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Richard Hell (photo via Flickr/masao nakagami)

I had no expectations when I visited Fales Library at New York University to look at Richard Hell’s papers. Hell is widely credited with having innovated what came to be known as “punk” culture by the mid-1970s. Apart from fashioning a punk cultural vocabulary including spiked hair, ripped jeans and safety-pinned clothes, his music remains a foundational touchstone for punk rockers. The title track of the album Blank Generation (1977), which Hell recorded with The Voidoids, articulated an irreverent sensibility, and playfulness of a generation of youth that came of age during the late-60s and early 70s. Gone was the idealism of 1960s social movements, gone too were social aspirations within the stalled economy. What remained, and what Hell’s work emphasizes, was a sense of resignation, an abandonment of mainstream society and culture, and perhaps most of all a sense of boredom.

The punk rock pioneer deposited his materials at NYU in 2004, and I had since been curious to explore their contents. His journals and notebooks were among the most intriguing items listed in the online guide. Hell kept journals, as he explained elsewhere, “because I didn’t know what else to do with my mind.” This speaks to the bored sentiment that pervaded the genesis of punk culture, but I thought the journals might tell me more. I suspected they would contain reflections of New York City during the early 1970s, and how urban decay might have influenced his art. That was my hope, not expectation.

I found instead (among other things) a deep repository of ideas: metaphysical meditations, raw explorations of the roles of sex and drugs in spiritual life, and musings on the artistic process. Most unexpected was the precociousness of his early journals, from 1969 to 1970. They show Hell, no more than twenty years old, vigorously questioning his role in a world of profound ideas. He sketched an intricate cosmogony of bodily experience, which seems to have fueled his artistic production. The journals show the evolution of his ideas over time, from youthful angst to sophisticated dissections of his artistic practice. “I want to write with the absoluteness of a dead man,” wrote a nineteen-year-old Hell in 1969. “What is is: they can have perfect secrets while naturally maintaining their intimacy with the universe.” These early journals reflect the near mystic nihilism Hell later infused into what came to be known as a punk aesthetic. “I want to be dead… What I love is the freedom of death (attainable while still breathing).”

What does it mean to create? What is the role of an artist in society? We see Hell, in these early journals, grasping for meaning in everyday life, yet with a remarkable acuity, prescient of his later role in helping to fashion an aesthetic movement. “There is no such thing as decadent art. It’s a contradiction in terms,” Hell wrote in the spring of 1970. Artists, young Hell reflected, are “explorers of the frontiers of perception and sense —consciousness.” They are society’s “bullshit detectors,” imbued with the moral responsibility of nudging society in the right direction; yet, they are conscious of the “fatal results of taking a side to the extent that they are bounded by its dogma.” It is this inquiry and self-analysis, which pervade his early journals, that forged the intellectual currents, the ethics and aesthetics that can be traced throughout Hell’s oeuvre.

Yet what stand out are his Hemingway-esque writing prescriptions and experimentations with procedure. “I more or less write in the same way that I eat,” Hell wrote in 1971, “— ignoring the need until it becomes overwhelming, when I gorge myself—with snacks in-between.” Other explanations of his process, like one written in September, 1974, are more formulaic, but still illuminating: “My best procedure — to know I’m writing — is to think of my heroes — spread around me good books and pictures. It’s like squeezing a lemon. Have a bottle of wine.” Writing, for this forerunner of punk rock, was a matter of developing attitude. Such an attitude, however it is manifested, is a “result of perceiving a void,” intellectual or otherwise, in which the artist might shape new ideas.

We see Hell playing with free-association, ostensibly influenced by William Burroughs’s cut-up poetry: “Write one good, interesting line,” Hell jotted in 1969, “then title it with a line of equal length that seems as far from the word titles as possible. Experiment in this line.” His handwriting is messy, at times barely legible. He preferred to print on a typewriter, a mode he thought contributed to the development of his style. “Must always remember to let no conventions interfere with the writing,” he wrote again in 1969, “as the typewriter reminds — remember again to believe yourself — remember that the reverse of everything I say is true.” Such Borgesian absurdity and contrariness is later evident in songs like “Blank Generation,” from the 1977 album of the same name, “That’s All I Know (Right Now),” written with Tom Verlaine in the early 1970s with the Neon Boys, and “Kid with the Replicable Head,” released in 1978 with the Voidoids. These songs, moreover, illustrate the irony of punk logic. “The art of plagiarism,” Hell wrote in the winter of 1974, “simpering wimps alone use quotation marks.” It was at this time that Hell and Verlaine first approached Hilly Kristal, the owner of CBGBs, with a proposal to play in his club. They subsequently became regular performers, and helped lay a foundation for the nascent punk scene. Read alongside his music, Richard Hell’s journals help us understand the formation of punk culture as an intellectual as much as an aesthetic movement. From this quote we might see the outlaw attitude Hell and other punks incorporated into their personas. Nevertheless, the division between Hell’s literary and musical development dissolves. Punk rock cannot be understood without understanding its underlying intellectual development.

Much of Richard Hell’s thought and art were derived from bodily experience. His writings exhibit an interest in the corporeal beauty of everyday life, however decadent or flowery. Direct experience, for Hell, was a yardstick of artistic integrity. The difference between mere “literature” and art, accordingly, is a matter of phenomenology. Where the former might portray a specific reaction to an experience, like a “description of a fight that gives the reader the sense of being punched in the jaw,” art is the experience; “the reader is punched in the jaw and feels his own spontaneous reaction to being hit.” Hell’s emphasis). From passages like these I began to understand the literary nature of Hell’s punk performances. His songs were not merely songs, but means of probing and articulating the human experience.

“I am sick of thought,” Hell wrote in the winter of 1976. “I want something palpable and beautiful. But nothing a human can do is palpable. The history of art is men consoling themselves in the face of this fact. What remains are drugs and sex.” Bodies, for Hell, are conduits to the spiritual. Sex, he wrote in 1979, “is just the name for all the ways it’s possible for a human to transcend himself by unhesitatingly devoting his being to another human.” In this way, one’s self becomes an amalgamation of “whatever number of bodies and souls” at the moment of “absolute surrender to the other.” Sex (and drugs), for Hell, seems almost synonymous with art and love; all are means of realizing God – “By God I mean the sum of existence that includes human consciousness.” And love, Hell wrote in 1974, is “really eternal when you’re full of heroin.”

Richard Hell in 2008 (photo by David Shankbone)

Hell’s journals reframe the popular image of a gritty, anti-intellectual New York punk scene of the early 1970s, showing, rather, a depth of intellectual innovation during that time. What I discovered was a cache of ideas, and a chronology of Hell’s intellectual development. Early punk rockers were young musicians, but also philosophers, and writers, artists in every sense, attempting to make sense of their world, during a time of tremendous political, economic, and social transformation. In Richard Hell’s journals I found a raging current of thought, about which very little has been written. Critics and historians have lauded Hell for his fashion and musical contributions to punk culture, but not yet for the literary and intellectual development underlying this work. Exploring Richard Hell’s journals I found out how much I didn’t know about the so-called “Blank Generation.” It is evermore clear, however, that historians of the 1970s certainly have their work cutout for them. “Creation” is an “act of will,” Hell wrote in 1976, the invention of an “attitude for myself toward anything. It’s as if every attitude I’ve ever manifested was a result of perceiving a void which I would shape an idea it fit.” Music and fashion comprise only part of an attitude. Hell’s journals, perhaps, outline a void in the meaning in punk culture.

In addition to NYU’s Downtown Collection, where Richard Hell’s papers are stored, Cornell University is currently cataloguing its own Punk Collection with materials from various artists from 1974 to 1986. To inaugurate this collection, Cornell is hosting Punkfest Cornell: Anarchy in the Archives (November 1-5), with performances and talks with punk rockers like Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, as well as John Doe, and Pussy Riot among others.

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Ryan Donovan Purcell

Ryan is an urban historian currently pursuing a PhD in American History at Cornell University. He looks specifically at punk and hip-hop cultures in New York City during the early 1970s. Outside of academia Ryan is a Public Scholar at the New...