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Tom Verlaine, founder of influential punk-era band Television, dies at 73

The “Marquee Moon” album and its ambitious title track were both instantly acknowledged as defining statements, but success on the charts eluded him.
Tom Verlaine  Television band
Tom Verlaine performs with his band, Television, in 2019 at Canadian Music Weeks in Toronto. Verlaine died Saturday at the age of 71. Darren Eagles / Getty Images/FILE

Tom Verlaine, who redefined rock guitar in the punk era of the 1970s with his band Television, died Saturday in Manhattan. He was 73.

Verlaine’s death was confirmed to the New York Times by Jesse Paris Smith, the daughter of Verlaine’s peer and former partner Patti Smith. She shared that the musician had died “after a brief illness.”

Staking out Hilly Kristal’s funky club CBGB on New York’s Bowery as its laboratory, Television advanced an expansive, ecstatic style that counterpoised Verlaine’s askew, chiming playing against fellow guitarist Richard Lloyd’s more conventionally bluesy yet equally lyrical work.

Critic Robert Palmer noted in “Rock & Roll: An Unruly History” (1995), “When the punk rebellion began taking shape in the mid-seventies, Television in particular carried on the [Velvet Underground’s] legacy of street-real lyrics and harmonic clang-and-drone, with appropriate nods to John Coltrane’s modal jazz and the Byrds’ resonating raga-rock from lead guitarist Tom Verlaine.”

Though the band never found great commercial success, the impact of Verlaine’s freewheeling, jaggedly inventive playing and Television’s combative two-guitar assault would later be widely felt in the music of younger acolytes, from such New York-based bands as the Feelies and Sonic Youth to West Coast-bred players like Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate and Nels Cline of Wilco.

“He was my guitar hero at a time when I needed one most,” Wynn said in a statement. “I spent the entire year of 1981 practicing daily to Marquee Moon. Tom Verlaine’s soloing (and Richard Lloyd‘s as well, of course) showed me you could be a virtuoso and dangerous at the same time, more Coltrane or Ornette than the arena rockers of the day. It was a revelation and I was hoping my Jazzmaster could somehow channel his when I played the solo on ‘Halloween’ on the first Dream Syndicate album. Such an immeasurable influence on me and, of course, on so many of fellow guitarist friends.”

Signed to Elektra Records (after the departure of Verlaine’s close friend and co-founding member Richard Hell), Television issued its groundbreaking debut album “Marquee Moon” in 1977; the collection’s 10-minute title track — written by Verlaine, who also played an extended solo and contributed a distinctively throttled, wobbly lead vocal –was an anomaly among the short, intensely focused songs of such CBGB contemporaries as the Ramones and Talking Heads.

Increasing tension between Verlaine and Lloyd led Television to disband after its second album “Adventure” (1978); the group would reunite for a self-titled 1992 album for Capitol Records and sporadic live appearances. In 2007, Lloyd was replaced in the touring unit by Jimmy Ripp, who had for many years supported Verlaine on his solo albums and tours.

On his own, Verlaine released eight solo albums, which extended the cryptic authorial voice he developed in Television, on Elektra, Warner Bros., Virgin, I.R.S., Fontana and Rykodisc from 1979 to 1992. A 14-year studio hiatus followed, until the guitarist reemerged in 2006 with the vocal collection “Songs and Other Things” and the instrumental set “Around,” released simultaneously on the Chicago independent label Thrill Jockey.

He was born Thomas Miller in Danville, N.J., on Dec. 13, 1949. His family relocated to the working class suburb of Wilmington, Delaware, in 1956. A love of symphonic music led him to the piano as a child. In 1963, he took up the saxophone after gravitating to the music of jazz avant gardists Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Roland Kirk and Albert Ayler.

Only after his twin brother John played the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” and other contemporary rock records for him did Miller rethink his preferred instrument. “Up until then, the guitar was a stupid instrument to me,” he recalled in a 2001 interview with Mojo. “Those records made me think the guitar could be as good as jazz.”

The “Marquee Moon” album and its ambitious title track were both instantly acknowledged as defining statements. But, despite the fact that Television gelled into one of the most formidable live acts on the scene, neither the debut LP nor its successor “Adventure” managed to enter the American charts, and the group dissolved within weeks of the end of its 1978 U.S. tour.

Though he always boasted a devoted cult fan base, Verlaine never succeeded in attaining a commercial foothold on the charts; his 1981 sophomore solo album “Dreamtime,” his lone entry, peaked at No. 177.