Richard Hell knew the ’70s was the time for more “psychotic” music
The first of a two-part conversation with the man who built the CBGB stage on his history and reimagining his least favorite album.March 12, 2021
Punk has a million precedents—musical, spiritual. The basic sound and attitude can be traced back to the wildest, most primitive rockabilly records of the ’50s and the most fuzzed-out garage bands of the ’60s, plus the racket the New York Dolls and Iggy and the Stooges raised in the early ’70s. You see it in 21-year-old Elvis Presley’s sneer and James Dean’s cry of “You’re tearing me apart!” in the first minutes of Rebel Without A Cause. You can read it in the passionate verse of the Beat writers, especially in Allen Ginsberg’s America, when he instructs our nation to “go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.”
But if anyone other than Iggy Pop is The First Punk Rocker As We Know It, it’s Richard Hell. Born Richard Lester Meyers 71 years ago in Lexington, Kentucky, he’s been an accomplished, published poet since the early ’70s. But he was the first to codify many of punk’s signifiers via his early membership in Television, the band that literally built the stage at CBGB. Jagged and weaving in history’s first spiky haircut and artfully torn clothing, pumping minimalist bass guitar to the band’s rhythmic, distorted noise derived from the ’60s most fuzzed-out garage rockers, Hell exited with his nihilist anthems like “Blank Generation” and “Love Comes In Spurts” when childhood friend Tom Verlaine wanted more control of the band. He passed through Johnny Thunders’ post-New York Dolls outfit the Heartbreakers before leaving to center his Voidoids around the sick, twisted guitar work of Robert Quine.
Since his disappointment with the second Richard Hell And The Voidoids album, 1982’s Destiny Street, he’s only sporadically made music, preferring to concentrate on his writing. He has published a number of books over the decades, including the novel Go Now, the Hot And Cold collection of poems and lyrics and his excellent 2013 memoir I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp. And now comes Destiny Street Complete, a two-disc reimagining of Hell’s least favorite entry in his brief discography, consisting of four different versions of the album: 1. The original release; 2. Destiny Street Repaired, a 2009 reinterpretation featuring new vocals and new guitar parts from Marc Ribot, avant jazzer Bill Frisell and original Voidoid Ivan Julian; 3. Destiny Street Remixed, sonic surgery done to the original 24-track master tapes by Hell and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner; 4. Destiny Street Demos (1978-1980), which should be self-explanatory. We took the set’s release as an opportunity to discuss his role in punk history and the record that’s finally in a form he’s comfortable with.
We begin with Hell asking Your Punk Professor if we’d ever met before.
We met once. We used to see each other around the Lower East Side in my New York days. You used to stare at me as I walked past. I finally figured out you might have wanted royalties from me for having your old haircut!
[Laughs.] My whole career, no one has ever made that sight connection. Sometimes, I wish you could copyright ideas. Not really, though. That would be very fascistic.
It would be. But Bo Diddley would have been a very rich man, if that were possible!
That’s for sure.
And so would you. One of my favorite chapters in your memoir from several years back, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, concerns your ideas. And I did want to talk about that with you, even though we have a record to promote! [Laughs.] But there’s one chapter in there where you talked about everything that you brought to Television and to punk culture in general—all these things like what records you were listening to. You loved those bands like the Kinks, where every musician acted as a drummer basically, but with that stripped-down, distorted sound on top.
Plus the little things you did, like your haircut. It cracked me up to read how you wanted it to basically be a grown-out crew cut. Because my grandmother, the first time I walked into her kitchen with spiky hair, said, “Well, that just looks like an old ragged crew cut!”
[Laughs.] Really? That’s funny!
I get younger people who come to me and say, “Well, Television doesn’t sound much like punk rock to me.” And I tell them, “Have you ever heard the demos they did with Richard Hell? Have you heard their early practice tapes?”
Those practice tapes that sometimes leak out over YouTube. You hear those and think, “OK, that sounds more like what came to be known as punk rock.”
I can’t remember what’s on the demo tape [produced by Brian Eno in 1975, for a potential Island Records deal]. I was already so disenchanted with where the band was going at that point. Tom [Verlaine] refused to record any of my songs for it. I’d written “Blank Generation” and two or three others, but they were collaborations, most of them, because I wasn’t really writing music yet. I was just starting to write music. But he wouldn’t do any of my songs when we made those demos, and it was already at the point where I was trying to figure out, “OK, how can I deal with this?” I was really unhappy.
But you’re right. At the very beginning, it was more punk. We were really obscure. There were 20 people at CBGB the first six months we played there. It caught on fairly quickly, but still, people weren’t like making bootlegs of us or anything. The best way to get a feel for what we sounded like when we were a punk band is the Neon Boys music. You can hear it there, and you can see it on the notorious Ork loft rehearsal video. But the sound on that is so bad, and the playing is so sloppy. It’s not a very good representation of what we sounded like. That was really, really early. And that was before we had even played out yet. We rehearsed maybe for three months before we booked a gig. [In] that video, we were just learning the songs. If you can put together the way we behave in that Ork loft video that you can find on YouTube with the way we sound on the Neon Boys tracks, you’ll get a good picture of what we were like.
There’s a couple of bootlegs of early Television. But they’re really hard to find. And that sound and style only lasted three or four months, and that was only at the very beginning. So people weren’t coming around making tapes of us. But pretty quickly, Tom started wanting to take control and go in a different direction—a very, very highly structured music where everything is centered around the guitar playing. On Marquee Moon and the early songs of Tom’s, there’s still a lot of great, driving material like “Double Exposure”—really great, great songs. And that was more like what we sounded like in the very beginning. But he wanted to go in this direction of just doing his own music, and it was all about these structured guitar solos and these almost symphonic ambitions. That was very far from what we were at the beginning. But yeah, if they play those records, they don’t see it sounding like punk. And it doesn’t. But you can hear the vestiges of it in songs like “Double Exposure.”
Well, your entire career, you have worked with some incredible guitar players.
It’s true. I really like that aspect! [Laughs.] I think I worked with the three most interesting guitar players in New York City by default—Tom, Johnny [Thunders] and Bob [Quine]. It makes me proud because they all wanted to work with me. They’re very different from each other, but they’re the three that were the best. I think I benefited from it a lot.
Absolutely. Tom was this jagged virtuoso, who developed this beautiful, lyrical lead style. Johnny was the living, breathing definition of rock ’n’ roll. Bob was a great abstract expressionist guitar player who’d rather sit around and play you his James Burton B-sides, honestly.
[Laughs.] Yeah! Absolutely!
I love that about Quine: “Hey, man! Listen to this break Ritchie Valens played on ‘La Bamba.’”
[Laughs.] Oh, yeah! He probably saw Ritchie Valens. I know he saw Buddy Holly.
I remember Quine saying in interviews that you got his best performances out of him by goading him and goading him until he got so pissed off, he’d be bashing his guitar.
Well, that was especially appropriate for the Blank Generation album. He was still a little insecure. He was like a relative outsider to the CBGB scene. I’d already been in two bands when he showed up, and he didn’t fit in with the CBGB idea of a punk. [Laughs.] He wasn’t sure what I wanted from him. I had to keep making suggestions and giving directions. So yeah, I did have to come up with a technique for getting the most out of him. It infuriated him at the time. He was ready to kill me. I would keep rejecting his solos, and that was in order to take him to where I needed him to be. He had to be more free and energetic and wild because he was a little inhibited. He didn’t really know what was expected of him.
By the time of Destiny Street, there was less need for that. I wish I had been there to have a little more control over how things were being done, rather than cowering in my girlfriend the coke dealer’s apartment! [Laughs.] But it’s true, the fact that I wasn’t there, and the fact that they were frustrated over that. It did give them a chance to do a lot of experimenting and a lot of venting.
You are the square root of practically everything punk. Not to say you didn’t have your own square roots. I remember seeing Martin Scorsese’s brilliant Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, when it came out. I kept watching the footage of Bob onstage in ’66, and he’s writhing around like a jagged nerve. He had this spiky music going on and those great words and that presence and everything. And I thought, “Holy shit! This is Richard Hell.”
[Laughs.] I don’t really know how to answer that. I’m a big admirer of Bob. I’m trying to picture that movie. I saw the one from the Rolling Thunder tour that Scorsese made. That No Direction Home one is supposed to be about his whole career?
It was basically his life and career up to his motorcycle accident. It’s a three-and-a-half-hour film.
Really? It’s not ringing a bell. I wonder why I never saw that? But anyway, it’s kind of you to compare me to Bob.
I wasn’t saying you were a copycat. But I saw a spirit similar to yours. It’s like there was a direct line from newly electrified Dylan to you, like you both plugged into the same outlet or the same amplifier.
When I started out, I had no respect for Bob. I thought he was washed-up. That was a funny thing. Anybody who kept up with Bob—especially for as long as what we’re talking about, going back to the ’60s—are bound to have their ups and downs with him. Especially when I began playing music. I thought he’d lost it by about 1970, ’71, ’72, something like that. I wasn’t paying any attention to him. I didn’t listen to his records. He made some bad records at that time. But I like some of his worst records! [Laughs.] Under The Red Sky is a favorite of mine, and I’m sure that’s a minority choice. But the thing I’m getting is in the period when I was doing music, I really didn’t take him seriously. I can’t remember where “Going, Going, Gone” came from, which I ended up covering [on Destiny Street]. [It was actually from Dylan’s 1974 album, Planet Waves.] Of course, when I was a teenager, he was very strong for me. But I was never like a hero-worshipper. I was not a fan. I was never a fan of anybody. I just didn’t have that mentality. But for that whole period—the early ’70s until the late ’70s, anyway—I wasn’t paying any attention to what he was doing. I never saw him live. I haven’t been to that many concerts.
But then, at some point, I somehow discovered Blood On The Tracks. And that woke me up. [Laughs.] I should have heard that record when it came out. I don’t even know whether I would be able to appreciate it. Because at that time—which would have been 1974; we had our first date in Television in like March or April of 1974—I was so single-minded and focussed and dogmatic about what I wanted from music. I probably would not have appreciated Blood On The Tracks. I wanted insane, driving music. I wanted music that was psychotic. Anything hippie, I rejected. Because when I was starting out, my whole mentality, my whole sensibility was about rejecting that whole worldview. There were plenty of reasons to. Not only did it seem like it was delusional, this “We’re going to change the world by handing each other flowers!” But there had been all this dramatic undermining of any hope of there being some worldwide, revolutionary, enlightened change. This is what kids in the ’60s believed was possible. Then there were the assassinations of Martin Luther King [Jr.] and Robert [F.] Kennedy, then Altamont and [Charles] Manson and the Vietnam War. All those things just came crashing down. But still, these hippies were hanging on. And I wanted the most insane, driving music, not this flowery/jammy/Love Generation folk music that had preceded us.
Basically, you wanted more “Psychotic Reaction” and less “Put A Little Love In Your Heart.”