Richard Hell is an author and poet who is probably best known by readers of this site as the leader of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, one of the classic NYC bands of the early punk rock era. When the publisher of his new book Godlike offered me the chance to interview him, I said, "Howdy-do!" Then they sent me the book and it was about these two guys having sex. Oh sure, scholars might argue that it's more a tale of an aging poet reminiscing about a physical and emotional relationship he once had with a teenaged boy, but there's certainly a bunch of ass balling in there too. So I came up with a list of book-related questions for Mr. Hell, only to run into quite a quandary when it turned out that he was already aware of my lousy record review web site and thus assumed that the interview was going to be about his music. Add to this an initial Hellish reaction that I read as complete lack of interest in yet again discussing the book, and the stage was set for a wonderfully awkward go-nowhere conversation with no actual questions! I still very much enjoyed speaking to him though, and recommend that you purchase everything he's ever done, beginning with the album Blank Generation. My questions are in bold; his answers are in plain text.
I should also add that I overslept the morning of the interview so Richard's phone call served as my alarm. Perhaps this is why I was so “slow on the uptake”?
Hey, it's Richard.
Oh, how are you?
I'm OK. How are you?
Are you on a speaker phone or something?
No...can you hear me?
It's just a weird kind of a... It has a kind of cavernous, ringing, bizarre echo noise on it. But I guess that's just you.
That's how I talk. No, it might be this old phone we have, I don't know.
But I've got it recording... So I can hear you well.
Good. Yeah, that is good, because I've had some funny experiences with people transcribing phone interviews lately. There was this magazine called Skyscraper, have you ever heard of that?
No, neither had I. It's amazing how many magazines there are, isn't it? I don't know how they survive.
But this guy did a phone interview with me and it was full of the most bizarre, outrageous mis-transcriptions. You know? He would have me saying things that made no sense, and you would think that he could guess that maybe I didn't, you know, maybe I wasn't as brain-damaged as the word he was guessing I was saying indicated. It would be something like he would say, “Well, what's up today?” And I would say, “I'll have to check my colander.”
You know? He would write “colander” instead of “calendar.” I mean, it was so weird. I don't know how... So I'm a little skeptical of...
What's the name of that magazine?
That sounds like a classic. I'll have to look that one up.
Well it's full of all this stuff.
OK, well I'll make sure we have a lot of good quotes about your new book “God Limes.”
What prompted you to write this book? Where did these characters come from?
This is going to be a book one? It's not a music one?
Both I guess?
Oh, OK. Um, what drove me to write the book? Well, you know, I just came from this tour of the west coast, giving readings in four or five cities, a couple of readings in each city. So I have such a fucking rutted rap in my brain about this book, since I've said everything there is to possibly say about it. But what made me write the book? Well, my standard line about that... My first novel was called Go Now, right? Have you read that?
I haven't read that.
You do too many interviews! You can't do enough research for each one!
I have to read all your books???!!!
There aren't that many!!! I know you'll put three exclamation points after that, right? “All your books, question mark, question mark, question mark, exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point!”
(wounded) I like exclamation points!
I like exclamation points.
I noticed. Well, that book, which came out in '96, was about a burnout, junkie, punk womanizer. Right?
And it was pretty well-received. I mean, I was happy with the reception it got, but all the reviewers would comment that it was autobiographical. So that was kind of annoying. I mean, not just because the main character was kind of a creep, but also because the suggestion, the implication, was that it really didn't take much imagination, that I wasn't really a writer, that I was just sort of recounting my life story. So one of the things I had in mind when I was setting out to do another novel was to do a story about somebody as different as possible so that they wouldn't be able to dismiss the book in that particular way. So I ended up writing a book about young, gay poets doing acid. But of course they all say it's me. And in fact they make me the old guy. This happened in four or five reviews, where it says, “the person who's standing in for Hell has to be this guy Paul.” But it's not! Really! Well, who cares. But it's stupid, it's really stupid. But anyway, yeah, it was time to write another novel, I decided I wanted to write about poets because poetry has been a big part of my life, and people have all these preconceptions and prejudices when they hear that word. It makes them flee and vomit and hold their ears. And I wanted to see if I could write something that maybe would put a different kind of spin on the concept of poetry.
Maybe the problem is that you're too good a writer. You're capturing these characters too well so people assume they're you.
Ha! Uh... That's insightful.
Or maybe people just think that you look like a guy that'd be...
Well, you know, people always see authors in their books, you know what I mean? I do it myself.
Also I guess it's the fact that you chose to live with these characters that you were writing the book about for however long it took. People are like, “Well, there must be a reason he picked these characters.”
You know, there's something to that. Yeah. Though I almost gave up on doing the gay part a few times in the book. I don't know if I should even talk about this; it gets too... you can't win. You just let the book make its own path and create its own impressions. Yeah, I was squirming at times putting my head into the place I needed it to be to write. So, you know, it's not always - I mean concentration camp survivors write books and it's not like... you don't write the book because you want to be in that place necessarily. You write the book because... there are all kinds of reasons.
Now, the questions that weren't really answered in the book, do you have answers to them? Like, what Paul was doing during all those lost adult years. In your mind do you know what he was doing, or is that one of those...
What Paul was doing during which years?
All those “lost adult years” where you don't know what he's doing.
You mean like between when...
Yeah, I have a good account of what his life was like.
What was he doing?
Well, you know, to me, the younger Paul is described in the novel that Paul is writing about his younger days. He's writing about his younger days, but he calls it a memoir-novel. Because it is a memoir, but he's taking liberties that only a novelist could take, like when he's talking about scenes that he couldn’t have been present for, and anyway he doesn't want to claim that his memory's perfect. You know, he fabricates stuff that he thinks is true to what happened, even though it really is him doing his best to evoke this experience he actually had. So when you’re hearing about him in the third person as he was as a young man of twenty-seven in 1971 having this intense affair with a teenager, and alternately you hear him talking in the first person in 1997, when he’s in his fifties as he's writing the book... To me, they're consistent. I wouldn't think that it would be mysterious to reconcile those two people, the way they sound. You know what I mean? So, to me it's no kind of stretch to imagine that his life just sort of continued in the mode that it did at the beginning, to arrive at this place where he's occasionally admitted to the psych ward at a hospital. I mean, he drinks a lot and he thinks about sex a lot, and he writes a lot of poems. They're the same person.
Why does he keep going to the psych ward?
Why does he keep going to the psych ward?
Well, he's kind of, you know...
You know, I know plenty of people who do that.
Well, you know, the poet James Schuyler, for instance, was someone who would regularly spend time in the hospital. John Weiners is a poet, a really good poet, and he was also on a whole lot of psycho-pharmaceuticals. There are a lot of really good artists who are unbalanced people in a lot of ways. You know, kind of on the edge. It's weird. What about Brian Wilson?
Oh yeah. Yeah. Why did you stop recording music?
Hmm...well...I don't know; I just got frustrated and wanted to try other things. I felt like I'd done what I set out to do. I was in really bad shape and I associated part of my degraded condition to that livelihood. I figured my life was more important to me than being a rock musician. You know, it's like a whole catalog of reasons. Basically what it comes down to is I don't think it's what I'm best suited for. I think writing is really more my forte.
Are you able to...
It's funny, Mark; it's really weird. I'm sure this is true about a lot of people, but your voice in an interview is so different from the way it appears on a page. You know? Because I was just checking out your site. You know, your writing at the site almost seem like you have Tourettes or something, or you're on speed. You break out into these... I mean, in writing, on your website, you break out into these exclamations and you seem to be out of control, going on and on. But when I'm actually speaking to you, you're very thoughtful and slow and considerate. What's up with that?
The web site's for entertainment purposes!
Also I just woke up. No, I'm not going to sit there and scream at someone on the phone! I just do that when I'm typing, because it's fun. Is it annoying to read?
Oh. But... Are you able to support yourself just on your artwork, your books, your poetry?
It's funny how often I get asked that. Since like 1975, there was only one period of about six months in the late '80s - that was where I made the shift from music to writing and wasn't getting a lot of music royalties - that I had to work a real job.
Now where does the money keep coming from? From the book tours? From sales?
No, I get record royalties. Everything that I want to be in print is in print. Now I write a movie column six times a year. I do two or three high-paying readings a year. There’s a steady trickle from merchandise at the site. Every couple of years I make a good score in advances, either for music or writing...
Who do you write a movie column for?
Oh. Do you write about...
I keep almost thinking I should quit doing it, because it's time-consuming. You know, I mean, they're movie reviews. A bunch of them are up on my website. If you look at the first page of my website, I think there are eight to ten of them posted.
Do you review... oh, well, no, actually, that's a bad question. So do you try to write every day, write something every day?
If you're not working on a book, you're just working on poems?
You work on poems? Or maybe...
I've got different stuff that I've got to deal with every day. I've got assignments, you know. I've got a film deadline every two months. Or I focus on a major project. It depends. I'm coming up now where I want to really cut out everything else and focus on a new book.
Do you have an idea on what it's going to be?
I have a kind of idea that I want to do something that's based on actual experiences I've had. I've made some notes and I'm not sure where it's going to go, but I mean, I tried a couple of ideas out before I settled on what ended up being Godlike.
Would you ever want to do a straight memoir book?
No. No, I wouldn't do a straight memoir book. This isn't like a memoir book. I mean, that's part of the fun of it, was coming up with a form, a sort of method of doing it that gets me off. There's no way I would want to write just a memoir. But I have a few ideas. I'm also just interested in memory, and I think that whatever I did would end up being partly about that. About how you have to...you don't really trust your brain. It would have to somehow mesh with the reliability of the memory.
Not trusting memory...yeah, that is pretty interesting. Actually, I was thinking about that when I was reading that book about Squeaky Fromme...
Oh yeah? What book is that?
It's just called Squeaky.
Who wrote it?
Hmm, Jess Bravin I think?
Oh, I don't know that book.
It's a big book about her whole life. I started thinking about it because when she had the gun on President Ford, no one could remember exactly what she said. Some people said that when the cops grabbed her she sounded upset, saying, “It didn't go off!” And other people thought they heard her calmly say, "It wasn't loaded anyway."
Oh, I'm getting mixed up. I'm thinking of Squeaky Fromme, the girl that was with the Mansons.
Yeah, that's her. Same girl.
She had a gun on Ford?
Later, in the '70s, yeah, after everyone had forgotten about her. She tried to kill President Ford. Or, well, they don't know if she did. She may have just been making a statement. And that's what nobody could -- People who were exactly right there, they couldn't remember exactly what she said. And it was pretty important to her defense.
Right. Yeah. It's really odd, and especially when you've been part of something that people talk about a lot. For instance, I read Please Kill Me and a lot of the stuff in there is completely wrong. I don't know whether the people... I mean, it's basically true. It's impressively accurate in the general tone of how it evokes that time and place. But still, probably the thing that interferes the most with accuracy is people's self-interest, they want to say things that make them look good. But even when they're talking about stuff that doesn't reflect on them at all really, still their personality shows up in the way that they describe what happened. And journalists... I mean, if I just look at the stuff that was written in the interviews that I did the last two months around this book coming out, the way I'm described, I'm shocked. It's nothing like what I remembered happening. But they always come to it with their preconceptions, and the point is everybody is who they are and they all filter everything through the way they look at stuff. I find that the worst journalists are the ones that have the highest reputations, because they're so arrogant. Like the New York Times or the L.A. Times. And it's really interesting to see from the inside what's going on there by being a subject. Because you see how incorrect the stuff they publish is. They misquote you, they put a completely incorrect spin on stuff, misinterpreting it, and they're so full of themselves that they think they're doing you a favor and you should be grateful that they're writing about you. They're so arrogant with their power that they don't have any consideration.
I know, yeah.
It's really funny, and I try to remind myself of that when I read articles in papers like those, but it's hard. The power of print is really amazing. You see something in print and you assume that's what happened. And it's so rarely the case. Especially in the papers that have the biggest reputations, because they just don't care. They just swagger.
Yeah, like this woman in the New York Times who's all over the news these days, who was pushing Bush's agenda about Saddam Hussein having the weapons of mass destruction... you know this woman?
No, I don't know about that.
It's this woman who refused to give out the name of the person who told her that...
The woman that went to jail?
Oh yeah, sure.
Yeah. She was using the New York Times to push Bush's agenda which wasn't true.
Was that what was going on?
That was one of the things she did, yeah. She's always been a supporter of his.
Well that's the thing about newspapers. Did you read that piece on Raymond Pettibon in the Times magazine?
He has a big retrospective up at the Whitney now. And it was typical in the way that the journalist just treated him as some kind of weirdo. It just treated him as some kind of conversation piece eccentric, because they're writing for this middle class audience and all the writers are middle class and middlebrow, and Raymond Pettibon and his family are so much more interesting and admirable. So they followed him home to his family house and he has an unusual kind of home life by the Times' standards. And rather than talk about how brilliant the guy is and how amazing his work is, they have to frame it all as the wacky, eccentric artist who is part of a crazy, dysfunctional family. You know what I mean? And the fact is, the only people they actually give respect to from the beginning are the people with huge amounts of power. Like President Bush. It was really disgusting the way no paper questioned going to war with Iraq at the beginning and really only up until just recently. Just get behind the Commander In Chief. Including the Times. And now that that stuff has gone bad, they act all superior. But it's safe to act superior now, as if they weren't all waving the flag there five years ago. But yeah... it's very hard...
Yeah, it is. It's hard to find the truth, because you're either reading that stuff - the corporate lies - or you get sucked into the really super-paranoid online web sites who report every conspiracy as the truth. It's hard to find the in-between. I think maybe you just have to actually work for George Bush to know what he's doing. The other thing about these reporters and the arrogance that gets me - all it is is the publication; no one cares about the actual reporter. If that person got fired from the publication, no one would give a rat's ass about them.
Yeah. Yeah, you're right. But they have the power because you can't reply to the stuff they say and they know that. So whatever they say is what goes. You just look like an idiot if you write in and say, “Um, that's not what happened.” Even if it's a strict fact that you're disputing and you're right and they're wrong. So they put a one-paragraph retraction in the Times somewhere buried in Section F. They're arrogant because they have that power. What they say goes. Nothing you can do will change it. For a pop culture small-scale personality like me, that's not something that arises often, but there has been once or twice when I have been so disgusted by something that I'll make some kind of public effort to dispute it. But yeah... you can't take it seriously. It just is annoying. When it's happening on a national scale where it has to do with peoples' lives, I mean.
Yeah. You wonder what's inside these people.
You wonder what's inside these people.
Like, what is inside this Ann Coulter woman? What is she doing? You know? Does she actually believe this stuff? Is she psychotic or is she just doing it for the fame, the popularity? It's just weird. People are strange. People are assholes. There are a lot of people who just seem to be assholes for no reason. How were you able to get out of the negativity of the problems you were having in the late '70s, early '80s, with the drug lifestyle and everything? How were you able to distance yourself from all that?
Well, I don't know if I can actually explain how, you know what I mean? I was just lucky is basically the way I look at it. Things got so bad and I had such a hard time. You know, I tried so many ways and I tried for so long. I just was lucky that finally I succeeded and stopped abusing drugs, which was the first and most important thing. Basically it was a matter of stopping abusing drugs.
Did you go into a hospital for that, or were you just able to--
I don't really wanna talk about my old drug problems.
Yeah, OK. Another thing I was going to mention when you were talking about memory and Please Kill Me and everything is the fact that everybody seems to remember writing “Chinese Rocks.” Everybody claims that they wrote that song.
People say they remember doing what?
Writing the song “Chinese Rocks.”
Yeah. Well, anybody who takes anything Jerry Nolan or Johnny Thunders says at face value -- Ha!
Why, what was his problem? He was just self-promoting? What was his problem?
Well, because they wanted to have a claim on that song. They had nothing whatsoever to do with it. They also said shit about me when I left the band; they acted like they kicked me out or something. Johnny never said anything like that, but Jerry was known to say stuff like that. If he didn't actually say that, he hinted at it just because it was like this New York gang mentality where they were offended that I left the group, so they had to make it out to be that they never wanted me anyway. And I never had any bad feelings; I had a great time in that band and I was happy in it up until the time where I wanted to try to do stuff that wasn't really right for that band. I was the fucking lead singer. I did most of the singing and wrote most of the songs. But yeah, it's all silliness. Water way under the bridge. I don't really give a shit about the “Chinese Rocks” thing. What happened is really clear, and the songwriting credits can all be checked at BMI. The song is by me and Dee Dee, but Dee Dee did 75 percent of it. I mean, all I did was write two verses out of three. Dee Dee wrote the music, the concept was his, he's basically responsible for it. But he brought me the song; he didn't even know Johnny and Jerry, but we were friends and he thought the band was great. And when the Ramones didn't want to do the song he said, “Look, I've written one verse of this song with the chorus and it's about heroin, how about you write the rest of it and it's yours?” And that's what he did. I say it all the time: when I was in the Heartbreakers, everybody sang the songs that they wrote and I sang “Chinese Rocks” -- there are plenty of live tapes to prove it. Then I stopped performing it after the Heartbreakers and they kept playing it. That was their biggest song, so they wanted to take credit for it. Stupid.
Yeah. So did you keep up with Dee Dee and Robert Quine in the years after you worked with them at all, or did you. -
I never saw Dee Dee after the '70s, but we were real tight for a couple years. Quine I was in touch with.
What happened at the end? Was it because of his wife?
Oh, it's complicated. Someday I'll write about it. I'm going to have to go in a second...
You're not even going to say anything about the "Spurts" CD, which I thought was the subject of this.
Well, no, your book publisher set this up.
But on your site you write about music, so I assumed that...
I didn't want to let down your publisher by asking about music. She sent the book for me to read and everything.
How did that happen?!
I don't know! Maybe Citizine set this up through her? I'm in the background here! Hell, I like the music.
So have you got enough there to do an article?
Yeah, I just wanted to talk to you because I've been a fan for a long time.
I just wanted to talk to you because I've been a fan for a long time.
That's the other thing! I was aware that you had written about my records. I didn't realize that this was supposed to be about the book. Of course, we didn't talk about the book too much either, but... who cares?
Exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point.
People complain about the exclamation points.
There should be a quicker way to say “exclamation point.” It's kind of like a, what do you call it, it's like an oxymoron just saying “exclamation point.” You can't say “exclamation point” in an exclamatory way because it's too hard to say, too many syllables. You can't do it.
You know, there's this band whose name is three exclamation points. Have you heard of them?
They pronounce it “Chk Chk Chk.”
They pronounce it what?
“CHK CHK CHK.” C-H-K, C-H-K, C-H-K.
How's that? What's that?
I have no idea. It's dumb, and when people write about them they put the band's name and then in parentheses, “(pronounced Chk Chk Chk.)”
That's insanity. I guess you're going to have to interview them and get to the bottom of that.
Well, I don't even listen to 'em; I'm not going to waste my time interviewing 'em. All right. Well, thanks for the time!
For more about the author please visit www.MarkPrindle.com.