Richard Hell gave the world choppy haircuts, torn t-shirts and creative new uses for the safety pin. The visual angst helped frame everything from the Sex Pistols’ scowling image to the storefront windows of Macy’s department store, where Hell’s t-shirts shockingly made their way to the torsos of mannequins.
“A lesson that anything associated with a desired state gets appropriated by profiteers,” Hell writes in his most recent book, Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001-2014. In it, he notes, “Real appreciators of art know that the source is irrelevant, it’s the execution of art.” Hell himself transformed the riff of the classic “Hit the Road Jack” into the strum-fragmented anthem “Blank Generation” with his band the Voidoids.
Hell, whose birth name is Richard Meyers, dropped out of high school in his native Kentucky and bolted for New York City during the height of the hippie era, with its “wild, brainy, drug-fueled kids who took back the means of production from the universities and the big commercial publishers.” Coincidentally, it was that creative independence that provided the blueprint for the D.I.Y. scene that would follow a decade later.
“Punk was about succeeding without any skills except honesty,” Hell writes. “I’m always being asked about the ‘70s and early ‘80s, which was both the last time New York was really poor and the last time it was exciting artistically…is there a relationship between the squalor and the futility? Yes, for the obvious reason that we had nothing to lose.”
Hell writes of the earliest days of CBGB in all its dumpy glory—flanked by flophouses, struggling avant-garde theaters, and cheap dives—on a street long-signifying drunkenness, dereliction, and failure. Precisely the things that kept it disreputable, dirty, dangerous, poor and interesting, he explains. “I remember the joint in the beginning. I was in the first band (Television) that brought the club attention and in two others (The Heartbreakers, Richard Hell and the Voidoids) that played there steadily in the place’s earliest years,” recalls Hell, who is 66 years old. “It was about being young and hungry, about energy, anger, and sex.”
“Punk was about succeeding without any skills except honesty,”
If you saw Hell in those days, you’d remember him standing at center stage, thin and convulsive and given to sudden flailing twitches, plucking his bass and spewing poetic anthems: “I belong to the Blank Generation, but I can take it or leave it each time,” and pervy verses: “Love Comes In Spurts – oh no it hurts!”
In Massive Pissed Love, published by Soft Skull Press, Hell writes about everything from Bush’s Iraq War to the economic crash of 2008. He rambles on an 8,000-word journey about writer Nathanael West, and hails the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud as still being the most alive thing on the planet. “Even now and here, in another language more than a hundred years later,” he writes. There are critiques of photography — “that ghost world only accessible to the pure of heart,”— and of paintings, which he calls, “the poetry of peripheral vision.” Where guitar chords are involved, Hell chooses The Stones over The Beatles, explaining The Beatles’ problem was they were “deficient in sneers,” while acknowledging that Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts makes all other drummers in rock and roll sound as if they are handicapped.
Hell made a rare stage appearance in New York City in May at a benefit concert for Voidoids’ guitarist Ivan Julian, who is battling cancer, but for the most part he retired from the music scene in the mid-1980s. It is through the printed words in books like Massive Pissed Love, the fictional Go Now, and the autobiographical I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, that Hell dwells today.
Reviewing a film by Robert Bresson published in Massive Pissed Love, the darkened cinema provides Hell a recognition of his younger self. “That kid who I was in the 1970s,” he writes, “doubtless it’s presumptuous and ignorant of me to come to the movie in such a self-centered way.” It is precisely that self-awareness, however, the squeezing of self into other characters that has always been Hell’s most thrilling attribute.