Torn Curtain: Remembering Tom Verlaine
A celebration of the late legend
Not even a few weeks after the passing of Yukihiro Takahashi, it pains me to write another obituary piece. Tom Verlaine of seminal rock band Television passed away on January 28th, 2023. I first heard of Television because of a passing reference on VH1’s All Access: 25 Years of Punk. Summer 2001, I was entering into high school, and a Borders had just opened up in my town. A couple of weeks later, my grandparents wanted to see a new movie at the multiplex theater in the same outdoor mall, which meant I got to peruse the music and newsstands at Borders. I remember flipping through a Mojo Magazine and seeing a list of punk albums that featured Marquee Moon. I took it as a cosmic cue to purchase the album. When I got home, I put the record on, and it blew my mind. I had been listening to bands like The Strokes, The White Stripes, and the edgiest band I had in my repertoire was Sonic Youth. The opening chords of See No Evil felt like they were reaching out of my speakers and grabbing me by my shirt collar. By the time I got to the titular track, I was a card-carrying devotee. I could hear how Marquee Moon influenced so much of what I had heard up to that point. The dueling guitars provided a template for me to strive toward as a burgeoning guitarist.
At the heart of this band was the genius of Tom Verlaine. His lyrical style wasn’t like anything I had ever heard up to that point. The lines felt like dialogue of unsavory characters on the streets of '70s New York. At times, they were foreboding images that seemed surreal yet more grounded than the '60s psychedelica I had been exposed to. Everything about this band gripped me, and Tom Verlaine became one of my rock icons by showing me how literate punk could be. He demonstrated how the sensibilities of jazz and classical music applied to rock. I owe a debt of gratitude to him that I can never repay, but I’ll be able to share some of his work that has deeply inspired me as a guitarist and lyricist. Tom Verlaine strived to write lyrics that stood alone as poetry, and in doing so, he showed me how rock music could be about more than adolescent romance.
Torn Curtain closes out Marquee Moon, and is an appropriate dramatic send-off for the record. The song features one of Tom Verlaine’s guitar solos. The magic of this band was in the contrast between guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. I always appreciated how Tom’s solos had a meandering nature that counterbalanced Lloyd’s precision. The song moves like a funeral dirge and likely takes its name from the 1966 Hitchcock film. Having never seen the film, I have to imagine that the link is closer in vibe than in any literal sense. The visual of a torn theater curtain is explored abstractly and employed as a metaphor in four couplets that seem almost like vignettes unto themselves. The song’s arrangement is one of the most symphonic moments of the album, with guitar bends that evoke string section glissandi (another nod to Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score for Psycho.)
Days is the second track on Television’s second release, Adventure. The track begins with the bell-like tones of Richard Lloyd’s doubled guitar. This song is one of the only tracks on which Richard Lloyd ever received a writing credit, Verlaine being the band’s chief composer and lyricist. Verlaine had a penchant for weaving tapestries of imagery and concept through ambiguous lines. The listener must rely on the music as much as the words to derive meaning from the song. Nothing about Tom’s lyricism adhered to any advice you’d read in any songwriting book; he took his inspiration (and stage name) from poets like Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé, whose style favored more dreamlike language and imagery. This piece reflects the symbolist influence in its use of the third person pronoun, “her.”
The floating friend is an agent that takes a female form. Her lack of feet indicates that her agency transcends place or human limitation. Verlaine describes not only feeling her touch but also, perhaps, the erasure of all that exists. The ambiguity of the line, “and all it will erase,” avails the listener of several interpretations. It’s this kind of wordplay that made Verlaine a bona fide poet of rock music.
Television wouldn’t release a third album until 1992. The Eponymous Television would showcase a more mature group with 20 years of experience to bring to the table. The playing on this record is tight and captures the essence of this band. The second track on this record, Shane, She Wrote This, has a gritty western feel with lyrics that straddle the line between abstract and concrete storytelling. We can understand the name “Shane” as a direct address or the Irish meaning, “God is Gracious.” Once again, the third-person pronoun “she” is used in an archetypal fashion.
The ecumenical overtones of the lyrics would seem to indicate a Marian figure; she is giving all the love as opposed to her love which would suggest that she is not human. The transcendence of self in this sort of universal love confounds the singer who doesn’t understand. The song returns to imagery of light and rapture, implying a desire for transcendence but ultimate failure to see past the self with the exit refrain, "I want to know."
Tom Verlaine’s solo material was, admittedly, hit or miss for me. I think a crucial element of Television was the tension between the stylistic preferences of each band member. In the end, it might be the bassist, Fred Smith, who was stable enough to keep that all together. Notwithstanding, there are some great moments in the Verlaine catalog, and Without a Word is undoubtedly one of them. This song started as a Television demo called, Hard on Love. Richard Hell was still a co-writer during this time, so I’ll leave you to judge whether there is any double entendre in that title. The song would ultimately become a more somnolent sophisticated ballad off Verlaine’s second album, Dreamtime. The song is built around a V-i cadence that lends a lilting quality to the tonality until it resolves to the parallel major in the pre-chorus. The lyrics of this song are more character-driven and seem to vaguely gesture toward the theme of suicide through its exploration of sleep as the prefiguration of death.
The role of water in the song is unclear as the first pre-chorus seems to use it metaphorically as in a “sea of darkness.” The second pre-chorus uses water imagery quite literally through its allusion to waterlilies. The idea that Laura watches the lilies blooming in the sand would indicate that she is below the water’s surface. The coolness of her hand lends credence to the idea that this song is about the unfortunate demise of a world-weary woman. Interestingly, the name Laura references the laurel plant symbolizing victory, which paints her death in a victorious light. As though she has overcome the struggles of the world.
Words from the Front may be one of the best instances of first-person storytelling in song. The solemn guitars of the verses perfectly complement the descriptions of trench warfare. Verlaine explores the concept of blindness deeply. Each couplet sets up the chorus’s refrain built over a string of destabilizing diminished chords.
The first verse explores blindness in a literal sense, with the rain acting as an impediment to sight and the lack a of road signalling a blind march forward. The second verse plays on the word with the “blind” drunk surgeon operating on and killing John. Verlaine then returns to a literal analogy by describing the fires that quickly smolder and make it hard to see. The final verse elicits the term blind rage.. The general fails to see the cost of 4000 men and orders his troops to attack despite the colossal losses. Each verse emphasizes the line, “This word I hear: Blind.”
Tom Verlaine, along with Television and other CBGB alumni such as Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and even Blondie, brought smarts to punk rock. If not for them, punk rock may have succumbed to the same decadence that plagued the arena rock they rebelled against. Through synthesizing primal energy and hyper-literacy, Verlaine inspired legions of literary weirdoes to go out and start their own bands. One of my favorite apocryphal stories is of a young Michael Stipe being so moved by Marquee Moon that he put posters up in his school that read, “Tom Verlaine is God.” Tom Verlaine was human, with plenty of human flaws, but I can sympathize with that enthusiasm for the work that he generated. He gave guitarists and lyricists a parallel path to virtuosity and an unshakable belief that rock could be more than commercial entertainment. Rest In Peace, Tom Verlaine. Our loss on earth is somewhere else’s gain.
Cover Photo Creator: Gus Stewart | Credit: Redferns | Copyright 1978 Gus Stewart