Richard Hell after Lexington
On the Lower East Side of New York City, toward the end of the 1970s, the shimmer of disco was giving way to a defiant slovenliness: young people were tearing t-shirts to bits, sticking safety pins in everything, chopping their hair off and fashioning whatever was left over into cuspated little halos. “It was something you had to do yourself, and something that flaunted its freedom from propriety, even from stylishness,” author and musician Richard Hell wrote in his 2013 memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. The material record of the era backs this up. In grainy street photographs, the ones that were later collated into expensive art books, punks stumble about the Bowery looking both purposefully and actually undone; the membrane between artfully mussed and literally wounded (by heroin, by homelessness, by depression) was thin. The look, so much as it could be abbreviated to a sentiment, was “Fuck you.”
Punk rock, maybe more than any other genre of music, has been retroactively reduced to the particulars of its aesthetic. This rattles purists, who would prefer to hold forth on nearly any other aspect of the music, but it seems entirely possible, if not likely, that punk was always subsumed by aesthetics— that it was, in fact, a look first and a musical practice second. Hell, a founding member of Television, and later the frontman of his own band, the Voidoids, is singularly responsible for devising and flaunting several of punk’s most enduring visual signifiers: the ripped clothing, the safety pins, and the spiked haircut, to start. Now, those objects—“Signs of forbidden identity, sources of value,” Dick Hebdige suggests in Subculture: The Meaning of Style—have been aggressively institutionalized. They’re parsed in academic anthologies, feted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, ripped off by fast-fashion chains, and peddled from mall kiosks. Hebdige believes that, in the context of a particular time and place, benign doodads like safety pins “take on symbolic dimension, becoming a form of stigmata, tokens of a self-imposed exile.” But exile from what?
That Hell was born and raised not in some dark and edgy urban enclave but in the rolling hills of Lexington, Kentucky, can feel incongruous. It’s too soft, where he comes from—too genteel. Yet having emerged from a region Hell considers a Nowhere—not in the ugly or pejorative sense, but in the empty sense, a place that was just like any other place, a blank place—allowed for wild self-creation later on. These are ideas that repeat for Hell: blankness, voids. He is someone who understands how to make something from nothing.
Hell was born in Lexington in the fall of 1949, as Richard Lester Meyers. His father, a secular Jew, was an experimental psychologist and a professor at the University of Kentucky; he died when Hell was just seven years old. (His mother was also a psychologist, and later an English professor.) Hell liked John Ford and Howard Hawks movies, cap-gun six-shooters, Flash Gordon, The Three Musketeers—regular, suburban American boy stuff. But by the time he’d reached high school, he was antsy, anxious, hungry for anything else. “I hated the raw oppression of being a kid once I became self-aware,” he writes in I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. The stringency of school didn’t suit him: “Those monstrous, snouted, yolk-colored school buses, with their rotten black lettering, symbolized loneliness and humiliation.” At seventeen, midway through his senior year at Sanford Preparatory School in Delaware, Hell dropped out and started hitchhiking toward Florida with a classmate named Tom Miller. Along the way, they drank hot coffee in all-night diners and dreamed of “girls who smelled like suntan lotion and had little particles of sand on them here and there.” He and Miller made it all the way to southeastern Alabama before getting nabbed by the cops and boomeranged back to Sanford Prep.
On the day after Christmas, 1966, Hell took off again, this time for New York. He got a job as a stock boy at Macy’s and moved into an apartment on the corner of Irving Place and 14th Street. He and a friend—“a young Puerto Rican coworker with a big Afro”—split the rent, which was $20 a week. His room contained a bed, a closet, a sink, and a little table.
Hell reluctantly cites William Carlos Williams as an early influence on his writing. “I thought if he could make it with a few white chickens, a wet red wheelbarrow, and some cold plums in the icebox, I could sure damn well make it too,” he jokes in his memoir. Ultimately, he came to share Williams’s facility for the artful ordering of objects. His descriptions of his early days in the city are kinetic, thick with detail: “We lived above a Horn and Hardart automat—a cafeteria where you could also buy pie slices and macaroni and deep-fried fish fillets from little windows in the wall, like fancy coin-operated post office boxes that contained food.”
Back then, Hell’s desire to write books was strong, even transformative, but he wasn’t actually doing much writing. “I was only a writer because I conceived of myself as one,” is how he put it. He took jobs at some of the city’s most iconic bookstores—Gotham Book Mart, the Strand—and started his own literary journal, Genesis : Grasp. Miller, who had also moved to New York, changed his last name to Verlaine; he and Hell became closer. (“Our mentalities got intermixed,” Hell notes.) In 1972, they started a band—the Neon Boys. Later, Hell would write a little biography for each of the band’s members. He described himself this way: “Chip on shoulder. Mama’s Boy. No personality. High school dropout. Mean.”
Decades later, after his musical career quieted down, Hell would work steadily as a critic and novelist, publishing articles about film, art, books, and culture in places like the New York Times, Esquire, and Bookforum; the best of these pieces were culled, in 2015, for a collection titled Massive Pissed Love. Hell remains one of my favorite writers on culture, in part because his priorities are just slightly askew, divorced from both established wisdom and the slapdash whims of the mainstream press. In a recent piece for the Village Voice, he referred to an essay by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin as “daffy.” In a different piece for the Voice, he described the critic Richard Meltzer as “execrable and excremental.” In an email to me, he called Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises “a terrible book . . . the guy is really off-putting and furthermore all the stylistic stuff he’s famous for had already been done, better, by young Joyce and by Gertrude Stein.” But it’s Hell’s music writing that gets to me the most. This bit, from I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, is one of the best distillations I’ve encountered of my own proclivities as a listener: “I love a racket. I love it when it seems like a group is slipping in and out of phase, when something lags and then slides into a pocket, like hitting the number on a roulette wheel, a clatter, like the sound of the Johnny Burnette trio, like galloping horses’ hooves. It’s like a baby learning how to walk, or a little bird just barely avoiding a crash to the dirt, or two kids losing their virginity. It’s awkward but it’s riveting, and uplifting and funny.”
All of Hell’s work hews to this idea—that art should be messy, sad, and hilarious. In 1972, when he was twenty-three, he began the long and deliberate process of devising a look for the Neon Boys, beginning with himself. “I arrived at the haircut by analysis,” he admits. He wanted something that approximated a kid who had been given a crew cut, but then let it go ragged, “because kids don’t like going to barbers.” He also decided to change his surname, quickly landing on Hell. “I liked it as soon as I thought of it . . . it captured my condition.”
The whole history of popular music is rife with these sorts of reinventions, in which a young person eschews his or her birth name, engineers a new appearance, and assumes a particular attitude. Nearly every artistically significant pop musician of the last century (from Bob Dylan to Prince to Madonna to David Bowie to Lady Gaga) has enacted some version of this process. “Reinvention” never quite seems like the best word for it. I suppose it is an actualization—the realization of some latent identity, the emergence of a self-made truth.
Around the same time, Hell was learning how to play bass on a copper-colored used Danelectro model that he bought for $50; he was starting to write melodies and lyrics. While the Neon Boys searched for a second guitarist—Dee Dee Ramone auditioned but didn’t have the chops—Hell chugged bottles of cough syrup, experimented with heroin, and worked at Cinemabilia, a movie-ephemera shop on 13th Street. In 1973, with the help of manager and producer Terry Ork, guitarist Richard Lloyd joined the band. The Neon Boys became Television. In 1974, the group played its second-ever show, at CBGB, just months after Hilly Kristal, a forty-three-year-old ex- Marine, had converted the old Palace Bar into a club. It was the beginning of everything: Patti Smith, Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, the Cramps, and Suicide all followed.
Though there were precursors—the Stooges and the MC5 in Detroit, to start—fans looking to isolate a precise date of conception for punk rock will often point to that first Television appearance. The band looked like street kids, and they made a lot of noise—it was as if a piece of industrial equipment were slowly disassembling onstage. In Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s oral history of punk (the book was named after a t-shirt Hell had fashioned for himself, on which he’d written the words please kill me), Hell describes the band’s singularity: “We were really unique. There was not another rock and roll band in the world with short hair. There was not another rock and roll band with torn clothes. Everybody was still wearing glitter and women’s clothes. We were these notch-thin, homeless hoodlums, playing really powerful, passionate, aggressive music that was also lyrical.”
Malcolm McLaren, later the manager of the Sex Pistols, was taken with Hell’s whole presence onstage. “I just thought Richard Hell was incredible,” he admits in Please Kill Me. “And this look, this image of this guy, this spiky hair, everything about it—there was no question that I’d take it back to London. By being inspired by it, I was going to imitate it and transform it into something more English.” Back in the U.K., McLaren and the designer Vivienne Westwood opened the wildly influential Chelsea boutique SEX, which became a nexus for the British punk scene (they sold extra-tight trousers, thick-soled shoes called brothel creepers, and torn t-shirts, often featuring anarchist slogans).
Patti Smith, in her memoir, Just Kids, also recalled the strange alchemy of that first Television show, all the ways in which it felt fated: “As the band played on you could hear the whack of the pool cue hitting the balls, the saluki [Kristal’s dog] barking, bottles clinking, the sounds of a scene emerging. Though no one knew it, the stars were aligning, the angels were calling.”
But in 1975, Hell abruptly left Television— he and Verlaine weren’t getting along anymore. “Tom got horrible, man,” is how he recalled the situation in Please Kill Me. Verlaine was cultivating an air of bookish gravity—his heroes were Arthur Rimbaud, Bob Dylan. Hell was goofier than Verlaine, and liked to drink.
Soon, Hell teamed up with Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, who had recently quit the New York Dolls, and the three of them formed a new group, the Heartbreakers. “We did a photo session before we even did a rehearsal,” Hell wrote (he later described the pictures as “pimply, frayed, windblown”). Still, this situation wasn’t quite right, either— Hell wanted to lead his own band. He left the Heartbreakers in 1976 and partnered with guitarist Robert Quine, guitarist Ivan Julian, and drummer Marky Ramone. They began to perform around New York as Richard Hell and the Voidoids.
This year, the Voidoids’ debut LP, Blank Generation, will celebrate its fortieth anniversary. A forthcoming two-disc reissue includes audio of the Voidoids’ first show, at CBGB, in November of 1976. They would eventually get tighter as a band—Hell points to a month-long British tour with the Clash, during which they honed their stage personas and playing—but I suspect nothing is more pure or cathartic than that very first show. They played “Love Comes in Spurts,” a song that encapsulates Hell’s lovable crassness, but something else, too—there’s a through line to all of Hell’s work, an intention to always minimize the space between the feeling and the art, to ensure that whatever’s on the page or the tape feels as close as possible to the emotion that incited it. The results are often feral, intimate. “Love comes in spurts / in dangerous flirts,” he sings, “and it murders your heart, they didn’t tell you that part, baby!” Love is thrilling, but it’s cancerous and consumptive, too. Hell sings it with the hysterical fervor of a person who has learned this lesson the hard way.
In an essay Hell wrote to accompany the new release, he talks about how early critics called Blank Generation solipsistic and nihilistic. He cops to the first, but the second descriptor bothers him: “That was accurate about me too, that I thought that way, but what I resented was the implication that I was advocating it, that I was waving it like a flag. I wasn’t; I was suffering from it.”
“Blank Generation,” the album’s title track, is probably still Hell’s best-known work. (It appears on this magazine’s 2006 music issue compilation.) It opens, like most of the Voidoids’ songs, with a few seconds of clanging guitar chords, some drums. Then Hell starts to sing: “I was sayin’ let me out of here before I was even born,” he yelps. “It’s such a gamble when you get a face.” I can’t think of another opening couplet that’s quite as explicit about its author’s foundational desires and fears: to be given a body is to be made indelible, real. It anchors you on Earth.
Along with the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “Blank Generation” is, for me, a kind of punk apotheosis, a pinnacle: it’s quick, insouciant, impetuous, and free. My favorite part is when the band briefly drops out on the first instance of the word “blank.” It’s hard, otherwise, to convey the dolor in Hell’s high, elastic voice, all that desperation and ache, a yearning for something—anything—else. (The second blank is, of course, blank—Hell doesn’t sing it at all.)
People were quick to ascribe intentionality to the song’s lyrics, to position it as an anthem, a generation’s credo. “I belong to the blank generation,” Hell seethed. “I can take it or leave it each time.” But what did he mean? Under McLaren’s counsel, the Sex Pistols eventually wrote a response to “Blank Generation,” a sarcastic indictment of punk (and misconceptions of punk) called “Pretty Vacant.” But Hell talks about the song in more personal terms, as a self-portrait of sorts, an admission of spiritual anonymity. “It was a rejection of the flower children and an expression of numbness and the hope of self-reinvention,” he writes in the reissue notes.
I tend to think of it as a song primarily about the fifties, about coming of age in a country that was delocalizing, becoming more anodyne and less distinct. In that emptiness— a pinging void—there is the possibility for a big bang, for Creation.
In late July, I met Hell for an interview at his apartment in the East Village. He lives on the fifth floor of a classic New York City tenement—the kind with a bathtub in the kitchen and black-and-white penny tiles in all the common spaces. He has lived there since 1975.
After I buzzed, Hell met me in the hallway, barefoot and wearing a white V-neck t-shirt. He is sixty-seven now but appears decades younger: his eyes, wide and doleful, are the only weary part of his face. I suspect they have always been that way. His living room is banked by floor-to-ceiling bookcases, mostly containing poetry volumes: Rilke, Lowell, O’Hara, Koch, Schuyler. There is a print on the wall that says SLAVE. He poured us both tall glasses of iced coffee. “The strong kind—Café Bustelo,” he warned.
Autobiography is always its own kind of performance. But Hell’s memoir is remarkably candid—it’s as if he simply turned on a tap and let it run. There’s a great deal of sex in the book—some of it thrilling, some of it bleak—and very little romantic love, though Hell does write beautifully about the French singer and writer Lizzy Mercier. They were never quite together, not in the sustained or traditional sense. She had a boyfriend and didn’t speak English, and Hell didn’t much believe in love back then, only chemistry. “We were dreams of each other,” he writes. “The dream took place in instants, or substrata.”
Still, Hell was seized by some extrasensory notion that they were, in some metaphysical and inexpungible way, destined. His writing about her has unusual warmth: “Lizzy and I didn’t need to know much more about each other than that we belonged together.” The connection was instantaneous, piercing, and ill-fated. Almost a decade after they met, Hell and Mercier were briefly engaged; Hell slept with someone else. She quickly found out about it and left him. It’s one of a few moments in the book in which he expresses unequivocal regret. “I had shown myself to be a fluttering wisp of no use except as a source of pain and pathetic irritation.” (He went on to marry Patty Smyth, of the rock band Scandal, in 1985, and then Sheelagh Bevan, an art curator, in 2002; Mercier died, of cancer, in 2004.)
I asked him if there were times in the writing of I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp when he doubted his own memories, or found himself interrogating certain experiences, trying to recapture them, to free them from the warping effect of reconsideration. He thought about it. “You’re in this moment,” he finally said. “And you can try to reach back and catch some previous moment. But you don’t really have a sense of the whole picture. And I was curious. I wanted to see if I listed it all, what it would look like.”
The Voidoids released one more record, Destiny Street, in 1982. Hell was pretty strung out on cocaine by then. He asked that the lights be dimmed in the studio so he could sing in the dark. Robert Palmer, then a pop music critic at the Times, compared Hell’s lyrics to foundational work by Smokey Robinson and Chuck Berry, writing, “This is rock poetry at its best—insightful, felicitously phrased, and to the point.” Destiny Street is a passionate and intermittently moving record—especially “Time,” a jangly and melancholic self-indictment, which opens with the line “Time and time again I knew what I was doing, and time and time again I just made things worse.” I wonder, each time I hear it, if he is singing about Mercier.
Hell later said all he could recognize on Destiny Street was “indifference and self-destruction, fatalism and raw mania.” The album certainly has a lawless, careening feel. If you put it on at the right time of night— maybe after you’ve left a party without telling anyone goodbye—it can sound like true annihilation, as if Hell wanted to dismember the persona he’d constructed and inhabited for Blank Generation, as if that character had let him down, emptied him out. Not long after its release, Hell stopped playing music full time and began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The program worked for him. (Not all his friends and colleagues were so lucky: In 2004, Robert Quine, his old bandmate, committed suicide via heroin overdose.)
I was eager to talk to Hell about the first life he was born into—about why he left Kentucky and never went back, and, especially, about what leaving means. The first chapter of I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp details how bland he found Lexington, the way his childhood felt rootless, unspecified. “I’m a little jealous of people with strong ethnic and cultural roots,” he writes.
“When and where I grew up—it was such generic suburbia,” Hell said. We were sitting with our coffee at an old wooden table pushed up against a wall in his living room. “Things were starting to become homogenized in America. Everybody’s shopping centers looked the same. Suburban streets all looked the same. All the contact with the country came from television more than fish fries.” He paused. “Kids who come to New York to have adventures and make a life for themselves— they’re choosing to leave their boring origins.”
I wondered if, in fact, everything was boring now—if people were diverting all of their energy into curating rich digital lives, rather than reinvigorating their actual communities.
“I recently came across the best description I’ve ever read of this,” Hell said, standing up and pushing his chair back from the table. He retrieved his MacBook from his office and handed it to me with a Word document—his journal—open on the screen. He’d typed out a chunk of text from Finn Murphy’s The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road, which had recently been quoted in the New Yorker. “If a tourist poster of America were made with some verisimilitude, it would show a Subway franchise inside a convenience-store gas station with an under-paid immigrant mopping the floor and a street person at the traffic light holding a cardboard sign that reads ANYTHING HELPS.”
Hell hasn’t looked back to the South since he left, not really. Though he did recall one visit, several decades ago: “I did have this really uncanny experience in my thirties, when I returned to Kentucky,” he said. “After I left, I didn’t have any contacts there. I didn’t keep up with anyone I’d known in high school or anything, and even my family had left. There wasn’t anything drawing me back. But it happened that fifteen or twenty years after I’d come to New York, I was doing research for my first novel, which is a road book, called Go Now,” he continued, “and in the process of preparing for that book, I drove across the country six times. As I crossed the border from Indiana and into Kentucky, I started getting this eerie, blissful, oceanic feeling. I couldn’t place it—I just found myself feeling this strange sense of peace and happiness. I realized, after going a few more miles, it was just about the landscape. There was something that remained home about Kentucky that was subconscious—that I wasn’t aware of until that happened.” He paused. “It was so strange. I’d always thought of myself as having left Kentucky to find more excitement. I didn’t really have very many associations with it, psychologically. But this thing came over me, and it was really powerful, and it was genuine.”
A few weeks after we met, I emailed Hell to ask him what he thought might have become of his life if he’d never left Lexington—an unfair and impossible question, maybe, but still. I wondered about it, just as I’ve wondered about every left turn I didn’t take.
“I don’t know—I can’t imagine what could have kept me there—prison?” he responded. “If I’m me, I leave Lexington. I knew I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be a good artist. It might not make me a better artist if I went to New York, but at least it would give me a genuine chance of becoming a good artist, while there’s much less chance of that in Lexington. Sorry, Lexington, but this is true of the vast preponderance of world turf as well. Artists need to be where there’s the most stimulation available, and the best examples of painting and painters and books and writers and films and filmmakers and music and musicians, etc., if they want to be as good as possible. Come to think of it, that’s why I believe in affirmative action in every area, too. The prejudices against minority races and women and etc., etc., in art, is like being forced to stay in Lexington, a mental ghetto—not allowed freedom of movement in the big city. The only way to change this is to positively favor those victims of prejudice with respectful publication and exhibitions, etc. Because the only way they have a chance of becoming as good as they have the potential to be, which we all need, is if they’re favored now to begin making up for the history of deprivation.”
But did he regret that part of himself, the one that craves newness? Did it worry him?
“I’m just restless and uncomfortable,” he answered. “I don’t know how healthy that is, but I have tried to make a virtue of it. As for whether I’ve wished that my character was different in that department . . . It was difficult enough to recognize the trait without worrying about changing it. It’s the cards I was dealt.”
It is easy to think of place as a generative or nutritive force, and harder to think of it as malevolent—how home can ruin a person, or trap them, keep them from coming into some other, more essential self. The author Paul Bowles, who traveled extensively in his lifetime, once told an interviewer, “I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually. To leave it behind. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.” I recall feeling deep envy for Bowles just then—what freedom, to be fully cleaved from your place of origin! To be cleared to remake yourself in whichever image you choose. To repopulate that blank.
But maybe there is no cleaving. Maybe there is just that first escape. Then, the ways you take home with you, and the ways in which you don’t.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.