Punk's founding father, Richard Hell

Richard Hell wrote the song, founded the club and even designed the T-shirt. Nick Hasted on the great musical iconoclast

Wednesday 17 July 2013 03:56

Hell was born Richard Meyers, in Kentucky, in 1949. Dropping out of boarding school, he arrived in his spiritual home, New York City, in 1967. The same year, his friend Tom Miller (soon to be Tom Verlaine) and Patti Smith both arrived. All became poets, a new generation of would-be bohemians, with Hell putting together small-press editions of their work in the kitchen of his cramped garret. The three shared a love of self-destructive French symbolist writers like Rimbaud, and also of rock'n'roll. Hell's teenage life had been turned around by the electric, articulate venom of mid-Sixties Dylan, and the thuggish attack of the Stones and cruder peers like The Kingsmen. In 1973, after seeing the New York Dolls, Hell decided to form a band with Verlaine. A year later, they were in Television. And on March 31 1974, Hell found them a place to play: CBGB's.

Three explosions were set off by the Richard Hell of this time. The first was sartorial. In an era of glam excess and pompous prog, he favoured ripped T-shirts, roughly spiked hair, and black leather jackets. Malcolm McLaren, watching Television in 1975, took this raw, confrontational style back to London, moulding the Sex Pistols, and Johnny Rotten in particular, in Hell's image. But there was more to the way Hell looked then than rips in his wardrobe. He already enjoyed heroin, and early photos show him looking prematurely exhausted and aggressively blank. It was these feelings that made him design a T-shirt saying "Please Kill Me".

The look was, like Hell's adopted name, an act of monstrous self-creation, one so potent you can still see its impact now, from the mohican-ed punks who beg outside London's tubes to Pete Doherty's unkempt, pitiful vacancy. Ripped and stapled catwalk couture comes from Hell too, as do the file-toothed, spike-haired killers of apocalyptic films like John Carpenter's Escape from New York , perhaps the most appropriate spawn of the strange creature Richard Meyers became.

Hell then put his feelings into musical form, with the anti-anthem "Blank Generation". McLaren would also adapt its numb sentiments for the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant". But, while Johnny Rotten sneered out at society, Hell's malaise was internal, and maybe incurable. "I was sayin' let me outta here before I was even born/ it's such a gamble when you get a face," he memorably yelped of an anti-social identity crisis begun in the womb. There were elements of satire to the song. But its nihilism was also truly felt, a response to media overload and the numbing complexity of the decade that came after the Sixties' simple, failed dreams. It's a feeling of helplessness under the weight of the past which has only grown in the decades since. The cracked psyche Hell describes, meanwhile, is equally timeless. "I was just describing a condition, which was my condition," he told me.

Hell's final legacy to the world was to find punk a home. CBGB's had opened as a country music venue in 1973, beneath a flop-house in the Bowery, the most decrepit district of New York, at a time when the whole city was a near-bankrupt nightmare. Hell saw it as a convenient base where Television could play regularly, and the open-door policy of its owner, Hilly Kristal, soon attracted like minds including the Ramones, Talking Heads, Patti Smith and Blondie. Exactly because it was an unprepossessing dive that stank from the piss of the winos upstairs, Hell had discovered a place where punk could germinate uncontaminated by outside interest, until it reached critical mass and inspired the movement's 1976 London youthquake. What happened in CBGB's is in pop's DNA now, in the iconoclastic, independent sense of possibility punk has gifted to every worthwhile musician, from Franz Ferdinand to Bonnie "Prince" Billy. This was exactly what Hell had in mind.

"Part of the purpose of what we were doing was to suggest other ways of doing things," he tells me. "I wanted to bring back to music what the bands I loved when I was a young kid, like the Stones and the Velvet Underground, gave me. They were talking about what the world felt like, instead of just writing another sentimental love song. And we wanted to find an audience for that. At CBGB's, we imagined our own world into being, because we didn't feel comfortable in the existing one. It was a place you could go to every night and feel like you belonged. And that's because it flowered out of our own brains."

Hell was kicked out of Television, in 1975, by a Verlaine who now wanted total control of the band. Typically, Hell's time with this iconic group left no officially recorded trace (though Spurts includes their fascinating version of "Blank Generation", live at CBGB's). He then stopped off in ex-New York Doll Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers long enough to co-write the definitive junkie lament (both men's taste for smack now being out of control) - "Chinese Rocks" - with Dee Dee Ramone. Finally, he formed the Voidoids, and recorded Blank Generation, the only sustained document of his own musical greatness, forged in close partnership with the jagged guitar of the late Robert Quine - as much an originator of the current post-punk vogue as anyone.

By the time it was released, Hell felt spent, burnt-out at 33. "I'd tired of it all," he recalls. "I was in a serious decline". The second and last Voidoids album, Destiny Street (1982), showed a deep slump barely arrested by a one-off project with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Dim Stars, a decade later. Perhaps his most high-profile and unlikely job of the period came playing the murdered rock-star lover of another adopted New Yorker, Madonna, in Desperately Seeking Susan.

"You know, it always pisses me off when I see in my credits anywhere that I was in that," he sighs. "It's insulting! I was on screen for in total maybe 30 seconds! And I didn't have a single line of dialogue. But I guess my career is so impoverished that they have to put that in. It's really obnoxious. It's humiliating. I can't relate to Madonna. It actually annoys me when I see these guys who are friends, like Sonic Youth, seeming to adore her. To me, she's the enemy. I can't help it. She gives me the creeps."

By 1984, Hell had effectively turned his back on both heroin and music, returning to his bohemian roots as a small-press New York poet, in the same tiny tenement flat he has occupied for 30 years. Spurts scrapes up the scattered, recorded remains. But its maker's real importance is more elusive. He remains a ghost in the pop machine, leaving faint, dissident, traces that show no sign of fading.

"It's great for me to move on from that," is all Hell has to say. "And I'm glad I survived, to be able to."

'Spurts: The Richard Hell Story' is out on Monday on Rhino

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