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Credit: Remko Hoving

Richard Hell: The life and legacy of the heroic backbone of punk

“Amazing how the most obvious things escape your notice.”

Richard Hell grew up in Lexington, Kentucky a few miles from the shrouded brick block narcotics treatment facility known on the streets as Narco. In the shadow of this reprobate fortress for artists like William S Burroughs who had stepped one toke over the line, the demimonde of the counterculture was already on the doorstep of the young Richard ‘Hell’ Meyers, and come October 1966, he fled to try and find its permanent housing. Hell had barely been aware of this junky reservoir to start off with, but it would seem its influence was felt nevertheless. 

For a few weeks, Hell and his best pal Tom ‘Verlaine’ Miller (later to be of Television) thumbed their way across the South in a serpentine path of wavering circumstance soon to be cut short when they were apprehended by the police. But from these first speculative steps into the no-mans-land of wayfaring adolescence, an attitude of independence was instilled in the 16-year-old Hell, and like a chicken with ambitions of batter-free longevity, he was convinced that there was a better life for him outside of Kentucky.

“I thought life was pretty much a losing proposition and I didn’t mind saying so.”

A disenfranchised fatherless youth with an unknown point to prove he took up a job in a shop selling the sort of Gentleman’s Literature that is often read one-handed. He saved up $100 and boarded a Greyhound Bus to the Big Apple a few days before Christmas with nobody to wave to from the window as he trundled onto his next bumbling chapter. This transitory page of Richard Hell’s novel is best described by the dead turtle that he kept in a jar. In some fucked-up way it is emblematic of the dreary, air-less and stilted malaise that he found himself in when he got to New York City. Alone and barely moving, he may as well have been living in a jar himself, at least that would’ve kept the flies out. 

With all of this brooding in the welter and seeing the somnambulant stroll of society coming to join him in the gutter, the madness of punk almost seems like the obvious response. He dragged his gangly carcass around various New York bookstores seeping the last remnants of his corpses soul onto the fouled carpet. However, despite the grim image I’m painting, when reading his astounding memoir, the brilliantly named I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, there is a hopeful undercurrent that, like some half-animate grunge Cinderella, he had too much of an eye for the main chance to ever acquiesce to apathy. His night at the ball was out there somewhere, but so far, he was riding on pumpkins. 

“It’s great to be anywhere as a writer. It saves you from implication in the ugliness of the place and justifies your being there.”

At this stage, Hell seemingly figured: if you can’t beat them, observe them. In a very simple transition, he decided to make his art his occupation. The Big Apple was rotten to the core with wormholes and maggots all howling around it, so Hell stepped aside a chose to treat it like a painter with a canvas. Vincent Van Gogh might not have been living a life of luxury but at least he wasn’t actually at the table with the potato eaters and Hell vouched to take a similar approach. 

In 1973, with his old pal Verlaine around for can-kicking company, a few rough bands were formed. These early outfits, however, were often too literally symptomatic of New York’s dilapidated society – seemingly always short of guitarist and then maybe a drummer would find himself inexplicably locked up in Ghana or an amp would catch fire and put an end to practising – they were fated never to quite get going just yet. 

“It’s a big relief to discover what you are best suited for, and it’s a real advantage to be able then to focus.”

Although the scratchy days of early musical ventures were failings, they crystalised the point that Hell never even knew he was making when he fled home almost ten years earlier. Over burgers and mushroom barley soup in a deli, the name The Voidoids was born and once something is named the universe demands that it warrants attention. But in typical Richard Hell fashion, whatever demands attention has to sit in the waiting room first. A second band must start up first of all, and that band will be Television and they will go on to be one of the greatest bands there ever was. 

Patti Smith, working as a journalist at the time, would trundle along to see them at some little-known club slowly gaining traction called CBGB. As a signifier of the arty intent of the band, a wall of televisions would be stacked behind them, each displaying different channels, except for one, tastefully off-centre that showed something akin to David Lynch-esque CCTV footage of the CBGB itself. Patti Smith’s piece would be titled: “Television: Escapees from Heaven.” And one of the most proto-punk statements within the piece reads: “Confused sexual energy makes young guys so desirable; their careless way of dressing; their strange way of walking; filled with so much longing. Just relentlessly adolescent.” Bearing in mind this at a time when they only had the New York Dolls and the Ramones for company, this youthful spirit was pretty much the Promethean punk force. 

“Only time can write a song that’s really really real, The most a man can do is say the way its playing feels, And know he only knows as much as time to him reveals.”

In 1975, Hell left Television. Fuck ‘em. They were illuminating the future of music, becoming a fixture in the heart of New York’s art scene, and having demos produced by none other than Brian Eno, but what’s the point if they can’t see the merit in Hell penned songs like ‘Blank Generation’. For a man who has lived lying down then what is one more flop to the canvas. 

For once fate would cushion the fall. Timing would suddenly be a saviour and Hell would manage to catch a phone call that had Johnny Thunders saying ‘hello’ on the other end. He asks if he’d like to join a new band, and just like that Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers are born. Soon, from fractured pieces of the punk scene and various strewn songs, Hell would craft ‘Chinese Rocks’ (despite various other claims of authorship that leave Hell miffed to this day) and with it, Hell’s status as one of the foremost lyricists in punk was established… to all of about 40 people in the know. 

“Memories are better than life. Nothing I’m part of is good until later. I love what time does.”

The whole tableau of ‘Chinese Rocks’ is emblematic of Hell’s legacy in the punk scene and beyond. For starters it’s about heroin, it’s cobbled together from various fragments like a Bayou Tapestry of Punk, and the man at the centre is so laidback that he is basically subterranean and can’t be seen until DNA testing later finds that he was a central figure in the creation of an art form that changed the world. 

With this masterpiece under his belt and his mind feverishly cogitating on various others, the slow unfurling of secondhand recognition began. Just as Hell celebrates, everything he does is better in retrospect. For instance, he soon left The Heartbreakers to finally pursue his own thing and when the idea of the whole band wearing identical cheap suits is later liberated by fellow CBGB phenoms set for less subterranean heights, Talking Heads, it’s deemed an art school addition to punk that is lauded from the outset. Did Hell care that the spotlight evaded him and illuminated his peers who often blurred the line of parish and parasite? The next pages of his story must show…

“It’s a crime to take anything too seriously.”

As the above might suggest, he barely cared a bit. Not quite enough to say it with as fine a point, but he was happy to turn it into an artistic mantra. The headline to this piece might call him a hero of punk, but what is a punk hero, they’re surely mutually exclusive descriptions. And as a man once said, “what’s a hero at all for that matter?”

In the years that followed the brilliant maelstrom of the CBGB, Richard Hell transfigured his artistic view into other realms. His various literary works are superb, and I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp may well be one of the greatest music memoirs ever written. Propped up on the dreamy content that he has left behind and cushioned by humour from all the people that hate him, he reclines in his comfy gutter and looks up and says to himself, “The truth is not straining for the truth, the truth is in effortlessness.” And with that, liberated from legacy and life alike, the true story of Hell will never be written because it’s a fire forever evolving. After all, he was always about the next thing anyway (and we can all be thankful for that for he usually leaves great gifts. in his wake)…

“What intelligent way to live is there but to laugh about it? The alternative, also respectable, is suicide. But how could you do that? Not only would it betray a woeful lack of humour, but it would keep you from finding out what was going to happen next.”

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