richard hell, cbgb, the voidoids
[Photo by: Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons]

When we left off in our expansive conversation with Richard Hell, we established his chicken-and-egg credentials in punk’s development. We spoke of his establishing the spiky haircut—which was to early punk as the ducktail was to ’50s rock ’n’ roll or the moptop was to the British Invasion—as well as what fashionistas now call “distressed” clothing. Equally, we discussed how his first band Television were only truly punk, playing what Hell calls “insane, psychotic, driving music,” in their earliest days when he was playing bass and singing and guitarist Tom Verlaine hadn’t yet asserted his airtight personal vision on the group. But we barely talked about the new deluxe reissue of his second album, Destiny Street.

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Destiny Street Complete is unique among such sets. The two CDs house a quartet of completely different versions of the record, beginning with the original 1982 album remastered from the original tapes. It’s never sounded better. It’s followed on disc one by 2009’s Destiny Street Repaired, derived from a cassette of the record’s basic tracks cut by that era’s lineup of the VoidoidsHell on bass, original guitarist Robert Quine, Ivan Julian’s replacement Naux on second guitar and drummer Fred Maher, who’d join Quine in Lou Reed’s band. Unsuccessful in finding the master tapes at that time to remix it, Hell cut new vocals and had a gang of avant guitarists—Tom Waits sideman Marc Ribot, free-jazz genius Bill Frisell and Julian himself—cut new leads to replace the sea of overdubs Hell found objectionable. Then there’s Destiny Street Remixed, the unearthed 24-track session tapes remixed to the bandleader’s original vision with Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, ringing with fresh clarity. 

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Ending with Destiny Street Demos (1978-1980), filled with additional songs that didn’t make the final cut, every part of Destiny Street Complete functions as its own individual work. The songs were never a problem, and the original album worked as it was. But all these alternate universe versions are equally valid as well, whether listened to discretely or as a whole. The album is the focus of the conclusion of our chat.

The occasion upon which we are having our first-ever conversation is a most interesting version of an album I love, but you apparently were not pleased with it.

Yeah, I keep encountering this reaction! [Laughs.] And it really surprises me because I never got the impression that anybody liked that record. I knew there were a few die-hard extremists who had respect for it and got something from it. But that whole period was such a fog, and it was such an unpleasant experience for me with the record company. I eventually had to sue the record company to get my rights back because they were cheating me so badly. But the record didn’t have any circulation. It got some very good reviews. This is probably unwise to say. I’m probably cursing myself, but I expect good reviews because I feel like I’m the kind of artist/musician that reviewers are predisposed to appreciate. I’m the kind of artiste that is their ideal in music, being somebody that’s mind-oriented in a lot of ways. I’d say I’m fairly sophisticated in my approach, even though my means—my actual abilities—have a lot of gaping holes in them. [Laughs.] 

You’re a sophisticated primitive!

I’m the kind of person who can have a conversation with a writer. So I discounted the high praise that the record got from some critics because I’m the kind of stuff a critic is more likely to appreciate. But the record just vanished and didn’t really have any distribution. I wasn’t even really playing in that period. In the course of a year, I probably played 30 dates. Whereas most bands, in the course of a year, would play 200 dates if they’re trying to succeed. But I only played when I was really desperate to pay the bills. I had become completely demoralized. I was just staggering on for a lack of any better idea of what to do with myself. 

I didn’t think anybody liked the record. I didn’t see anybody clamoring for new re-releases of it. Basically when I got the rights to it back from Marty Thau [a prominent NYC music biz figure who managed the New York Dolls and ran Red Star Records, the label that originally released Destiny Street] in the early 2000s, I let it go out of print. It was still being brought out by two or three small independent labels around the world. But I just let those expire and didn’t accept any further offers. But I didn’t see anybody lining up, saying, “Where’s my Destiny Street?” 

Now with this box set coming out, everybody’s saying, “Oh, but I love the original version so much!” I remain unconvinced. I’m not saying you’re lying. [Laughs.] But I think you’re exaggerating a little. The fucking music world is just so full of hype, and nobody can write about anyone without saying, “They are the really unrecognized primary influence on everybody you ever heard.” Anybody that gets an article written about them has to be described as a genius. That’s just what goes on now in music.

At least since the height of the Blank Generation album and touring England with the Clash in 1977, you’ve had an ambivalent relationship with rock ’n’ roll with your role in punk-rock history. That’s what is so interesting in hearing about Destiny Street and how you felt disappointed by it. That’s what is so hilarious and crazy about you doing this reissue: “Wait, he’s doing four different versions of the same album?” And yet, all of them work!

Well, I’m glad you feel that way. But I know—it is crazy. I knew that I would get a lot of mockery about it. But I have absolutely no regrets. I’m really pleased with the results. It’s everything I wanted to do and hoped to do. I also feel like it’s unique, in ultimately being for me. Maybe there will eventually turn up to be two or three capable people who feel the same way and some kind of analysis of this. But to me, it’s one work. I like it as a work of its own. It’s not just a collection of four versions of the same 10 songs. But it’s a unique work of its own that has to do with these weigh stations across 40 years. Each brings different information and expresses different things. I’m almost as interested in the story it tells as a work of its own, as if it were a narrative across all that time. I’m almost more interested in it as a story, rather than as audio. The story is part of it, too.

So, it makes me happy. It’s such a relief because I only made two albums for all practical purposes. And having one of them be something I regretted in certain ways for all that time? That hurt. It’s really great to be able to do something about it and end up with this thing that’s its own animal.

The first thing I ever heard from you was the Destiny Street version of “The Kid With The Replaceable Head” being broadcast on KPFT in Houston on their afternoon hardcore show. It blew me away. It cut through everything else played that day. The guitar work particularly sliced through the radio static. Then I come to find out from reading the liner notes that everything I thought Robert Quine was doing was actually done by the other guy!

[Laughs.] Yeah, it happened! Naux was great. But that happened a lot with Blank Generation, too. A lot of people remarked how great Quine’s guitar was on “Liars Beware,” but it was played by Ivan. And that was my favorite on the record. People just assume when they hear something nice on the records where Bob played that it was him. Naux was really inspired in a lot of places on that record. I’d like to take the chance to be scrupulous and clarify in the booklet to the CD who played what solos everywhere, all through the 40-plus tracks on the album. 

I now see, as I listen to the original mixes side by side with the new remix what you’re talking about, re: Destiny Street’s original production. I do like the remix. It is cleaned up, and yet, you still hear the distinctive contributions of that band.

I feel the same way. For me, the three versions of the same 10 songs—then the fourth thing is the demos, which includes some other songs other than what was on the original album. But you get the one from 1982. Then there’s the one I made in 2009. I was forced, because Quine had died, to use other guitar players for the solos, and I resang the songs on top of a mix of the original band playing live in the studio—just the rhythm tracks, two guitars, bass and drums. 

That’s how we recorded. When we would start making the record, we would lay down all the basic tracks live. I found a cassette of that, so I was able to do a cleaner version of the original album with new guitar players and new vocals. I think that one is superior to the original, too. To me, in terms of just presenting the material? Yeah, Quine is incomparable as a guitar player. But Ribot and Frisell and Ivan are no slouches themselves. Because I was able to make these clean recordings, the 2009 version from the cassette tape is much more faithful to the material. To me, it’s an improvement. 

Then when we found the 24 tracks just a couple of years ago, we were actually able to remix the original album. To me, it’s the core of the release. It’s the basis for the release. It’s the reason the release is done. This remix had been my hope and dream since 1984. It’s true that some of the qualities of the music that I was objecting to or criticizing or bitching about is baked in. Because it had to do with how crazy the playing got. On Blank Generation, I was there to point people in a certain direction. But I was so mentally and physically messed up with Destiny Street when it was recorded that sometimes I wouldn’t even come into the studio for the guitar solos. Some of those qualities of really processed sound, of a lot of effects boxes being used, it degrades stuff. Because those guys were frustrated with me, too, and they didn’t know what I wanted except what I would tell them to do on the phone. They took the opportunity to really go over the edge. Normally, I encouraged people to do that. I want frantic, crazed, wild music. 

But a remix doesn’t affect it. But what I could do with a remix is separate the various tracks so that they were more distinct, so you could hear everybody, instead of everything getting blended into a big, muddy puddle. And also bring out and play with the EQ and the various things you can do through remixing all of the parts that I wanted to keep. And bury or get rid of the parts that were just adding mud. So there’s a lot more distinctness and clarity. But it doesn’t lose all the positive things that the original had. It gains. It allows you to hear everything, and with greater clarity. It is the ultimate version. 

But the three each have their qualities. There are things to prefer about cuts on all three versions. And I’d say about 25 to 30% of the reviews say they like the demos best of all. That’s the greatest thing they take from the complete package. They love the demos. I’m really pleased how we’re able to get four albums in one package. That’s one thing I appreciate about the collapse of CDs as a medium. You’re able to get everything really cheap on CD now. It’s amazing, the jazz stuff you can get. You can get an eight-disc Coltrane set for like $9. So we’re able to bring out four records’ worth of material, with a really detailed, thoughtful, 16-page booklet that I wrote a long essay for, for $20-$25. To me, it’s such a relief after all these years to be able to salvage that second album I made.

This is an incredible work. It’s a funny idea, but it works. I love it. I was really happy you brought this out. Now, is there any chance Richard Hell, the musician, will reappear in the future?

No.

So basically, all of your efforts in the future will strictly be literary?

I dunno. It depends how broadly you are defining “appear as a musician.” It does seem that something always turns up to do some little small thing or some isolated thing. But I will never play live again. That won’t happen unless there’s some other horrible disaster that calls for me to do some benefit or something. I might do a song or something. 

But you can’t be casual about this. That’s part of the reason I got out of it, and that hasn’t changed. It’s a major investment of time and energy to have a band play live and record. You can’t just record anymore, either. You never could. It’s even worse now. Everything is streaming, and money isn’t good. There’s no income from selling audio. People have to tour, and I hate touring. I don’t want to be responsible for paying the bills for a band. 

I don’t want to take away all the time I have free for myself. I really like having leisure time. [Laughs.] Having a band really requires a lot of attention. Touring means you can’t be doing anything else. To make a go of it, economically, you’re going to have to do that for months and months and months of the year. I’m not going to do that. 

No, I won’t be doing music anymore. But it’s not just literature. I might make a movie tomorrow. There are no limits to what I might want to mess around with. But no, I’m not going to be doing gigs or bringing out another album.

Well, it’s interesting that you put it just the way you did. It touches on something that I have tried to impress upon younger people: Punk was a culture. It wasn’t just a musical form. There were punk filmmakers. There were punk poets, such as yourself or Patti Smith. There were even punk comedians and things like that. It was a way of doing whatever creativity that you had with what limited means you might have at your disposal. 

Absolutely. It’s about bypassing the controlled, established means of production. It’s doing it yourself, rather than working for some corporation that has a preconceived audience in mind that you have to fit. It definitely is a different way of doing things, and it applies to all sorts of areas besides music. 

Well, the books you’ve written over the years have been great. I look forward to more. And if this is the case, I think I am fine with the final recorded performance I will hear by Richard Hell is that version of “Time” from Bob Quine’s memorial.

That was nice that that was possible. I think it worked well to top off the collection with that two-man version of “Time” that I did with Ivan in 2004. It might be my favorite version now. 

I can understand that. That’s the most beautiful version of the most beautiful song you have written.

Wow, thanks! Glad you feel that way.