Richard Hell on his new memoir, the punk legacy, Harmony Korine, and the subtle joys of reaching middle age.
These days, Richard Meyer rarely goes by the moniker that helped make him famous, except, as he recently said in an interview with NPR’s Leonard Lopate, when he's “making dinner reservations.” At 65, the man known as Richard Hell—a prime mover behind such visionary bands as Television, the Neon Boys, The Voidoids, and The Heartbreakers—is widely recognized as an originator of the punk movement, but has settled into a more subdued era of his life. Known in the ’70s for his blustery performances, scathing yet poignant lyrics, and particular brand of James Dean-hoodlum-meets-French-intellectual aesthetic, Hell was as ubiquitous as he was prolific. From pioneering new art forms, to mingling with some of the most provocative thinkers and creators of his era (ranging from Susan Sontag to Sid Vicious), Hell has certainly led a life worth reading about.
His new memoir I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp (Ecco, 2013) charts Hell’s early years as a young upstart on the downtown scene. From vivid descriptions of his nights at legendary punk club CBGB's, to his battles with substance abuse, to his heartfelt and frequently candid asides on relationships with lovers and collaborators, this memoir “attempts to portray things the way they actually were,” exposing a new side of both the artist and the period itself.
Laura Feinstein The obvious question to most people would be “why now?” How did you decide this was the right time to release your memoirs?
Richard Hell I actually needed a subject for a book that I owed, though I think of the end product as being somewhat incidental. That it turned out to be an autobiography that I chose to do for the book that was scheduled, it was just kind of a conjunction of circumstances. But basically I look at as an attempt to write a good book, and the attempt to capture my life came second.
Though it had been something that was sort of percolating in the back of my head for a few years. Less the possibility of writing a book like this, but more curiosity about what my life actually looked like. The kind of curiosity you get when you hit middle age. I think it’s kind of universal. I mean when you hit your 40s, and your youth is behind you.
LF But so many artists also hit their stride in their middle age, and produce some of their best work during this period.
RH I mean, that’s true too. There’s a difference in the kind of experience though. It’s not as if it’s a loss necessarily, in a negative sense. But it is a change. I mean for me, a lot of what it means to outgrow your youth is really positive. The main thing being that you kind of learn what you’re suited for. When you’re younger, you have all kinds of impulses and visions and dreams about where things can lead for you, and what you’re capable of doing. Then there’s a lot of trial and error, but you’re also open to experiences in a way when you’re younger, because you don’t really know what your shape is. You don’t know what kind of limits you have. When you hit middle age, it’s really an achievement. It brings a kind of peace of mind, you know, to have had enough experience that you have an idea of what works and what doesn’t work.
I think it’s very common that you feel this sort of bewilderment, to outlive your youth. In a way, I think, as a writer, the second half of your life becomes the mining of the material from the first half of your life. There’s a lag of ten, 15–20 years before you really understand what’s happened to you, and that you can have enough of a grasp of it that you can use it for material for your work.
At any given moment, you really only have that moment’s presence to grasp. You can’t see your whole life except by a long process of examination, and I was curious about what my whole life had been. Since I’m a writer, that was my means for trying to take a look at it, and see what shape it had. What threads went through it, and try to put it outside of myself, to get a picture of it.
LF Was it difficult looking re-creating your life as a whole during this process?
RH I mean, I regard myself as a novelist, and I really enjoy doing non-fiction. Though I usually write about art, books, or movies and music. I kind of like that research process, and gathering all the evidence. Sifting through it, and trying to figure out what you make of it. So I did my general process in preparation for a new book, and it just all fell into place.
I’m not much into making up bluffs, and here was a pre-existing plot. Though part of the challenge was to figure out what has to take through the chaos of what I knew I had been through. But it was an interesting process, and I feel like I achieved it for myself. Because it was hard, much harder than I expected, and it took much longer than I expected. Figuring out a way to organize everything that was to true to what had happened, as much as I could make it. But I feel pretty gratified that I did pull it off.
LF Though it’s mostly based on the period after Tramp ends, in your published diaries Hot & Cold (powerHouse, 2001) you touch on some similar themes of childhood, love, and artistic creation. Is producing a memoir different from publishing a diary? Did you have to choose from different materials to mine?
RH Well, the journals in Hot and Cold come from the period after Tramp ends, so it’s not like I needed to choose directly from them. I didn’t use them at all, because it didn’t apply. But there has been a few times since the book was done when it hit me that there has been some chunk of experience that I’d left out. But you know, lives are complex. You could write a whole book about 1 minute, and my method was I just trusted where my instincts took me. I wasn’t really thorough about trying to describe everything that happened. It was more a matter of when I was in any given kind of period or stretch or time. Then I would just write what arose from me in my memory. If it seemed to pretty well evoke a general kind of “weather” of that time, that was sufficient.
Because you can’t include everything, I just trusted what came to mind, and as long as it was faithful to how that general period felt to me, it was enough.
LF I feel like with most of the interviews you’ve done you seem to get asked similar questions, either regarding the heyday of CBGB, why you decided to run away from home as a teenager, or the lasting impact of punk on culture, etc. What is one question you wish a journalist would ask you but hasn’t yet?
RH (laughter) Well, basically, I just want to be smothered in adulation.
LF What is one question about punk you would like to never be asked again?
RH Ha, well, the first one you asked! The other day actually, I had an interviewer start off the conversation by saying “you know you must be really tired of hearing the same questions over and over again,” and you know, there’s something to that. It’s inevitable. The interviewer is about asking the questions that he or she thinks that the audience wants to get answers to, so they’re bound to repeat. It’s not that it means the interviewer is inferior or anything though.
Anyway, I say “Yeah, it’s cool to hear, because you’re actually the first guy to say that to me. It’s usually me that brings that up ‘you know, this is the 40th time I’ve been asked this’ and he says, ‘well, I’m going to try to keep it interesting and make it new’ and then he asks me ‘why did you write an autobiography now?’”
LF Oh god!
RH The only thing that’s difficult about it is, and the thing that’s frustrating about having to answer the same questions over and over again, is that you start to feel like you’re being dishonest because you can’t say something fresh. Unless you’re just going to be a wise ass you know? But if you’re going to give respect to the interviewer . . .
It’s frustrating because you yourself can’t go beyond what you said before, and you feel like you should be able to dig deeper and say something more profound or something. No, you just like, turn into a robot and say the rote thing. But I try.
I’ll tell you what I don’t want to hear is a couple of things that I kind of resent. A few reactions to the book have come from these directions. When it’s focused on me bad mouthing people. That the purpose of this book is to get back at someone? I think that’s really petty, inaccurate, and an untrue reading of the book. So I kind of resent that. Another thing is when people treat the book as if it’s me setting myself up as some sort of “super-lover” or something like that. That it’s more a kind of kiss and tell. I think that’s just completely wrong, and it just reveals that writer’s insecurities.
My aim in the book was to describe what happened. Not put any more emphasis on it than what it had. It was a huge part of my life. Especially in the rock n’ rolls days, as it is for most people in rock n’ roll. Sometimes people are more discrete about it, and sometimes people are more swaggering about it, like ‘oh, I have so many conquests,’ but for me it wasn’t a conquest. It was just, people who I really liked and who liked me, and it was innocent. I mean, sometimes I kind of kid around about it, or say something objectionable, because I like to take a scientific view of everything. But when the book is portrayed as someone writing about “notches on the bed post” or something like that, to me that’s obnoxious and wrong, and it misrepresents the story I told.
LF I think people aren’t used to that level of honesty. With other memoirs of this era, writers often won’t say who a character is based on. But you are very candid about your experiences in a way that’s really unusual.
[In addition to unflattering portrayals of his band mates Tom Verlaine and Johnny Thunders, there are also rather explicit descriptions of intimate moments with Kathy Acker and Patty Oldenburg.]
RH I had no intention of exploiting other people’s behavior for sensationalism in a way that’s disrespectful of them just to puff myself up. I actually sent the passage concerning them to anyone I could reach and said “Is there anything in here that hurts you or embarrasses you, and you wish wasn’t said? I can change it.” Hardly anybody—maybe 2 or 3 people. 3 or 4 names I had to change because I couldn’t reach them and I didn’t want to take the chance they’d be upset. I also would have considered re-writing if it made them feel bad. The women who I mention, using their real names, knew about it in advance. It wasn’t kiss and tell.
LF One of these women you write about, French singer Lizzy Mercier (later Lizzy Mercier Descloux), had a profound effect on you. You describe the two of you as cultural hustlers. Do you think you could elaborate on what that term means?
RH This actually comes from the first attempt I made to write the novel that ended up becoming Go Now. It was on the trip to Paris when I first started it. In this first attempt, which got completely jettisoned, and which I ended up not using any part of, my original idea about how to do that book was to do it in a kind of Raymond Chandler style. Of a detective who was on assignment, where basically the assignment consisted of figuring out what the assignment was. So that was kind of what the situation was like. This guy Jake had given us a car and asked us to drive across country and make a book out of it, and I go, What the hell does that mean? So that was the way I conceived of Go Now, and was the first time I tried to write it. So, I was going to do it in this kind of Raymond Chandler, hard-boiled style, with this detective on this assignment, and the first line in the book was “I’m a small-time, freelance trend setter.” That’s kind of the same notion as being a cultural hustler. It’s just a matter of living by your wits in art.
LF Through your music and the creation of the punk aesthetic, you managed to shift the cultural paradigm in a way few have achieved. While many come to New York to be part of a scene, you set out to create one. Where do you think that confidence came from?
RH I don’t want to say it was confidence, so much as contrariness? But it’s true; I do have confidence in my reading of what’s going on. I have confidence in my reading of people, I think it’s one of my strengths. That comes through in my writing. Because I’m not good at dialogue, for me fixing and rearranging is a little bit easier way of writing about my own experience. It’s where I can just make up what people say to each other.
But I wasn’t willing to do that in this book. I wanted the book to be completely true and accurate. It would have been great if I could have done a “night at CBGB’s” or something like that, but I would have had to make up what everybody said to each other. And I wasn’t going to do that.
I feel like one of my strengths is I think I’m pretty good at perceiving people. I see what’s going on, and I see what’s interesting. Often enough people can do that though and still don’t have influence on a culture. For me, part of the reason I went into rock n’ roll was because I knew rock n’ roll had a mass audience kind of built in. So that if I did it the way I wanted to in the sense of “doing something new”, that spoke with and of the world as it was at that moment, that it would have an effect. Whereas poetry wouldn’t.
I mean, it’s been known to, for Allen Ginsberg for instance, but the kind of poems I wrote would never have done that. They would never have an effect on the culture at large. The culture at large was rock n’ roll, and so I gave it a shot.
At the same time it all happened indirectly. But still, it was gratifying. Later I knew that happened, and the people around me knew what happened, it just took a longer time for it to actually affect culture. I mean, I’m still fairly obscure, but I still did things that actually had an effect.
LF So much of today’s popular culture is about ‘looking back’ or trying to get a retro look, feel, or sound. Are there any artists now you feel are pushing culture forward?
RH Are there any artists I find interesting now? Yes, sure there are. If you’re asking me who’s doing something that’s going to change the direction of consciousness? That’s something I can’t tell you. Another interviewer though recently asked me what books I’ve read that I liked and I was surprised. I hadn’t realized I’d read so many good books this year. I feel like it doesn’t really happen that often, but there were, and I wrote down immediately five books.
I’m looking forward to the new Harmony Korine though. I’m a big Harmony Korine fan. His last one I couldn’t get through, and the one with Michael Jackson, Mister Lonely, impossible. But the first two were brilliant, and it sounds like he might be back on track with this new one. But I also really liked Holy Motors. It’s brilliant.
I’ve also been reading Edward St. Aubyn, this British guy, who wrote five novels in a series. I sprinted through all five, and I couldn’t get enough of them. It’s about this man who’s in the height of the British multi-century aristocracy. He’d traced his family back to the Norman Conquest, and they’ve always had every privilege, the archetypical highest level of the British class system. Basically, nobody has to work, and their whole system of bias comes down to being able to speak cleverly from this extremely snobbish pinnacle of wit. But he’s mastered it. His prose style, it screams like a dagger. But he was a junkie, and comes from this society of amoralism. He was repeatedly raped by his father at 5 and it completely destroys his disposition. All of these books are fiction, but they run parallel to the story of his life, and it’s just so spectacular, and so funny, and so heartbreaking.
LF I imagine over the years many journalists have approached you to find out more about your life, or what you’re doing now.
RH You mean people wanting my cooperation with something? I get a call usually when something seismic just happened or somebody died. Or there’s been some dramatic event in music.
LF With the popularity of Please Kill Me (Legs McNeil’s semi history of the evolution of punk), I’d imagine you’d be sought out pretty frequently.
RH Ah, that was a long, long time ago. That was the early ’90s. Nobody really had any idea it would have the success and impact it had. But sure we were all happy to talk to Legs with the tape recorder on. But I kind of pick and choose. I get a lot of calls about contributing to documentaries and interviews about punk, and I’m just really mercenary about it. I don’t like doing it, it’s boring, but if they pay me enough I’ll probably do it. And if I have any trust in the—well, I don’t even have to have any trust. You don’t have any control over what they are going to do with the material.
But you know, I’ve also been approached by people that have come to me with projects I’m just not interested in, and the same with making films about me. It just doesn’t interest me, because my life is very dull for one thing. I mean, basically, it’s quiet. I just work. I’m not . . . gregarious. And you know, if I’m called about my opinion on something that people think I might have something useful for their purposes, I’ll do it or not depending on how much the subject means to me. When Bob Quine died I got a lot of calls, and I wrote I few things about him for various places.
LF You still live in New York, and have lived here since you moved as a teen. Do you ever walk by some of the areas you used to visit like the Bowery and feel nostalgic? Or are they just another part of the city for you?
RH I’ve been here all this time, and I’ve changed just as everything else has changed. There’s not some fixed identity for places like the Bowery for me. The Bowery is just something that’s there. That was 40 years ago, and the Bowery has no magic for me. As I said, I live a quiet life. My favorite place in New York is my apartment. As long as I have that, good museums, and restaurants, I’m basically okay. At the same time, if there’s something I can do to help keep hideous buildings from being erected, I’m happy to help.
I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is out now via Ecco/Harper Collins