Recently, a guitar owned by Tom Verlaine sold for over $31,000 on ebay (http://www.ebay.com). The guitar, a 1958 Fender Jazzmaster, was the instrument used by Verlaine when he wrote and recorded the Television albums, and much of his solo work. How does a guitar associated with a man who is — at best — a cult figure command such a price? Television was one of the class of ’77 who, along with the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Patti Smith, put New York rock on the map, claiming the city as the birthplace of punk rock. But no matter their influence, Television has sold just about as many albums in those 20+ years as Ricky Martin does in an afternoon. Brilliant, yes. Inspiring, perhaps. But worth the price of a small house or a big car? That all depends. It all depends on whether or not you believe in the magic an object can hold. Maybe it’s the typewriter Orson Welles pounded out Citizen Kane on. Or a racecar owned by Steve McQueen. In the end, it’s all lust. Techno lust. But still, 31 thousand for a guitar? Who would do such a thing?
I am a guitarist — not a particularly good one, mind you, but I’ve played in bands and released a record. Like most musos, I have my heroes, and Tom Verlaine was one of them. From the moment I heard the opening chords of “Friction” or the spiraling leads of “Marquee Moon,” I was hooked. Something in the gritty interplay between the guitars of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd captivated me, and helped move me from the adolescent idol worship of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd into a world of dark heroes — Television, the Pistols, the Clash — big fish in a very small pond. I never shaved my head into a mohawk, or anything so noticeably moronic, but in my own way, their music changed me. It didn’t matter to me that in my high school days of the late ’70’s, only a handful of people even knew who I was talking about — hell, it might have increased the appeal of it all. Their music meant something to me because it spoke of things broken, the items in our life (or the life itself) that no longer worked — and hadn’t for awhile. It was angry music, angry with those who ignored us, slighted us, and made our decisions for us. It wasn’t the sexual blustering of a Robert Plant or the blues of the Allman Brothers, singing about lost loves. Hell, I was 17. I didn’t have a lost love.
What I did have — even if I couldn’t have articulated it at the time — was a desire. A drive and a yearning for something better. Something more intense and real than the day to day grind of being a teenager. So I formed my band, and sat hunched over a progression of cheap guitars, trying to learn the chords for “Marquee Moon,” or strum fast enough to keep up with Johnny Ramone (I never could). But what I really wanted was to write my own anthem, a “White Riot” of my own. I never could do that, either. I tried, but always fell short. I guess the suburbs of Decatur, Georgia aren’t the mean streets of New York or a dank London squat.
Over the years, I moved on to other things — marriages, a child, a real job, etc. But I never lost the love I had for that music. I still listen to the children of those bands: Galaxie 500, Luna, and a dozen more that echo with the dark thoughts and twisted melodies of a time over 20 years ago. So when I saw that the Tom Verlaine’s guitar was being sold, I wished at that moment for the wealth of Bill Gates, where $31,000 is disposable income. I wanted that guitar. Not that I thought that whatever mojo Verlaine had called down when he wrote those great songs and improvised, jazz-like, a new vocabulary for rock existed in the guitar, trapped like a genie in a bottle, waiting for me to bring it out. No, it wasn’t that. Whatever my talents are, I’m not going to write a song that will help someone escape the prison of youth. Just owning the cold wood and poured steel of a 1958 Fender Jazzmaster won’t make someone into Tom Verlaine.
And I’ll keep saying that, until the time comes that I have a spare 31 grand and somebody auctions off the white Gibson Les Paul of Sex Pistol Steve Jones on ebay. Without dreams you die.