Nobody asks to be born but once you’re here, you may as well lean into it. And if what you were born as doesn’t thrill you too much, you can always take your cue from a proactive Buddhist and reincarnate yourself into something cooler. Of course, second guessing God’s plan does require a certain amount of chutzpah. Arrogance, even, so lean into that as well.
Say you’re born in Lexington, Kentucky, to Ernest and Carolyn Meyers, and all you want to be is a cowboy, but that’s not an option. Then your father dies, and it turns out you’re only good at masturbation and running away from home, so you go to New York City. In for a penny, in for pound, may as well change your name from “Meyers” to “Hell,” and go right ahead and invent the concept of ripped t-shirts. Why not, right? It’s not like getting a job will make you a cowboy or bring your dad back.
Nobody asks to be born but once you’re here, you may as well lean into it
Before this music journalist realized that Nick Cave cosplay paid out higher dividends (and long before he settled into a cozy and lucrative aping of Lester Bangs/Chuck Eddy), I was just one out of the approximately ten dozen NYC garage punk singers who polluted the newly colonized Williamsburg, doing a mean/limp Richard Hell impersonation, as the man provided me and every other surly bookstore employee with a torn t-shirt, a libido, and a dream—the template of untethered yelping in the first place.
Of course, Richard Hell is innocent, as far as a few things go. He can actually sing; in the way that David Thomas, Bon Scott, and literal angels in heaven can. And, along with his famous disclimation of existential intent, Richard Hell didn’t ask to be influential. Not in so many words. Rather, his intention to shape a stupid world in his own image was pretty clear, but it was always coupled with a hedge of, “I’m freeing my own ass, and you’re free to follow if you want.” It can hardly be put on his doorstep that he made something so incredibly difficult—playing rock 'n' roll, hating rock 'n' roll, and getting free in the process—seem so easy.
As a human person who strove to adhere to punk rock’s famous rejection of heroes and rock stars, but whose adherence has occasionally been shaky; reading Vernon Gibbs’ 1983 CREEM analysis of/interview with Richard Hell is bracing. Gibbs, one of the very (very) few Black music writers at CREEM (and the Village Voice), was ahead of the game in terms of deromanticizing the wildly self-romanticizing genre that is punk rock. And he didn’t do so as someone trying to stay true to any punk rock ethos either; he just didn’t find the genre to be as inherently hot shit as it’s so often rated.
Gibbs, discussing the dire state of the scene in 1983, wrote that the new bands were “either parroting the cynical self-destructiveness of the original punkers, or are busy trying to fuse punk/new wave with ‘African’ rhythms—hoping perhaps to catch the tail end of what The Police/Blondie/Talking Heads/Cars discovered early on, which is that the Ramones/Sex Pistols approach was only good for a laugh—you couldn’t dance to it in the usual sense.” Then, as if the knife needed a twist, he goes on to say: “This doomed nihilist rock from the beginning, since unlike equally undanceable art rock or some heavy metal, raw punk didn’t have the saving grace of at least being listenable.”
If this came from some prog-addled weirdo or, like, Jimmy Page, that would be one thing. Coming from one of the earliest and most vociferous champions of Betty Davis (an artist whose music was so funkily grinding that she, along with Captain Beefheart, should be credited as a key innovator in the genre that would eventually become noise rock, and whose anti-fuckhead stance was so aggressive that punk periodically does its impotent and paternalistic darndest to claim her), Gibbs’ casual dismissal of punk’s most admirable qualities (like self-destruction, un-listenability) leaves an open-hand mark.
Still, the fact that Gibbs found Richard Hell—the guy who (depending on who you ask) set the whole punk rigamarole in motion—worth a damn counts for something as well. I mean, it is unlikely that the higher ups at CREEM forced Vernon Gibbs to interview Richard Hell in order to boost sales (a term that the industry, before the dissolution of money, used to call clicks). As fond as one may be of Richard Hell, it’s hard to argue that—six years beyond the release of the classic Blank Generation album—coverage was an editorial mandate. If anything, the strange state of Richard Hell’s career, along with the strange state of the scene he came out of, seems to be what interests Gibbs the most. Because Hell wasn’t promoting an album. He was promoting a movie that he had a strange, pivotal but auxiliary role in. And that film is Smithereens, a strange and distressing, almost unwatchable film about jerks.
And that film is Smithereens, a strange and distressing, almost unwatchable film about jerks
Smithereens*, the 1982 movie, was made by Susan Seidelman (three years before she’d direct the megahit Madonna vehicle, Desperately Seeking Susan). It’s a grainily shot arthouse feature about a striving scenester of no discernible charm or talent. The depiction of the New York hep cat milieu is—to accurately use one of those old terms that’s been made almost meaningless through contemporary overuse—total cringe. The lead character, Wren (played to the excruciating hilt by Susan Berman), is tremendously unlikeable, almost biblically so, and she is surrounded by characters so much more unlikeable that the viewer is forced to comparatively sympathize with either the film’s star or the sweet release of the grave. (Those characters include Eric, a lead-singer/co-scumbag—played by Hell—who is trying to get re-famous, and isn’t overly concerned about who gets hurt in the process.)
The sublime soundtrack of the Feelies’ Greatest Hits (i.e., their first album) serves only to cast the main character’s lack of talent in ever greater relief, while providing the only actual relief the film holds: moments when Wren is running from one fuck up to the next, accompanied to music. It’s a movie about failures who, if not born to it, deserve to lose. It’s not a relatable art, hopefully. But, if one is inclined to feel like a phony anyway, there’s room enough for accusation: Smithereens has all the ghastly potential of a bathroom mirror with the lights out. As a whole, it’s a profoundly effective flick. In his (wonderful) autobiography, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, Hell calls it “by far the best film I’ve been a part of.” It is one of my favorite movies ever that I hope to never have to see again.
As Vernon Gibbs points out, there’s some obvious similarities, and some important differences, between the role Richard Hell plays in the movie, and the man himself. Like “Eric,” Hell had been briefly almost famous, and was, at the time of the interview, giving it another shot. The second Voidoids album, Destiny Street, had been released the previous year, a solid follow up to Blank Generation. The songs were smart and tough, Robert Quine’s guitar playing was constantly and gorgeously bonkers, and the infamously trebly recording/mixing wasn’t necessarily any more disconcerting than Raw Power’s production. The album might have benefited if original Voidoids guitarist Ivan Julian had stayed on as Robert Quine’s partner/foil, but the list of things that might be improved by Ivan Julian being involved is a long one.
Destiny Street, while reasonably well received by the usual suspects like Robert Christgau, didn’t exactly have the same seismic effect as Hell inventing (depending on who… etc., etc.) punk. Maybe that’s because of the frontman’s issues with heroin. Maybe it is because the Voidoids most vocal partisan, Lester Bangs, was too busy being newly dead to serve as hype man. Or maybe, as Hell’s interlocutor pointed out, there just wasn’t any interest in a punk album that wasn’t cosplaying Blackness (outside of playing the Black mode of rock ’n’ roll). Maybe May 1,1983 was too early to call Destiny Street a commercial flop, or maybe Gibbs was being nice. Regardless, the album’s failure hangs over the interview—and analysis of Smithereens—like the chubby shadow of an elephant’s carcass.
“In terms of artistry and manipulating culture,” Gibbs writes, in an inspiring example of razorblade kindness, “Hell’s career has made an artistic statement which will guarantee him at least a footnote in rock ’n’ roll history.”
As someone who actually is a footnote in rock ‘n’ roll history (I’m mentioned twice in the index of Meet Me In The Bathroom), the idea, with no disrespect to Mr. Gibbs (who, again, was being nice), of applying such a meager designation to Richard Hell’s career is hi-fucking-larious. Whether or not one believes that the singer of the Voidoids invented punk (or if one correctly credits Los Saicos), the fact remains that Blank Generation has only improved with time. Destiny Street holds up as well. And I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is brisk, caustic, insightful, and sweet. The latter is not only one of the very few rock autobiographies that has merit well beyond semi-fame prurience or the chronological recounting of fuck-ups and redemption (or, in Hell’s case, an exhaustive description of seemingly every single railroad apartment below 14th Street). The book is also arguably as strong a piece of art as Hell’s recorded work from 40 years previous. If, when we all get to Paradise and get to finally read Allah’s Big Book of Rock, all of Rich Hell’s works are just footnotes, fine. But in that case, I better not see an entire chapter on the Lemonheads or some shit.
On the other hand, in an attempt to set the record straight about the lyrics of the song that first established him, Richard Hell told Vernon Gibbs, “I thought that the ideal way to look at your life and to conceive of yourself was that you were your own blank slate, you could make yourself into whatever your ideal picture of who you wanted to be was… I wanted to set a trend but it was just for me—the trend wasn’t supposed to be for people to do what I did, with the hairdo and the torn T-shirts, but to do what they wanted to do. I realize now that it was unrealistic to try to set a trend against setting trends.” So it’s not like Hell was terribly stoked on the kind of canonization he was getting.
I also can’t imagine what Richard Hell might think should he ever read this. A CREEM profile from 1983, that focused on a 1982 fictionalized version of his attempts to move on from his 1976 past, revisited in the 2022 iteration of the magazine, that draws on his 2013 autobiography. All (arguably) written in the anachronistic style of '70s rock journalism. There are echoes of the past, and then there is straight up ricochet.
There are echoes of the past, and then there is straight up ricochet
Generally speaking, memory is no fan of context. Context requires complication, and then recontextualization. While memory just wants to recite baseball stats, shine statues of Confederate generals, and jack off to high school sweethearts conflated with old posters of Samantha Fox, context is always there, pushing its glasses up the ridge of its nose, insisting that the past is a bit more than just a flashback reel. Richard Hell (and, for that matter, Vernon Gibbs) may or may not have gotten his/their correct due. Whether that’s true is as complicated as anything that’s happened. Applying moral wishcasting to historical memory is a sucker’s game.
According to his autobiography, Richard Hell believes he was contextualized incorrectly from the moment Lester Bangs interpreted the liberatory—to Hell’s mind essentially positive—howl and strut of “Blank Generation” as pure negation. Punk went sideways from there, and through the prism of that profound misunderstanding, Hell’s entire catalog is still seen. In this way, context is a bully.**
That’s the kick of inventing yourself... Maybe Smithereens is a cautionary tale or maybe it’s an unintentional documentary. Move to the city, change your name, run around stealing purses while the Feelies get groovy in the alleys around you. You can recreate your own birth as often as you like, till you're positively sticky with possibility. You’re still in the world, and the world will have its say.
*No, the band “The Smithereens” didn’t get their name from the movie. The New Jersey band started in 1980, and probably weren’t too stoked on either the movie sharing their name or the film’s depiction of New Jersey transplants.
**I mean, to a far lesser degree, I can relate! My mouthy, self-consciously jiving digressions were never described, by online commenters, as being “Lester Bangs wannabe” until I started writing for CREEM. I was just, you know, Jewish.
Need more Richard Hell in your life? Dig into CREEM’s archive, only available here.