Mon Sept 19,
University Book Store,
7 pm, free.
Wed Sept 21,
Richard Hugo House, 7:30 pm,
$3 members/$5 general.
Ripped T-shirts, confrontational slogans, spiky hair; Richard Hell created the look that Malcolm McLaren pimped to the world as "punk." He was playing in three pivotal bands—Television, the Heartbreakers (with Johnny Thunders), and the Voidoids—during the heyday of the downtown New York scene. His song catalog includes the mix-tape staples "Blank Generation," "Love Comes in Spurts," and "Chinese Rocks."
But, as they say in Hollywood, you're only as big as your last picture. What has Hell been doing since the Voidoids' 1977 masterpiece Blank Generation? Plenty. He's published two novels, a volume of poetry, notebooks, and the odds-and-ends anthology Hot and Cold. He pens film criticism for BlackBook magazine. In 1992, he collaborated with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore on the eponymous Dim Stars record. Most recently, he compiled Spurts: The Richard Hell Story, a 21-track anthology spanning his entire recorded canon.
Not too shabby for an artist who, in the Spurts liner notes, describes himself as "pretty lazy."
"Well, when I was talking about being lazy, that was partly drug-induced," clarifies Hell, 55, who kicked his smack habit two decades ago. "Also, when I was a kid—when I had my first bands—I knew myself less well," he adds. "I was floundering. Out of all the weird images and ideas flying through my brain, I was trying to figure out which ones were worth paying attention to. The laziness was more a matter of uncertainty than lack of initiative."
He says he understands himself much better these days. "I know what's worth doing, and I can apply myself with focus. That's really gratifying. It makes me really glad that I didn't OD," he adds, chuckling. For a self-described "reclusive old crank," Richard Hell laughs a lot.
Hell visits Seattle this week to promote his second novel, Godlike. This brief but vivid book details the relationship between Paul, a veteran New York poet in the early '70s, and T, the teenage newcomer with whom he becomes completely besotted. The story unfolds via a series of interwoven pieces of writing: poems penned by the main characters and their contemporaries; excerpts from notebooks scrawled while Paul is hospitalized in the '90s; straightforward narrative passages.
"I've done a lot of different kinds of writing that I took seriously," says the author. "Part of the fun of [creating Godlike] was figuring out something that would use everything that I knew anything about."
Centered as it is on young writers living an existence in which poetry is of the highest value, Godlike puts an updated spin on the torrid relationship between 19th-century poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. There are also parallels to Hell's own life, though the book is hardly autobiographical. While the fictitious T is clearly an advanced poet despite his tender years, the former Richard Meyers didn't arrive fully formed in the Big Apple in 1966.
"I was a complete hayseed," he recalls. "I had just turned 17, and came from Kentucky. I had no education. I'm a high-school dropout. It took me three or four years to begin to have any bearings. And it took me that long before I began to write anything of any interest at all."
It was as a musician, not a writer, that Hell initially made a splash, garnering praise for his incisive lyrics and snarky, adenoidal singing. Spurts celebrates his sporadic but influential career, encompassing everything from 1973 recordings with the Neon Boys, through latter-day albums Destiny Street (1982) and the Matador collection Time (2002), and the final Voidoids recording, "Oh" (2001).
"I think of it as my only record," he says of the carefully programmed and remastered set. "I have this eccentric, conceptual trick, where I'm rewriting my life by pretending this is actually the only CD I ever made, and those other [albums] out there are just bootlegs of the Spurts sessions."
Hell rarely leaves his East Village apartment these days, but don't expect him to disappear any time soon. "I think, subconsciously, I'm trying to make up for the erratic way I worked for a lot of years. Now, 90 percent of the time, I'm working. I have hardly any outside contact, except in connection with work." He laughs again. "In a way, I feel like my life is over, and I'm just treating it all as material."