The Clock Exploded: A Taste of Richard Hell

If proof is ever needed that some of our most talented creative geniuses keep a low profile, we only need to look to Richard Hell, an experimental poet, ex-punk star, novelist and now memoirist, who lives a humble but glorious life around downtown New York City and graces us with a new book every few years. He is one of my favorite living writers, a marvelously inventive and truthful observer of humanity and critic of life. His new book is a bratty and colorful autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.

Born somewhere in the United States of America to a Jewish psychologist father and a southern Methodist mother, Hell quickly booked out of there and headed for New York City, where he made a living working in bookstores and cinemaphile collector shops and eventually played bass guitar, wrote and sang for three seminal punk rock bands, Television, the Heartbreakers (with Johnny Thunders, not Tom Petty), and finally his own outfit, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He had a signature hit with the Voidoids, “Blank Generation”, but found that he was not cut out for the rock star life — not even with all the heroin and crystal meth he applied to heal the pain.

He retired from rock in the early 80s to become a full-time writer, even though this meant he’d be scraping for a living until his dying day (as far as I know, has never attempted a lame “comeback” as a musician, though many old Voidoids fans like myself would surely like him to). He proved himself as a serious novelist in 1997 with Go Now, a tale of twisted love, and again in 2005 with Godlike, a modern-day retelling of the literary legend of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. I could not resist quoting this author liberally when I reviewed Godlike on this blog in 2005, because his shimmering nuggets of prose are simply so beautiful that I enjoy typing them in. After reading I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, I feel an urge to honor this excellent book by sharing quotes again.

Here are a few tastes. Richard Hell on childhood:

I set up a cigarette slow fuse on a pack of firecrackers in a locker at school. The rapid popping was amplified into one long crashing boom by the metal box. My homeroom teacher leaped into the hall and jumped back gasping, “The clock exploded!” … I couldn’t stop laughing, which might have been what gave me away. I was suspended for a week that time.

What I like about this anecdote is the Dali-like surrealism of “The clock exploded”, which prefigures the fascination with time that would underlie his later work. The last sentence of this book is “I didn’t want to write about a person through time, but about time through a person”.

Here’s Hell on the psychology of being a rock star, and the qualities he didn’t personally have that would have allowed him to stick with it longer than he had.

Being a pop star, a front person, takes indestructible certainty of one’s own irresistibility. That’s the monster part. If that ego confidence doesn’t eventually come so naturally that living at all is to flaunt it, you won’t have what’s necessary to give your audience the show, the stimulation, it needs. The audience needs it from the performer in order to identify with it, to give themselves the sense of their own power, to get the full effect and function of rock and roll. If starts off natural and even cute, in the beginners, but is fed and tested on the way to stardom until it’s grotesque in every dimension except that of performance, where it is thrilling and uplifting, which is the sacred part. It’s also usually a monster of stress on its adepts; not really a fate to be desired. Which is another reason the stars are so cranky. They hate everyone for making them into what they’ve turned out to be, so they rub everyone’s faces in it.

Here’s the young poet as an unknown in 1960s New York City, searching for a plan and letting his intellectual arrogance proudly fly:

I went to the library, too, to see who the other modern poets were. I disliked the educated, fastidious, grim ones like, say, Robert Lowell. I discovered William Carlos Williams, and that decided me that poetry was the ticket. He’d had book after handsome book published by New Directions, and was treated like a VIP, and I knew I could write better than him. I thought if he could make it with a few white chickens, a wet red wheelbarrow, and some cold plums in the icebox, I could damn well make it too.

More glorious arrogance: before becoming a musician the young upstart published a variety of zines, often with creative partners, including one called Genesis: Grasp while he was momentarily in Santa Fe, New Mexico:

Our finest moment there was getting a poem from Allen Ginsberg for the magazine, which he’d kindly sent on receipt of our pathetic solicitation, and then rejecting it. It didn’t meet our standards of craftmanship. He wrote a cold angry couple of sentences back. We literally did not know what we were doing.

Actually, I think Richard Hell knew exactly what he was doing. Here he is on the meaning of style:

Stupid people look stupid; a charismatic person never looks stupid; therefore a charismatic person is smart.

One of my favorite sections in the book is Hell’s close-up portrait of his musical partner Robert Quine, the dynamic and innovative lead guitarist for the Voidoids. It’s amusing to learn that Hell discovered Quine as a fellow cinema-shop menial worker, and that Quine had no plans to do anything with his awesome musical talent until Richard Hell put him on stage (he would eventually be recognized as one of the best guitarists of the punk rock era, along with Steve Jones, and would play for Lou Reed and Matthew Sweet). Richard Hell (the psychologist’s son) tries to deconstruct the mental jigsaw puzzle that was Robert Quine, who was clearly a shyer and more complex person than his gruff persona revealed.

I’ve seen over the years how a person sometimes absorbs bits of behavior from friends — speech mannerisms or gestures. It can be eerie to recognize it in yourself after the friend has died. There was a thing Bob would do. Instead of smiling, he would just stretch his lips across his teeth in a cursory sign for “smile.” His eyes wouldn’t change at all, just his mouth for a moment. It was actually friendly — a signal that he was not unwilling to expend the energy to give a little reassurance. I catch myself doing that now and feel switched with Quine for a second.

Richard Hell’s work has always been marked by a self-tormenting unpredictability, and this book feels as edgy as everything else he’s ever done. Hell dishes on his un-friends (he seems to really dislike Lenny Kaye and Victor Bockris), raves about Susan Sontag, complains about all the potatoes he had to eat when the Voidoids toured England with the Clash, and reminisces about all the women he loved, even sharing a topless photo of the former girlfriend (later a famous singer, apparently, though I never heard of her) who inspired his song “Another World”.

It’s gratifying to know that Hell specifically cherishes the memory of the song “Another World”, the epic eight-minute closer to the “Blank Generation” album, which is probably the best track of his career. The song features excellent guitar lines by Robert Quine and a searing, moving vocal performance … though when I listened as a teenager I always thought the coughing fit that ended the song sounded fake. But it probably wasn’t fake. Nothing else about Richard Hell’s career has ever been.

14 Responses

  1. If that ego confidence doesn
    “If that ego confidence doesn’t eventually come so naturally that living at all is to flaunt it, you won’t have what’s necessary to give your audience the show, the stimulation, it needs.”

    Can’t imagine anything further from the truth. If the artist simply gives the audience what they want, then he’s their puppet, not their leader. This is the essential argument in art.

    “Write what readers want” says the hack editor (to Stephen King). “Fuck you” says the real artist “I write what they need, not what they want.”

    I can’t imagine Richard Hell wouldn’t make that point, but I get the predicament. I once thought I should be a rock star; but as a child, I doubted if I had the self to resist drugs sex and egomania.

    Consider Little Wayne – the leader of teen-brain America – then consider followers who are as stupid as their leader “got my tats, my piercings, now all I need is…shit, some meth.”

    As a fan of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, I wish they could’ve had the insight of a Don Henley or John Lennon. Art without insight falls to the level of entertainment; and the artist has the potential, nay the obligation to do so much more. To be a leader, not a puppet.

    Obviously, Levi’s gonna hate my nay saying, but whatcha want? The truth, or a buncha puppy dogs?

  2. Mikey, why would I hate your
    Mikey, why would I hate your naysaying? I wouldn’t invite people to comment if I just wanted them to dumbly agree.

  3. Thanks, cuz I worry about
    Thanks, cuz I worry about hurting people’s feeling. I don’t mean to. I have the utmost respect and admiration for you and your work. Just, we disagree on stuff. Also, it’s my understanding that The Voidoids and Stooges were forerunners of bands like The Clash whose lead singer Joe Strummer was an insightful serious artist (at least that’s what the tv documentaries say).

  4. Levi, what does the title
    Levi, what does the title have to do with the content?

    Mike, what’s wrong with entertainment?

  5. Wojo, the title comes from a
    Wojo, the title comes from a good story in the beginning of the book. When Richard Hell was a kid (named Richard Meyers) he tried to run away from home, and didn’t get far. He then wrote a story about his attempt to run away (which he found later among his parents’s papers) which ends with him going to bed at home and then “I dreamed I was a very clean tramp”.

    Mike, the Voidoids and the Stooges definitely were forerunners of the Clash, and Richard Hell was also certainly an insightful serious artist like Joe Stummer in his own right! I’m a big Clash fan and I’ve seen both bands in concerts … I think Richard Hell is the better artist.

  6. Mike, you definitely read
    Mike, you definitely read something in to the quote that’s not there.

    It is actually an insightful analysis and is informed from having been there.

  7. Mike wrote— “I can’t
    Mike wrote— “I can’t imagine Richard Hell wouldn’t make that point, but I get the predicament ….”

    i think that’s why he made the point— ultimately, it was part of why he “was not cut out to be a rock star,” as levi observed.

    i had a television disc once— ripped off in a burglary, like more than half my cd’s. i never really connected with television, though i dug some of the poetic lyrics. i should check out some voidoids stuff though. thanks for the reminder ….

  8. What’s wrong with
    What’s wrong with entertainment.

    If you’ve followed the serious discussion on Litkicks for the past 10-15 years of art v entertainment, you’d pick one. Entertainment is monkeys in a zoo; art is “Copenahagen” on Shaftsbury Avenue. It isn’t an argument, its understanding planet life. The witches in MacBeth entertain the buffoons, but we wanna rise above that. Little Dwayne is a buffoon. And no, he’s not richer than Columbian cocaine cartels.

    Sartre said literature is useful to explicate philosophy in ways essays can’t. Stephen King moralizes, but so lost in the subterfuge of entertainment, its lost. Shawshank Redemption was artistic; thus y’don’t need Carrie bloody naked in the shower. Y’just need the art. And the appealing or fascinating or captivating presentation of it, is intrinsic to an artistic show.

    Is no rocket science (well, Copenhagen was) but is simple – how to live on planet. (And if Richard Hell is a serious artist, I’d like to know about that.)

  9. I dunno, Mike … I have
    I dunno, Mike … I have always seen entertainment as the ground from which art sometimes springs forth. Can’t have one without the other.

  10. Levi, the analogy of your
    Levi, the analogy of your article is Pete Best and “yes there is life (a good life) after the Beatles and Voidoids.” But it’s a hard sell. Consider Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger changed the world, and – Best & Hell didn’t wanna?

    Cuz I made that same choice. A few days after my birthday (Ectric’s birthday actually) Bobby K was shot dead & I decided at 12 that I wanted no part of it. But, societal-ly I cheated. God (later) said “Mikey you gots a president’s scholarship to any U in the country cuz I gave you that.” But I turned my back on that and when I wrote my life story Out There, I spent a year avoiding suicide – hands shaking so bad I couldn’t even get the meds into my mouth.

    Cuz God wanted me to be a contendah on his planet. He (she/it/the force) wants us to maximum us. Not hide from it. That – is – our – function.

    And I’d like to know what Mr. Hell thinks about it. Cuz he’s problably sick of people reducing his whole life to a few years with the Voidiods 40 years ago. But seems like everbuddy gots that seminal moment, when they make a choice.

  11. You know Levi, for years, I
    You know Levi, for years, I scoffed at Richard Hell because of that punk-artsy image he has. That Post-Burroughs/Warhol/Patti Smith deluge we all overdosed on in our late teens/twenties. But those beautiful lines you quoted got me to smarten up and track down this book OR any book with his name on it and give the man a chance.

    Mike, what’s with all the Stephen King bashing? The man writes a damn fine (almost hypnotizing) narrative and makes a lot of money at it. Does that mean his prose is somehow sullied?

    In his On Writing, he doesn’t talk about giving the READER what they want (bread and circuses and righteous bloodbaths) but about telling the truth. Trying to capture real people, real humanity. Which must always be at the heart of a story. That means that the villain is sometimes the hero and the good guy might end up dying.

    Which would be the key to his success. Normal people being tested by crazy things. Otherwise, if it was all about gore (Carrie ragging in the shower), wouldn’t NAKED LUNCH be flying off the shelves?

    Though, for me, all art is ‘entertainment’. From Finnegans Wake to Shades of Grey. All movies, documentaries, paintings, etc. it’s all something to kill time… for the artist and the audience. The artist shouldn’t give a damn about the audience AND if Hell thought it was getting to him, he was right to get out, or suffocate creatively.

    Then again, Stephen King said that all writing is selfish and he’s never sure why he dedicates his books to anyone.

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