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  • Writer's pictureBlair Morgan

Tom Verlaine RIP - Flashlight dimmed ...

Updated: Aug 1, 2023


Oil tanker guitar ... A phrase that is both meaningless yet meaningful as seen in the context of comparing U2's The Joshua Tree and Tom Verlaine's 4th solo album Flashlight back in 1987. It springs to mind in the wake of Verlaine's passing at age 73 earlier this year.


In the 80's Verlaine name had only crossed my path via the David Bowie cover of "The Kingdom Come" via (in my humble opinion) the Thin White Duke's greatest album Scary Monsters at the start of the decade. Verlaine's band Television had yet to register , Television only recorded two albums before breaking up in the late 70's. Fast forward to 1987 and Verlaines 4th solo album Flashlight is released around the same time as the Joshua Tree. In a memorable review Listener writer Gary Steel compared the guitar prowess of both U2's the Edge and Verlaine . The Edge came out of the comparison badly his style being the plodding "Oil tanker guitar" compared with Verlaine's effortless and inventive virtuosity. As for endearing influence , while U2 frequently cite the Ramones from around the same time as Verlaines seminal band Television , other no less iconic 80's bands The Church , Echo & the Bunnymen and The Cure cite and trace influence to the song craft and inventive guitar lines that Verlaine and fellow Television guitarist Richard Lloyd were able to conjure via the two Television albums. Despite the association with punk Marquee Moon, released in 1977 defies era's and any genre, it could easily be labeled "Prog" owing to the inventive, intricate and lenghty guitar solong that takes place particularly on the title track. Verlaine's style and approach to soloing is frequently linked to jazz musicians that he loved growing up such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane . He certainly has a use of vibrato that echoes at times Jeff Beck yet with it's own intensity and voice.


While the trajectory of U2 is well known Television and the solo Verlaine remained a cult following . Part of the issue could be Verlaine's vocals which ironically David Byrne is said to have modeled on as part of the CBGB scene in New York in the mid 70's. True , his voice can be often difficult to decipher and buried low in the mix while the guitar frequently becomes the focus anyway due to his virtuosity. Listening to some of the vocal lines on Flashlight and you have the impression that this is the way he might write the songs anyway.


This is a shame as Verlaine was equally clever with word play and striking imagery across his lyrics. In fact his adopted surname (real name Thomas Miller) is a adopted from 19th Century poet Paul Verlaine. It is no surprise that in the wake of his death it emerged he was a regular at the iconic Strand book store in Manhatten (this is without a doubt the greatest book store you will ever visit on planet Earth) scouring all kinds of subject matter and frequently walking away with stacks of books.



Here are some key moments across my favourite Tom Verlaine album


Cry Mercy Judge

Amongst a tale of a courtroom scene Verlaine layers guitar lines on top of each other including the "Satisfaction" riff.


Song


What made Flashlight so memorable was the bridge or middle eight device where Verlaine would use the guitar as the light and shade to the song. And this is most apparent here in the aptly titled "Song"



"The town's not a number it's simply gone numb" screams Verlaine across surf style guitar licks and (ironically) an overarching harmonic fueled riff that the Edge would have killed for. The narrative involves the character "Janey" (did he listen to Springsteen also?) arriving back in the small town she grew up.


The catchy The Funniest thing sees Verlaine taking a solo at 1.40 sec that steers away from the melody and charts its own course over 40 wonderful seconds


The Scientist Writes a Letter


The track with a hint of the keyboard "sheen" seen in the follow up "The Wonder" album, here we find Verlaine writing a letter to Julia outlining a tale of research and strong personal feelings in equal measure. Featuring the great Andy Newmark on drums which might account for the Roxy Music feel (Newmark was the drummer on the final Roxy album Avalon), Verlaine uses the last couple of minutes to fade out with guitar lines involving melodic bends and use of tremolo "bombs" It's probably the closes to Jeff Beck Verlaine gets and it is great.


The follow up to Flashlight was the excellent The Wonder in 1990 , this time the guitar reduced to stabs here and there but no less affecting . "Stalingrad" remains a classic single that never was , all chiming electric guitar and a clear compelling vocal ,mixed front and centre with typical oblique yet universal lyrics. Halfway through Verlaine throws in a brief but typical taut solo


"Walking home from Stalingrad, Mona says it's oh, so, bad. But I know, I know, I've been really had, Walking home from Stalingrad.

She says: I know my flesh and blood, I may not see again. But I can think of that as A new kind of end"

"Stalingrad, Tom Verlaine, The Wonder


Visibility of Verlaine was maintained via various Television live reunions and short tours . He also reunited with Patti Smith live but perhaps his most high profile gig in the last quarter century of his life was getting the producer chair for what would be the last recordings by Jeff Buckley. An inspired pairing , If Buckley hadn't taken the ill informed wade into the Mississippi River one had a sense that Verlaine's star would have risen amongst the contemporary late 90's scene which may have kicked off a career renaissance


We always have the music and although he flew under the radar Tom Verlaine remains a seminal figure as both a guitar hero and songwriter





Recommended listening


New York Times Spotify List






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