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When Richard Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp was published two years ago, it got a lot of favorable notice, but I never really thought the book — an account of the writer’s life up to about 1984 — was properly understood. It was reviewed as a rock memoir, which was good for the book in a way, since it probably drew more readers under that guise than if they’d realized they were buying an impeccable literary artifact. It had the requisites — sex and drugs and rock and roll — but I can’t be the only one who noticed that, nonetheless, it was a different kind of story altogether: music wasn’t really the point, or at least not the whole point. Rather, Tramp was the story of how a poet came to realize that his poetic impulse might be channeled into rock music, and then how he came out the other side of his musical adventure as someone who would, after all, express his poetry through words alone (albeit primarily in prose). It’s essentially an account of the vicissitudes of a developing aesthetic.
Now Hell has come out with another book, and it’s one that’s probably even more prone to misunderstanding. Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001-2014 is from one point of view a catchall gathering of miscellaneous writings, like a CD of b-sides, remixes, and live tracks, strictly for completists. It ranges from the formally “finished” essays with which it begins — a magisterial reading of Robert Bresson’s 1977 film The Devil, Probably, and a surprising and instructive compare-and-contrast between the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones — to brief movie reviews and eulogies for friends outlived; there are meditations on sadness, cunnilingus, underrated writers and other things that make life worth living, and scripts for talks on literary and other topics; at least one of these, an overview of Nathaniel West, is really an anthology of linked quotations more than what many people would consider a proper piece of Hell’s own writing.
And yet there is a secret unity to Massive Pissed Love that makes it more than a grab bag, and for that matter there are also implicit connections between it and Tramp that give the careful reader a glimpse of the bigger project of which they are both parts. Massive Pissed Love is a book of fragments, but in the sense handed down to us by the Romantics — for instance Friedrich Schlegel, who, in a passage I am always happy to quote (from his Athenaeum Fragment, 1798-1800) observes, “A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a porcupine,” and at once “completely subjective and original” and “completely objective, physically and morally necessary.” In other words, it is the fragment’s capacity to be at once completely subjective — a reflection of the author’s unique viewpoint—and completely objective, self-contained. Hell quotes Nicholas Ray: “I never think of a film as doing anything except providing a heightened sense of being.” These may be just fragments, mostly, but they are fragments of being.
Contrary to the legend of Romantic individualism, all the great Romantics conceived of their projects as potentially collaborative or collective endeavors. That’s why a rock band, from a certain point of view, is an ideal vehicle for poetry. The heart of Tramp is the story of Hell’s friendship and rivalry with Tom Verlaine, leading to the formation of their band the Neon Boys, arguably the first New York punk band, which morphed into Television, from which Verlaine eventually pushed Hell out. Hell and Verlaine were a necessary combination, but a completely unstable one, because Verlaine’s aesthetic was fundamentally musical while Hell’s was poetic. The book’s center is the band’s first performance as Television, March 2, 1974:
It worked; we were stunning, if rackety. I knew that everyone in the audience had gotten way more than their money’s worth. Then I saw Tom’s face when we were back offstage, and for a minute I really didn’t understand. Then he said something, and I hated him. He was going to treat the show as an embarrassment, as humiliation. As nothing but an indication of how far short we were of what we should be.
Hell tries to retain hope that Verlaine “could reawaken to the larger possibilities,” but Verlaine had different possibilities in mind. The book’s epilogue is a sighting of Verlaine — a sighting in the sense that one might speak of sighting a UFO or a great whale—and it’s a “spot of time” in Wordsworth’s sense, where moments strangely overlap, an event that happened “the other night” being also one that happened “forty-two years ago, in 1969.”
Massive Pissed Love, in certain ways, contains as many clues to the possibilities in Hell’s aesthetic as the ostensibly more coherent and unified book that preceded it. It’s probably as close as we’ll get, for some time at least, to an account of the thirty years of Hell’s thinking since he gave up music (and drugs). “People like a writer’s writing because they like a writer’s company,” he writes in a tribute to his and everyone’s favorite rock critic, Lester Bangs. But he also quotes Mallarmé on Baudelaire: “Like an atmospheric element we must breathe even if it kills us.” So there are at least two different ways of enjoying a writer: as companionable, or as poisonous. In either case, it’s personal. Hell’s is a politique des auteurs to the extent that his fascination with a book, a film, a record is always at least the beginning (and sometimes the outcome) of a fascination with a writer, a director, a musician. Which is my way of enjoying Hell? Closer to the Bangs way than the Baudelaire way, probably. But there is also what you might call a professional dimension to my interest that — not unlike the fascinated sniffing for toxins in the atmosphere — keep me on alert and my interest not too cozy: Hell has found an aesthetic of prose I think I can learn from, so in reading him, I always have an eye out for what might be useful to me.
Part of what I admire about Hell’s writing is that it is, to a rare degree, without pretense. He never pretends to know more than he really does or to be more certain of what he does know than he is. But by the same token he never wallows in doubt or false humility. Instead, he always seems clear within himself regarding the degree to which he stands behind what he is saying at any moment — tentative about this, absolutely convinced of that. Another way to put it: He is always there in his writing, which is only “punk” in that — according to his definition of the latter — “it’s like reality itself, as exemplified by the statement, ‘This sentence is a lie.’” Which brings me to the fact that Hell is healthily skeptical of the legend of punk — “doomed to be appreciated strictly by connoisseurs” — and even of the significance in his own central place in it: “The single most influential thing I’ve done was my haircut.” (So much the worse for influence. But in fact after reading a recent review of a Brazilian musician called Negro Leo, I googled him and was surprised to find that I could hear something of Hell’s singing style — even spikier than his hairstyle — still echoing through the voice of a singer born on the other side of the equator around the time that Hell himself was giving up music.)
It’s through Jean-Luc Godard, more than anyone else, that Hell articulates his aesthetic of fragments: Godard, he says, “makes works like superior notebooks.” What is a notebook? It is a book that can in principle contain everything. It is not exactly the same as a diary or journal, which would be strictly personal (or, rather, self-referential), though it probably includes many of the same kinds of notations found in a journal. A notebook is implicitly compiled in preparation for other uses, for more thoroughly finished works. However, when the “work” is already in itself a notebook, or in any case “like” a notebook, then something strange happens: it loses its outward formal architecture and adopts a merely implicit sense of connectivity among its parts. And even though the work need not thereby become overtly autobiographical or diaristic, it becomes personal in the sense that its logic becomes, as Schlegel said, “subjective and original.” In writing about his own work, Hell floats the idea that notebooks “are the ultimate art form.” As Schlegel said, “Many of the very best novels are compendia. Encyclopedias of the whole spiritual life of a brilliant individual.” He might have been predicting the great novelist born a century later, Marcel Proust, who, though not the subject of any of these essays, would appear to be Hell’s ideal as a writer. As he reminds us, Proust considers that “every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself.” This, finally, is the reason why a great book must be a compendium of fragments: because writing and reading are, equally, modes of experiencing the self — and the self can never be experienced as a whole, except obliquely, through an accumulation of partial aspects each of which might even be, in itself, a kind of lie.
Earlier, I compared Massive Pissed Love to one of those CD compilations of an artist’s stray tracks, intended for completists only. I am a Richard Hell completist (and I recommend that you become one) because I think that a gathering of his literary fragments adds up to one of those Schlegelesque “encyclopedias of the whole spiritual life of a brilliant individual.” That life speaks of itself in the space between sentences as much as in the sentences themselves. May I tell you about my favorite moment in the book? Hell is writing about the Rolling Stones. He understands very well how, in their early years, the Stones blatantly, even almost slavishly imitated the black blues musicians who inspired them, yet also, perhaps inadvertently, Mick Jagger’s “adolescently fresh-voiced snotty-kid defiance […] mixed up with of all things a lisping femininity,” invented something “completely ‘rock and roll.’” Hell recognizes what he calls their corruption, the fact that “you can only play that music if you don’t give a fuck […] never worrying about restraining your evil influences anymore.” He surveys this depravity and recalls that the Stones’s sources, the likes of Chuck Berry and Charlie Patton, each had it too in his own way. Robert Johnson, he reminds us, sold his soul to the devil. And so, Hell concludes, “Nothing is pure in this world.”
Or rather, he doesn’t conclude there. And this is where he amazes me. There’s one more paragraph, and it begins with that same statement, only now in quotation marks: “’Nothing is pure in this world.’” He puts his own conclusion at a distance, and then reflects on it: “There are those who revel in that perception and take it as a license. I am not among them.” He does not revoke the lesson he took from the Stones — as a perception, it is valid — but refuses to take it as a foundation for his actions. What comes between “Nothing is pure in this world” and “’Nothing is pure in this world’” is time, the time between an insight and the awareness of what and what not to do with it. It’s time that reveals that this sentence is a lie.