Remembering Television’s Tom Verlaine, Who Subtly Reshaped Rock Music

He died at the age of 73

Tom Verlaine
Photo of Tom Verlaine of Television at CBGB.
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

News of the death of Television guitarist Tom Verlaine spread on the evening of January 28, and if you’re reading this you’re probably aware of what a loss this represents. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, thoughts and remembrances flooded social media, including one especially insightful comment from musician and recording engineer Steve Albini.

“Television made a new kind of music and inspired new kinds of music,” Albini wrote, and he is — I daresay — spot-on in his assessment of the band’s output. Chris Dahlen’s 2003 review of Television’s debut Marquee Moon at Pitchfork pointed to “how ahistorical it sounds” and singles out Verlaine’s guitar solo on the title track as especially stunning: “in a decade full of guitarists spraying sweat on the arenas, Verlaine comes off like a man punching through ceilings.”

Reducing Verlaine’s output to just his work in Television (and reducing that further down to one Television album) doesn’t do his decades of work as a musician justice. But it would also be fair to say that Marquee Moon casts the proverbial long shadow as far as its influence goes. One of the most notable qualities for said album for me has always been the give-and-take between energy and beauty that it contains. You can tell that it’s from the same downtown punk scene that produced countless influential artists, but among the ways it stands out is its capacity for something ecstatic.

And also something that never fails to feel spontaneous. Years ago I was reading Jonathan Franzen’s 1992 novel Strong Motion, which was feeling a little stuffy by about a third of the way through. And then two of its characters did something I wasn’t expecting them to do: they sit down and listen to Television’s “See No Evil,” and the narrative suddenly veers in a completely different direction.

One of the characters listening makes one of the more accurate comments on the song in question I’ve ever encountered: “Wait, doesn’t Verlaine have like a perfect riff in here? It would have been good to hear these people before they broke up.” That it would. But the subtleties of Verlaine’s guitar work and songwriting will likely be influential for as long as guitars are played and rock bands chase something blissed-out with a handful of chords and a memorable backbeat.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.