In both his music and writing, downtown punk/author/icon Richard Hell lives a carefully created and creative life marked by an enviable and uncompromising self-invention. The details and fruits of that journey are detailed in both 2013’s engaging autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, and his new Massive Pissed Love, a 285-page tome of discrete nonfiction spanning 2001-2014. It calls on Hell’s passions and proclivities — film, sex, literature, music — to loosely hold the these previously published pieces together thematically. As Hell notes, analyzing his own output and subsequent descriptive title, “Some pieces were lengthy, some were angry, and many were thrilled or adoring: massive, pissed, love.”
The author’s musical endeavors are the stuff of legend. Hell was in the seminal New York punk bands Neon Boys, Television (with frenemy Tom Verlaine), The Heartbreakers, and Richard Hell & The Voidoids. In Clean Tramp, he said, “I grew up thinking men worked best in wandering small teams” (inspired by youthful TV superheroes, but easily transposed into a band scenario). But it’s literature, a mostly solo effort, where Hell desires to be legendary. Indeed, fascinating insider tales of involving people like Patti Smith and his early, literary-leaning years — including a job at the Strand — make the pages of Clean Tramp pop, though it stops at 1984.
And while his nonfiction collection isn’t a furtherance of his “life story” per se (which includes two marriages, one daughter, and a cessation of drugs and music), Hell’s journalism, even when about others (including, in this collection, such divergent personages as artist Christopher Wool, Lester Bangs and Orson Welles), is often personal and self-reflective. The “massive” part of the book consists of six entries, including an excerpt from his 2005 novel, Godlike, and a scholarly but engaging piece on Nathanael West that begins with Hell’s musings about himself as a “Jewish writer.” (Hint: Hell is not his real last name.)
This collection indicates that Hell often has the luxury of choosing his exact subject and angle along with the rare freedom to write precisely what he wants. As with “The Velvets Vs. The Stones,” originally published in a book subtitled Music’s Greatest Rivalries, Hell states, “My first thought was that it’d be fun to crush the Beatles with Guided by Voices. But that would take too much research.” As DEVO says: Freedom of choice. It’s what he’s got.
So if a reader is interested in French New Wave film director Robert Bresson, there’s much to dig in the collection’s opener, “The Devil, Probably” (the title, sans comma, is from Bresson’s 1977 film of the same name). If not, Hell’s writing probably won’t elucidate fascination, but, to be fair, this piece was a verbal introduction Hell gave to a 2002 film series.
Indeed, many of Massive Pissed Love’s entries are “assignments” or reactive writing to which he’s particularly suited, including (sadly too brief) obits for guitarist/friend Robert Quine, Joey Ramone and CBGB impresario Hilly Kristal. (Oddly enough, the first two obits are filed in the “pissed portion” with Kristal appearing in the collection’s “love” section.) “Love” also features brief personal musing on cunnilingus (written for Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace), and a longer piece on artist Marilyn Minter and her “filthy sensuality.”
Especially interesting is his 2003 writing on Lester Bangs, first published in the Voice, detailing Hell’s feelings that the irascible critic was nearly intolerable, but in retrospect, Hell misses the “good-hearted, hard-working, dead person.” In fact, Bangs’s name evokes happiness, “like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.” There’s a lot of Hell in his “Art is the Drug: Top Five Junkie Literature” piece penned for the UK version of Esquire in 1997, where he considers Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, and Jim Carroll’s beautifully painful The Basketball Diaries. Other powerful entries include his New York Times Book review of Carroll’s posthumous novel, The Petting Zoo and a piece titled “New York Three Months Later: After 9/11.”
Though he’s Kentucky-born, New York has been Hell’s spiritual and physical home since the late Sixties, Manhattan and its denizens the major driving force of his creative milieu. As Hell notes at the conclusion of Clean Tramp, “I didn’t want to write about a person through time, but time through a person,” and as such, his story is as much a tale of the cultural shifts, drama and birth of New York’s music and art scenes in the Seventies, a dirtier, scarier yet infinitely more livable and thrilling time for artists of a certain bent than present-day New York city. Hell’s personal story is woven with frequently sweet and introspective self-directed side-nudge humor.
Ultimately, for New York punk scene aficionados and culture junkies craving intimate views of the New York Dolls, Max’s Kansas City’s Terry Ork, Rocket From the Tombs, Hell’s relationship with future Sid Vicious sidekick Nancy Spungen and such femme fantastics as punk photog Roberta Bayley and literary adventurist Kathy Acker, Clean Tramp is the must-read. For fans of Hell’s personal mythos and/or musings on others, Massive Pissed Love is the must-read. They’re excellent companion pieces, and, in fact, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (and to a lesser extent, Massive Pissed Love) has an appropriate soundtrack. Spurts: The Richard Hell Story is an exciting and comprehensive 21-song compilation of the author’s incendiary musicality from Dim Stars, Neon Boys, Heartbreakers, and Voidoids, plus Television providing a genius live version of “Blank Generation.”
Thanks to his pivotal influence on punk, Hell’s most-asked question is likely “Will you ever play live music again?” The answer is always no. But with the prolific creativity evidenced in his three novels since 1997, and his continued journalistic and artistic ventures (to wit, his “Night Out” series at Symphony Space), thankfully Hell’s creative spurts are hardly in short supply.
Richard Hell’s Massive Pissed Love will be released October 13 via Soft Skull Press.