Richard Meyers, AKA RICHARD HELL, has more than made his mark on many areas of the media. Musically, he formed Television with Tom Verlaine, the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders and, in 1976, fronted Richard Hell & The Voidoids (whose 'Blank Generation' magnum opus is reissued this week). He's also collaborated with The Heads and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore in the Dim Stars.
Coming from a background in poetry - he published a volume of collaborative works with Tom Verlaine under the pseudonym Theresa Stern prior to the formation of Television - he's worked in the field of journalism and produced his first novel, 'Go Now', in 1996. On celluloid, he starred in Susan Seidelman's Smithereens and, somewhat characteristically, appeared as the corpse of Madonna's recently iced boyfriend in Desperately Seeking Susan.
Yet, despite this astonishing body of work, Richard Hell will always be remembered as the prototype punk: the first to fashion his cropped hair into spikes and to hold his ripped T-shirts together with safety pins while embracing the personal politics of abject nihilism.
Music365 recently caught up with Richard Hell in New York City where he looked back on his extraordinary career with frank honesty and surprising good humour. In fact, it was all that we could do to stop the celebrated nihilist from laughing himself unconscious.
Interview: Ian Fortnam
How close do you feel to the fiercely nihilistic protagonist of 'Blank Generation'?
"You know, I haven't changed that much, but it doesn't all seem so dramatic to me now. That's probably the only difference. I did turn a corner somewhere about eight or nine years ago when I actually started being happy to wake up in the morning, and that was never true before. When I woke up it was like 'Oh no, I'm awake again'. But nowadays, pretty much - there is the rare exception - it's pretty consistent that I actually like being awake."
When you initially hooked up with the Voidoids, did you finally feel liberated from the marginalising influences of Tom Verlaine and latterly Johnny Thunders?
Yeah, it seemed like when you were in Television and then the Heartbreakers, you started off on an equal footing and then it seemed that both Johnny and Tom tried to push you further and further out of the limelight.
"Johnny didn't do that, but that was definitely the sort of arc of Television. It started off even, and then Tom did more and more to shut me down, which he was in a position to do at that time because music was so new to me and basically I couldn't write a song, except lyrics. I was only starting to attempt to write music just when I left Television, I'd only written one or two songs. But in the Heartbreakers that's not what happened, we agreed that we were gonna be even and it was fine that we were even, I just realised that I wanted a band that I was running. Because I didn't wanna do nothing but that pure, aggressive, driving rock'n'roll all the time on every song, I mean, we had a couple of ballads, but what worked in the Heartbreakers was a pretty narrow range of material. It was a range that I really liked and I had a good time doing it, but I realised eventually that I wanted to try some things that it just wouldn't be possible to do in the Heartbreakers. Those guys put a different spin on it after I left, for a while anyway, and that kind of annoyed me. But Johnny, or Jerry [Nolan] either for that matter, never acted like that with me in person, but when they would do interviews and it would come out. It comes out of that dumb New York gang mentality. According to the rest of the band I was disloyal or something, so they had to make it out to be that they threw me out, or that they didn't want me in the band anymore because they didn't like my attitude or whatever. But it wasn't like that at all. It was perfectly friendly, I never had anything against them, I just left because I wanted to try some other things that I couldn't do there."
You'd known Tom Verlaine since childhood in Wilmington (Delaware). When you were picked up by the police for burning a field, Tom said it was to keep warm but you said it was just to watch it burn. Does that reflect a fundamental difference in both your personalities and subsequent career paths?
"Well, the guy who wrote that story must have really wanted to create that impression. I mean, that story is true up to the quotations, but who was supposed to be asking us why we started the fire? I guess we could have said that years later in some interview, and it might be true, but I don't remember saying it. We started that fire and I've never really contested that story because, what the hell, why would I?"
Why did you abandon poetry for rock'n'roll?
"Well, because poetry was just like the Heartbreakers, it was just too limited. I mean, nobody really reads and its really hard to write poetry that has the visceral impact that rock'n'roll does, and I wanted to have that kind of impact."
Did you think that rock'n'roll was the most appropriate medium in which to present your poetry?
"I don't see it as, like, funnelling poetry into guitar bands, it's an entirely different kind of endeavour. You'd never look at one of my poems and think, 'that would make a great rock'n'roll song', because they don't. They're totally different; the way they work is completely separate. Now if you look at somebody like Patti Smith, she writes a lot of stuff that sounds like rock'n'roll in her poems, but not for me. I just saw them as two really separate media and I always hated the idea. I never talked about poetry, and nobody knew that I had any sort of history in publishing and poetry for the first many years that I was doing rock'n'roll, because I didn't want that tag. That's pathetic; if people are coming to your rock'n'roll for poetry then there's something wrong with your rock'n'roll."
So it's pretty unlikely that anyone would pick up Wanna Go Out? and feel compelled to say "That's the single".
"Yeah. But actually Wanna Go Out?; that book rocks!"
Did you occasionally rue the day that you ripped your first T-shirt and razored your hair in that the 'godfather of punk' tag occasionally eclipses your art in the eyes of the mainstream?
"Well, I don't give a fuck, I'll take what I can get. But, to the extent that that's true, you're talking about people that wouldn't like my records anyway, because the records aren't really what people think of when they think of punk. My records for the most part aren't really like head-banging music, it's anxious, it's angry and it's noisy, but it's not like pounding head-banging music like The Clash and the Ramones or something, which is what people think of as punk."
It was more cerebral than visceral, possibly.
"Erm, yeah. It's full of mistakes, that's what it is."
In 1975 you were asked by Malcolm McLaren to go to England to front the fledgling Sex Pistols. Have you ever regretted your decision to follow your own maverick muse?
"No. I couldn't work for Malcolm, I knew that then and it's still true. I had realised by that time, after having been in bands with people who had strong ideas of their own that they wanted to impose, that I couldn't tolerate it, and I sure couldn't tolerate it from a manager. And he was very much a manager in that classic way of creating the band and setting down rules."
'Blank Generation' remains a timeless work. Yet it was infused with a high degree of perfectionism, sharp technique and poetic flair that seemed very much at odds with the late '70s Zeitgeist.
"I was determined to see that certain things were done on that record, but in retrospect, it was just a sort of crossroads of circumstances, and I really do feel that half of the things that are really distinctive about that record are failings, but it works. It's just like, Julian Schnabel can't draw, and the fact that he can't draw makes him paint in a certain way. You know, it's like you have to make virtues out of your failings and basically, I think that's what I'm best at."
You eschewed the rock lifestyle and pretty much quit touring after 'Destiny Street'. In retrospect was this in any way symptomatic of playing to audiences who preconceived and expected Ramones thrashes and Clash posturing from you? In short, did the punk legacy swiftly become your poisoned chalice?
"Well, I did get confused. I really didn't know how to deal with my situation, all of the things that people expected of me, what I thought I was capable of, what I wanted to do and what the nature of what I already had done was. Plus, I was very ill from heroin. All of those factors made the whole thing into an ideal that basically I wanted to put behind me. I've said it many times before, but I just don't think that I'm cut out to be a public figure, you know, I just don't thrive on it. It makes me uncomfortable. When I first started out I thought I'd really like it, that was my big ambition, to have my ideas having their effect on things, but I got tired of it really quick."
Wasn't it disheartening to have to continually face audiences that had swallowed the 'godfather of punk' hype that had attached itself to you, and were consequently only interested in hearing 1-2-3-4 identipunk?
"I was aware at times that there was a gap there between how I viewed myself and what people expected from me, but that's bound to happen to any performer regularly in their career if they're interesting at all. They've always got to be moving on and going to places where their audiences aren't anticipating. So, you know, that shouldn't have been fatal, but I dunno, I'd just sort of had enough of it. There were too many things about it that weren't fun for me. I didn't like dealing with record companies, I didn't like dealing with the club owners and promoters. The whole politics of the band was hard to handle, all I really liked doing was making records, but all the rest of it? I didn't really have the stomach for it."
'Go Now' paints a pretty bleak picture of Billy Mud; he's as egotistical, self-serving and full of excuses as any junkie. But how much of your own dark side laced his twisted psyche?
"I know him first hand for sure, but he's one moment crystallised and distilled, he's a very narrow band, but I think from the responses that I've gotten from both critics and just people who've read it and talk about it to me, you do feel his humanity. He doesn't behave very well, but you have some sympathy for him. So it's not that totally narrow, it's not just restricted to the sleaziest, junkie, self-justifying nastiness. But if I were trying to do a memoir, if I were actually trying to write about my own self at the time and in the circumstances that most closely resemble Billy in the book, I couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it because I wouldn't know how to do it honestly, because I wouldn't trust my own motives. I wouldn't know how to put it all in perspective, but by writing something that I knew first hand and doing it in fiction, it set me free, I was cut loose because nobody could say that I was lying or I was self-serving. Often I'm told that I do the reverse; that I make myself out to be worse than I am, denigrate myself. So I was saved all of that, and all of the pressures and the paralysis that it could produce, by writing a fiction book that treated a guy in circumstances that I knew. That I wanted to treat, and that I'd never felt I'd seen treated in the way that I understood it. I'd seen it from the inside, I knew about it; what it's like to be driven by the forces that drive him, that come out of a kind of desperation, longing, and obviously, dope addiction. I'd never seen that kind of state described in a book."
There's obviously the temptation to turn your main character into an anti-hero, by accentuating the mock heroism of the misunderstood junkie figure. But every time you inject a certain amount of pathos into Billy, you immediately follow it with a moment of self-serving nastiness that brings him crashing back down to earth. Consequently any feelings of identification and empathy in the reader are totally negated.
"Well, I did my best to make it true to life, to not romanticise it but to also be fair. Because plenty of people find themselves in that position, they're not evil. I dunno, it was tricky to not make the guy soulless, but not to romanticise it either. So that was the challenge."
Since you announced your 'death' in 1984, you've worked with the Dim Stars and collaborated with The Heads. But will we ever see you return to centre stage musically?
"You never know, I don't have any plans to, but every year that I don't make a CD I regret it, but it's just too much of a hassle."
You're getting too used to the easy life. But, then again, is life made any easier by eschewing creativity?
"It's not an easy life, but just for all the reasons I've described. Music takes all of your focus and there is so much to deal with. And I'm probably a writer first, and to get a page written as well as I know how, pretty much gives me all I need."
And when you're writing you're only answerable to yourself - it is, by its very nature, complete artistic autonomy.
"Well, it's just like I said, much less hassle. I don't have to deal with club owners, I don't have to have the band politics and I don't have to go to rehearsal."
Does it amuse you that a formularised, diluted strain of punk rock has finally infected the American mainstream?
"It was kind of surprising when it happened in the early '90s, but it was great, I welcomed it, and I really liked Kurt Cobain. I'm not a big fan of Nirvana's music, they're fine, I don't play their records, but I really liked that guy. I thought he was really trying to be true to principles that were worthy and I thought he did an amazing job."
Did you ever envisage a generation quite as blank as today's? Specifically, a video culture that stoically shuns the cerebral?
"I dunno, I think probably every generation has pretty much the same proportions of interesting work being done and interesting personalities to uninteresting work and uninteresting personalities as every other generation. There's bound to be a trough between big moments of everybody being excited to have some mission, and it looks like we're in one of those troughs right now, but something'll pop up soon."
What's next in the creative pipeline?
"I'm working on a new novel, plus there's a book which is a sort of collection of odds and ends that's gonna come out by the end of this year or possibly next year, that's gonna be a lot of fun to put together; essays, poems, lyrics, collaborations and drawings. That'll be a pleasure to do."
"I don't really have any regrets, but I wanna travel more. If I were to die without having been in, seen and lived in more parts of the world than I have, I'll be sorry. That's like a kind of anticipated regret; a regret I want to be sure I head off, so I don't have any regrets. But I've just realised in the last couple of years that there's places I've been that I wanna live in and there's places that I haven't seen that I wanna see and I've gotta be sure that I do that."
Look out for an EXCLUSIVE opportunity to put YOUR questions to Richard, when he participates in a webchat here on Music365 in a few weeks; keep checking back for details as soon as we have them.
Richard's website can be found at www.richardhell.com.
Mon Mar 6 2000 11:34 GMT