Clip: Kot on Tom Verlaine
Guitarist Tom Verlaine is master of the so-low solo
Published June 9, 2006
Can a guitar hero also be modest? We all know about the soloists who
impress with flash and speed, but what about the instrumentalist who
can say a lot with less? These masters of understatement include
Curtis Mayfield, Steve Cropper, Robbie Robertson and Tom Verlaine,
whose two recent solo albums are his first new releases in 14 years.
Verlaine, who headlines Monday at Double Door, and his sidekick
Richard Lloyd in the band Television reinvented the '60s guitar
vocabulary of the Yardbirds and Quicksilver Messenger Service for the
punk generation. The quartet's 1977 debut album, "Marquee Moon,"
remains a landmark, not just for its songs but for the intricate
dialogue between the guitars of Verlaine and Lloyd.
Television broke up soon after (only to re-emerge in 1992 to record
one more album and in 2001 to tour intermittently) and Verlaine began
releasing solo albums. In the '90s, he veered into film soundtracks
and renewed a collaboration with his old punk-era peer, Patti Smith.
He also kept writing songs, "but I'd had enough of record companies
for a while," he says. "I didn't want to go through all that rigmarole
Eventually, he called up an old acquaintance, Thrill Jockey founder
Bettina Richards, when he regained rights to his 1992 instrumental
album, "Warm and Cool." Thrill Jockey re-released the disc with bonus
tracks last year and, in recent weeks, put out a collection of new
songs ("Songs and Other Things") and instrumentals ("Around") that
Verlaine had stockpiled over the last decade.
"It was a good way to go, because nobody was suggesting producers or
remixers to me," Verlaine says of his re-emergence on the
Chicago-based indie label. "I could keep it simple: record a band in a
room with as few overdubs as possible."
The approach suits Verlaine's sparsely intelligent lyrics and stark
guitar incisions. For six-string fans, the albums are veritable
clinics in the art of the decisive riff and the melodic fill. The
action all takes place in relatively tight spaces; while Verlaine can
stretch out with the best of them in concert, on record he uses his
guitar to comment on the action around it, rather than to dominate. It
matches his approach to lyrics; he'll write eight verses for a song,
but use only two.
"I like to distill things to their essence," he says. "I don't like
The attitude was shaped during Verlaine's childhood in Wilmington,
Del., when he was known as Tom Miller. He first gravitated to
classical music and then jazz before finally discovering rock
relatively late, through the music of the Yardbirds. "I came into the
whole pop thing in reverse," he says. "My first love was the
saxophone, not the guitar."
Little wonder he brought a jazz sensibility to his playing. "I've met
a lot of guys who like to play super-fast, 80 notes to a bar," he
says. "But I'd listen to the guitar playing on [Bob Dylan's] `Blonde
on Blonde,' and there'd be all these beautiful moments in the guitar
playing, but no real solos. It reminded me of listening to jazz
singers growing up, where I'd hear these cool little figures on piano
between the vocals. It was like another voice responding to the main
voice. That's how I wanted to play guitar."
While still a teenager in 1967, young Tom dropped out of school and
hitch-hiked to New York in search of adventure. "We were on this stoop
in Manhattan at 1 a.m. when this guy happened by and told us we'd be
arrested if we slept on the street," Verlaine says. "He turned out to
be a social worker and he let us stay at his apartment for a couple of
The fledgling guitarist fell in love with the city and returned to
stay the next year, renaming himself after the French symbolist poet.
By the early '70s he had formed the jittery pre-punk Neon Boys with
Richard Hell (who eventually left the group) and Billy Ficca, and
Television formed soon after, with Lloyd and later Fred Smith joining.
The band was lumped in with the emerging punk movement, in part
because it frequently played the Lower East Side club CBGB alongside
Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads. But Verlaine
never quite fit in with "punk" or any other trend, and Television came
and went almost before anyone noticed.
Now the band is cited as a primary influence on newcomers such as the
Strokes. Verlaine claims not to hear the connection, though he listens
to very little rock these days, anyway. Until last year, he didn't
even own a CD player, devoting most of his time to his collection of
jazz and classical vinyl.
"Patti Smith gave me her daughter's CD player so I could learn her
songs," he says. He enjoys touring with Smith and the challenge of
finding parts that fit her songs. He says the only time Smith comments
is to ask him to turn it up or to play longer. In other words, she
thinks he's being too modest.
"That's actually true," Verlaine says. "I'd rather fit in with the song."
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Price: $18-$20; 773-489-3160
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 7 p.m. Saturdays on WBEZ-FM 91.5.