Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Tom Verlaine

Thomas Miller came to New York from the American Midwest to find fortune and fame in the Bohemian art world of the city, changed his name and formed a band that lasted about 4 years in its first incarnation and was quite influential yet not as commercially viable as Verlaine might have hoped for. His solo career, with a couple of Television reunions, has now lasted for far longer than the band ever did. It is amazing to think that Verlaine is already 64. But then, his rise in the New York scene happened 40 years ago now.

Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell led Television, one of the major bands of the post New York Dolls and pre Ramones/Blondie/Talking Heads New York punk scene that predated and influenced the UK punk bands. Hell left and formed first The Heartbreakers and then led The Voidoids. Verlaine soldiered on and, with Richard Lloyd as second guitarist, created some of the most adventurous, exciting guitar music of the Seventies, way outside of the heavy blues and hard rock tradition that dominated the decade.

Verlaine reinvented himself in New York, as so many did, with a new surname, that of the French poet Paul Verlaine, and became part of an avant garde arts scene that, in the aftermath of the Warhol experiment, combined the high arts of painting and sculpture and poetry with the lesser, more populist art of rock and roll. Verlaine wanted the excitement of rock without the cock rock bullshit of most other successful American bands of the time. Television was in at the start of the New York scene that produced some of the most influential groups of the time and although it was one of the most exciting and most critically esteemed bands, it did not enjoy the long lasting careers or commercial success of The Ramones, Blondie or Talking Heads, releasing only 2 official albums in its heyday with further live albums and one reunification album to follow.

NME raved about Marquee Moon, the debut, and was less enthusiastic about Adventure, and drooled over the live shows in England. Marquee Moon has one of the classic album covers, an "ugly" colourized photograph of the band, possibly taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, I never found the album in any Stellenbosch record shop at the time of release and my first exposure to it came many years later when I bought the CD album and was immediately smitten. Even in the late Nineties this music sounded like nothing else. One can see where a number of the contemporary "math rock" acts, and similar, would have been fans of Television. Good solid rhythm section with soaring, roaring guitars, playing off against each other and also being individualistic.

Not long after the demise of Television, Tom Verlaine released Tom Verlaine (1979) and Richard Lloyd released Alchemy (1979), on each album showcasing their respective strengths. Verlaine's album sounds pretty much like Television progressing in a slightly new direction, obviously because he is the vocalist and his guitar style dominated Television, where Lloyd's songs fall in to the classic guitar pop category where melody and sweetness of lyric are paramount and not so much the intricate guitar playing of Verlaine or the latter's skewed visions.

I bought Ton Verlaine long before I ever heard the songs on Marquee Moon and I had no idea whether Verlaine's solo sound was basically the same or radically different. Now, having compared the two records, I would say that the solo album is somewhat lighter in mood and tone and funnier where Marquee Moon is pretty much a serious art rock statement. The angular guitar playing and jerky rhythms are present and correct on both albums and there is a continuity for this reason but it seems that Verlaine was having more fun with his solo debut than he'd had with his band, although it might have something to do with the brittle nerves of making your first record versus making your third and without the tensions a band may have that are no longer present when you are the one and only guy, not merely the leader of a band but the solo artist.

Tom Verlaine, the musician and the album, surprised me. From the NME writing on the banc I had a very different, harsher and more uncompromising sound in mind than the actual very approachable and entertaining music on Tom Verlaine. The style might have been at odds with current fashions for punk and New Wave and even contemporary hard rock and metal but it was not so oblique or obscurest that one could not enjoy it on a visceral level as a superior pop record.

Tracks like "Souvenir From A Dream," "Flash Lightning," "Red Leaves" and Breakin' In My Heart" are melodic pop songs with emotional centres. The songs had tunes and choruses and smart lyrics. The only odd thing was Verlaine's voice. He is not the greatest of singers, perhaps in the same way that Jimi Hendrix was more of a guitarist than a vocalist, and yet he does impart the depth the songs need to bring them across. The slightly weird intonations of his singing voice serve songs like "Yonki Time" and "Mr Bingo" which sound like joke songs with a sinister edge. Verlaine's cracked, slightly off pitch voice make them more than they may be. In the hands of a proper vocalist these tunes could have been obvious jokes. On this album they sound as serious, in a quirky, sarcastic way, as anything else on the record.

The band plays tough and Verlaine plays his patented angular, nog-blues based guitar parts with fluent dexterity, illustrating that this new model for a guitar hero may not sound like Eddie van Halen or Joe Perry, to name but two contemporaries, and yet has about the same intensity and power as thy could muster. Perhaps Tom Verlaine never was and never would be a technically masterful guitarist and that is probably not the point. In metal complicated guitar parts are often an end in themselves, to show of the astounding technical skills of the guitar player; in Tom Verlaine's style of music the guitar parts complement the song and are not specifically meant to be separated from the song as a component to be heard or enjoyed separately

Tom Verlaine is one of my favourite Seventies albums, and dovetails nicely with Marquee Moon, and deserves classic status. If I remember correctly I bought at least one more Verlaine album though I am not even sure which one it was and it certainly did not make as much of an impact as the debut album. It is perhaps for this reason or perhaps simply because the records were not readily available that I never made an effort to build up a Verlaine collection and even now I cannot imagine myself going to great lengths to find whatever else there is out there.

Let me just bask in the happy memories of the one album by Tom Verlaine that I truly enjoy and appreciate and not run the risk of being relatively disappointed by his other releases. Provided it is a good one, there is nothing wrong with sticking with just the one hit of a one hit wonder. For the same reason there is nothing wrong with sticking with one excellent release from an artist who has had a long career, as long as that one release is above average and represents a time and a place that can never be replicated anyway. Tom Verlaine is that kind of record.

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