Richard Hell: I'm more at ease now in my own skin
Of all the legendary figures and over-the-top characters to come out of New York's '70s punk scene, there were few who were more influential than Richard Hell -- and probably none who were as mercurial. He was a founding member of three groundbreaking bands -- Television, the Heartbreakers, and his own group, the Voidoids -- and played a vital role in transforming CBGB's into one of the world's most famous rock clubs.
In fact, Hell was the definition of punk: dressed in ripped clothes that were held together by clothespins, his shirts scrawled with provocative slogans -- one of them, "Please Kill Me," later immortalized in book form -- and hair done up in a mess of spikes. His style was even the inspiration for the Sex Pistols, and in turn, to most punks that have come since. And the music matched: a bundle of nervy, raw energy that threatened constant self-destruction, summed up by anthems like "Love Comes in Spurts" and "Blank Generation."
Now, almost 30 years since Hell retired from playing music, his career run off the rails by addiction, he's written a memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, out now through Ecco press. Ahead of his reading this Saturday at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, Gimme Noise chatted with Hell over the phone from his hotel room in San Francisco.
Tramp, in many ways, is your typical rock-star memoir, full of juicy stories about Hell's sexual adventures (and, quite often, misadventures) and his harrowing experiences with drug addiction. He speaks fondly of Dee Dee Ramone, praises Lester Bangs as "the last critic to stake his life on music," and doesn't mince words about his long-estranged friend and bandmate, Tom Verlaine. But, with Hell ever the iconoclast, there are also plenty of wrinkles, not least of which being the fact that the book ends abruptly when the singer enters rehab and retires from performing in 1984 -- which is to say, exactly when the narrative has hit rock bottom.
"I never expected to write anything autobiographical," admits Hell. He adds, with a chuckle, "Let me put that another way: Everything I write is autobiographical." In the decades since he walked away from performing, he's become a full-time writer, publishing novels such as Go Now and Godlike, as well as a collection of essays, lyrics, and other writings called Hot and Cold. "But as it came time to write another book, I realized I had already done the research. I'd gotten old enough that I was curious to try to get a handle on what it all added up to."
Hell, who grew up in Kentucky but has spent more than 40 years living in New York City, certainly sounds as though those years have caught up with him. His voice is shaky and raspy, and often he stammers or struggles a bit to find the right word as he speaks. But, even as his answers veer a bit from rambling and eloquent to terse, Hell's thoughts seem clear, and his humor sharp.
"The kid I was when I was seven had a lot of the same impulses that continued through the book, and up through how I am now," Hell says, a trace of relish in his voice. "It's kind of inevitable that you feel that way because the person who you are now looking back sees everything from the vantage of who you are now." But with that said, he admits there were plenty of occasions where he couldn't relate to his former self, such as when he read a letter he'd written to his younger sister shortly after moving out East, back in the late '60s. "I literally could not recognize the person who wrote that letter. If I hadn't been told in advance, I never would've guessed it was me. It was kind of eerie and disorienting and humbling to realize."
Indeed, one of the main themes in Tramp is Hell's lifelong impulse to "leav[e] myself behind for another world," whether it's plotting to run away from home as a young boy or dropping out of high school to try becoming a poet. (The latter scenario, he jokes over the phone, "usually means you're an extreme vagrant.") Not surprisingly then, it was largely just such an impulse that first appealed to him about becoming a musician. "To me, it's always interesting to try doing something that I have no idea how to do," Hell says. "I'm a big believer in ignorance. If you don't already know how you're supposed to do something ... you have a better chance of doing something good, because you're not inhibited by all the conventions."
Hell is honest in his assessment of his own music, too: In the book, he describes his attitude as self-centered, his artistic aspirations as "half-baked," and suggests that John Lydon succeeded in creating a truly subversive persona, in the form of Johnny Rotten, where he himself had failed. "You can also send messages that are consistent with the music through the way you dress and the way you cut your hair and what you say in interviews," he explains. "That was immediately exciting to me and interesting. I felt like it was something that I wanted to exploit."
In truth, it would be difficult to overstate Hell's influence on the music, and especially iconography, that has subsequently developed. No matter, though; in spite of the time he spent recently in revisiting his past, Hell isn't losing any sleep over what could have gone differently. "I basically reject the concept of regrets. There's no percentages in regrets," he says flatly. "I understand all the circumstances, but basically I think everything that happens is inevitable." You can almost hear him shrug through the phone. "I don't really believe in free will, to tell you the truth. I think things take the course that they must because it's all science."
In many ways, Hell seems a calmer, more down-to-earth person than the angsty, self-destructive punk often described by his contemporaries. Maybe that's inevitable, all these years removed. "In a lot of ways, I'm kind of more at ease now in my own skin," he says. And in other ways, of course, not much has changed: Hell, a lifelong car-lover, convinced his agent and publicist to let him drive all the way from Portland to San Francisco, so that he could travel the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway.
"I like driving," he enthuses. "I haven't done it in a while because my life has changed somewhat, but my favorite kind of vacation is to just get in a car and go find some back roads and then a motel. You go out, and cross your fingers you can find something edible." He recalls how, for his first novel, he bought a '68 Plymouth and crisscrossed the country with it six times -- just the type of thing a young Hell, in the pages of Tramp, would have dreamed of.
Then comes another wheezing, but contented, chuckle. "Yeah, I do like to drive."
Richard Hell reads from his book at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 30, at the Soap Factory, 514 Second St. SE, Minneapolis. All ages. Free.
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