Rock's Backpages
About us

Bulletin Board

Rock's Backpages

The Backpages Interview: Richard Hell
King Punk remembers the [   ] Generation

Barney Hoskyns, for Rock's Backpages, March 2002

Richard HellThe original Bowery ripped-shirt nihilist — born plain Richard Meyers in Kentucky — is back with two collections of odds'n'ends: the two-CD Time (Matador) and a book of writings and drawings called Hot and Cold (Powerhouse). Barney Hoskyns talked to Mr Hell in London about Television and Johnny Thunders, the Strokes and the Rolling Stones… and just why there are so many genitals in his book.


RBP: What made you decide to go back to these recordings and repackage them now?

RH: Well, the idea was that I wanted to reclaim R.I.P., because it had been turning up licensed without me playing any role in it. ROIR only had the rights to bring it out on cassette, and then they kept licensing it for CD use. So I wanted to get it out in a CD version that was entirely ours. There's a guy in New York who runs a record store called Subterranean that specializes in '70s New York material — mostly me and Tom and Patti — and he put me together with Matador 'cause he knew they liked my stuff. He also knew there was some archival material that had been floating around and that we thought was worthy of getting some kind of release. So I just talked it over with Matador and we decided what stuff would make a good package. So that was it: it wasn't because I thought, oh, now I must go back… I mean, if I'm gonna bring something out, it's gonna be something from the '70s, 'cause that's all I have!

What about Hot and Cold?

Hot And ColdIt was a complete coincidence that Time happened at the same time as the book, because essentially they're the same concept, in two different media. They're both odds and ends that hadn't been turned up in a proper release before. So it was just like this conjunction of circumstances.

Have the two things been a way of taking stock of your life and career?

Nah, I'm not taking stock. But it is nice just to dispose of the fucking shit. It clears the desk, you know what I mean? Inevitably, you can't help having your own sort of view of the material refreshed by looking it all over again, but that happens periodically anyway. In a way it's like looking at somebody else's work anyway. What does it mean that I made this stuff? Not very much.

But you talk in the booklet essay about "how slapped-around and bewildered and angry and driven I was for most of those years" and how "strangely sad" that makes you feel…

But even that… even when I wrote that, that was the mood was in when I wrote it. Now when I think about it, I think, hmmm, I kind of overdid the negative there, because I was laughing a lot in all those years too.

Listening to Time, to those songs again, made me freshly aware that you're one of the defining New York voices — a petulant, jaded, evil-little-boy sneer that’s like a cross between Tom Verlaine and Johnny Thunders. Where did that voice come from?

TimeI like "petulant"! Where did it come from? Oh, straining to overcome all my weaknesses! I only started singing when we first rehearsed Neon Boys material — the first time I ever played in public was in Television.

You could almost apply to the voice what you say about Thunders’ guitar sound in Hot and Cold: "the way it sounds sarcastic; the drawn-out, bent off-notes…"

I prefer "petulant"! But yeah, there's some of that — sarcasm and sneeringness — but I wouldn't pick those out as being defining traits. I like your "petulant"! It does sound like a whining child.

It’s funny to reflect that you first came to NYC in 1967. Was Gotham a good place to be a struggling poet/boho/protopunk?

Well, I had dropped out of high school and I'd just turned 17 and I was a complete hayseed. I knew nobody in New York.

Did you have a southern accent?

Yeah, and people who know can still detect it. But pretty much I did my best to dispose of it right away, because I could never say anything without somebody, like, remarking on it. Though when I go back to Kentucky, it comes back. So I really didn't know my way around: it took me years to make a friend [laughs]. I was really alienated by the Love and Peace thing, though I made some effort to fit in. By the time I was 19, however, I had a girlfriend who was 34 who was in the middle of the New York art scene. She was Claes Oldenberg's wife, Patti, and she's still a friend. And through her I got to hang out with Jasper Johns and De Kooning, and it was really stimulating. She taught me a lot. And by then, Tom was in New York. It seemed really hard and lonely, and I must have had 30 jobs. I worked as a longshoreman unloading crates from ships. I worked as an encyclopaedia salesman, door to door, and that is not fun in New York!

It's funny how few people appreciate how what you call "twisted French aestheticism gave birth to punk rock. You could argue that the Sex Pistols wouldn't have happened without Rimbaud and Lautréamont, given how immersed you were in writers like that. Not that Sid Vicious ever read Un Saison En Enfer or Les Chants de Maldoror

Except that Malcolm was very sophisticated and highly educated. And he really had a lot to do with what made all that stuff work.

Well, that's a fair point. But I wondered if, when you came to Britain, you connected with anyone for whom punk was more than just stomping noise and hails of phlegm.

Pull QuoteBut I was into stomping noise and violence and confrontation. I chose that, and so did Rimbaud and Lautréamont. I wasn't looking for some kind of intellectual soulmates. I didn't think that literature was superior to the sound of the Velvet Underground.

The Velvets were crucial, weren't they, because they showed you could combine sonic aggression with intelligence.

Well, except that when I first heard the Velvets, they sounded like an inept attempt to be Bob Dylan. I would put Bob Dylan before the Velvets in terms of being ambitious in rock'n'roll and its possibilities on all levels. On the other hand, although Dylan's first few electric records sure did have an amazing sound to them, there was nothing there like Lou Reed's guitar playing on, like, 'I Heard Her Call My Name'.

How did the Neon Boys' garage-punk aesthetic evolve in 1972/3? ‘That’s All I Know (Right Now)’, from April 1973, could have been a track on Nuggets.

Blank GenerationWell, that was the kind of music we were playing when we first started out. We were listening to the Seeds and Paul Revere & the Raiders. The Kingsmen were my idea of a band when I was a kid, and that's what we sounded like when we first started. Even when Television first started, that's what we sounded like.

Did Tom make a rapid adjustment from acoustic hoot nights to lo-fi trash-punk?

I think he was always into the British Invasion and punk stuff. He loved the Velvets. The acoustic thing was just because he couldn't conceive of how a band could be formed until he and I started planning it. He didn't even know where to start with the acoustic stuff. Maybe twice a year he would go to some hoot night in the Village, but mostly he was just fiddling around at home, because it was just all so overwhelming.

Why was your generation [   ]?

Well, I used that phrase first in the back of the "Theresa Stern" book that I wrote with Tom, when I was publishing these little books of poems. I had four books in the works, one of them by me, one by Tom and one by Patti… only the Theresa book ever came out. Anyway, in the back of the Theresa book I put a list of the forthcoming titles, and wrote "Other books from the blank generation". And that's when I conceived of using that. It's possible that I could have been working on the song already, but I don't think so. Or actually, maybe I'd written it. I can't remember for sure. As for the song, I liked the idea of doing my versions of sorta genre songs, and a "generation" song was one of them. I was way into the Who's first album [The Who Sings My Generation in the U.S.], and Tom had this funny, kitsch single by Rod McKuen called 'I Belong to the Beat Generation', so it just seemed like a perfect conjunction to use that classic 'Hit The Road Jack' chord sequence as the structure of that song.

Were you aiming for something as anthemic as the song became?

Pull QuoteWell, the idea of the blank generation to me… well, the whole point was to make you struggle to figure it out. Number one, any way you interpret it is correct. Two, the point of it is to make you have a hard time figuring it out. But obviously it carries these connotations of emptiness, and obviously it carries these connotations of "fill in the blank". For me, it was an awareness of, like, Andy Warhol and Beckett and a whole bunch of people that I identified with but that were actually very different from each other. Samuel Beckett and Andy Warhol had very little in common, except that you could imagine applying the word "blank" to them. But ultimately, when anything was discussed long enough, my conclusion was that I didn't care! It was kind of a defensive thing that kids that age will use. I think I felt just overwhelmed by input: the Vietnam war and the collapse of the '60s and the proliferation of media… it just felt like everything was too much to handle and you just tuned out. Blank seemed appropriate to me, because my own feeling was of sensory overload.

How much did heroin have to do with blanking out?

When I wrote 'Blank Generation' I had never done heroin.

Of Television Mk 1, you've said: "We were these notch-thin, homeless hoodlums, playing really powerful, passionate, aggressive music that was also lyrical." Can you remember the demos you recorded with Brian Eno in 1974?

It was really excruciating going in and doing that. I mean, that has nothing to do with me. I'm just a robot playing bass.

Why did you and Tom fall out? Was it simply a case of This Band Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us? Would one of you have had to be more pliant for the friendship and partnership to survive?

I don't know. At the time, I was so angry at how things went. I mean, we were best friends, and I felt really, like, betrayed and fucked-over. Tom's not very good at… uh…


Exactly. He just has no grace in relating to people at all. In the classic sense, we were best friends who hated each other. There were a lot of things that we had in common that we had in common with no one else, but I knew how responsible I was for all this stuff getting off the ground. Television would not have happened if I hadn't been there with the ideas and the initiative and the enthusiasm… but mostly the ideas. It was a given, it was obvious, that he was the musician who had some skills developed, whereas I was starting from nothing and would have to learn as I went along. But the moment we started getting attention, which was from the first gig, Tom started shutting me out. So it was really excruciating. But at the same time, in retrospect, I probably would have felt the same way if I'd been him. I think I might have handled it a little more gracefully. And ultimately I did feel the same way. I went from there to the Heartbreakers, and though that gave me a lot of satisfaction, I realized that I needed to lead a band completely, where I had the last word. And that's basically what Tom felt like.

Was there any irony in going from one band that had become too arty and pretentious for you (Television) to another that was too doltish and unpoetic (the Heartbreakers)? And were the Voidoids, in that case, a sort of middle passage between those two?

With the Heartbreakers, it was just a narrow range, that's all. I liked that range, but… I needed to be in a band where I got to make the decisions. After I left the Heartbreakers I didn't know where I was gonna go, except I wanted to find out.

What do you make of the Strokes, who seem to be a synthesis of all the CBGBs bands, with a singer who recalls nothing so much as a young Richard Hell?

Pull QuoteI don’t really see that. To me, the Strokes are like a teenybopper band. I'm into the White Stripes. The Strokes are catchy. My daughter loves them. But they remind me of Blondie more than they do the Voidoids. They're doing this skinny-tie, tight-pants music, and to me it's like a style thing. And my God, their graphics are horrifying. They look like something Queen would have done.

Is it strange or amusing to see this resurfacing of the Bowery aesthetic a quarter century on?

I don't know about it. I don't see a Bowery aesthetic, I just see a superficial homage. It's like a paper doll where you put on the little paper punk outfit with the tabs.

Given that we’re in Golden Jubilee year, does that stir memories of how Malcolm turned ‘Blank Generation’ into ‘Pretty Vacant’? Was ‘Pretty Vacant’ as good as ‘Blank Generation’?

Well, I thought the Sex Pistols were the cream of the crop. They came in and topped everybody, for sure. They took all the existing strands and made a perfect package out of them.

The heart of Time is what you call "five songs recorded in the cold preoccupied between-times (decline) of the band, when people were giving up on me because I was not much use…" It's great to hear the original version of the title song again, which you rightly say is far superior to the Destiny Street version. These songs all have a certain dark, melancholy strain, not least the version of Dylan's 'Going Going Gone'.

Yeah, I think that's what I was referring to when I talked about being "bewildered and slapped-around".

It’s funny that Time features covers of Dylan and Stones (and Creedence and Fats Domino) songs, when punk was supposed to be in opposition to '60s rock…

Well, that music had a lot to do with forming me. I didn't feel like I had to pretend otherwise. I didn't wanna strike poses about shit, y'know? I wasn't gonna deny that I loved those bands, 'cause it's not in my nature to act contemptuous towards someone who once mattered to me. In my early years, rock'n'roll really was life or death to me. I look at it in a different way now, of course, and it seems silly to see people define themselves by what bands they like or don't like, but I can remember when the Rolling Stones did 'It's Only Rock'n'Roll' and it really repulsed me. I was so disgusted: it was like, who are they talking to that they're calling it "only rock'n'roll"? That was like the ultimate betrayal. But at the same time they had a point: it is only show business!

Is it true there was some sort of competition between you and Dee Dee Ramone to write a better drug song than ‘Heroin’, the result being 'Chinese Rocks'?

No. He and Johnny have said so much bullshit — those guys never gave a fuck what lies they told. If they didn't know the answer to a question they'd just make up something. They just said what they thought might be amusing.

What’s the difference between you and Johnny Thunders. Why didn’t you die?

A lot of it is luck. I could very easily have died many times. The other thing, probably, is that I had other options, and I don't think Johnny could conceive of other options. There was nothing he could do but go on slogging around playing guitar.

Was he really as "smart" as you and others have said?

He was perfectly smart. But it's very hard to age in rock'n'roll. I decided I wanted out because it was killing me, and I couldn't see where to go with it that wouldn't be fatal. So I could leave. He couldn't leave, because he didn't have anything else to do.

To Susan Sontag in 1978 — the day after you’d written ‘The Kid with the Replaceable Head’ (and she was just finishing Illness as Metaphor!) — you said: "I want to encourage in my songs… that feeling of being an adolescent throughout your whole life, of rejecting the whole idea of having a self, a personality."

I don’t really think about it very much. I try to learn from experience, and I try to behave decently. But I also think there's a lot of truth in this sort of thing about adolescence that I was advocating… that it is really hard to maintain the openness and the fluidity that I was talking about as being desirable in teenagers. The thing I meant was that state that precedes having something to defend as a person: This is who I am, and I reject everything else. Where there's still all the possibilities and you're still interested in everything because you haven't rejected anything yet, and you're not set in your ways and crusted-over. And I think it's trying to keep that in my work, and it's why I like switching around between media. It keeps you fresh if you don't have habitual ways of doing things.

Why are there so many penises and vaginas in Hot and Cold?

[Laughs] It's funny, I was telling somebody how it's really conspicuous that out of the ten interviews I've done so far here in England, nobody has mentioned the dicks! Whereas in America, it's always the first thing they bring up! I don't know why, because America is a notoriously puritanical place. [More laughter] Apart from anything else, there's the naked picture of me! I couldn't decide whether to use that or not, and I finally decided I would for two reasons: 1) Because I'd put in a couple of naked girlfriends, and I thought it was only fair to put myself in, and 2) Because I wanted to see what it would mean! As for all the drawings, I have to admit that a lot of those had to do with taking stimulants and being alone late at night… and that was the way I figured out how to prolong the arousal as long as possible, when there wasn't anybody else present! [Yet more laughter]

Does love still come in spurts, and does it still "murder your heart"?

Well, that was that kind of teenage wail of angst. It's not like it's my last word on romance!

© Barney Hoskyns 2002

If you are interested in the syndication of this or
any other article on Rock's Backpages, please email us.

to top