Boy, was January a tough month in the increasingly busy field of pop-music obituary writing. It saw the passing of some folks with huge names (Jeff Beck, Lisa Marie Presley, David Crosby) and others less famous, but hitting just as hard for particular fan bases (Screaming Trees’ bassist Van Conner, original Yardbirds guitarist Top Topham). Social media has sort of made us all into amateur memorializers, and by the end of January I was getting a bad case of Obituary Fatigue Syndrome and mostly just clicking the sad-face icon when a friend would post about any of the names mentioned above.
But on the 28th, another reported death, that of Tom Verlaine, prompted me to pick up the ol’ pen, for an alternative tribute. Verlaine, first with his band Television then as a solo artist, inspired me greatly in my development as a writer, in a curious field that in recent decades has got its own name: hauntology—the persistence of spirit that lives on in man-made environments.
Of course, Tom’s main influence will be musical, the enigmatic beauty of his songwriting and his otherworldly guitar skills. But in many a better written obit about Verlaine, a common theme persists: how he evoked a whole era and how his songs were almost literal surveyor marks in the changing New York City landscape of the late 70s. It was a time that Gotham was in the throes of financial crisis and social disruption but also giving creative birth to the epochal punk and hip-hop subcultures: both of which would soon have global reach.
From L to R: Fred Smith, Verlaine, Richard Lloyd and Billy Ficca. They and countless other musicians and artists flooded into a (then) low-rent Lower East Side in the demographic upheaval of the white-flight 70’s Big Apple. The rediscovery and reutilization of neglected places is a key tenet of hauntology and urban exploring.
Verlaine became known to me ever since my end-of-1977 listening centered on Talking Heads ’77, Marquee Moon by Television (I bought MM on the strength of one great magazine review) and the Ramones Rocket to Russia, which a roommate had. Everything changed after that.
The inspiration for me was Verlaine’s lyrics. Marquee Moon’s mind-blowing 10-minute title epic is the key track, but my favorite Television song was “Venus.” It is a master class in urban psychedelia, the best song possible about tripping balls at night in Lower Manhattan with a couple of friends (and one of them is Richard Hell). “Broadway looked medieval/it seemed to flap like little pages,” Tom sings. This is the Broadway that extends down from the gothic majesty of the vertiginous Woolworth Building to its colonial terminus at Bowling Green. A lot of this stretch is basically unchanged in the last century. It was the site of many a famous ticker-tape parade and features two of New York City’s oldest churches.
A couple of years back I spent a day-night-day in the Lower Broadway area, a block from the gargantuan old Custom House building, with its monumental sculptures representing the continents. I had my own sort of “Venus” moment when I stumbled on it for the first time on a misty night around 1980. I got some great photos of just the sort of thing that has inspired a passage in my graphic novel-in-progress “In a Dream of Strange Cities.” It was the page I was leading up to when I heard of Verlaine’s passing. My protagonist “sleep voyager” emerges in a Midtown NYC stripped of many of its buildings. He walks in the blazing sun until he reaches unchanged Lower Broadway, mythical home of O. Henry’s Transients in Arcadia, where’s it cool and shadowy and timeless. He’s on his way to a secret meeting with (wait for it, please) a utopian princess. (Free introductory comic of “In a Dream of Strange Cities” coming soon!)
Having a close look at lower Broadway in the spring of 2021. Photos by the author
Anyway, here’s a great quote from a more-or-less professional obit man/rock scribe about the quality of Mr. Verlaine’s hauntological aesthetic (from Matt Mitchell at Paste magazine).
He was walking art awash with the uncertainty of a midnight sky; a poet gleaning geographical imagery into his pastorals as if he was his city’s only architect.
Surely, Mr. Verlaine’s spirit and influence will live on indefinitely in every instance of someone falling under the spell of great cities and great possibilities. RIP Tom.