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December 13, 1949|
Denville, New Jersey, U.S.
|Genres||Punk rock, art punk, post-punk, new wave|
|Instruments||Guitar, vocals, piano|
|Television, Neon Boys|
Tom Verlaine was born Thomas Miller in Denville, New Jersey, and moved to Wilmington, Delaware at age 6. He began studying piano at an early age, but switched to saxophone in middle school after hearing a record by Stan Getz. Verlaine initially was unimpressed with the role of the guitar in both rock music and jazz, and was inspired to take up the instrument after hearing the Rolling Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown" during his adolescence, at which point he began a long period of experimentation to develop a personal style. Verlaine also had an interest in writing and poetry from an early age. As a teen he was friends with future bandmate and punk icon Richard Hell (Richard Meyers) at Sanford School, a boarding school which they both attended. They quickly discovered that they shared a passion for music and poetry.
After one failed attempt, Verlaine (with Hell) succeeded in escaping from school and moved to New York City. He then created his stage name, a reference to the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. He is quoted as saying this name was inspired by Bob Dylan's name change and was a way of distancing himself from his past. He and Hell formed the Neon Boys, recruiting drummer Billy Ficca. The Neon Boys quickly disbanded after failing to recruit a second guitarist, despite auditions by Dee Dee Ramone and Chris Stein. They reformed as Television a few months later, finding a guitarist in Richard Lloyd, and began playing at seminal punk clubs like CBGB and Max's Kansas City. In 1975, Verlaine kicked Hell out of the band for his erratic playing and behavior, and they released their first single with Fred Smith replacing Hell. Verlaine dated poet and musician Patti Smith when they were both in the burgeoning New York punk scene. Television released two albums, Marquee Moon and Adventure, to great critical acclaim and modest sales before breaking up in July 1978.
Verlaine soon released a self-titled solo album that began a fruitful 1980s solo career. He took up residence in England for a brief period in response to the positive reception his work had received there and in Europe at large. In the 1990s he collaborated with different artists, including Patti Smith, and composed a film score for Love and a .45. In the early 1990s, Television reformed to record one studio album (Television) and a live recording (Live at the Academy, 1992); they have reunited periodically for touring. Verlaine released his first new album in many years in 2006, titled Songs and Other Things.
Verlaine is regarded by many as one of the most talented performers of the early post punk era. His poetic lyrics, coupled with his accomplished and original guitar playing, are highly influential and widely praised in the music media. He and Television bandmate Richard Lloyd are known as one of rock's most acclaimed and inventive guitar duos.
He has guested as guitarist on numerous releases by other artists, including the album Penthouse by the band Luna. He played on Patti Smith's Grammy-nominated "Glitter in Their Eyes" from her 2000 album Gung Ho. This was not the first time Verlaine had collaborated with one-time romantic partner Smith; four years earlier, he played on the song "Fireflies" from her 1996 album Gone Again, and in the 1970s he played guitar on her debut single "Hey Joe" and on "Break It Up" from her debut album Horses. He also co-wrote the latter song with Smith. He played with Smith in 2005 for a 30th-anniversary concert of Horses in its entirety, which was later released on CD.
He is part of the Million Dollar Bashers, a supergroup also featuring Sonic Youth musicians Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, Bob Dylan bassist Tony Garnier, guitarist Smokey Hormel and keyboardist John Medeski. Their work appears on the original soundtrack to I'm Not There, a biographical film reflecting the life of Bob Dylan.
Throughout his career Verlaine has played a variety of Fender guitars. Most famously in the heyday of Television he played a Fender Jazzmaster and a Fender Jaguar through Fender and Vox amps. These guitars were an unusual choice for a rock musician at that time. Verlaine is credited as being instrumental in bringing what were seen as "surf" guitars, the Jaguar and Jazzmaster, into the rock arena. Verlaine is pictured inside the compilation The Miller's Tale playing both types of guitars. Recently, at solo concerts and at Television concerts, Verlaine has played a Fender Stratocaster, including one that has been modified with Danelectro pickups. Though he has been seen in a video using a standard Fender Telecaster with a rosewood neck trying to teach Richard Hell the song "Venus", this was probably just a guitar owned by the practice space they were in.
Verlaine is an advocate of idiosyncratic guitar techniques and recording processes including close miking, delay, reverb, slap echo, phasing/flanging, tremolo, etc. Television's first commercially released recording, "Little Johnny Jewel", saw Verlaine plugging his guitar straight into the recording desk with no amplification. Going against the prevailing tradition of rock guitar for the past 40 years, he rarely uses distortion.
Vibrato is a large part of Verlaine's style and he makes extensive use of the Jazzmaster's unique vibrato arm. In terms of guitar scales and note selection, Verlaine utilises the mixolydian and minor pentatonic scale like most rock guitarists, but his sequencing, phrasing, tone and approach to legato and other techniques is unconventional.
His style may be a product of the way he learned to play; he told a Guitar Player interviewer in 2005 "I never played guitar along with records, so I never learned all the speed licks everybody gravitates to when starting out. I know 19-year-old guitarists who can play Danny Gatton solos note-for-note. They don't really know what notes they're playing, but they do them flawlessly."
Verlaine uses a thin pick and heavy strings (gauges .050 to .013) and tunes down a half step or more. In contrast to most modern rock guitarists, he uses a wound 3rd string. Verlaine usually plays with the bridge pickup on, but picks over the neck pickup. This, according to him, gives a "full yet clear sound".