Best known as the frontman for the New York rock band Television, singer/songwriter/guitarist Tom Verlaine passed away at age 73 in New York City alongside friends on January 28, 2023. His death was announced by Jesse Paris Smith, the daughter of Mr. Verlaine’s fellow musician Patti Smith. She did not specify a cause, saying that he died “after a brief illness.”
“He was noted for his angular lyricism and pointed lyrical asides, a sly wit, and an ability to shake each string to its truest emotion,” said his publicist. “His vision and his imagination will be missed.”
“Peace and love, Tom Verlaine,” wrote The Bangles co-founder Susanna Hoffs, adding a broken-hearted emoji.
“I’ve lost a hero,” wrote R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe to Twitter, “You introduced me to a world that flipped my life upside down. I am forever grateful.”
Billy Idol also shared his appreciation for Verlaine, writing on Twitter, “Sad 2 hear of @TELE_VISION_TV #tomverlaine passing today. He made incredible music that greatly influenced the US & UK punk rock scene in the ‘70’s RIP.”
Patti Smith shared a black-and-white photo of the duo to her Instagram, writing, “This is a time when all seemed possible. Farewell Tom, aloft the Omega.”
Jimmy Rip, a friend who played with Verlaine for decades, wrote on Instagram, “At the end, he was surrounded by love and passed peacefully with the hands of myself and four more of his nearest and dearest friends on him … The personal loss, for me, is absolutely devastating. The loss, to the world, of this most innovative, imitated and iconic artist is incalculable.”
Born December 13, 1949 to Victor and Lillian Miller as Thomas Miller in Denville, New Jersey, after the family moved to Wilmington, Delaware, Verlaine began studying piano at an early age, but switched to saxophone in middle school after hearing a record by Stan Getz. Verlaine was initially unimpressed with the role of the guitar in both rock and jazz, and was only inspired to take up the instrument after hearing the Rolling Stones song “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 (b. Richard Meyers) after they met in Hockessin, Delaware, at Sanford School, a boarding school which they both attended. They quickly discovered that they shared a passion for music and poetry, and both planned to move to New York aspiring to be poets.
At first, the two devised a plan to run away to Florida, and with $50 between them, they set out like teen-rebel versions of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, mostly hitchhiking. The pair got as far as Alabama, where they slept rough in a field one night and started a fire to keep warm. When they began throwing burning sticks around the field, it caught fire, unsurprisingly, and they were arrested.
Verlaine finished high school and endured a year of college before moving to New York in late 1968. Meyers, who renamed himself Richard Hell, visited Verlaine, and they hung around dank New York clubs like Max’s Kansas City and the Mercer Arts Center, where they saw the New York Dolls. “We were inseparable,” Hell said in the punk rock oral history “Please Kill Me.”
Both worked at a bookstore called Cinemabilia, managed by Terry Ork, an Andy Warhol assistant who lived in a capacious Chinatown loft. Verlaine had been playing acoustic guitar at hootenanny nights around the city, and Hell prodded him to start a rock band.
“I didn’t see anybody in New York then who was doing anything,” Verlaine said. “It was all glamour — all visuals.”
Verlaine taught Hell, a novice, to play bass, and with drummer Billy Ficca, whom Verlaine knew from Delaware, they formed a trio called the Neon Boys, which recorded two songs that weren’t released until 1980. The Neon Boys quickly disbanded after failing to recruit a second guitarist, despite auditions by Dee Dee Ramone and Chris Stein. After they broke up, Ork introduced Verlaine to Richard Lloyd, completing the original lineup of Television. They played their first gig at the Town House Theater in March 1974, the same year Verlaine played guitar on Patti Smith’s first single, “Hey Joe.” (He played guitar the next year on her debut album, “Horses,” as well, and the two became a couple.)
While looking for a place where they could gig regularly, Verlaine and Lloyd spotted a dive bar on the Bowery, above a flophouse called the Palace. The club’s name was CBGB, which stood for country, bluegrass and blues, and Verlaine and Lloyd lied to owner Hilly Kristal, claiming that was the type of music they played, in order to get a foot in the door. Soon, Smith, Talking Heads, Blondie and Ramones were playing there too. The Bowery was never the same.
At Hell’s urging, Television adopted short hair, a sullen demeanor (which may have come naturally) and unkempt, sometimes ripped clothes. “This was a severe aesthetic,” the British critic Jon Savage later wrote, which “spelt danger and refusal, just as the torn T-shirt spoke of sexuality and violence.”
“There was something very, very modern” 
about Television, filmmaker Mary Harron once recalled, “something very liberating about that negativity. It was so hard and cold.”
Verlaine 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.
Hell and Verlaine shared lead vocals, but the latter didn’t like the competition and felt the former’s modest bass skills were holding the band back. They sometimes even fought onstage. So Verlaine forced Hell out and brought in Fred Smith, who’d been playing with Blondie. Ork gave the band money for amps and studio time, and they recorded a 45, “Little Johnny Jewel,” a seven-minute song split into two sides.
Verlaine was tall and gaunt, with “the most beautiful neck in rock ‘n’ roll,” Patti Smith once opined. His unusual, strained voice guaranteed that Television would never get significant airplay on commercial radio. Singer Adele Bertei described it as “all awkward and angular, like the voice of puberty cracking,” and Lloyd likened it to the sound of a goat with its throat slit.
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 up-and-coming artists 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 1978.
Verlaine was passionate about harmonically complex music, especially jazz saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, classical composers Henryk Gorecki and Krzysztof Penderecki and film composers Bernard Herrmann and Henry Mancini. Hesoon 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.
Verlaine’s fussiness about music was legendary. In 1980, when David Bowie was recording the “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” album, he covered “Kingdom Come,” which Verlaine had recorded on his solo debut a year earlier. Bowie and producer Tony Visconti asked Verlaine to play guitar on the track, but according to Visconti’s autobiography, Verlaine spent hours trying different guitar amps, looking for the right sound. Bowie and Visconti went to lunch, watched some afternoon TV and left the studio at 7 p.m., while Verlaine was still fiddling with amps.
“I don’t think we ever used a note of his playing, if we even recorded him,” Visconti wrote. “We never saw him after that day.”
Few people did. Fans traded tales of spotting Verlaine rummaging through the aisles at Strand Book Store. In addition to Television shows and infrequent solo albums, he played on albums by Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, Japanese guitarist Yasushi Ide, New York alternative rock band Luna, Cars singer Ric Ocasek and folk-punk band Violent Femmes, among others.
In the 1990s he collaborated with different artists, including Patti Smith, and composed a film score for “Love and a .45”.
In the early 90s, Television reformed to record one studio album “Television”, and a live recording “Live at the Academy” (1992); they reunited periodically for touring ever since. He was in discussion with Jeff Buckley to produce his second album, before Buckley’s death by drowning in 1997.
Verlaine released his first new album in many years in 2006, titled “Songs and Other Things”. 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-authored the latter song with Smith.
He was also part of the Million Dollar Bashers, a supergroup 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.
Verlaine was 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, were highly influential and widely praised in the music media. He and Television bandmate Richard Lloyd were known as one of rock’s most acclaimed and inventive guitar duos.
He has most recently collaborated with Smashing Pumpkins member James Iha on his second solo album “Look To The Sky” (2012).


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