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Punk poet
Richard Hell’s words and music

It’s been said that war is Hell, life is Hell, even that love is Hell. Taxes and Boston traffic are, of course, Hell. And Pat Benatar proclaimed that Hell is not just for the souls of the damned but also for children.

But for first-generation punk-rockers, there’s only one Hell that counts. That’s Richard Hell, who was born Richard Meyers in Lexington, Kentucky, before moving to Manhattan in 1966 to recast himself. Meyers changed his name, hair, dress, and attitude after a few years of cold apprenticeship in the Big City, putting himself on a creative path that he still follows. This fall, Hell released his third book, the career- and œuvre-encompassing collection Hot and Cold: Essays, Poems, Lyrics, Notebooks, Pictures, Fiction (powerHouse), which describes itself. Now he’s just issued its musical companion, Time (Matador). The two-CD set embraces his salad days, from 1975 basement sessions with the Heartbreakers to unreleased live recordings with his defining punk outfit Richard Hell & the Voidoids to 1984 tracks from New Orleans that include former Meters drummer Ziggy Modeliste. Hell has several collections of poetry in print, and his novels The Voidoid (from CodeX; written in 1973) and Go Now (Scribner) were published in 1996 and ’97. He’s also made occasional film appearances, his most notable screen turn being in director Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens. But he hasn’t made music for almost a decade. His last recording was 1992’s Dim Stars (Caroline), which was also the name of his short-lived band with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley and Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine.

Nonetheless, the work documented in Hot and Cold and Time ensures that Richard Hell will never be forgotten by old punks and exes. And he will be perpetually rediscovered by young music fans because of "Blank Generation," a song on 1977’s Richard Hell & the Voidoids (Sire) that harnessed the spirit of early punk’s nihilism and confrontation, of the original punk generation’s rejection of conventions and its insistence upon reinventing itself much as Hell had done. "I was sayin’ let me outta here before I was even born/It’s such a gamble when you get a face," the song begins. He sings on: "The nurse adjusted her garters as I breathed my first/The doctor grabbed my throat and yelled, ‘God’s consolation prize.’ " Then there’s the chorus, which made the song an anthem: "I belong to the blank generation/And I can take it or leave it each time."

"Right from the title that song is trying to stand for something," Hell, now 53, explains over the phone from his New York City home. "I liked the idea of genre songs. I liked the Who’s first album and thought of songs like Carl Perkins’s ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ as numbers that set apart the generation of kids at the time from everybody else in attitude. Tom Verlaine [Hell’s high-school friend and co-founder of the band Television] had this kitschy single by Rod McKuen called ‘I Belong to the Beat Generation.’ It used this descending chord progression that’s sort of standard for Ray Charles’s ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ and 20 other songs. So as a funny inside reference we copped that chord progression and I wrote the song. I wanted to describe the way things felt to me, as distinct from the adults. The idea was that we were gonna supplant the Beat Generation, which is actually what ended up happening."

As Hell points out, and as the diverse writings and drawings in Hot and Cold illustrate, back then punk wasn’t a sound but a rich, creative lifestyle. "I see punk as more an approach to doing work in all media. It’s the opposite of a formula, whether it’s clothes or painting or film or music. Bands exist now, and existed then, too, who are just sort of adopting a formula and calling it punk. They’re picking up on the superficial stylistic qualities of it rather than the whole message, which is to believe in your own sensibility and make everything up from scratch.

"There’s a lot of clichés about punk that don’t hold true. Especially about the music. Like the concept of anybody being able to do it. Although I think there’s some validity to that, it becomes a matter of degree. I think that Robert Quine and Tom Verlaine would agree with me that what’s interesting in the music is stuff that is done with some kind of sophistication. We sure all did believe in the spirit of explosiveness in the best rock music. That’s not about virtuosity. Quine is way into Link Wray, Ritchie Valens, Iggy Pop — stuff a lot of people think is crude. All of those people, who the larger number of music listeners think of as being primitive, are in fact extremely sophisticated, too. Certainly anybody with any experience as a musician knows how subtle and sophisticated Link Wray is. And so is Quine. When we first came along with the Voidoids, some people thought of what he did as just noise. But time and the music that’s come after has proved that he’s unique for his sophistication as a guitar player. Especially for the sort of solo-burst playing he does on my records."

Long before Hell hitched up with any of his notable bandmates — guitarists Quine and Ivan Julian of the Voidoids, Television’s Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, the Heartbreakers’ Johnny Thunders, and Television drummer Billy Ficca — he came to New York alone to be a writer. "It was Christmas, 1966 — the very tail end of the year — and I arrived with a hundred bucks, and by the time the holidays were over, I’d spent it celebrating. I’d just turned 17. I was a complete hayseed, and here I was without a cent in New York, with no place to stay, and I didn’t know anybody. So I ended up getting a job as a stock boy at Macy’s in one day, and I begged everybody in the department to take me in until I could get money for an apartment. When I was a kid, my grandmother had lived in New York, in an area that I now realize is the most congenial part of the whole city, the West Village. So I thought that was what all of New York was like, but it’s only like that for about two blocks. [He laughs.] The rest of it was well beyond anything I could have dreamed. The guy who let me stay at his place until I saved up money for my own had only one bed. It was big, anyway, but I had to share it with him. And he was a heavy drinker, too, so he used to come in late at night and vomit in bed. It was literally a rude awakening!"

Hell found his way in the city and even found his way into print, working day jobs no more than six weeks at a time. "When I got enough money to pay for a month’s rent in advance and had $50 in my pocket, I’d quit and try not to work as long as I possibly could." Things changed in 1974 when Verlaine moved to New York and convinced Hell he could learn the rudiments of bass as they wrote material and formed a band. That group, the Neon Boys, never got much beyond a few demos because of their inability to find a second guitarist. Still, quite a few of the songs Hell wrote in 1974 followed him through Television, the Heartbreakers, and the Voidoids. And they surface again as lyric poetry in Hot and Cold.

So Richard Hell has made his mark on rock history and come full circle. "Initially, my whole intention was to write. Today, what I’m really about is trying to put taste and smell and perceptions — trying to translate everything — into words."

Issue Date: April 25 - May 2, 2002
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