Friday, December 14, 2012

Hell on Earth

by Ariella Stok

There is not much talk of fire and brimstone in Judaism, nor gruesome landscapes of eternal damnation and demonic torture. A vague concept of the afterlife was appended to the religion in later iterations, but it is not a focus nor is there much consensus of what it might entail. To the extent that hell is discussed in Jewish texts, it is often given as a state of being that one need not wait until after death to experience. Described as a feeling of intense shame that accompanies bad deeds, the condition of being on the outs with God, hell is readily available right here in the earthy realm.

In 1949, a Jewish Hell was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in the form of a baby boy named Richard Meyers, the son of parents who had met as graduate students in psychology at Columbia University. Although his mother was Methodist, it was his Jewish father’s New York-based family with whom he was close. In a new autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, due out on Ecco/Harper Collins in March, 2013, he writes of his family background:

"There wasn’t much awareness of family, or family history. I had no real understanding of what a Jew was, for instance, though I knew that my father’s family fit that description somehow. I thought Judaism was a religion, and we didn’t have any religion."

Instead, American pop culture of the 50s was his creed:

"We lived in the suburbs in America in the fifties. My roots are shallow. I’m a little jealous of people with strong ethnic and cultural roots. Lucky Martin Scorcese or Art Spiegelman or Dave Chappelle. I came from Hopalong Cassidy and Bugs Bunny and first grade at ordinary Maxwell Elementary."

He became a disciple of Saturday morning TV—Zorro and the Cisco Kid—and the cinema, via the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, and through these he arrived at a model that would inform his earliest identity as an artist:

"I grew up thinking men worked best in wandering small teams, usually two-man. You needed someone to conspire with, someone to help you maintain the nerve to carry out your ideas. Someone to know what you were thinking (otherwise your thinking didn’t really exist.) Someone who had qualities you wanted, maybe, too, and which you could acquire to some degree by association."

Among his earliest memories as a child was the impulse to run away, “of dreaming and conspiring in a hideout, beyond the pale.” After a string of minor infractions and foiled attempts he made his penultimate escape attempt with his latest best friend, Tom Miller, who he met while attending boarding school in Delaware. Heading south to Florida, the two-man team planned to become poets and live off the fat of the land. They made it as far as Alabama, where they were arrested for setting an open field ablaze with an out-of-control campfire, and sent back home. Upon return, Richard got a after-school job in a pornographic bookstore to save up for the bus ticket that took him to New York City two months later—his permanent escape, while Tom stayed behind to finish high school and a year of college before joining his friend in the city, where the two became inseparable partners in crime, staying up all night talking and then crashing on each other’s floors, frequenting the same artists bars like Max’s Kansas City, and working together at a film bookstore called Cinemabilia that was managed by future music entrepreneur, Terry Ork.

Although Richard had originally moved to New York to become a writer, he decided on a change of plans after he and Tom attended a performance at the Mercer Art Center by the New York Dolls—a band whose outsized influence was due in no small part to removing the barrier of skill from making music and replacing it with a wild, flamboyant energy that suggested the fantasy that rock stardom was in anyone’s grasp. Of his decision to cast his lot with rock and roll, he says in Legs McNeil’s oral history of punk, Please Kill Me:

"There was just so much more excitement in rock & roll than sitting home writing poetry. The possibilities were endless. I mean, I could deal with the same matters that I’d be sweating over alone in my room, to put out little mimeograph magazines that five people would ever see. And we definitely thought we were as cool as the next people, so why not get out there and sell it?"

Richard was able to persuade Tom, who had been up to this point sowing his musical oats playing acoustic guitar at a hootenanny night in the West Village every few months, to get together an electric band. Tom picked out a Danelectro bass for Richard, and taught him some simple lines. They start improvising and writing songs together, importing a drummer, Billy Ficca, who Tom knew from Delaware, forming the Neon Boys, and adopt their noms de plume—Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell. Taking their cues from Arthur Rimbaud and (for Hell) his self-destructive method for attaining poetic transcendence through a “derangement of the senses”, they embarked on their own Season in Hell. In 1973, The Neon Boys record their only EP, splitting writing duties between the five songs. Around this time, Hell pens a short novel of scabrous prose, called The Voidoid, whose narrator grapples with the needs of the body and the spirit, and imagines himself as living his life as though sleepwalking through a hellscape:

"Time to wash your bones. You pull the flesh over your head as the landscape simultaneously raises like a curtain to reveal swarming dirt and quivering organs of all shapes, sizes, and colors. The place is crawling with empty swimming pools. The dead leaves seem much stronger than usual. You sit and feel the wind blow through your ribs. You gaze at the sky as if you'd just come off the street into a movie house. All else is dark."

The Neon Boys put an ad in Creem: “Wanted: rhythm guitarist. Talent not necessary,” and auditioned a handful of candidates, including then unknown-to-them, Chris Stein (later of Blondie) and Dee Dee soon-to-be Ramone. When none possessed sufficient lack of talent, the band dissolved due to lack of momentum. A second chance, however, comes along when Verlaine and Hell’s boss (and future dope connection) Terry Ork offers to become the band’s benefactor, buying them equipment, helping to book shows, and setting them up with a second guitarist, Richard Lloyd, who, fresh from a stint at a mental institution, had hustled his way into living with Ork. The band is reborn as Television. 

In an interview on a talk show in 1993, Hell describes those early days:

"When we were starting out, we were lonely, hungry kids from the sticks in New York. We thought that the whole world looked all pompous, and sentimental, and dishonest. And it was reflected in the rock and roll that was going on at that time, too – big stadium bands going around in limousines, wearing velvet and shag haircuts and high-heeled boots, putting on these kind of fascist shows. Like Nuremberg with the lights flashing. We wanted to just cut through the shit and bring it back to the streets. That’s what rock and roll is supposed to be about: teenage reality."

In contrast to the glitzy aesthetics of glam rock, Television were spare and lean, in sound and appearance. Seeking a weekly residency where they could build a following, they propositioned the owner of a club on the Bowery, CBGB’s, erroneously convincing him that their music offered the country, bluegrass, and blues that gave the venue its name.  The shows were a hit, drawing crowds to the seedy bar, and creating a breeding ground for a music scene that would expand with the addition of The Ramones, Blondie, and The Talking Heads, among others. They received their first review in the Soho News, written by devotee, Patti Smith, who gushed, “A few non-believers murmur that they look like escapees from some mental ward but those tuned into TV know better. These boys are truly escapees from heaven."

According to Hell, for a year (or at least the first half of the year), Television was the greatest band in the world. It took roughly the same amount of time for power struggles over leadership of the band to erupt between Hell and Verlaine. Hell got fed up and left. That same week in 1975, Hell was propositioned by Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls to join him and fellow Doll, Jerry Nolan, in starting a new band, The Heartbreakers. It lasted eight months until once again Hell became disappointed by his lack of leadership in the group whose predilection for songs about going steady didn’t jive well with Hell’s aspirations towards the poetic and intelligent.

Once again a free man in 1976, Hell sets about building a new band—The Voidoids—of which he would be leader, finding his dream guitarist in Robert Quine, and adding Marc Bell and Ivan Julian. The first album, Blank Generation, released in 1977, mixed new material with songs borrowed and reworked from the repertoires of the Neon Boys and Television. Where Television was transcendental, soaring, cool, and measured, Hell’s Voidoids were corporeal, bleak, spastic, and uncontained. In contrast to the Heartbreakers, the lyrics were poetic, centering around themes of nihilism and dissipation, a life lived in a state of retreat, or a state of being marked by absence. The title song was an adaptation of a novelty song from 1959, “The Beat Generation,” whose hep cat narrator casts aspersions on American commodity culture in favor of a “one room pad where he can make the scene.” In Hell’s version, he imagines his time as “the ____ generation,” taking a stance of disaffection and detachment, leaving the assignation of meaning to the listener–-a guesture that is simultaneously one of rejection and empowerment.

In “Down at the Rock and Roll Club,” Hell describes his going-out ritual, which would become the blueprint for what would become labeled as punk: “I rip up my shirt/Watch the mirror it flirt/Yeah, I’m going out, out, inta sight.” This image proved fungible when Malcom McLaren imported Hell’s look and sound to London. “Richard Hell was a definite 100% inspiration,” McLaren admits in Please Kill Me. “I remember telling The Sex Pistols, “Write a song like ‘The Blank Generation,’ but write your own bloody version,” and their own version was ‘Pretty Vacant.’” Meanwhile the song “New Pleasure” paints a picture of life in/as Hell: “Too weak for life you have become—you can’t get dressed you’re too numb/But we assume sublime poses/deep in true to life in (hypnosis)/true to life in true to life in…”

The Voidoids recorded one other record, and it took them 5 years to do it. Destiny Street once again features guitar hero, Robert Quine, and offers an even deeper trip into the themes of loneliness and desperation than its predecessor. Highlights include “The Kid with the Replaceable Head,” a formidable attempt at a commercial pop song, the achingly sweet “Time,” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s ode to the end of the line, “Going, Going Gone.” As Hell writes in the liner notes to the 1991 reissue on Red Star:

"Sadness. Rock and roll as a way of turning sadness and loneliness and anger into something transcendentally beautiful, or at least energy-transmitting. I’m aware of the utter unredeemable idiocy of apologizing for —denigrating—one’s own work. But if  I’m going to imagine the record strongly enough to be able to write about it with any potency, accuracy, or insight, I must acknowledge that it is deformed, disturbed, and deprived."

Soon after the release of Destiny Street, the Voidoids broke up and Hell eventually returned to his original focus on writing. Although he retreated away from music, he made occasional forays back into it with the Sonic Youth side-project Dim Stars in 1992, and in 1996, published his first semi-autobiographical novel, Go Now. Like the New York School of poets with whom Hell affiliates himself, his artistic project is one of self-creation that blurs the boundaries between art and life. For Hell, the image he constructed for himself was one of a man turned inside-out. In a 1978 interview with Lester Bangs, he said, “That’s the dilemma I’m facing right now: whether I’ll die or whether I can find something I can affirm.” When a Jewish person dies, for 11 months the family is supposed to recite Kaddish to pray for the soul of the deceased to be granted entrance into the kingdom of heaven during the time when the soul is on trial. This period of uncertainty, of fighting for one’s life, and evaluating whether one can be redeemed or must start over again, is the state of hell from which Jews pray for release. For Richard Hell, this is life, art, and a state of permanent exile.


"Time" mp3 
by Richard Hell & The Voidoids, 1979.
available on Time

"Love Comes In Spurts" mp3
by The Heartbreakers, 1975.
available on  R.I.P. Roir Sessions

"(I Belong To The) Blank Generation" mp3
by Richard Hell & The Voidoids, 1976
available on Stiff Records Box Set

"Betrayal Takes Two" mp3
by Richard Hell & The Voidoids, 1977.
available on Blank Generation

"The Kid With The Replaceable Head" mp3
by Richard Hell & The Voidoids, 1978
available on Spurts: The Richard Hell Story

"Lowest Common Denominator" mp3
by Richard Hell & The Voidoids, 1982.
available on Destiny Street
out of print

"That's All I Know (Right Now)" mp3
by The Neon Boys, 1973.
available on Spurts: The Richard Hell Story

top photo: Stephanie Chernikowski
middle photo: Chris Makos
bottom photo: Roberta Bayley 


JohnnyDiego said...

"Blank Generation" cycled through my iPod last night so imagine the excitement and my now newly arising belief in karma when I clicked onto your site this morning.
I've been a Television and Voidoids fan for ages now but I knew little or nothing about the history of Richard and Tom (only through the lyrics of Television's Venus De Millo: 'Then Richie, Richie said:
"Hey man let's dress up like cops
Think of what we could do!"')

Thank you for the great post and a few other songs to add to my iPod cycle.

Anonymous said...

amazing travel into the punkpast!thanks.