Richard Hell: No rest for the wicked

Punk pioneer, maverick poet and sometime junkie, Richard Hell hasn't led a quiet life. As Fiona Sturges finds out, he's not the sort of man you can ignore
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's hard to reconcile the images of Richard Hell in the early days, all sad-eyed and sunken-cheeked, with the man sitting before me. His face is familiar, but, at 52, he's big, broad-shouldered and unexpectedly debonair-looking in an ankle-length coat and silky green shirt.

As a founder member of three of New York's most significant bands – Television, the Heartbreakers and Richard Hell and the Voidoids – Hell is held up as one of punk's principal instigators. With his spiked hair, and ripped T-shirts held together with safety pins, he single-handedly engineered the punk aesthetic. His look was so admired by Malcolm McLaren that, after the latter's abortive attempts to manage the New York Dolls, he rushed home to make some changes to the London scene. Yet, unlike their British counterparts, Hell and his fellow miscreants in New York had a more intellectual outlook. Their heroes weren't musicians but writers, among them Rimbaud, Huysmans and Isidore Ducasse.

Talk of punk and his well-documented drug abuse is off limits. I tell him that this could be a problem, since these are the things for which he is best known.

"I can't stand repeating myself," he says with a sigh. "People are so fascinated with that era but I'm bored talking about it. It's almost pathological with me." He says it's his memory that has suffered the most damage and remarks that any account he could offer might be unreliable anyway.

Hell is in London to talk about his new book, Hot and Cold, an assemblage of drawings, poetry and prose on childhood, fatherhood and everything in between. The ongoing turmoil in Hell's head – evident on the pages – can be both terrifying and inspiring. The book is littered with old photographs, drawings and newspaper clippings. There are journalistic essays tackling drug addiction, the work of William Burroughs and the Ramones. A series of notebooks, dated between 1988 and 1998, chronicle various incidents, ideas and thoughts in diary form. The book stands as a monument to the many intellectual paths that Hell has trodden over the years and is probably the closest he will ever come to an autobiography. He may be reluctant to talk about the era that made him famous, but this latest work unearths it in all its glorious and grisly detail.

"I dispose of it that way," he says with a smile. "There's no need to talk about it when you can look it up in a book."

Over the past 15 years, Hell has worked concurrently as a poet, essayist, novelist, artist, actor and, on occasion, musician. Has it ever occurred to him to choose one art form and stick to it?

"No, I'd get bored and want to do something else," he says, after a pause. "I remember this moment in a Huysmans novel, where a guy is sitting around in his cottage somewhere in the French provinces with a vague idea that he'd like to take a trip to England, but he's not ready to get his ticket. He's sort of in a reverie, meditating on it. All of a sudden, he realises he's just got to England in his head and he doesn't need to actually get on the train and go. So he cancels everything. That's what it's like for me. I can see where it's all going, and that's enough."

Richard Meyers (as he was once known) grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. He dropped out of high school when he was 16 and was sent to a boarding school for teenage tearaways in Delaware, where he met Tom Miller. Before the year was out, the pair of them decided to run away.

"They captured us in Alabama and sent us back to our parents," chuckles Hell in a rare moment of nostalgia. "So my mother and I, we made a deal. She said that if I left, she would get the cops to put me in jail unless I found a way to make $100. She assumed I would never be able to earn that kind of money, but I got a job in a porn bookstore and made it in a few weeks."

Meyers moved to New York in late 1966, while Miller finished school. When Miller finally caught up with him, the pair set about carving out careers as poets and artists. They became involved in publishing magazines and produced a book of poetry called Wanna Go Out? under the collaborative nom de plume Theresa Stern. By 1972, tired of being ignored, they changed their names to Hell and Verlaine and started a rock band. At first, they were called the Neon Boys, but later, with the arrival of the guitarist Richard Lloyd, they renamed themselves Television. By this time, Hell had worked out a new look of shades, a leather jacket and torn T-shirts.

By 1974, the band were playing gigs at CBGBs, Hillie Krystal's club in the Bowery, originally designated for country, bluegrass and blues. It was there that McLaren first clapped eyes on Hell. "He was interested in what I was doing and encouraged me," remembers Hell. "Tom and I became rivals the moment the band started, and Malcolm always took my side. I suppose I liked that. But I was wary of becoming associated with someone who plainly had plans of his own."

Hell left Television in 1975, just two years before the band made their celebrated Marquee Moon album, and founded the Heartbreakers with two of the former New York Dolls Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders. That was to be a brief tenure as well – Hell left before they had even released a record. The following year he formed Richard Hell and the Voidoids and, in 1977, made one of punk's greatest albums, Blank Generation. The journalist Lester Bangs described it as "the most fitfully dangerous rock'n'roll I've heard this decade".

Given his illustrious CV, Hell has made surprisingly few records. Apart from live records, there are only three albums – Blank Generation, Destiny Street and a 1993 collaboration with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley, under the name of Dim Stars. In other media, however, Hell has been prolific. As early as 1973, he produced a surreal, stream-of-consciousness novella entitled The Voidoid, although it wasn't published until 1996. He has written several volumes of poetry, a handful of short stories, and a semi-autobiographical novel, Go Now, about a junkie's quest for redemption, which was hailed by the author William Gibson as "vile, scabrous, unforgivable and deserving of the widest possible audience". He has also contributed to journals and edited a literary magazine called CUZ, and in 1998 he put together his first exhibition of drawings, in the Rupert Goldsworthy Gallery in New York. Then there's the acting career – a series of underground movies, and roles in Susan Seidelman's 1982 debut, Smithereens, and her follow-up, Desperately Seeking Susan.

Hot and Cold tries to bring a degree of coherence and chronology to Hell's disparate endeavours. "I've wanted to do a book like Hot and Cold since the Eighties. There were all these fugitive, ephemeral magazine pieces that I liked. I was curious to see how they operate in a cluster." I ask him if the experience has revealed anything about himself. "I suppose I've learnt more by seeing how other people react to it," he says, after a lengthy pause. "People tend to focus on one aspect of my work, rather than see all of it as a whole. It's frustrating, though it's probably inevitable. You know who I'd like to take a look at it? Susan Sontag. She's made movies, she's written essays, she's a bestselling novelist – she's the kind of person I identify with. I'd like her to write a critique of the book, and then I'd ask her to marry me."

'Hot and Cold: the works of Richard Hell' is published by Powerhouse. The double CD 'Time' is out 18 Mar on Matador