Today’s birthday boy is Tom Verlaine, born Thomas Miller, 65 years ago today—in Wilmington, Delaware, which is where I was born too. I’ve posted already about Marquee Moon (1977), the great punk era album from Verlaine’s band Television that graced my late teens, and about “The Fire,” my favorite song from its follow up, Adventure (1978). In choosing today’s song, I went with what may be my favorite Verlaine solo album. It’s either Cover or Dreamtime (1981), though I also liked his Songs and Other Things in 2006, which is when I finally got around to seeing him perform live.
I picked today’s song, specifically, because the birthday of the one of the greatest American poets, Emily Dickinson, was back there on the 10th. I don’t know that today’s song is meant to remind us of that one and only “Miss Emily,” but it did for me anyway. In fact, I can’t hear the song and not think of her a bit. Particularly as the song’s comment to Miss Emily—“I’d like to work around your place / I’ll be a handyman”—makes me think of Robert Frost and all those poems about doing little chores on some New England spread. Frost and Dickinson are the “go to” poets of Americana, oddly gnomic in their associations and yet full of an unmistakeable spirit that registers the old Yankee landscapes and forms of speech. Though not a New Englander by birth, I’ve always felt a little bit akin toward the region. Maybe it’s just a way of saying that the sense of place I romanticize, in America, is New England.
So this feels to me a “New England” song, and it begins with lines that make me think of how Dickinson can overwhelm one: “Day after day / I heard your voice / In the silence, burning me up / Burning me up / Emily / I worship you / Even in my dreams.”
One thing I like about Cover is the way the guitars attain a density that has to do with Jimmy Ripp’s presence on the album. With Ripp, Verlaine achieves a variation on the two guitar effects that were so instrumental to the sound of Television. And “Miss Emily” is my favorite track because of the big sonic cloud it creates. In the midst of that descending guitar line that keeps swooping through the song, there are bright little arpeggios that ring out clear like little drops of silver.
Unable to find an upload of the song as it appears on Cover, I link to a live performance of the song in 1984. It’s good because you can see the interplay of Verlaine and Ripp, but they don’t manage the density of the recorded version. And that soaring exegesis on guitar that happens in the fade of the album version gets altered live into a time change and what seems to me a more lyrical musical coda.
Of course, the song may have nothing to do with Dickinson. It may be all about a hottie named Emily, “so fine, so fine,” making the dude want “to work real hard” around her place, a handyman “until the sun goes down” at which point he might be handy in a more intimate way, nudge nudge. This gets more emphatic with “Will you take me on? / I’ll be your handyman.”
And yet that only seems silly if you quote it like I just did. In the context of the song, it’s got a more morose, slowburn feeling, like this guy needs to work off his debt and is in some kind of bondage—the bondage of love and desire, sure, but that isn’t a laughing matter. It reminds me of Verlaine’s great song “Kingdom Come” on his first, eponymous solo album of 1979, with its cry “I’ve been breaking these rocks / And cutting this hay / I’ve been breaking these rocks / It’s my price to pay,” and “I won’t be breaking no rocks / When the kingdom comes.” This hard working handyman in “Miss Emily” may be hoping to approach “the kingdom” as well, that little heaven on earth of lying with Emily.
Miss Emily / I’ll work real hard / Till the sun goes down.