Neptune Cafe, New York City
Originally aired October 2014 on BBOX Radio, Brooklyn, New York.
Interview edited for length and clarity. All rights reserved.
I'll admit. I didn't know a whole lot about Richard until I picked up a copy of Marky Ramone's book called Punk Rock Blitzkrieg and fell deeper into the punk rock world that dominated the New York music scene back in the day.
Richard came up a few times. He was in a band with Marky Ramone back when Marky was known by his actual name of Marc Bell. Now that's a long time ago.
And yeah, he co-founded the band's Television and The Neon Boys, and was in a band called Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He helped make the punk scene what it was. Heck, him and Tom Verlaine of Television convinced the owner of the CBGB to put in the damn stage.
The thing about this time though is that there's nothing left to talk about. The CBGB has been talked to death. Max's Kansas City – got it. Heroin - got it. Ramones. Blondie. Talking Heads. New York Dolls. It's cool. K. Great. Love it. But we got to move on. Cool music. Good times. Got it.
Attention authors and journalists of the world – talk about something else.
Richard stopped making music back in 1984 – he's an author now and has been for quite some time. You may know him for his autobiography I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp.
His new book MASSIVE PISSED LOVE is out soon, and he'll be at The Strand bookstore on October 14th – so drop by and say hello. Get a book signed and shake the guy's hand.
We spent some time this week at the Neptune Cafe in the East Village – talking about the book, sex, comedy, you name it. The best part is the trippy music behind the whole thing. I didn't put that there- the cafe was playing it. Somehow, amazingly, it just all fits.
Jesse Regis: I'm wondering how you compartmentalize the music part of your life and are able to keep it in its box. To be able to move forward with your writing, and not be held back.
Richard Hell: I don't know exactly what you mean, but if you're talking about why I'm not fixated on it because you think it might be predictable because of the reputation that I had that was established then, from the inside it's all just a continuum. It's not something that I have to actively decide or work on. I don't dwell on the 70's. It's been so long. All my work and world has sort of moved from that now.
JR: A lot of people could get stuck.
RH: Well, I stopped playing music in 1984 because I wanted to get out and do other things. It's just natural to me.
JR: When somebody writes a book about that period do you even pay attention to it? Patti Smith wrote a book. Marky Ramone had a book out.
RH: If something is well written I'll read it. I read Please Kill Me but I think that's really the only one I was able to get through where there's ruminations on that era.
JR: Your book is called MASSIVE PISSED LOVE. It's a collection of writings from 2001 – 2014 dealing with sexuality, and aging, and sex. You were a film critic for awhile, there's some of that. What determined what made the cut?
RH: I didn't leave out much. All my writing, I got paid for it, but I'm lucky that I choose my own subjects. I only writing about something if it interests me. The only reason that something would be left out is because it was redundant, and there's just too much written about the stuff elsewhere, or it was really slight. But, I did put in a bunch of stuff that was really slight like that paragraph I wrote for Joey Ramone's first posthumous birthday party. There's lots of brief things, but it wasn't really an issue. It's pretty much everything I published that hadn't been collected in a book yet since 2001. The subjects were all things that I was engaged with. I always did my best.
JR: 1/3 of it is massive, 1/3 of it is pissed, 1/3 of it is love. It sounds like a day in my life. Why did you break it up like you did?
RH: I just thought it would be too dull to do the obvious thing, which is to divide it up according to subject matter. It is pretty well delineated that way. I'm mostly writing about books, or movies, or music. So, I could have gone that route, but it just seemed tired. I rifled through the book looking for other aspects – ways you could classify what was in the book. I saw that some of the pieces were really long and quasi comprehensive. Some of them were really angry. Some of them were thrilled and adoring. The words that rose in my head as I was looking at the material were massive, pissed, love.
JR: And a lot of Bart Simpson, too.
RH: [Laughs] Yeah, he shows up here and there. I was surprised to see that he stuck his head around the corner.
JR: In the chapter “Writing Sex” you write, “I don’t know, but I think a way to judge ones success at [writing about sex] is whether the writing makes enough readers interested in having sex with the writer……an artist is showing that he or she is made of so that the right people will be attracted…” Well, that explains why you write.
RH: I was kind of being a little bit of a devil's advocate. But, it is sort of a way of looking at writing that you don't see acknowledged much. There is something to that point of view that, in a way, writing is a kind of personal advertisement.
JR: Who was the last author you wanted to have sex with because of the way they wrote?
RH: Susan Sontag always turned me on. That's the only example that comes to mind.
JR: This surprised me. In the chapter “Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste” you wrote, “I have to interrupt and confess how I’m struggling to resist taking revenge on rock critics. I was a musician and I’ve thought a few times of rating the critics the way they do the artists…” Then a few pieces later you say, “I’ve written a few books and I’m always fascinated by the reviews. I read them all, some of them repeatedly.” I think of you as an anti-establishment guy, but you still very much care about what people say about your work.
RH: Similarly, to the way my main motivation in writing the autobiography was to see what it looked like when I just recounted, to the best of my ability, my experience. In order for me to see if I could get a grip on who this person was and what it all added up to. To me, it seemed self-evident, that any art – writing, or painting, or filmmaking or whatever - that there is a well-meaning degree created by the audience. They say it's self-evident. I find different people notice particular things about a given piece of writing and absorbing it in a completely different way than other people and sometimes in ways I never would have guessed could happen.
So, I'm curious about what the writing is, and what the writing is, is as much created by the person who reads it as the person who wrote it. I feel the same way when I'm reading some writer. I often feel like I am learning things about the writer that the writer is not aware of. Not as if you read works for what they tell you about the writer. Helplessly, inevitably, you'll form an impression. What's up with this person? Why are they fixated on this or that experience? How do they describe some charged subject like sex, for instance? So, yeah, it's just that. The consumer of the work has as much to do with what it is as the person who produced the work.
JR: Onto comedy. I noticed that you have a little bit of a thing for Sarah Silverman, but, in the chapter on stand-up comedy you write, “Stand-up comedy is the highest calling on earth....” Why is stand-up comedy so important to you?
RH: There's a lot of it that's reduced to the essence in terms of art making. For one, it's so black and white in terms of whether it succeeds or not. As I said in that piece, the closest line of work is athletics, where you win or you don't. Everything is statistical. With a comedian, if people laugh you succeeded, if they don't you fail.
JR: To get a real laugh....
RH: There are a few exceptions like Andy Kaufman, for instance. He's on another plane. Also, the fact that you're exposing yourself to that judgment in person. The tension and the poignancy of that situation. Also, supreme, are two sides of the same thing. What more could you hope to get from an experience. What can compare to a good laugh? The aim is so worthy because it feels so good to laugh. On the other side of that coin, for the comic, what can be better than making someone laugh? The kick from making somebody laugh – there's no comparison to anything else and it's all happening live.
JR: Comedians are the truth tellers now more than ever. You have your Jon Stewarts and whoever else and these people aren't speaking ironically anymore. You go to comedians to learn what's going on more and more. The last thing I want to ask you is about this guy Aram Saroyan who writes these minimalist poems. How do you pronounce this?
RH: You can't. That's the point!
JR: It's literally the letters "lighght." Why do you like poetry like this so much?
RH: It's pretty futile to talk about something that's meant to be looked at. In that period he was a concrete poet, which means the poems are intended to be looked at as much as they are to be read. It's kind of impossible to talk about works like that unless you have the page in front of you. In the review in the book I quote him, but on the radio I can't point at a poem and talk about it because you can't see it! I'm going to have to send you back to the book to answer that question.
JR: One of the things I really admire you for is that you are very Do-It-Yourself. When you first got into music you didn't know how to play music. I'm going to guess that you just started to write on your own. What made you say "fuck it" and do things on your own, instead of waiting for permission?
RH: The only way to have complete freedom is to do it yourself. I learned how to do it on my own. I didn't study it in any kind of organized way. For me, I like trying to figure out how to do something that I don't know how to do. Not just because it's interesting but because if you don't know the rules you have a better chance of not being inhibited by them. You don't know what the conventional ways of doing things are. So, tune-in inside yourself to what your intentions are, and if don't know how other people ever achieved anything similar, you're going to come up with a fresh way of doing it.