Music

Punk Icon Richard Hell Looks Back at “Blank Generation” Forty Years Later

"It’s really like you’re looking at another person, but you know at the same time that it’s actually you”

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In the photograph, Richard Hell stretches open his jacket to show the words “YOU MAKE ME ____” written across his upper chest in thick black marker. The punk-rock pioneer liked the way the image simultaneously blamed the world (“you”) and engaged his audience to fill in the blank, much like his song “Blank Generation.” “YOU MAKE ME . . . Crazy,” “YOU MAKE ME . . . Complete,” “YOU MAKE ME . . . Want to tear this jacket off, and throw you down on the bed.” It could mean almost anything. Shot by Roberta Bayley at Chris Stein and Debbie Harry’s loft on the Bowery, there was little doubt that the image would be the cover for the seminal album Hell was working on.

“He was always very aware what his image was going to be in the picture,” says Bayley, chief photographer at Punk magazine at the time. The two worked well together — perhaps because they were once romantically involved — and while the idea was all Hell’s, it was Bayley who wielded the marker. “I think he must’ve just felt relaxed around me because we knew each other. Also, some photographers probably would’ve been less open to letting him dictate what he wanted the picture to be like,” she says.

Despite Hell’s heavy-lidded grimace, the image was strangely inviting, defiant and sexy and slightly ridiculous. As the cover to Blank Generation, the debut album from Richard Hell and the Voidoids, it would become a totem of punk-rock iconography.

Not everyone loved it, of course. In a list of the top ten worst album covers in history for The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Lists, Lester Bangs gave Blank Generation the number one ranking. The legendary rock critic was kinder to the music, conceding that the album “turned out to be one of the wildest rock ‘n’ roll onslaughts of the year” and that Hell was “one of the greatest rock ‘n’ rollers I’ve ever heard.”

Hell first gained notoriety on New York’s fledgling punk scene playing with his high school friend Tom Verlaine in Television. Hell would later compare creating these early “electrically amplified songs” to being born: “It moved you and shook you and woke you up.” A fixture at Max’s Kansas City and and CBGB’s, Hell went on to form the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders before taking center stage with the Voidoids. Composed of Robert Quine, Ivan Julian, and Marc Bell (later to rename himself Marky Ramone), the band made their debut at CBGB’s in the fall of 1976. “The record was made three months after,” Hell explains. “So it was when we were at our freshest.”

This week, for Record Store Day, Blank Generation is getting a reissue in honor of its 40th anniversary. Hell, for his part, wasn’t so sure about the idea. At least not at first: He’d already mined his memories and exorcised his demons from the period in his colorful autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, and he wasn’t exactly eager to resurface those emotions. On top of that, as Hell admits, he’s scrupulous and a control freak. “I knew it was going to be really demanding, because whether or not I thought that it was meaningful or justifiable — as opposed to being a marketing idea — it was going to take a lot of attention from me,” he says. “And it did. I oversaw every aspect of it, but as it went along, I got more engaged and now I’m feeling really satisfied and fulfilled.”

The deluxe edition was remastered by Greg Calbi of Sterling Sound, who mastered the original LP. The accompanying booklet includes an essay by Hell that outlines the album song by song (“The kind of thing that you can only get from the person who was writing and recording the music,” he says), a new interview with guitarist Ivan Julian, snapshots from Hell’s personal journals, and previously unpublished photos of the band, taken by Bayley.

“The snappiest stuff on the record is a set of four tracks that were outtakes from the original record, and they’ve never been heard by anybody for forty years,” says Hell. “There’s a couple different performances of ‘Blank Generation’ and ‘Love Comes in Spurts,’ then different mixes and electronic manhandling of another couple of cuts that we decided against using in 1977.” These tracks are joined by four or five live performances from that first Voidoids appearance at CBGB’s in 1976. The reissue advances the record and fills out the band’s story, making it accessible not only to fans, but also to those coming at it for the first time.

As much as for his musical output — or his membership in three classic New York bands — Hell is most often remembered today for inventing the quintessential punk aesthetic that would inspire the Sex Pistols and countless other bands. It started in his early Television days: pegged black jeans, torn t-shirts, and frayed clothes held together with safety pins, hair cut short and ragged “in a style that poked up in shreds and thatches.” It was an attitude that reflected an idea of metamorphosis and self-invention — particularly through image and style — that interested Hell in the first place, when he arrived in late-’60s New York as a bookish prep-school dropout with a passion for Rimbaud. Hell, after all, was a “tragic poet” who reinvented himself in rock ‘n’ roll.

It all feels distant now. Despite his affection for bygone eras — Hell is nowhere happier than surrounded by old books — he isn’t especially nostalgic for his own past. Having quit music in 1984, partly in an effort to kick a debilitating drug habit, Hell has spent the last few decades devoting himself to writing. Working on the reissue of Blank Generation certainly evoked the time and place, mainly the essence of the Lower East Side in 1976, but it was as if he was observing moments rather than reliving them. For Hell, it’s another world entirely.

“It’s really like you’re looking at another person, but you know at the same time that it’s actually you,” Hell says. “You can feel a kind of affection or horror at this person that you once were, but it’s only personal in a very uncanny, eerie way. It’s not like a direct nostalgia because you were somebody else at that time. There is this sense of fondness — it’s almost paternal — for some previous self.”

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