Interview by Jason Gross (December 1997)
From the class of '77 in New York punk, there was one prime, pivotal character on the scene who had gone through a number of groups then and made a lasting impression not just on the local scene but also on the emerging punk scene in England at the time. His look, his attitude, his songs exuded everything that the scene was or should have been about. Richard Hell was around when it started and arguably precipitated the scene. Most recently, his CD with Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth) and Don Fleming (Gumball) called DIM STARS came out in 1993, and he insists he still intends to record his dream CD. GO NOW, his novel about a burnt-out punk junkie's cross-country drive in search of redemption, was published by Scribner last year and he's at work on two more books.
Here's an excerpt from Richard's recent book GO NOW (Scribner).
Also, see the official Richard Hell web site.
PSF: Was GO NOW kind of semi-autobiography for you?
Not intentionally. I was just trying to write a book about a guy in a certain kind of condition, however I could bring it to life. I took less trouble to disguise the extent to which I drew on my own experience than I will in other books I write in the future. Writing a character in a novel is sort of like being an actor. In a way, all you have to draw on is what you know yourself. All an actor has to draw on when they play a role is what they know, but still the things the actor does and the way they behave 'in character' aren't necessarily things they've actually done themselves.
PSF: But an actor can study a role and draw on something else. Were you kind of drawing on your own experiences?
Well, I took the easy way and drew on a lot of superficial experiences and facts for the guy's life that were kind of like mine. I was trying to depict a condition, a kind of psychological condition. I used what I could that I knew first-hand and then I made up what happened to the guy according to what I thought would expose that condition.
PSF: So the action around him kind of drew out who he was then.
OK, I'll confess. We're exactly the same person. Please don't hit me anymore! (laughs)
PSF: Sure. No more torture. Would you say that writing about this brought up some old memories about what you've done?
It could be kind of harrowing, but at the same time you get some kind of satisfaction out of playing the role well and getting to the bottom of it. You're completely trying to deliver the full goods. I'm really a bad interview because my memory is so bad. (laughs) I remember that at the time of writing that book and shortly after, I had such strong, vivid feelings about the experience- what it was like to have written this book, because the experience was so interesting. It was new for me to do something so sustained and-not demanding-but kind of generous, kind of willing. There's opportunities to try so much in a novel, and the novel almost always agrees to let you do it! I was very happy writing it- I looked forward to each day that began with work on the book, and that was nearly every day for two years. But now I can't remember what it's like anymore! I'm working on other things and it's SUCH a strain to get back there! Maybe I'm just brain damaged.
I'm reading this book about Orson Welles. It seems amazing that he has this continuous access to anecdotes from the whole range of his past. But it does seem that's the way it happens when you do a lot of interviews, you sort of accumulate your pat, trademark stories. They get repeated in interview after interview and it keeps them kind of present for you because you're constantly accessing them to do your number. They're certainly lies by the third time you've said them, because by then you're not remembering the incident you're recounting, you're remembering the earlier times you told the story. It's hard work though. By then it's a performance, and so has that kind of "truth" instead. It's funny because... on top of everything else, I don't trust memory, even the first time.
That's another thing about people asking me how autobiographical that GO NOW book is. If I wanted to write an autobiograpy, I would have tried. I don't think I'm capable of doing that because I don't trust myself. I KNOW THEY'RE ALL LIES. Not because they're intended to be but because there's too many factors at work when someone is trying to tell the truth. They have too many vested interests. They're just as likely to put themselves in a negative light that's not fair to them as they are to put themselves in a positive light. It's much more honest to tell lies than to claim you're telling the truth. It's a more honest self-portrait to write a novel than to write a memoir. It feels that way to me. Or maybe just describe what happens when you're asleep the way Burroughs did.
PSF: What kind of new stuff are you working on?
I'm working on two books that I add a few sentences to every day. One is a novel and the other is a collection of stories, but the stories are all in the same voice, like a novel. The novel is set among poets in New York in the early '70s and the stories are by this suicidally depressed middle-aged artist. It's funny that I'm telling you this. I live such a solitary life and all I do is sit at the computer and type a little bit, then I reach over and grab a book and read it, talk on the phone maybe once in a while, music playing. But my world is so small and I'm so much inside my own head, I don't know how to talk to another person. (laughs)
It's like this is unreal. You sent me a list of questions before about my work-I've seen all those questions before. When I went out a year ago with the book on a reading tour, I did a ton of interviews. I got to tell you- I don't have it anymore. It's just totally unreal to me. I'm not at the point where I can entirely treat it as a joke and put you on because I don't have the creative energy to do it. I'm too dull of a person. I can't muster the initiative to do that. But I don't have any faith in the importance of telling you things because I don't believe that I even know what's going on in that way. That's why I have to write these fucking books- I can't tell what's up from moment to moment so I have to do something. I make up these books that try to be real even though they're not the truth. (laughs) It's just completely ridiculous, the whole situation.
PSF: Have you seen the same thing in other writers?
You see writers give interviews and it's usually pretty pathetic. They take themselves so seriously. I could see how that happens because you're sitting there inside your own head all day long. It's hard work writing so you start to think it's important. It's so hard and you think 'why the hell are you doing this?' It's meaningless really. Nobody's forcing you to do this. It's just pathetic. I've been thinking about this lately. 'What is art?' It's such a weird mix of attitudes that you have to take to it. Treating it like the most important thing in the world like your life depends on it. In a way, for the person making it, it's the case.
It's classic- what is there in life but love and work? That's all there is. 'But what am I committing myself to with such devotion?' The conclusion I came to is that it's completely a game. It's an attempt to come up with material that will stimulate one's faculties. It's like giving a massage. You create a book or movie or record, it's just trying to engage for pleasure, for the pleasure of the engagement itself, like exercise, to stimulate the audience's faculties and one's own. What can we do? We can think, we can feel, we can taste, we can see, we can hear, we can smell (you usually don't see that in art). It's just a game to engage those faculties so that they get off. That's all you're doing. It's like designing little games, these complexes of stimuli.
PSF: That brings up an interesting idea I've thought about. There was
an article that questions the whole purpose of art, saying 'with all the injustices in the world, you should stop wasting your time with something as trivial as art.'
But you need that stimuli to care about ANYTHING. Otherwise you might as well be shut up in a box somewhere. It's not trivial. It's like how you need 15 or 20 minutes of sunlight every day just to keep your sanity. It's as important as anything. I don't give a fuck about politics. The moment somebody gets righteous, you know they're a fool. Take care of yourself -don't tell me how to take care of myself. I got my own opinions and beliefs about justice and injustice and my own sense of ethics about it. It doesn't take much wisdom to see how there's been more damage done throughout history by people who were sure about the way people should behave than there has been by people who didn't give a fuck. It's been the religious leaders who have done all the killing!
PSF: How do you evaluate your own work? Are you a harsh critic of your stuff?
I try not to look back. I know that I did my best at the time and it's easy for me to succumb to saying it's total shit or it's a timeless masterpiece. Neither one really is going to make much difference one way or another.
PSF: Is there any work you've done that you're particularly proud of?
There's always going to be passages here and there that I'll have more confidence in their value than others. It changes with your moods. They all seem so different to me. I always felt that once I did anything, I was already tired of it, the whole medium- I'd want to move to another medium. What's the last thing I noticed of mine that made me proud? (pause) In music I like that song 'Monkey' on the Dim Stars record, sans all the jamming shit at the end of it. It just sounds great. It's just hard to say. There's been various times when I've tried to draw peoples' attention to one thing or another that I thought was unfairly neglected but I think I've exhausted them all.
PSF: Where do you find inspiration for your work?
I've been reading a lot of poetry lately because I'm writing this novel about poets. Nobody'll know these people I mention, because nobody reads poetry, but for instance Bill Knott, Ron Padgett, James Schuyler, Ted Berrigan. Those are some I'm reading, and they definitely give me heart. Baudelaire. I realized that this was the prettiest word in the English language, and it isn't even English: Baudelaire. Then I just thought of next prettiest is 'loathesome.'
PSF: What do you find particularly moving about their work?
That's very mysterious. (laughs) If I knew how to do it, I'd be writing them all by myself. I don't know what the tricks are that those guys have. I try to imitate them sometimes. As a matter of fact, in this book I'm writing, I'm having to make up poems that certain characters in the book write. It's really tricky. I've always written poems myself. Poetry has always been my... magnetic pole. It's the direction I know that tells me where I am. That's part of the reason that I like conceiving of this book- the fun it would be and the challenge to write someone else's poetry. What do I get from those poets? It's like saying 'what do you get from that Jasper Johns American flag painting or that Jackson Pollock drip painting?' You get that engagement with your faculties that you want to get from art. It makes you think, it makes you feel. Sometimes it even makes you smell!
PSF: You're drawn to poetry more though. What makes the written word more powerful for you than a canvas or photo?
It's just the way I lean. You see paintings all around here, too. I even do a little painting myself lately. I'm very interested in it. I like the way painters talk actually. People say that they're inarticulate but there's a long tradition of New York writers being involved with painters, inspired by them, including by the things they say. Painters and poets can learn something from each other, and frequently have. Jasper Johns was inspired by Ted Berrigan and Berrigan was inspired by a lot of painters. I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. (laughs) I'm just name dropping.
PSF: In your recent book and a lot of interviews, you've been really up front about your use of drugs. You think it's had a generally positive or negative effect on your life?
It's hard to say. It's so built into me and it's so impossible for me to conceive my life having played out without having drugs in it. Not only did I do them for a long time but they also have a long-term effect on your perception of things. To me, I think it's a lot like having been in a war. Old ex-addicts, when they're reminiscing about their adventures, they usually call it war stories. It's just the way it is for people who've been to war and it colors the whole way one looks at things. It's also something that somebody who hasn't been there isn't going to be able to quite understand.
You'll see veterans not opening up about what they went through except with other veterans. You have all kinds of mixed feelings about it. In a way, you wouldn't wish it on anybody else but at the same time you can't regret it- it's so much a part of who you are. It's inconceivable not to have experienced it. (pause) It's a hobby of mine. (laughs) It's obvious that the experience fuelled the novel. But at the same time, I think it ends up being fundamental for anyone who's been through addiction. It's not as if your... character, yourself is buried under it's influence while you're actively using it. You're still who you are. I think I'm just as crazy without using drugs as I was using drugs! It's just built into you. What if I said to you 'suppose you married a movie star ten years ago?' Do you think you'd be a little different?
PSF: Maybe a little...
OK then maybe I'd be a little different if I didn't use drugs. Who knows? I'd still be myself.
PSF: You edited CUZ, a literary magazine, in the late '80s. Could you talk about that?
I'd taken on this job of booking poetry readings at the St. Mark's Church Poetry Project. When I first came to NewYork when I was 17, the program they had going on over there was really cooking and inspiring. They had all these crazy, radical young poets bending history to their own ends (this was late '60s, early '70s). In a way, those guys had a big influence on me in music in the sense of their attitudes towards themselves and their relationship to the existing world. The only poets who got any attention or respect from the mainstream world were really conservative and lived their lives in universities. Rather than be frustrated and beat their heads against the wall and work their way up that system, the St. Mark's poets just stayed in the streets and did it themselves on mimeo machines and created an alternative.
It's just like we ended up doing in music. We made the record companies come to us by making noise for the kids directly rather than trying to impress the record companies to make deals. We brought out records on small labels and started fanzines. We created our own culture until they were forced to acknowledge it and give our records some distribution.
St. Mark's Church had a magazine at that time called THE WORLD. I looked forward to seeing that each time. By the time I got my job at the Poetry Project, the magazine didn't exist anymore and I thought that was a real loss. I kept begging them to let me start a magazine that they would finance. I did it really cheaply- I type-set it myself, ran it off on a xerox machine, and got together a party of the writers to collate it. The only thing that had to be paid for was the paper and the binding. Everything else we did ourselves. I was proud of everything about that magazine.
It amazed me when Thurston (Moore) called me up about doing the Dim Stars thing, he said he had been a CUZ fan. I edited it under the name Richard Meyers. It was a small run (500 copies per issue) and it was available at only two or three stores in New York but they sold out immediately. They limited terms for the job at the Church so once it was over at the Church, that was the end of the magazine. Plus it is a thankless fucking job. It's so much work and all you get is grief and complaints from the writers (ED NOTE:I hear ya Richard!!!).
PSF: When you first came to New York, you intended to be a writer and now that's what you're doing full time. You think you've come full circle now?
Yeah. Sometimes I think my life is over and everything up to now has been material. Since my life is over, now I'll use the material.
PSF: I was comparing THE VOIDOID and GO NOW. The early work seemed like it was real stream-of-consciousness and your recent book is more focused on stories and action. How do you see that change over the years?
THE VOIDOID was written when I was 21 and it was one approach. There are passages in GO NOW and the new book I'm working on that have something in common with it. To me, it's just that when I sat down to write GO NOW, over the years, I've tried a lot of different things. I've written journalism, essays, stories, prose poems, poems of many kinds, journals, songs… I felt as if I learned something from trying all those things. I thought I had the chops to sit down and write a whole novel that could range a lot in these techniques. A lot of the challenge was that not really much happens in that book but you have to have the illusion that something happens or people are going to get really bored quickly. I really walked that line, peering over the edge into tedium where the guy gets so wrapped up in himself, self-analysing and all metaphysical. The idea was to be able to come back to earth before someone got fed up and slammed the book down.
If I were to write a book like THE VOIDOID now, I would still be interested in doing that kind of writing but I would enclose it inside something else- like I'm having poems inside this novel now. I just know how to do more things now and I don't need to restrict myself to one approach just to make a point that this one thing can be done and is interesting. The same thing happened in music. It was like the first few songs were all in this one style that was a statement to say 'this is the real thing' and a reaction, an alternative, to what other people were doing at the time. We wanted to just write these hard, fast, honest in-your-face songs. But it just gets boring doing the same thing. Once you make your point, you don't need to go on making it again and again.
PSF: You find that working on writing now is more satisfying than making music?
It's not that it's more exciting, it's less hassle. You don't have responsibilties to anybody but yourself. I'm always thinking every year that I'm going to do some kind of music thing. If I were going to do something, I'd talk to Quine before I'd talk to anybody else. So far, despite my frivolous, whimsical fantasies about recording again, I haven't made any effort myself. It's a big pain in the ass. Theoretically, I'd love to do it.You know what got me worked up a few months ago saying 'gee, I wanna make one more CD'? The
Harry Smith anthology. It is SO inspiring. It's so simple, it's so real. It's like cave paintings. That's the thing about cave paintings though- what gives them this absolute feeling, the way they're so graceful, so essential, so perfect is that they're actually the work of generation upon generation upon generation. It wasn't like the Michaelangelo of caves. Stuff would get rubbed out and fixed and rubbed out and changed and added to over generations. They're not the work of a person, they're the work of a race. That's the same with those songs.
I always hated the way that Clinton Heylin (FROM THE VELVETS TO THE VOIDOIDS) would say that my finest moment was the 'Blank Generation' single on Ork. I always really resented it. It sounds to me like the typical obnoxious critic-speak- you always got to like the most obscure thing 'cause it shows how knowledgeable you are, what a scholar. (laughs) But at the same time, the thing that does set that apart is that it's SO basic in the same kind of ways that the Smith anthology is. It's completely unpolished but you can feel the... necessity or really... a kind of un-self-consciousness and belief in itself. It's innocent but it's driven by this urge to make itself heard that has nothing to do with compromise for an audience. It's like the audience has to has to live up to the record rather than the other way around. It's the audience that's being tested. It's the audience that's being listened to rather than the listener listening to the record. (laughs)
PSF: You said that you when you wrote songs before, they were a reaction against styles and trends. Do you think it was also saying something about your own identity?
I didn't say that we were always working as a reaction. It was only that at the very beginning. There was a definite intention to show that electric bands really serious meant hard three minute songs. Not this big overblown grandiose stadium watch-me-yawn. It was just us being who we were in the songs, not trying to make ourselves out to be heroic. I was just writing songs about whatever I felt like. Whatever's on your mind that day, you write a song about.
PSF: Quine and Verlaine are fans of free jazz. You were working out your songs with them when you started. Were you a fan yourself?
No, I was really ignorant. When Tom would play some Albert Ayler or Quine would play me some of the later, freakier Miles, it was really obvious what they were picking up on. Never even with rock have I been a 'student' much less a 'scholar.' When I hear something I like or hear something about, I pick it up but I've never searched stuff out. In my collection now, I've got a lot of Miles, Coltrane, and a bunch of tapes Bob made for me but it's just kind of random. I've never been thorough and the same goes for any kind of music I have. I'm much more fanatical about collecting everything I can find by my favorite writers. With collecting too, books give you more of a certain feeling from when you get a first edition. The taste of the moment when it originally appeared that has a lot more of that than vinyl. With vinyl, what do you get? You get a black disc with a little round label on it and two surfaces, the front and back of the LP sleeve. With a book, you have the whole design on each side, the dust jacket, the title page, design throughout, and these other ways of getting vibes.
PSF: What were your thoughts on bands that you left afterwards, like Television and the Heartbreakers?
With Television, I was so angry that I didn't want to hear anything. To hear something would just give me a really bad taste. It would piss me off. With the Heartbreakers, it wasn't really my kind of music. I respected it but I wouldn't go out to buy it anymore than the Ramones though I liked them too. I never owned a Ramones record. There's another part of it where... if I didn't know them all and came up with them and hung out with them, maybe I would have bought a couple of their records. It's just like listening to them has too many other meanings. The water's too muddy. I couldn't hear any of those CBGB bands. I'm real particular. I didn't follow what any of those bands did. I wasn't drawn to it.
PSF: Do you think it was kind of a fraternal scene though?
I think the bands did stimulate each other one way or another. It wasn't that much direct stimulation like someone did something then someone else would have to top it. It was the most interesting sort of scene going on in the world at the time it was happening. There was more going on in one place at one time in terms of bands but I don't know what to call what we all were doing. It was just kids and noisy music. That's got to be a stimulating kind of feeling when you're aware of it. But I think it was more that feeling 'this is the center of the world for this kind of activity' than stimulating actual collaborations. But there was that too- I moved through three bands and was an important part of them when I was in them. They were all really good when I was in them. That couldn't have happened in many places in the world- for me to work with Verlaine, (Johnny) Thunders and Quine in three successive years and have them be the guitar players for my songs was lucky. Between me and Tom and Patti and Johnny and our bands and the Ramones, we were much much more interesting than the London scene that copped our styles. They were more successful because they were less ambitious and because of circumstances but we were much more interesting.
PSF: How do you look back at the time and that scene now?
It seemed like a good a place as any to be a youngster. (laughs) That's the only thing I think about it. I'd rather be who I am now rather than be who I was then. But that was a good place to be young.
PSF: This is a quote from Heylin's book- you said after your first album came out: 'I finally got a shot at getting what I really want and what I make of things will soon be out there.' How were you seeing things then?
Well, first, that's Clinton quoting without attribution from ARTIFACT, my published '70's notebooks. It was kind of annoying- he quoted from that book all the way through his, as if I'd let him look at my diaries for his research, when actually he was copping from ARTIFACT, which anyone in the know could buy for $5.95. But to answer your question- I think that I basically found out that I wasn't suited to be a professional band member. I think that was the lesson. For that statement to be realistic, it would have to be in the context of me making an album every year. That just couldn't be. I just couldn't live the life. It's too hard work to try to pretend I was of star quality. I didn't have the resources.
PSF: Still, I've always thought it was a damned shame that so many of the other bands did OK but not you. You think it wasn't just the record company screwing you guys?
I don't think so. I just couldn't live that life in public like that in all the kinds of ways that you have to operate. I just didn't have what it takes. I just wanted out. I just don't think I'm a performer really. I was maybe for two years but I couldn't sustain it. A performer is someone who is out to impress, out to make an impression- I realized that's not my forte. Patti Smith is a performer, she's practically Judy Garland.
PSF: On 'Destiny Street,' you imagined meeting yourself at a younger age. If you recast the story now, what would it be like?
I'd have all kinds of mixed feelings about that now. In one way, I'd kind of envy the younger person because for a couple of years there I had a very strong foundation. I THOUGHT I knew everything. That was pretty comfortable. (laughs) There is something attractive about that. By the same token, it is kind of one-dimensional! It's interesting to get middle aged. There's more advantages than disadvantages. The disadvantages are pretty minor. Every period or stage has its own pro's and con's about it. You know what's the annoying thing? You're always a little bit behind figuring out where you are. It's like you never catch up to where you are. You're actually trying to figure out where you are now. You're never quite there but you're someplace else by the time you figure it out.
PSF: So you think you don't have enough time to sit back and reflect?
No, I have plenty of time for that. The problem is that once I figure out how things are, they've already changed! Might as well move on.
PSF: What do you think about your music inspiring other musicians and groups?
I think the Voidoids were pretty eccentric. We didn't have a signature sound. You ever hear a song and say 'that sounds like the Voidoids'?
PSF: Hmm... you have a good point there.
Basically I wanted every song to be different from every other song. Quine's guitar playing is so... He hears people play guitar and says 'they must have listened to me.' He's not too modest! But it's true though- he has a unique style that definitely inspired people. I think what effect we've had has been more indirect than direct. I think it has more to do with attitude and musical values than any kind of sound you can put your finger on. Even those parts are indirect since it was kind of absorbed by other bands so that the next generation of bands were influenced more directly by them than us. I don't see any kind of whole school of playing that derived from what the Voidoids did. After all, there was only one whole album done by the band that the name Voidoids was created to describe. We did cover a lot of ground though. I see how baffled fourth generation punks are when they first hear a Voidoids albums. They hear that this guy Richard Hell was THE original punk. But the Voidoids don't sound like the Sex Pistols, the Clash or the Ramones and that's punk to them. It's not just this barrage of stomping head-banging assault.
I do think that that record (Blank Generation) will live forever. It's an immortal album. (laughs) But at the same time, I think R.I.P. is better. I think that collection is, in a lot of ways, better than either of the albums. I think it's completely great- it covers such a wide range and every cut on it is interesting. The funny thing is when Blank Generation first came out, places like Rolling Stone said it was lousy and bad. Now they write about it like it's a milestone. I despise Rolling Stone. 'Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.' They asked me for a souvenir but give me a break. The music industry is baloney salesmen. Leave me out of 'The Baloney Hall of Fame.'
See Richard's favorite music
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