Richard Hell pretty well invented the punk prototype- he had the look, the style, the attitude and even the name. He is also one of the great gutter poets of our time. Innes Reekie celebrates the great man…
Ma Saison en Enfer : Arthur Rimbaud
My Season in Hell: Richard Hell
Returning from an ill-fated American trip in 1975 which had seen him dress up a bunch of junk-dependent, transvestite misfits called The New York Dolls in red patent leather and have them perform in front of a hammer and sickle backdrop, even the irrepressible self-publicist Malcolm McLaren, had to recognise defeat as it stared him squarely in the face. But all was not lost by his reckoning; he had discovered something of far greater importance and value, something he would utilise to maximum effect with his next project, The Sex Pistols. He had seen an attitude, an idea and a lifestyle concept, all embodied in one, tall, angular bundle of nihilistic aggression.
“I came back to England determined”, McLaren remembers.” I had these images I came back with, it was like Marco Polo or Walter Raleigh. These are the things I brought back: the image of this distressed, strange thing called Richard Hell. And this phrase ‘the Blank Generation'”
And the rest as they say, is history. Not so, because Richard Hell has never been afforded the acclaim he so richly deserved. Hell was undisputedly the original, spike-haired, slashed, safety-pinned progenitor of Punk Rock, yet amazingly he managed to pass through two of the most important bands of the time, namely Television and The Heartbreakers, commercially unrecorded. It wasn’t until 1977 when Hell assembled his Voidoids, that such nihilistic paeans Blank Generation and Love Comes In Spurts finally connected with the publics’ consciousness through touring with both The Clash and Elvis Costello. Destiny Street followed in 1982 and Hell prematurely announced his retiral from rock’n’roll with RIP in 1984.
Throughout the remainder of the 80’s, it would have been a fair assumption to make that Hell had crawled back to the relative security afforded by the narcotics addiction that had dogged him most of his adult life and that his next public outing would be as a similar statistic to that of his Heartbreakers band-mates, Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan – heroin-related deaths both.
Thankfully, the resilience of this man Hell had been greatly underestimated, and the 90’s produced not only his musical collaboration with Sonic Youths’ Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley – Dim Stars; his first full length novel – Go Now, but also a steady stream of creative work which has graced the pages of Spin, GQ, The Portable Lower East Side and the walls of small NYC art galleries. It would appear that Hell had transformed himself from the Baudelaire of the Bowery into something of a Rimbaldian-edged Renaissance man.
In London to publicise the recently published Hot and Cold collection, and Time, a double CD of mostly unreleased, archive material, the 51 year-old Hell is a far cry from the ‘wild-haired, torn-bloused Beatnik who looked like Frankenstein with anorexia’ as described by Blondie’s Gary Valentine in his recent memoirs on the New York punk scene. Instead he is calm, tanned and surprisingly good-humoured for a man who has spent most of his life exorcising demons.
Although his first love was poetry, particularly the works of the 19th Century French Symbolists Rimbaud, Lautreamont and Verlaine, it is his work as a diarist which is fascinating – his bluntness, his constant self-analysis and self-loathing as a means of attempting to understand the complexities of the human condition allow that rare insight into the mind of a tortured and inquisitive individual.
On self-doubt: The only thing I’ve been able to think about – or talk about with anyone who won’t think it’s too stupid – for the past few days is the necessity of finding something to believe in (which would motivate me) besides the importance of delivering the feelings contained in this first record to the public. I know I’m going to die soon if I can’t find something to live for.
I mention the fact that he has no fear of being candid to the point that you actually question your own right to be party to some of his musings.
“Yeah,” he smiles, ” I think it’s a sickness of mine, I don’t know why I behave that way or what possesses me. For me as a writer it’s a matter of trying to make works interesting and the whole project is about trying to understand what’s going on, to understand what matters. I can’t help feeling that I’ll have any hope of succeeding at that, but you can’t censor anything, you can’t hide anything, you’ve got to look at everything that happens and not suppress anything – so I find myself doing these things and stuff which sometimes embarrasses me, and really I have no excuse.”
There’s a superbly written, exploration into heroin addiction in Hot and Cold, in which, as always, he is very much up front about his own dalliances in the wrong neighbourhoods
On heroin: ”Â¦when I was a junkie. Nothing ever got really better, the fear just got covered for a day, every day, while it grew. I knew it too, but it’s amazing what living conditions – emotional and material – a human can adjust to, especially when the change is gradual. Like the Jews in ’30’s Germany. You just focus your mind on the immediate aim. Heroin allows – insists – that all your problems are reduced to one simple question of logistics: how to cop today. Every day there’s always some way to get that sixty dollars and someone to give it to. And then, as Brecht put it, after we hit up, we can discuss morals.
Anyone expecting a Rock’n’Roll show on his current Spoken Word tour will be disappointed as he’s already cancelled four venues where the insinuation was that it was a gig of some type or other.
“I didn’t want to do Rock’n’Roll venues where people would expect some sort of aggressive act. I just wanted to read a book like an author because I don’t have some kind of night-club act like Henry Rollins and didn’t want to go to the type of places which drove me out of Rock’n’Roll in the first place. But generally, I don’t care for spoken word performance.”
I was under the misapprehension that the whole point of himself, Patti Smith and Television’s Tom Verlaine embracing the rock’n’roll stage was that it was a springboard to bringing their poetry to a wider audience. And although he’s been the first to admit that his memory of the 70’s can’t be to heavily relied upon, he remains adamant on this point
“No I wanted to get away from poetry”, he states categorically. “I never gave poetry readings before I played. I leaned towards starting a band cos the poetry world was too boring. Now, I only do readings to bring the books to people’s attention. It’s a really artificial situation because the stuff is written to be read by a person alone in their room with a book in front of their face. Giving the reading is interfering with the way the person reading the book is receiving it. If you’re reading it to them, you’re mediating it and changing it and feeding it to them through your own interpretation. Usually when I read I do it as loosely as possible and usually throw in a few interesting anecdotes as I go along.
Yeah, on the evidence of the book, I’ll bet he does. As we’re winding up, I mention to him that he swapped the famous ripped red T-shirt on the back of the Blank Generation cover with a friend of mine, Davy Henderson (Fire Engines/The Sexual Objects) in Edinburgh, back in ’77.
“I have good memories of Edinburgh”, he tells me. “It made a strong impression on me, not just how nicely we were treated when we played there on that otherwise horrible trip, but the city itself, my memory of it is completely magic. It’s become my fantasy, dream retirement city. I remember once saying I would like to completely recreate myself as a student of philosophy at Edinburgh University.
And leaving that very surreal possibility dangling in the air, he’s off. Richard Hell could well be the kick up the arts our fair city is occasionally in need of.