Tom Verlaine’s 15 Essential Songs
Tom Verlaine was present at the creation of New York City punk. His band Television held a residency at CBGB in the club’s first years. But his music was never bound by what became punk’s ruling aesthetic of fast, loud and simplistic. Instead, Verlaine’s songs reveled in the open-ended: in improvisations that could spiral out toward free jazz and in verbal enigmas and paradoxes.
Born Thomas Miller, Verlaine — who died on Saturday at 73 — renamed himself after a symbolist poet, Paul Verlaine, and he built his songs around guitar patterns that interlocked like cats’ cradles, intricate but never confining. His music looked back to the not-so-distant days of psychedelia and the Velvet Underground, but it was leaner, tauter, steelier.
His guitar was always clear and focused, whether it was balancing riffs in perfect tandem with Richard Lloyd in Television, clawing concise rhythm chords or arcing skyward for a keening solo. His playing drew on country, jazz, blues, surf-rock and raga; his compositions almost always set up a contrapuntal dialogue of guitars with distinct tones, colluding or contending.
Verlaine’s voice would never be ingratiating enough for a broad audience; it was reedy, yelpy, quavery, a bit strangulated. Yet it was perfectly suited to the sly, cryptic tidings of his lyrics, which might invoke romance, dreams, spiritual quests or the convoluted plotting of film noir.
Television’s 1977 debut album, “Marquee Moon,” still reigns as Verlaine’s most significant work — a signature statement that would become a cornerstone of indie-rock. But through the next decades, he created music that rewards attention to every detail.
Here are 15 songs that demonstrate Verlaine’s tenacious ambition and singular vision.
Television, ‘See No Evil’ (1977)
“What I want I want now/And it’s a whole lot more than anyhow.” That was the mission statement that opened Television’s debut album, with a trilling riff and a warped Bo Diddley beat: new and old, terse and encompassing, absolutely committed.
Television, ‘Marquee Moon’ (1977)
No wonder this was the title song of Television’s debut album: It was a whole musical system and universe. “Marquee Moon” is both architectonic and disorienting, blueprinted and unpredictable. It starts with the two guitars of Lloyd and Verlaine, separated in stereo, syncopated against each other; then, before anyone can get settled, Fred Smith’s bass and Billy Ficca’s drums forcibly move the downbeat. Verlaine sings about opposites — “the kiss of death/the embrace of life” — on the way to a jam that culminates in chiming bliss.
Television, ‘Glory’ (1978)
Spirituality meets flirtation in “Glory.” The music harks back to the metronomic beat, talky verses and major chords of the Velvet Underground, but it has its own twists, as Verlaine’s guitar lines push toward Eastern modes. The glory is in the resonant chords and proud chorus, not whatever happens between the narrator and his partner; the sound suggests the most promising outcome.
Television, ‘Days’ (1978)
With its pastoral, major-key guitar hooks and vocal-harmony choruses, “Days” makes Television’s closest approach to a pop single. Still, it’s no compromise; it radiates an everyday mysticism.
Television, ‘Little Johnny Jewel — Live in San Francisco 1978’ (1978)
“Little Johnny Jewel” extended across both sides of Television’s first single, in 1975, and onstage it would expand even further, into a jazzy, sprawling, exploratory jam that was never the same twice. Its basic riff was blunt — two three-note arpeggios — but all four band members could tease at it, push against it, scurry around it or, as starts about halfway through this 12-minute version, launch a guitar solo that climbs from a lament to a flailing, racing peak. The reaction, at a gig in 1978, was a smattering of applause.
Tom Verlaine, ‘Souvenir From a Dream’ (1979)
On his self-titled 1979 solo debut album, Verlaine welcomed keyboards into his arrangements. The piano chords that open “Souvenir From a Dream” bring a droll but deadpan film-noir tone to the song, which has Verlaine patiently explaining, “Mister, you went the wrong way — I think you better go back.”
Tom Verlaine, ‘Kingdom Come’ (1979)
Over a stalwart march beat, with guitar chords like distant fanfares, a prisoner prays for redemption. Verse by verse, the song moves from despair toward hope.
Tom Verlaine, ‘There’s a Reason’ (1981)
In “There’s a Reason,” from Verlaine’s 1981 album, “Dreamtime,” infatuation feels like being buffeted from every direction by emotions and sensations. It starts with a brusque, seemingly straightforward riff, only to have that riff repeatedly sideswiped by tremolo chords. And when the singer admits, “You’re my thrill, my dear,” the floodgates open and guitars and drums pour in.
Tom Verlaine, ‘True Story’ (1982)
“I’m so sorry, so sorry,” Verlaine sings, offering a desperate apology amid a crossfire of guitars and drums — knife-edged single notes, barbed lines, implacable offbeats — that don’t promise any forgiveness.
Tom Verlaine, ‘Dissolve/Reveal’ (1984)
A rhythm workout that turns out to be a love song, “Dissolve/Reveal” is constructed from tiny, pointillistic elements — cowbell and tambourine taps, zinging single guitar notes, brief trickle-down arpeggios, sudden chords on unexpected offbeats, explosive bursts of distortion — that eventually unite in ecstasy.
Tom Verlaine, ‘Cry Mercy, Judge’ (1987)
A brisk shuffle beat drives “Cry Mercy, Judge” while little corkscrewing guitar licks turn up all over the place. The terse lyrics imply a complicated back story, with Verlaine’s voice savoring some well-deserved revenge.
Tom Verlaine, ‘Shimmer’ (1990)
Verlaine never sounded more lighthearted than he did on his 1990 album, “The Wonder.” He gets downright funky in “Shimmer,” stacking up scrubbed rhythm chords, pithy blues licks and tickling riffs as he smirks his way through compliments and come-ons: “Nice new features on your automobile/Maybe I could get a lift uptown.”
Television, ‘1880 or So’ (1992)
When Verlaine reunited Television in the early 1990s, the band seemingly picked up right where it left off in 1978, aiming for the same clarity and suspense. Verlaine’s and Lloyd’s guitars set up “1880 or So” with a calm fingerpicked drone immediately answered by a nervous, leaping line, immediately re-establishing their two-guitar equipoise as Verlaine sings about love and mortality.
Television, ‘Call Mr. Lee’ (1992)
“Call Mr. Lee” hints at a movie plot — “He’ll know the code is broken/Tell him the dog is turning red” — and frames it with gnarled, reverb-laden, Middle-Eastern-tinged guitar lines.
Tom Verlaine, ‘Spiritual’ (1992)
From Verlaine’s 1992 album, “Warm and Cool,” the instrumental “Spiritual” suspends his lead guitar line above a drone. He plays the folky melody as if he’s discovering it for the first time, coaxing out each note, letting it claim its place in the phrase. He returns to it in a lower octave and then a higher one; at the end he lingers over a few notes, hinting that they still hold mysteries.