I go a long way back as a Richard Hell fan. I was lucky enough to have been a Long Island high school kid during the great punk era of late 70’s New York City, and every time I could scrape ten bucks together I’d jump on the Long Island Railroad to Manhattan, walk down to the Village and sneak into bars like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City and Irving Plaza where I could catch bands like the Ramones, the Mumps, the B-52’s and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Richard Hell was one of my favorites, a tormented poet bristling with a romantic punk anger that seemed somehow rooted in a dark European mood of absinthe and Symbolism, who yelled bleary angry lyrics to a hypercharged angular minimalist pogo beat, catchy and violent and loud, even good fun power pop within all the obvious anger. These were amazing nights; I caught about ten Voidoids shows during these years, and when their album ‘Blank Generation’ came out I played it constantly and loved it. But they never really crossed-over and became a big hit like the Ramones or Blondie or Talking Heads.
Then the 80’s began. Reagan became President, MTV was invented, the culture of money-style replaced the culture of art-style in New York City, and Richard Hell was gone from public view. I was in college during these years, and I wasn’t listening to Hell much any more. I soon started forgetting to even remind myself to remember Richard Hell or the Voidoids, and then eventually like a stuffed animal left at home I came to forget them completely.
Then around the mid-90’s Hell suddenly resurfaced — still living in New York City, still looking drugged-out and underfed and tired and angry, in fact looking not much different than he’d looked before. Except now he was the author of a brilliant, sparklingly well-written first novel, ‘Go Now’, which had somehow been published not by some downtown indie zine shop (which is what anyone would have expected for Hell) but by an imprint of the refined mass-market publishing conglomerate Simon and Schuster. The novel, a semi-autobiography in a neo-Beat flavor, even got excellent reviews in respectable magazines and newspapers. I have no idea how Hell pulled this marketing coup off, except that the book was good enough to deserve every bit of attention it got. Maybe quality and artistic integrity really does still count for something in large-corporate publishing (though there aren’t many other indications of this these days).
But will ‘success’ go to Richard Hell’s head? No fucking way. He helps to run CUZ Editions, his own indie publishing shop, and he produces occasional strange, appealing literary experiments like a recent book of poetry in which every page is a slightly different version of the same single, simple poem. You can find out more about this and other stuff at the CUZ website. There’s also an interesting recent interview with Hell in the music zine Perfect Sound Forever.