To (Richard) Hell and Back

Three Encores From a Punk Poet

By Jake Marmer

Published December 18, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

You might think that the Venn diagram circles of arty intellectuals and punk rockers would never intersect. Yet, back in the 1970’s many of the original punk musicians considered themselves primarily poets or writers, with singing just a way to liberate their thoughts from their heads or writing paper.

These writers included Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, David Byrne of Talking Heads and David Thomas of Pere Ubu to name a few. Another figure, crucial to the early intellectual punk-poet consciousness is Richard Hell (also known as Richard Meyers), one of the founding members of the seminal band Television. Largely unknown beyond the punk circuit, Hell is nevertheless a cult figure within it.

Having dropped out of Television, Hell formed his own band, The Voidoids (named after his own novella) and recorded two albums, including his punk-anthem single “Blank Generation.” Afterwards, Hell fell off the radar, and has rarely resurfaced since. This year however, he returned to his fans with three encores: an exhibit of abstract-futurist drawings at the Bowman / Bloom Gallery in the East Village; a re-release of his second album “Destiny Street”; and a newly republished edition of Voidoid, his 1973 novella.

The novella (or, as Hell describes it, “novelina”) came out under the auspices of the 38th Street Publishers, updated with drawings by young Norwegian artist Kier Cooke Sandvik. The minimalist, eerie sketches, as well as a few random photographs — of Hell himself, assorted women, and strangely, James Brown — lighten the dense narrative of the work, and add an interpretive touch.

The writing, which manically alternates between ecstasy and death-wish, is highly unpolished, self-referencing and self-interruptive. It recalls Rimbaud’s early writing, stream of consciousness à la William Burroughs, and of course, the punk aesthetic. Conceptually, the central image of the novel, as the title implies, is that of the void: absolute nothingness. Hell’s major hit was titled Blank Generation and it seems clear that his nihilistic preoccupation with emptiness, and its surrounding anxieties, is his crucial theme:

Arthur Black, a man who will actually not wear a shirt unless it’s old, wrinkled, and ripped. Yes, it is hot in his body, not be presumptuous, corny, and… yes, but one must admit that a living body is hot. Somewhere in the flesh marbled with soul of even the most dense, blank, and automatic person reside pockets of heat, the result of friction between desire and acceptance.

Emptiness, then, is related to a certain automatism, a lack of self-awareness, which can be battled with intense desire — for the desire itself, and the acceptance of the ways in which it is demanded and obtained. The novella is steaming with “pockets of heat,” tangents, witticisms, and philosophical-existential commentary. The deliberately unedited rough manner in which the writing is presented underscores the underground nature of the work. It subverts readers’ established expectations of what literature is, and, by shedding layers of conventions, brings forward an intensely personal experience, a screaming presence — shattering and thrashing within the void of automatism.

Watch Blank Generation perform at CBGBs.

Watch a 1993 Jennifer Kyte interview with Hell on Steve Vizard’s Tonight Live Program in Australia, where Hell confirms having grown up “sorta vaguely Jewish,” and mentions that he came to New York, wanting to be a writer.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.