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There’s something about the tremolo arm on a Fender guitar, as if it provides a direct, electric link with the player’s nervous system. When used by someone instinctively musical it can help make the guitar sound like a human voice.
Tom Verlaine, who has died aged 73 years-old had that ability. On his group Television’s first (and only) two albums and on subsequent solo records you can hear that cry, sometimes a lost howl. Thinner than Hendrix’s wa-wa’d and phased souls in torment, more like the sound of someone mentally running up the walls of a tiny, cockroach infested one room apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan. The loneliest sound.
And then, he could also provide an orgasmic soundtrack, essentially sexual, especially considering the almost anti-sexual world of New York punk that he inhabited, almost by accident despite being an essential component of it. His scales, looping back on themselves but ever-rising, finding the sweetest spot.
Tom Verlaine’s actual voice, an equally thin counterpart to his guitar sound, often as tremulous and definitely as unique, often salted the sweet notes or made his tunes that relied less on guitar fireworks a harder listen. There were comparisons to Neil Young in his earlier days and they had that much in common - a high, asexual singing style that existed around the words, in acknowledgement of the power of the words.
I’m not normally as full of fancy bollocks praise when it comes to pop musicians, alive or just dead, but here is another New York death that shocks me. For the past few months I’ve become increasingly irritated with the burgeoning attempt at rocknroll relic-hood applied to Television’s first album, Marquee Moon. It was always a litmus test. Vic Goddard describing how he and Subway Sect preferred the New York sounds of the mid1970s over the less exclusive British punk, and more recently, the ongoing love affair between certain music writers, fans and musicians and what is seen as the various love children of the godheads of rocknroll, The Velvet Underground.
Verlaine saw himself as fairly unique and separate from the disparate sounds of CBGBs and rightly so. Closer to Quicksilver Messenger Service or Fire Engines or those magic one-off singles produced by surf bands after their first hit of LSD, or even some jazz, than the self-regarding trash aesthetic of the New York Dolls. It’s a shame to lump him in with anyone, though.
For some of us, his death is an indication that the subtle, generational shifts have not-so subtly shifted once again. Like Terry Hall, he is closer in age but, more importantly and unlike Terry, never exactly positioned, never a perfect icon. Which means I don’t know how to feel or, more exactly, I don’t know what I’m feeling. It’s not ‘just’ sadness - I definitely felt that with Lou Reed’s death, for instance. With the passing of Tom Verlaine it’s almost as if important belongings have been left in a hotel somewhere, never to be returned. A diary, perhaps. That jacket I wore when… a phone number or a name. A certain feeling, disappeared.