Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Richard Hell: The Thrill-Seeking Years

The best proof of how brazenly punk yoked New York's post-hippie avant-garde to rock and roll is two albums by Richard Hell: 1977's Blank Generation and 1982's Destiny Street. Not Talking Heads, who in the interest of comity Hell barely mentions in his new book. Not his enabler Patti Smith, who he compliments unstintingly given that he also calls her "a hypocritical, pandering diva." Not Television, the band Hell co-founded with bosom buddy Tom Verlaine, who forced him out in a much-debated dynamic Hell recounts evenly and convincingly. Not Blondie or the Ramones, who as Hell observes outsold the other CBGB bands (although not, let me note, Talking Heads) because their individually distinct aesthetics respected the pop verities as those of the other CBGB titans did not.

One way to conceive Hell's I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, which ends just post-Destiny Street in 1984, is as the full story of how two historic albums grew from the artistic chip on his shoulder. A true memoir for as long as it lasts, it spends 100 pages detailing Richard Meyers's childhood, adolescence, and extended tour of duty--beginning Christmas 1966, when he was barely 17--as a Lower Manhattan bohemian of intense if intermittent ambition and tiny renown. It's half over before the slacker self-starter can dub himself "the king of the Lower East Side." It's two-thirds over before his longtime drinking, smoking, dropping, and chipping has evolved into the full-on junkiedom that pervades without dominating the rest of his story. And strictly speaking it ends when he kicks, first in 1984 and then permanently after a two-year relapse in 1990, a saga it summarizes in a paragraph. A two-sentence paragraph right after explains that he abandoned music along with heroin, repurposing himself as "a professional writer" to make sure he stuck with the program.

Hell dates his "junkie mentality" to before he was actually using--to Theresa Stern, the hooker poet he and Verlaine invented and impersonated in their collaborative 1973 collection Wanna Go Out?, and even to his early anthem "Blank Generation." So another way to conceive the new book is as a substantial substance abuse memoir. But my theory is that Hell had something to prove and needed to get on the stick with it--needed to finish this project because in a publishing business now officially scared of its own shadow, the rock memoir could be as over as the substance abuse memoir in a year or two. And though I doubt Hell was vain enough to think he could top Dylan's Chronicles Vol. 1, the pandering diva he gives her due won a National Book Award for Just Kids in 2010. That must have rankled, and must also have seemed within reach.

Which it was. I love Just Kids, but it does self-mythologize; for all its shows of humility, Smith's book-length love letter to Robert Mapplethorpe is grandiose. Hell's ego is as big as Smith's, but because his artistic strategy has always been to throw himself off balance, this book feels and to some small extent probably is casual and tossed off, which only makes its roughly chronological wealth of private reminiscences, subcultural anecdotes, character sketches, critical sallies, and metaphysical generalizations harder to resist. Equally disarming is his decision to rebuild burnt bridges--like Dylan, making an effort to thank rivals he may have disrespected in the past. Hell recognizes that, even though it was Television who established CBGB as a rock venue, it was Smith whose rushing river of ambition and charisma opened the punk floodgates. He understands that just like guitar votary Verlaine, he rejected the collectively conceived Heartbreakers because he needed to run a band of his own. He agrees with all the CBGB chauvinists who bitch that Malcolm McLaren and John Lydon stole his "short, hacked-up hair and torn clothes," his "safety pins and shredded suit jackets and wacked-out T-shirts," yet still knows damn well that Johnny Rotten "was about the whole world; I was about myself."

This counterpoint of modesty and self-regard is the essence of Hell's charm. He's an embodiment of hipster cool who explains why he isn't cool at all: "I'm cranky under pressure, I'm a mediocre athlete, I get obsessed with women, I usually want to be liked, and I'm not especially street-smart." Immediately after declaring himself king, he qualifies the claim: "the crown was mine largely by virtue of my appreciation of the realm and because I hated royalty." In this second instance, I should add, Hell's modesty is false flat-out even if you extend the "appreciation of the realm" part to his immersion in the neighborhood and its artist denizens--he was especially devoted to the New York School poets, in particular such second-generation obscurities as Bill Knott, Tom Veitch, and future uber-agent Andrew Wylie. Basically, Hell was king because he'd generated a sensibility so many could emulate and run changes on. Only the Ramones were as seminal, and they were half cartoon.

Although he's self-deprecating about it of course--mocking his early incompetence, shrugging that he "knew how to pick 'em"--Hell was New York punk's great ladies' man, and here again he scrupulously acknowledges his debts. Although his portraits of male musical buddies--Tom Verlaine, Robert Quine, Johnny Thunders, Dee Dee Ramone, Lester Bangs, Peter Laughner--are equalled only by Dylan's in the rock memoirs I've read, he's even more impressive honoring major girlfriends for a few paragraphs or pages: Patty (Mrs. Claes) Oldenburg schooling the artist as a young man; Marisol assistant Anni cushioning their amicable breakup; Aphrodite-with-money Jennifer Wylie and her nice apartment; gracious scenester-photographer Roberta Bayley ("the prettiest breasts I've ever seen"); Stiletto and "slut (like me)" Elda Gentile; supergroupie Sabel Starr ("She truly lived for fun and joy, and the thing that was the most joyous of all to her was to make a meaningful rock musician happy"); lifelong beloved Lizzy Mercier ("hair so wild and abundant it looked like it would have leaves and twigs in it"); "psycho fiend" Nancy Spungen before she bagged Sid Vicious; dominatrix turned sub Anya Phillips before she bagged James Chance; rent-a-punk Paula Yates before she bagged Bob Geldof, shagged Michael Hutchence, and OD'd; photographer and future Mrs. David Johansen Kate Simon ("I didn't treat her right"); big-hearted John Waters/Nan Goldin fetish object Cookie Mueller; childlike Dutch prostitute Liva; and the "stupendously generous" Susan Springfield of the Erasers, who my wife and I would watch from our corner window walking sweetly hand-in-hand with Hell toward his apartment a few blocks east.

Although Hell's title is a childhood memory and it takes him 50 pages to quit high school, exactly or even approximately what turned the kid into such an original remains unclear. Academic father drops dead when he's eight, mom earns Ph.D. while he runs wild, end of unrevealing story. But wild he was--in one jaw-dropping sentence-and-a-half, he signs up for a driveaway car to Texas and totals it drunk in Illinois--and also something special. At goddamn 17 he hated Sgt. Pepper and thought be-ins were corny, but soon he loved the surreal demotic of the New York poets, not least because they were "funny," a favored honorific. On the one hand he believes: "All there is are the entertainments, pastimes, of love and work, the hope of keeping interested." That is, unrequited life's a bore. Yet he's also seen the top of the mountain: "All through this book I've had to search for different ways to say 'thrill,' 'exhilaration,' 'ecstatic.'" Somewhere in between lie both his junkie mentality and his rock and roll genius.

About those two albums, let me quote a passage at length after reining myself for 1,300 words, because it's something I've tried to say myself without getting it so right:

I love a racket. I love it when it seems like a group is slipping in and out of phase, when something lags and then slides into a pocket, like hitting the number on a roulette wheel, a clatter, like the sound of the Johnny Burnette trio, like galloping horses' hooves. It's like a baby learning how to walk, or a little bird just barely avoiding a crash to the dirt, or two kids losing their virginity. It's awkward but it's riveting, and uplifting and funny.

Hell achieved that racket by writing New York School lyrics in rock and roll dialect, by tormenting and tricking and twisting his chronically off-pitch voice into a skewed emotionality with no aspirations to "soul," by egging guitarist Quine into stretching the songs' strictures and wringing their necks so that on the basis of these two albums alone he's remembered as an all-time astonishment. I liked those two albums when they came out without imagining that they'd be acknowledged classics three decades later, different yet of a piece. Crankily, Hell decided a few years ago to re-record Destiny Street with 59-year-old vocals and avant-garde virtuoso Marc Ribot sitting in for the dead Quine. It still sounded great.

Hell did indeed become "a professional writer." He's published two spiky little novels, a now out-of-print miscellany, some smaller reclamation projects, and a bunch of reportorial and essayistic journalism including an eccentric but knowledgeable movie column stupidly axed in a staff bloodbath, as well as annotating a variety of curatorial projects. Especially in the context of Destiny Street Repaired, however, it's significant that two of the latter were retrospectives of his own music assembled for Matador in 2002 and Rhino in 2005. (My wife and I helped out on the latter, although in the end our most important service--which I should emphasize I'm proud of--was commentary so prosaic by his standards that he felt compelled to improve on it, which he did.) And it's even more significant that this book is certain to outsell his autobiographical novels--and that it's better-realized than those novels. There's a sense in which he's stuck with a genius that came in spurts--a genius that coincided inconveniently with his addiction, dismissive though he may be of the pin-eyed lie that heroin is good for your art.

Likely the main reasons Hell chose to end his memoir in 1984 were discretion and respect: "the closer I get in the story to the present day the more problematic it gets to describe situations frankly." He never mentions his 26-year-old daughter by rocker-not-to-be-confused-with Patty Smyth (of Scandal, now wed to John McEnroe) and praises the "incalculable impact" of his wife of 10 years without volunteering her full name. But the kicking-heroin-plus-Destiny Street coincidence remains striking. Early on Hell tosses off the commonplace that rock and roll is "the art of teenagers," and although he doesn't riff on this idea much, it does pop up--in Quine's record collection, crammed with one-of-a-kind rockabilly solos, and in a CBGB mythology that's never killed off the know-nothing fallacy that punk was just a faster version of '50s rock and roll. One might ask Hell what kind of a teenager he was when he released Blank Generation at 27 and Destiny Street at 32. Maybe he'd respond "a self-created one"--he's big on self-creation, as he's earned the right to be. But would that mean the professional writer has lost part of his access to this essential aesthetic capacity?

"A writer's life is fairly uneventful," Hell believes. And compared to the life of a DUI teenager who totals a driveaway, there's a sense in which it is. But there's also a sense in which it's anything but. I'd like to see Hell write about that sometime.

Barnes & Noble Review, March 15, 2013