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Nels on Tom Verlaine

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Hadn't seen this remembrance of Tom Verlaine posted on here yet. Typical Nels...so brilliant and insightful. Well worth a read.




Nels Cline Remembers Tom Verlaine: “A Guitar Hero of Mine”

Wilco’s visionary guitarist pays tribute to Television’s late frontman.

February 2, 2023 by Shaun Brady


The death of Tom Verlaine on Jan. 28, at age 73, has inspired eulogies from countless artists whose own work has stretched the boundaries of rock. As the frontman, guitarist and chief songwriter for Television, Verlaine was an icon of the New York punk scene that developed at CBGB, yet he never fit neatly under any particular genre banner. He drew equally from rock, punk, poetry and avant-garde jazz, crafting a singular sound throughout Television’s three albums and his solo work that impacted the likes of Patti Smith, David Bowie, Sonic Youth, R.E.M. and so many others.

High on that list is guitarist Nels Cline. In Wilco and as a solo artist, the Los Angeles native has embraced a fearless originality and an expansive set of influences that point to Verlaine as a forebear. While visiting New York City recently, Cline reminisced on a call with TIDAL about Verlaine’s significance. “He was not super demonstrative in the way that we often think of when we think of so-called guitar heroes,” Cline said. “But certainly, Tom Verlaine is a guitar hero of mine.” This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

I worked in a record store in West Los Angeles called Rhino Records for about 10 years starting in late 1976. I was on what I like to call “Jazz Island” back then, so I wasn’t really paying attention to what was starting to happen in rock and roll at that time, but I was hearing the stuff all the time in the store. I didn’t fall in love with Television’s Marquee Moon when it first came out. I’ve reflected on it many, many times over the years, and maybe I was initially not attracted to Tom Verlaine’s voice when I first heard it. 

But there was one Friday night that I recall rather distinctly. I was in the back room pricing records and a young employee at the front counter put on Marquee Moon. It certainly wasn’t the first time it had been played in the store, but it was certainly the first time I heard it, if you know what I mean. That was where it all started for me. It just stopped me in my tracks that night. I was absolutely stunned by the remarkable musicality and textures and arrangements and songs. For me, looking back on a lifetime of loving records that feature a lot of guitar, it’s one of the greatest and most unique in its language and its immediacy. It’s also ambitious without a lot of arm-waving. The two guitar voices of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd are absolutely marvelous, inspiring and transporting to this day.

I also met my first wife, D.D. Faye, at the record store. D.D. was a rock-and-roll person who had been writing for a pre-Punk, pre-Slash, pre-New York Rocker magazine in Southern California called Back Door Man, and she and her friends were smitten with Television and Patti Smith and that emerging scene and sound. She and I bonded heavily on Television and Tom Verlaine, and would often refer to the lyrics of certain Television songs as part of our everyday speech.

When Tom died I wrote about him briefly on social media, which was difficult. I felt like I had to do it sooner than I was ready to. I attached the song “Days on the Mountain,” from [Verlaine’s 1982 solo LP] Words From the Front, which may have baffled people because it was a very unobvious choice, but I’ve been completely fascinated by and in love with it ever since I first heard it. I hadn’t listened to it for a while, and I just wept. Ever since its release, that song has remained astonishing to me. It’s incredibly peculiar and ultimately mysterious, but at the same time very direct. It’s a sound poem with this funny drum track and some really odd decisions — all that reverb on the voice obscuring what essentially sounds like a dream but could also be a journal entry.

Literarily speaking, there’s something that I find absolutely absorbing, and then the music is visionary and uncategorizable in a way that a lot of that album isn’t. It’s so singularly the Tom Verlaine aesthetic, but in a way that’s not rock. The ending, when it goes into that almost folk melody, has always reminded me a bit of something that Joe Zawinul might have done. It’s so simple and direct, but it sounds so fresh and uplifting. Most of Words From the Front is very straightforward rock. The title track has that trudge that guitarists of a certain generation just can’t resist, like Crazy Horse or Low, all these marvels. 

Tom had a very distinctive touch and a way of playing solos that was not always in time. It’s very measured, but it has a kind of sustained tension. He’s kind of a baffling figure in terms of the inconsistencies in his output, but he was always distinctive on the guitar. Not even just the guitar; there’s a sensibility at work there. I think it might have something to do with what a literature guy he was. He was an avid reader and thinker and film buff and aesthete. 

I don’t always know what the hell he’s singing about. A song like “Travelling,” from [his 1984 solo album] Cover, the chorus says, “Fifty-five fives, she drew on the door/Fifty-five fives, I wish there were more.” I don’t know what the hell that’s about, but it’s extremely memorable. “Venus” is one of the most beautiful songs ever, and it paints this picture of a magical, wonder-infused view of what I imagine to be New York City at a certain time in his life. It has this ecstatic quality, this beautiful, understated kind of drama. At other times he was distinctly straightforward rock, like “A Future in Noise” — “I gotta keep about a mile from you/Arm’s length, that won’t do.” That’s so rock, and it’s great rock. Dreamtime [from 1981] is one of the greatest rock-guitar records, in my opinion, and on that song he trades guitar leads with himself. I find that fascinating in light of how incredibly dynamic the exchanges between Richard and Tom were in Television, although I know [that relationship] was quite often troubled. 

I made an assumption when I heard certain things in Tom’s playing that there was a Quicksilver Messenger Service/John Cipollina connection. If you listen to the beautiful apotheosis at the end of Tom’s guitar solo at the climax of “Marquee Moon,” you hear him do this little guitar bit over the heroic-sounding, beautiful chords. That’s what I call “the wiggle.” He has this really fast vibrato and he’s playing the upper register of the guitar. That reminded me at the time of John Cipollina, and I seem to have naturally adopted this sound in my own playing. 

We’re losing these people right and left, and Jeff Beck [who died on Jan. 10] was a huge inspiration to me, particularly when I was younger. I maintained interest because his playing became so personal and profound over the years, even though the aesthetics of it were difficult for me at times. Tom Verlaine is almost the anti-Jeff Beck in that he never assumed this heroic posture that Jeff Beck wore so effortlessly. Jeff Beck was always bigger than life on the guitar, and he was very comfortable, with this confident, almost cocky stage presence. Tom Verlaine was so the opposite. Most of the time when one would see Tom play, there would be some little equipment problem and he’d be standing there looking uncomfortable, if not irritated, or in some sort of dream state. 

Reading little things that people have written in the last few days, I feel lucky that once we finally did hang out, Tom was very nice to me. He could apparently be standoffish or aloof. The first time I saw him in the flesh, he walked into Arcana: Books on the Arts, in Santa Monica, where I was working after the record store. Right before closing he strolled in looking for Ad Reinhardt’s color-theory book, which was quite rare at the time, and carrying a little brown-paper lunchbag. When he left I said something to him and he said something pleasant back and walked out. A year or two later he came into the store again, and somehow I ended up chatting with him outside for 10 or 15 minutes. 

The only time we ever hung out was at a coffeeshop in the San Fernando Valley. It was all thanks to [later Television guitarist] Jimmy Rip, whom I befriended. I was living in Glendale and Jimmy was in the San Fernando Valley, and one day he said, “Tom’s in town and we should have breakfast.” So I went, and Tom completely lived up to my image of his lifestyle by drinking more than a pot of coffee and constantly having to go outside to smoke cigarettes. We had a really long breakfast and just shot the shit. He was very nice and relaxed. The other times we met were more official, like the concert for the 50th anniversary of the Fender Jazzmaster at the Knitting Factory [in 2008]. Jimmy and Tom played duo, Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore played duo, J Mascis played, and I played solo with my painter friend Norton Wisdom.


We never played together. The thing that everyone thinks we did together is the [Lee Ranaldo-produced music off the I’m Not There soundtrack]. But I overdubbed all my stuff and everybody else — Tom, Lee, Steve Shelley, Tony Garnier, John Medeski — all played in real time. Thinking back on that, it’s not such a disappointment: I think what I was able to do for Lee was to goose a couple of little things here and there that he thought could have been stronger, or more strident. I remember needlessly overdubbing on this pastoral soundscape that Tom had instigated. It was gorgeous and very Tom. 

Wilco covered “Marquee Moon” when we did a set at the Solid Sound Festival in 2013. That was a challenge. Jeff Tweedy and I love that music so much. On the Wilco song “Handshake Drugs,” there are these instrumental breaks where Pat Sansone and I play little guitar things in between the verses. So I used [part of Verlaine’s crescendo] from “Marquee Moon” and fed it through the chord changes, just to entertain Jeff. It worked — I got his attention, he smiled and we laughed. But it was so effective that I do it all the time now when we play that song. I do it not just because I know it entertains Jeff and me, but because I decided I wanted to refer to Tom Verlaine and Television as often as possible in front of a Wilco audience. I think of David Bowie doing “Kingdom Come,” and apparently he did it because he just wanted more people to pay attention to Tom Verlaine, which seems like a very soulful and sweet thing on his part. I like to think this is my version of that.

The first Wilco studio album that I’m on is Sky Blue Sky. When we began demoing songs for that album, Jeff played us “Impossible Germany” and said, “If you guys get any ideas, let me know.” I was driving around Los Angeles with the CD-R playing, and I got this idea to add a long, extended instrumental coda at the end — the entire concept being based on “The Dream’s Dream,” from Adventure, which I still include in the list of some of the most beautiful, eloquent guitar-based music ever. So I came up with these melodies, intending to play completely worked-out melodic material with Jeff. As I’m showing these to Jeff, he somehow drifted over to Patrick and they started dissecting my melodies and harmonizing them. They spent over two hours and then turned to me and said, “What do you think?” I’d just been sitting there. I said, “That sounds great, but what do I do?” Jeff said, “Oh, you just solo,” which was the opposite of my idea. I just revisited “The Dream’s Dream” two days ago, which was a big tearjerker for me.

I grew up in California, but I was always fixated on what was happening in New York City: the Loft-jazz scene as well as the emerging sound of Television and the Patti Smith Group and Talking Heads and then later Sonic Youth and DNA. But it’s not just musical, it’s cultural. There’s something about New York City that, in spite of itself, has always made me feel that vibrant connection to living. It’s hard to think of this city without Tom in it now. That poignant feeling is weirdly positive for me because it enhances my feeling about every breath I’m taking. We’re losing this generation of people, and at my age, 67, it’s heightened my sense of not just mortality, but the blessing of life.

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