Sunday, February 27, 2005

"My Shoe Is Covered With Blood"

Okay, here’s something weird for everyone out there in internet land. Richard Hell contacted me via email to tell me that he enjoyed the site, and we exchanged correspondence to the point where I asked him to do an interview, and he happily accepted. Conducted via phone last week, Richard was an articulate, erudite speaker who measure his words carefully and never failed to impress me with his intellect.


Phil Honolulu: Okay, yeah it worked. It’s recording again and I could hear myself when I just played it back.

Richard Hell: Okay great. What kind of recorder is it?

PH: Just some cheap piece of shit Radio Shack job with a few connectors.

RH: Ah.

PH: This is kind of the token question I guess, but I wanted to ask you anyway.

RH: Go ahead, that’s what I am here for.

PH: What do you think about digital recording, downloading music, all that current bullshit?

RH: In 2000, I was commissioned to do a track exclusively available for download on MusicBlitz, and I gathered up all the Voidoids and we did it, so obviously I have no problem with it!

PH: No shit?

RH: Yeah, playing music is still fun, although it isn’t as easy to come up with a song anymore, but getting paid seemed like the perfect excuse to gather up the old gang.

PH: What were the dynamics like, playing again after all those years?

RH: I think that it was a sense of resignation, the goodwill and pleasant sentiment led to more of a pleasant nostalgia so the bad feelings never had a chance to surface. I am sure that had we recorded more that would have been more of an issue! But otherwise, it was a great experience, just to be in the same room with those musicians, where we have so much shared experience.

PH: I bet.

RH: So to answer your question, I have no problem with digital music or recording, provided it is used properly and not as crutch. I’m not much of a technological theorist, I delegate my own artistic urges to documentation of street and junkie culture, so for me to offer some William Gibson theory on where digital music distribution is going to go would be futile.

PH: When did you hear Bob McFadden’s ‘Beat Generation’ first?

RH: I saw it in the movie. I was always a big fan of the movies, and I had it in the back of my mind that I might try my hand at acting.

PH: Like Nick Detroit!

RH: [Laughs] No, not the pantomime, but real acting, so I would see any movie I could, and something about that McFadden song just stuck with me. I was familiar with him through ‘The Mummy’, I would hear that on the radio around Halloween as a kid.

PH: Yeah, The Fall had an amazing cover of that song.

RH: Really? I wasn’t aware of that.

PH: What actors do you admire nowdays?

RH: I think Jake Busey is very good. I also like Harmony Korine, even though he is not an actor. I like Jim Carrey, 'Eternal Sunshine' was possibly my favorite movie of last year. I think Jude Law projects the kind of sexuality that I admire.

PH: Did you like 'Sky Captain'?

RH: I did, I thought it was a wonderful mix of ernest, old fashioned entertainment with a great use of contemporary technology.

PH: Did you see 'Closer'?

RH: I did. I liked it, although I didn't find it especially cinematic.

PH: I read somewhere that when you wrote ‘The Voidoid’, you thought you were a vampire.

RH: Yes, I did.

PH: Really?

RH: Yes.

PH: A vampire?

RH: Yes.

PH: So you literally thought you were a vampire?

RH: Define ‘literally’.

PH: Uh, in terms of, you survived off ingesting human blood, sunlight would kill you, had to avoid crucifixes, and that the full moon made you go crazy?

RH: That’s a werewolf! [Laughs]

PH: Could werewolves eat garlic? I can’t picture this big monster dog getting gourmet all of a sudden and avoid mauling someone because they had a garlic clove in their pocket…

RH: No, I thought I was a vampire in terms of it being an absolute rejection of traditional society. Roles that I was actively trying to reject, by being a poet, a rock star, and just avoiding what normal people accepted - being a vampire seemed to encapsulate all those ideals. Coupled with the drug addict’s need for drugs, it just seemed like a very natural, comfortable progression to being a literal vampire, with them both sharing such parasitic tendencies. It’s the same with Big Buckshot Jim.

PH: ?

RH: Big Buckshot Jim was Theresa Stern’s pimp. To fully comprehend Theresa Stern…

PH: Wait, Theresa Stern was your alter ego, right?

RH: Phil, before you interview someone, you should do a little more homework! [laughs]

PH: And improve my spelling!

RH: Yeah!

PH: I listened to your records and that ‘Time’ collection again today, so I thought I was caught up.

RH: [Laughs] No, I published a book of poetry under the name Theresa Stern, she was conceived along with Verlaine. Stern was a junkie prostitute. The notion of a junkie, prostitute that wrote poetry was undeniably attractive to me. It seemed like something Genet would have come up with. Let’s put it this way, I felt at the time I could come up with ideas that Genet would have wished he could have conjured, and I had a rock record. I mean Patty Smith was doing the same thing, but I was doing it better and I didn’t have the advantage of pendulous breasts, you know? You throw breasts in front of a concert promoter or the two or three male poets who aren’t homosexuals, and you got yourself a ticket in. But Big Buckshot Jim was conceived as Theresa’s Pimp, he was a former modern pirate from Jamaica, who used pimping as a way to support himself while painting and writing poetry. The whole symbiotic relationship of pimp vs. prostitute with myself as the artist orchestrating the relationship was to me, the pinnacle of fiction, because it is based in what seemed to be a very real truth. I had worked on Jim’s character, without Verlaine’s interference, and was conceiving a work that would combine an experimental novel, with poetry and excerpts from my notebook that were painting modeled after Buckshot’s own work, but I was just too busy.

PH: So how come you left Television, I’ve heard conflicting accounts…

RH: Well, Verlaine was a close friend obviously, and I am grateful for him aiding me in getting my foot in the door. But his behavior, and his band was the antithesis of what I thought constituted a punk band, even though the word didn’t really exist yet. I would be at his house, and we would be drinking wine and shooting up heroin after memorizing the good reviews we had gotten and having sex with our groupies, and he would point to Lloyd and say ‘Hey Richard, look, Lloyd worked out another solo! He’s utilizing this scale that I hadn’t even had a chance to use yet!’ and he would sit in front of Lloyd and both their eyes would glaze over and Lloyd would solo for literally half an hour. I would try and be polite and appear to maintain interest, but it was difficult! He would just play interminably. Then when he finished, which seemed like it NEVER HAPPENED, he would lay down, spent, and say ‘that is the best work I have ever done’. Then Tom would clap, and say ‘My turn!’, and he would try to out solo Lloyd, by playing even longer. Then Tom would go again, and this would go on for literally days. It was sheer torture. Then when I was in the Heartbreakers, it was the opposite. I don’t think Johnny ever picked up a guitar except to record, play a show, rehearse (which he never did), or pose for a photograph. Television was always holding guitars and working on solos and getting anyone around to listen to this flurry of notes. Lloyd just lived to play guitar.

PH: What an ASSHOLE.

RH: I think Lloyd was the biggest asshole in the entire scene. I mean, you had a maniac like Alan Vega who was scaring the shit out of people and living on the street, but off stage he was a sweetheart. Then you get Lloyd, who would just play guitar, granted playing it better then I ever could (but still nothing compared to Quine) but appearing just generally like a decent person, even though he was a total prick. Johnny had his moments. He would routinely do things like make off with one of my favorite shirts and wear it himself and pretend that it was his and not notice in his heroin fog that he was wearing it in front of me, or trade one of my poetry journals for some bad skag, but I was scared of Lloyd, frankly. Richard has a violent side. We were once in the Alphabet City, he was buying a stolen guitar, a really beautiful Fender, for ten bucks. A junkie fan had it and sold it to Lloyd at a discount, it was a great deal. Hilly [Kristal, owner of CBGB’s] gave Richard the money, even though Richard said it cost fifteen bucks and kept the extra five, and we were walking back after buying it and this skinny Puerto Rican, I mean he couldn’t have been more the fourteen, he was falling down drunk, his limbs all flailing… And he sees Richard carrying the Telecaster and he says ‘Nice guitar!’, and Richard immediately, without hesitating, just smashes it over this guy’s head, and he goes down like a ton of bricks. You ever pick up a Telecaster?

PH: Well, the chickenshit Squire ones.

RH: [Sighs] Well, they are really heavy, and this was a one piece, and Lloyd just destroyed it on this guys head, who just looked demolished, then he wedges his foot in the guys mouth, he was bleeding, and Lloyd managed to work in half his foot into the guy’s mouth and he screams ‘YOU LIKE MY FOOT MOTHERFUCKER?’, and I had to grab Richard and hustle him out of there. He just kept muttering on the way home ‘I wasted ten bucks man! My shoe is covered with blood!’, so even though I was dissenting in the direction that Television was going. I dislike admitting it, but I was afraid Richard would beat me!

PH: [Laughs] How come this didn't make it into Leg's McNeil's book?

RH: I talked to Legs for two days, sixteen hours, so there was plenty of material that never had a chance to see the light of day.

PH: Richard Lloyd seemed like a sissy to me.

RH: He wasn't, don't let the precision guitar playing fool you, he could easily laspe into violence. It all seems absurd in retrospect. But there was so much unchecked ridiculous machismo going around, that it seemed plausible.

PH: Did you interact with Lester Bangs much after your first interview?

RH: I would see him, and we remained friendly even though I had disagreements about the nature of his piece, but I liked the guy. He was a great writer and it was sad to see him go. I would occasionally talk to him and he was always honest if you asked his opinion about something, which is a mindset I have nothing but respect for. He definitely had his fair share of problems, but he was at his core, a good guy to have around. I even saw his band, but they were terrible. Just embarrassing. It’s sad in retrospect that he took me to task for crafting an almost nihilistic persona, which is an assessment I disagreed with at the time, while he was much more of a humanist. And I was a junkie whose heroes all died in their youth, and I survived, while he died. It’s sad.

PH: Do you miss doing heroin?

RH: When I initially started it, it was truly wonderful. You could do some heroin, and escape into a fantasy world. I would visit Edgar Allen Poe’s apartment, or drink tea and discuss poetry with Rimbaud. So I miss that aspect terribly. I don’t miss kicking heroin, I don’t miss scoring in the middle of the night, and I don’t miss any of the more obvious and sordid aspects. But when I first started, it was great. You ever have tiramisu?

PH: Yeah, I love tiramisu. I think my most treasured sexual fantasy is having sex with Anna Karina – you’re familiar with Godard, right?

RH: Of course. I have a film column for Black Book magazine, I talk about Godard quite often. [Laughs] You really aren’t very good as researching your subject!

PH: Yeah, I know. I’m working on it. I did an interview with Ben Wallers, my only other interview.

RH: I’m not familiar.

PH: Oh, he’s great, he’s in this band called the Country Teasers, kind of a great big unique clusterfuck between The Carter Family, The Fall and Joy Division, they’re really great. You’re a fan of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and The White Stripes, right?

RH: Yes, the later more so, but I think they are both great.

PH: Not doing my research…

RH: [Laughs] Well, you got me there!

PH: Anyway, I can say definitively, that The Country Teasers are about a millions times better then the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The White Stripes combined. I’m not exaggerating.

RH: [Laughs] I take it you don’t like those bands.

PH: No, I think they’re fine. I sure as shit wouldn’t buy any of their records, but I just like the Country Teasers so much more. But back to the interview, I thought I did a pretty good job, even if I felt like a pinhead for not knowing who Tammy Payton was.

RH: Tam Payton?

PH: Yeah, now that I did some perfunctory research on the guy, he seems to resemble McLaren. You dealt with McLaren, right?

RH: I only dealt with McLaren really casually, he was always very nice to me, just a funny English guy nobody took seriously. I think he only resembles Payton in a real facile sense. It’s like saying a horse resembles a dog, because they both have four legs.

PH: Yeah, but he was a manipulative huckster, and McLaren was the same thing, even if he could mask some of his bullshit in his art theory verbiage.

RH: I though you were referring to the sensationalistic aspect of Tam Payton fucking passed out people and were analogizing that to McLaren metaphorically fucking the Sex Pistols.

PH: No, but that is better then what I had come up with! Back to Godard, my favorite sexual fantasy involved having sex with Anna Karina in a giant vat of tiramisu.

RH: That would be great! Well, I had this fan, his name was Eddie something or other. Nice guy, I would see him at CBGB’s and he worked at some bakery, I would go in and he would give me free blintzes and tiramisu, just because he was familiar with my work. But I would shoot up heroin and eat tiramisu, not so much for the flavor or the nutrition or because I was hungry, but it was free and the sensation in my mouth aided in me heroin travels. So I would be breaking bread with Genet, holding hands and speaking about our deepest thoughts and ambitions. I think the sugar and texture triggered deeper sensation. It was incredible, we would participate in the greatest of decadence together, arm in arm, like lovers and I could orchestrate the entire encounter into how exactly I wanted it to go. Or Rimbaud and I would visit ancient Parisian brothels and eat Swedish Fish in a library composed of first editions of ‘Against Nature’, that sort of thing [laughs]. Rimbaud, Genet and Poe would get together and have symposiums teaching me aspects of writing, while we shared tiramisu and I would wake up with tiramisu smeared all over my face. Later on I had tried it when Ivan Julian was living with me and the heroin had lost any of it’s power to allow me to travel and dream, it was just a matter of staying on top of things and keeping the pain away, but I had some excellent stuff and I had tried it and Ivan walked in and I was laying on my floor with a half eaten tiramisu on my chest and the pastry smeared around my mouth. Ivan asked ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ and I couldn’t explain it to him, so I just [pause] and then…

PH: What was that?

RH: I’m sorry, I tried to snap and my fingers don’t seem to be cooperating. [Laughs]

PH: I’ll assume you snapped.

RH: [Laughs] Thanks, but I snapped and said, I made you in this town, and I can unmake you, so you tell anyone you saw Richard Hell stuffing his face with cake while laying on the floor, you’re out of the fucking band!

PH: [Laughs]

RH: Yeah, heroin does nasty, nasty things to people.

PH: What is your favorite artistic medium?

RH: Writing. In a sense, punk rock was perfect because it provided me with both life experience as fodder for writing and sufficient notoriety to get published.

PH: What did you think of LA punk?

RH: I wasn’t exposed to much of it, although I liked The Germs. There was a definite sense of LA punk being totally unimportant and riding on New York’s coattails, a view I think is not entirely without merit.

PH: But you liked Cleveland Punk?

RH: I enjoyed the Dead Boys, it was difficult not like them. I liked The Cramps but didn’t take them very seriously. I was reading very difficult, intelligent literature and attempting to bridge the gap between poetry and rock and they were singing about Monsters, it seemed terribly immature at the time, but in retrospect they were a good band, even if nobody took them seriously at the time.

PH: How do you spend your time now?

RH: I write, read books, I feel no pressing need to be prolific and can create at my own pace.

PH: Any things you feel like saying, closing out this interview?

RH: Not really, I’ve done so many interviews as publicity in the last few years that I feel I have nothing new to express.

PH: That sucks.

RH: It does! [Laughs]

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