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Singer-songwriters of wondrous quality

MUSIC | Verlaine and Strong were bigger than their sales suggest


Illustration by Barbara Gibson (Strong: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Verlaine: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images)

Singer-songwriters of wondrous quality
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The word unique gets thrown around a lot, but no musician of the last 50 years deserved it more than Tom Verlaine, the guitarist extraordinaire who died on Jan. 28 at age 73.

Verlaine, born Thomas Miller, exploded onto the scene in 1977 when the band he led, Television, released its debut album, Marquee Moon. Often labeled “punk” because they emerged from the same East Manhattan milieu as the Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads, Verlaine and Television actually anticipated the genre now known as post-punk by a decade, subsuming punk’s angry energy and minimalistic concision within a sound both expansive and exploratory.

Neither Marquee Moon nor its immediate follow-up, Adventure, racked up big sales, but they unleashed torrents of well-deserved critical praise that the band’s late-’70s breakup did little to stint and that resumed when the band reunited for a studio album (simply titled Television) in 1992. The seven solo albums that Verlaine released in the interim met with similar critical and, alas, commercial fates.

Call it the price of uniqueness. His slender 6'4" frame and elegantly haunted face were practically metaphors for his sound, which even when dense and furious was shot through with moments of eerie beauty. And the more he recorded, the less dense and furious his sound became. Two of his last three albums, Warm and Cool (1992) and Around (2006), were ­evocatively moody instrumental efforts that found him soundtracking films noir as yet unconceived.

Live, his music’s sense of being awash in frayed and fraying nerves never receded. His singing (“pinched,” “anguished,” “ululating,” “strangulated”) and his guitar work (“angular,” “swirling,” “billowing,” “jangly”) taxed his admirers’ adjective supply. His lyrics were poetic in a conversationally modernist and symbolist way. If he ever wrote anything confessional (unlikely), it no doubt joined the many unfinished songs that as a prickly perfectionist he was known to have scrapped.

“Verlaine writes like nobody else, sings like nobody else, plays like nobody else,” wrote the critic Robert Christgau, approvingly, in 1987—an assessment as true now as it was then.

Barrett Strong also died Jan. 28, just eight days shy of his 82nd birthday. Best known as the singer of the first Motown record to broach the Top 40, “Money (That’s What I Want),” he’s sometimes labeled as a one-hit wonder.

He was, but only technically. As the songwriting partner of Norman Whitfield, Strong also had a hand in “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” and “Just My Imagination (Runnin’ Away With Me)” (No. 1s for the Temptations) and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (No. 1 for Marvin Gaye, No. 2 for Gladys Knight & the Pips).

As if those accomplishments weren’t enough, he wrote “Stay in My Corner” with Wade Flemons and Robert Eugene Miller, a tune so nice the Dells recorded it twice.

A “wonder”? Yes. But “one-hit”? Hardly.


Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986. Arsenio resides in China.

@ArsenioOrteza

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