Interviews

At 40, Punk Goes to (Richard) Hell

by Geraldine Visco on March 26, 2014

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Richard Hell and the Voidoids, “Destiny Street” (courtesy Richard Hell)

Punk is 40 years old, believe it or not. Now that it’s middle-aged, has punk become passé? Have the few protagonists who survived from the excesses of the era become flabby and bland? No, not necessarily — judging by punk icon Richard Hell, once known as the king of the Lower East Side. At 64 years old, he still looks damned good and he’s been busy writing some powerful prose. Man crush! Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Hell was one of the major hotties of the punks and it sure helped him get laid by numerous nubile females, according to his colorful autobiography, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, which has just been released in paperback, a year after it came out in hardcover.

The book is a sprawling and absorbing narrative that covers many of the same cast of characters as Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir, but Hell’s book is more brutal and direct. Though not as nostalgic as Smith, he does celebrate the underworld he created for himself on the Lower East Side and in his musical career, and depicts a cast of characters that ranges from fabulous to tawdry. Hell purposely chose to write an autobiography not a memoir, in the sense that he wrote a history of his life from childhood through 1984, when he gave up music and drugs, which in his life were inextricably linked. It’s a coming of age story that starts with Richard Meyers (his legal name), a middle class boy living in Lexington, Kentucky, who was obsessed with cap guns and Hopalong Cassidy and then devolves into a picaresque romp through the pleasures and perils of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Hell is a high school dropout and juvenile delinquent who ran away from boarding school to the wild frontier of New York City in 1966 in order to become a poet.

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Stiv Bators of The Dead Boys (courtesy Emily Armstrong)

So who the hell is Richard Hell? Nowadays, he’s a writer rather than a rocker. For those dweebs among you who are unaware of the seminal figures from the punk era, Hell is a rock legend, founder of the band Television and later The Heartbreakers, then the leader of his short-lived band Richard Hell and the Voidoids, which in 1977 released their first album entitled “The Blank Generation” (followed by “Destiny Street”). He was dressing in torn T-shirts studded with safety pins and spiked hair before the Sex Pistols did, which is why their impresario, Malcolm McLaren, had them adopt Hell’s style. He is the author of several books and has written for various periodicals over the years.

Hell was also one of the major figures included in the Metropolitan Museum’s show Punk: Chaos to Couture last spring, though he was reluctant to be a part of “rich people’s expensive status symbols” — his comment in The New Yorker. The comprehensive catalogue for the exhibit included an essay by Hell; his words demonstrated a prediction that the Punk exhibit would be a disappointment. “There’s something inherently sad about clothes in themselves, and fashion, no matter how lovely or effective. Clothes are empty,” he wrote.

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Pat Ivers at CBGB (courtesy Emily Armstrong)

Hell’s publication of the paperback version of his autobiography and ensuing book tour coincided with Punk Turns Forty, a conference held March 22 at Cooper Union and organized by Marvin J. Taylor, the Director of the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University. (NB: The 40-year dating is derived from the first gig of Hell’s band, Television, at CBGBs in 1974.)

On stage in Cooper’s Great Hall, Hell was interviewed on stage by Pitchfork editor Brandon Stosuy. Speaking in his eloquent hipster mumble, Hell spoke about the Ramones and how in the days they were performing in the ’70s and ’80s were considered clowns whereas now they are treated with reverence. He revealed that Hilly Kristel, the owner of CBGBs, had concocted a plan to transport the entire bar intact to Las Vegas but instead wound up selling it.  Afterwards, there was a panel with journalist and musician Vivien Goldman of The Flying Lizards, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, and singer Tamar-kali moderated by philosopher Avital Ronell.

Ahead of the conference, on March 20, the Fales Library at NYU inaugurated the multi-media Go Nightclubbing installation, which recreates 1980′s Video Lounge from the third floor of Danceteria. The move celebrates the acquisition and preservation of more than 200 hours of downtown punk band performances taped by Emily Armstrong and Pat Ivers between 1974-1980, including footage of Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Hell also gave the Fales Library 74 boxes of materials covering the years 1944–2003, for which he was paid the sum of $50,000. According to Fales librarian Marvin Taylor:

The collection is one of the most extensive about the early days of punk and of Richard’s career as a writer, editor, and publisher. The Richard Hell Papers consist of comprehensive documentation of Richard Hell’s career as a poet, novelist, author, publisher, musician, and filmmaker. In addition the collection contains financial and legal documents pertaining to Hell’s publications, and musical career.

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(photo credit: Inez & Vinoodh)

I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is not only a badass and entertaining read, it’s also well written and full of evocative details and vivid characters. The unrepentant tone reminds me of a combination of Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal, the Memoirs of Casanova, and Junkie by William S. Burroughs — for me, that’s high praise. Hell’s writing is refreshingly non-judgmental and includes details that most writers are too polite to mention. It results in a history that has a radical feel to it.  He writes about his drug use unapologetically, although he was able to eventually kick his addictions. “Cocaine itself is like an orgasm shuddering the nervous system for ten or twenty minutes. (Heroin is like sex too, but the postcoital swoon).”

For example, many of his girlfriends were prostitutes, both part- and full-time. “Apparently there was a crepuscular world of drifting girls who would sign on with an escort agency where they landed.” He describes one of his former girlfriends, Liva, as “a Dutch vagabond with a mental age of about nine, temporarily working as a call girl. She had a gold tooth, cheerful attitude, and luscious large snow-white tits and blond pubic hair. She’s found her way from Holland to New York City via Borneo aboard cargo ships. If Cookie was honey, Liva was gold – her front tooth, her glinting nakedness in my sunny living room, her lack of interest in making moral judgments, her generosity and happy disposition.”

Speaking of Cookie, Hell’s characterization of his friend, the late great Cookie Mueller, is endearing: “She called everyboy ‘hon,’ as in ‘honey.’ Her skin was honey, her hair was honey, her writing was honey. The smartest, most bitchy people, like René Ricard and Gary Indiana, loved her because she was purely goodwilled, quick, and nurturing, and she reveled in trashiness, her own and others’, and the throwaway low bon mot (which talent she eventually turned into her memoiristic literature).” For a while, he dated Sid Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen, who met her tragic end when she was found stabbed to death by Vicious in the Chelsea Hotel. Hell labels her a “psycho groupie fiend.”

He’s more charitable in describing “queen of the groupies” Sable Starr as a pubescent trailer-camp drug whore whose mission was to make meaningful rock musicians happy much like “the way someone else might join the Peace Corps. Instead of digging wells and planting crops and offering medical care, she provided pretty and entertaining companionship, astute and sincere encouragement, favorite drugs, and magnificent blow jobs.” There’s lots about the life of Richard Hell that is amazing, in particular how the decades of cocaine and heroin usage has not dulled the brain cells of Richard Hell.

*   *   *

Gerry Visco: Richard, your book is brilliant. It’s really beautifully written. This is the paperback edition. You ended the autobiography in 1984. Do you have plans to do another one?

Richard Hell: No, I don’t plan to. 1984 is what — 30 years ago? I figured I needed that much of a buffer before I could be candid about people and the events. I don’t think it’s too likely I’ll do another. In 30 years I’ll be in my nineties, so I don’t think there’s much chance at all I’ll do a follow-up.

GV: Have you felt within the last year after having published the book, has there been a reaction from the people that you know? Has there been any fallout or anything?

RH: Well, many of them are dead.

GV: That does make it a lot easier.

RH: That was part of the principle of waiting for so long. People are pretty philosophical about things that happened that long ago. I’ve also learned over the years from writing fiction, you tend to use aspects of people you’ve met. You mash up people in the characters you create. Nobody’s ever really happy about the way they’re portrayed. You can worship them, you can glorify them to eternity — from your point of view you can feel that way — and they still feel like they’ve been misrepresented. And I can understand that completely. I’m not saying it’s unjust. In fact, I felt the same way when people talk about me in print. You can’t win because to write about somebody it’s necessary to reduce them. You can’t do them justice. My friends have been really warm about the book. Nobody’s given me a hard time about it. When I wrote about somebody I had a romantic relationship with, if I knew how to get in touch with them, I sent them the passage to make sure they weren’t hurt or thought I was indiscreet or I misrepresented them in any way. If I had actually made a mistake I would correct it. But also if it just bothered them for any reason, I did that so I could change their name in the book … but that didn’t happen. Out of the 7 or 8 people who I showed passages like that to, everybody was fine with it except for one person who had a big problem and one person who had a small problem. I just changed the name. I’ve had it pretty easy; I’m gratified.

GV: It seems like there’s a big interest in that era, what with the Patti Smith book and it seems like the current generation is fascinated by it. Do you feel like they’re a bit naïve as well? With these kids, do you feel like you’re really getting an audience? When people say “I wish I had been alive in ’70s and ’80s — it must have been fabulous!” How do you respond to that?

RH: It’s kind of hard for me to understand because I don’t have the equivalent. When I was a kid, I sure didn’t feel that way about any time in the past. There’s no question that there were a lot more possibilities in those times when I was a teenager, because everything was so much cheaper. But life seemed boring to us then too. You had to take a lot of ambition. It wasn’t because we fell into some spectacular paradise, it’s that we were determined to entertain ourselves and make things out of ourselves. Start bands, start magazines, start art galleries, et cetera, et cetera … and that stuff is still going on. But it was easier then. New York was a kind of desert wasteland. Nobody wanted to be here because it was so crime-ridden and filthy — except the kids who could come here and get cheap apartments and have good ideas.

GV: Obviously, you were taking drugs in those days. Do you find it hard to remember some stuff? It seems like you have a very detailed memory nonetheless.

RH: I had a few advantages. One is that I kept notebooks. I wasn’t really thorough and systematic about it, but I did always keep notebooks. Though I might only write a few pages every few weeks, it was still really useful to see me talk about what I was thinking about, and what I had done that week, and what I had seen that week. And from the earliest band days I was doing a lot of interviews and there were stories being written about my band and stuff, and I have all of that. I have all these records of what I was doing or thinking. I was really scrupulous in writing the book and checking everything.

GV: Having lived such an extraordinary life with ups and down and all, what do you feel about life in 2014? When I read that book I have such nostalgia, but by the same token: here we are in New York City 2014. What do you feel about life today?

RH: Me personally, or the world?

GV: Either one.

RH: I feel really happy in a lot of ways. Most of my life I was looking for the means to carry about my ideas, and now I have all those means. I can do pretty much what I want. I can publish books, and make any kind of public appearance I want to. I have access. So that’s pretty satisfying. I have an idea, I can pretty much be confident that I can carry it out. On the other hand, I’m not as motivated as I once was. When I was a kid, I was so driven to confront the world. Now it doesn’t seem that important anymore. The reason you work is because what else is there to do? [Laughs.] When you’re a kid, you think everything you think is so important. Now I don’t think what I think is that important! [Both laugh.] It’s funny. It kind evens out. When I was a kid and I wanted all this attention and it was hard to get, that was one thing. Now, I have all the attention I want but I don’t care.

GV: You’re enjoying yourself though, still.

RH: Yeah. I’m happy. Life is really interesting. I still get the satisfaction from other people’s work that I always love. I love seeing what books come out, movies, to see art, traveling.

GV: What about the music field? What do you feel about what’s going on in music today?

RH: I’m not too conscious of it really. I don’t keep up with it the way I did in my twenties. It’s a full-time job to keep with it, because it’s become so diffuse and it’s become so easy for people to make music and distribute it and there are so many papers and websites that cover what’s being done. It’s a full-time job to know what’s out there. I only encounter what people bring to my attention. I’m not really on top of it. I feel kind of ignorant about it.

GV: As for the punk anniversary at NYU, it’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years, but is it hard to measure exactly when punk “started?” So-called “punk?”

RH: They’re starting from when the first bands started getting associated with the word “punk,” and it was 1974.

GV: As for the punk exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum last year, you were a key figure in it. I saw an interview that you did about the show. You called it a “Disneyland” experience.

RH: Yeah. I did a few interviews where I talked about that. I remember saying that some more … did you get the catalog?

GV: Yes. I have Costume Institute catalog. There were some well-written essays in there. In fact, the catalog was much better than the exhibit!

RH: [Laughs.] That’s exactly how I felt!

GV: Well, Richard, it was great talking to you. You’re five years older than me and you give me hope for the future.

RH: Thanks a lot, ha ha.

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