself.” It gives me the chills every time! Marquee Moon is a fever dream of a song—vulnerable, defiant and cinematic all at the same time. Very few records manage to catch lightning in a bottle, but in Marquee Moon, Television succeeded with their very first attempt. Each song is a classic.
Verlaine was a shy man and a notorious perfectionist. The band broke up soon after their equally brilliant sophomore Adventure (1978). They would reform in the early 90s for the excellent album Television. Verlaine produced a series of impeccable solo albums through the 1980s and 90s, but one heard from him only sporadically. He never married, had no children. His friends from the CBGB remained his family, sitting with him when he passed. Very few ever knew of him or his music, but those that heard would never be the same again. Do yourself a favour. Listen to Marquee Moon.