To (Richard) Hell and Back
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.