Saturday, January 28, 2023

RIP Tom Verlaine

Oddly, I don't think I've ever written anything substantial about the genius of Tom Verlaine. Well, there's the bit at the start of  a chapter in Rip It Up and Start Again where Television are briefly discussed as the building blocks for Echo & the Bunnymen and U2 (the "Glory Boys" chapter - the title itself an homage to Television). Mostly though he's been celebrated indirectly, as the foundation for later guitarists like Martin Bramah, The Edge, and Will Sergeant or groups like The Go-Betweens, R.E.M, The Only Ones. Either that or Television has come up as a reference point through affinity of spiritual purpose (as with Meat Puppets and The Blue Orchids).  

What can you say about Television, exactly? The lyrics are purest dream -  interpretation is beside the point, at once superfluous and sullying.  The music is the main thing, but that too defies description or characterisation. Television's kinetic abstraction works through elemental dynamics of tension-build and climax. It's not about anything except its own structure-in-motion, the tone and timbre of the immaterial material out of which it constructs itself before your ears. Something for the technical guitar magazines, in a way, and yet that kind of terminology gets no closer to the magic than mind's eye guff  does. 

But having said that about never having written about Tom Verlaine and Television head-on ... suddenly I remembered the piece below, which was published March 13th 1987, back when I used to do the monthly pop column for New Statesman. TV's not the sole subject of the column but his new album Flash Light and his influence and legacy is the focus and the lead item, as it were. This is a classic instance of that syndrome where a critic-fan uses the latest release (often a so-so solo album) from a beloved artist as a way of gushing about the earlier work on which the love is based (in this case Marquee Moon and "The Dream's Dream", although I don't mention neither by name in the column, strangely). To be honest, I don't remember anything about Flash Light, nor indeed much about TV's other solo albums either, or for that matter, the Television comeback album. But Marquee Moon and that one redeeming tune on the otherwise lacklustre Adventure are permanently engraved.  



Coming in spurts, you say? Well, the climb to orgasm is the basic structuring principle - sublimated and sublimed - in much Television, above all "Marquee Moon" (something it has in common with "Freebird").

A real odd one in his solo discography

People swear by this solo excursion Warm and Cool

It was allusions by Barney Hoskyns - in a February '82 celebration of Echo & the Bunnymen winning the NME's readers poll - that impressed upon me the urgent necessity of hearing Television: 

A serious note, as serious as the first bar of 'Show Of Strength', has been struck. Hipness, unlike music, is not eternal, and for Echo And The Bunnymen the tail of its comet has faded in the pale afterlight of day. What the hell, I'm no romantic rockist, but I seriously think Heaven Up Here is one of the most superior articulations of "rock" form in living memory….

Rock group Echo And The Bunnymen are as hopelessly, as gloriously unfashionable, as the cover of their second album, and even that – for all the Neville Brody's and John Saville's in the world – topped the poll. But can they stay afloat in the synthetic sea of Pop? And can we really say that Echo And The Bunnymen on the one hand are orthodox while the Human Society's million-selling 'Won't You Save Me' on the other side is somehow seen as modern and experimental?...

Mac: "A lot of it just doesn't sound very good. I think the use of basic drums and guitars can be a lot more inventive than all the so-called experimental stuff."

Pete: "It's also that the stuff that's supposed to be experimental has just been blanding out more than anything else. It's not experimenting at all, it's just using synthesizers to play pretty ordinary songs a lot of the time."

Les: "A lot of these kids just don't have talent. Any farmyard horse can kick a synth."

…. There's no doubt, however, that in the midst of all the synths and saxes and sex appeal, "rock" has been getting pretty short shrift. Who remembers Television, its first post-rock rockists? Echo and The Bunnymen do; in fact, they're thinking of re-releasing 'Marquee Moon', a record which changed our whole conception of "rock" sound, "rock" guitar, and "rock" rhythm section, on Zoo.

Other writings (and listenings) about Television and Tom Verlaine

Richard Williams on how he and Eno recorded the famous if failed demo sessions with Television 

Tom Verlaine playing records and chatting as guest DJ on Gaylord Field's WFMU show

Nick  Kent's original review of Marquee Moon -which was the cover story of that week's New Musical Express (just the record review - no interview! - but then the review was just shy of 1600 words long!!!)

Dean Wareham has some sharp thoughts about Television (good musician's stuff on guitars and techniques plus some nice memories of working with Tom Verlaine several times over the years (including the lengths he would go for love of curry)

Well that's one way of doing it - coming up with a kind of poem that parallels the poem that is the music. Patti Smith with an ultra-vivid lyrical remembrance in The New Yorker (but as Wareham notes wryly, the descriptions of the sound tell you more about PS than they do TV)

Useful piece about Verlaine's technique, written by guitarist Chris Forsyth for The Guardian - a boost for my thought that possibly technical guitar mags have more revealing things to say than rock writers who don't know one end of the instrument from the other.  

An interview with Richard Lloyd that gets into the nitty gritty of making Marquee Moon. Revealing but not necessarily illuminating. 

I have to say, having done a quick survey of the landscape of Television criticism - from the official obituaries in the papers to classic pieces by leaders in the field and frontline at-the-time commentators - I don't think anyone really gets near the magic and the mystery.  I found a lot of it rather predictably evasive - not consciously so but veering off nonetheless to talk about the lyrics (in actual fact, usually just quoting favorite lyrics) or inter-band dynamics, the conflict with Richard Hell, how Television fit and didn't fit into the CBGB punk scene, Verlaine's personality / artistic-literary interests and influences, the legacy etc. The magic and mystery gets written around more than written about. Which is something that goes on with a lot of music  - maybe most music -  but seems a particularly glaring absence with a group that is so purely musical - that says what it has to say through the music ( "say" itself is inadequate, not the right word -  when communication is so ecstatically non-verbal, can it really be described as communication? It's more like an electric communion, a pure zapping transfer of energy... like being electrocuted. "Lightning struck itself" is the perfect meta-lyric in fact).

My favorite out of the pieces I've read remains the Nick Kent paean - not necessarily because it gets much closer to the quick of it  - but because it's so immediate - there's a feeling of moment in the cadences  - you imagine the writer trembling with the sense of occasion,  the privilege of being the one who gets to  mount the podium and introduce the world to this transformational record... it's a tour de force of magisterially controlled excitement - in that sense, a prose mirror-image of its subject.


Talking about tributes, I'm surprised this hasn't come up in anything I've seen written. Then again in terms of what it sounds like, the tune would be better titled "Kevin Shields". Or perhaps "Harriett Wheeler". 

Whereas this track say is both a genuine sonic tribute-ary of the great man, and a brilliant example of how an exceptional artist becomes a style that subsequent others can actually write within, expressing themselves perfectly well through the ancestor's language.  The sui generis >>> genre transition. 

Here's another fantastic example of a debt transfigured, a sound made your own