A HELLISH NIGHT AT CITY LIGHTS: richard hell and his autobiography

A HELLISH NIGHT AT CITY LIGHTS: richard hell and his autobiography

20060420_richard_hell_2Last week I saw a group of middle-aged day laborers standing on the sidewalk. A nearby radio was playing “Only the Good Die Young.” I was thinking of that when I went to see Richard Hell at City Lights a few days later. The place was packed. Thurston Moore was upstairs. For the introduction, the events coordinator was using words like “free spirit” and “aesthete.”

Richard Hell was something of an incongruity, referring to himself as a country boy who felt like a hayseed in San Francisco. He associates this town with sophistication and sex. That might be news to people here who sleep alone, but I’m sure they are sophisticated about it. Wearing baggy blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, he was unshaven with thick black glasses. He said he was disoriented from driving through the redwoods on the way from Portland. I think anyone would be in a daze if they’d led the kind of life he’s had.

Half-Jewish, he grew up in Kentucky, dropped out of high school and moved to New York City at the end of 1966. Within a few years heTelevision-band was sleeping with the ex-wife of pop artist Claes Oldenburg and had formed the group Television with his old friend Tom Verlaine. He had little or no musical experience, but said he likes approaching things from a position of ignorance. Do-it-yourself is part of the punk ethos. Eventually, he was sticking a needle in his arm because it made him feel like an adult. (Going to college has a similar effect, but it’s less addictive. Both pastimes have been known to kill the music, but I’m jumping the gun.)

I have a theory that speed tore his mind and messed up his life, and that was reflected in his torn shirts and messed up hair. People noticed him when he was walking around on the Lower East Side. The owner of a bondage shop in London saw him and had an idea for some juvenile delinquents he was managing called the Sex Pistols.

The song Hell is most often associated with is “Blank Generation,” but I keep thinking of this one.

Here are some lyrics from “New Pleasure” (1975):

Your mind’s a wreck but that’s fine
It corresponds to mine
We’re in a room the door closes
Automatic aut- (hypnosis) -matic automatic auto-

New pleasure, new pleasure
(Whisper in my ear, we go away)
New Pleasure, new pleasure

Too weak for life you have become
You can’t get dressed you’re too numb
But we assume sublime poses
Deep in true to life (hypnosis) true to life in true to life in

New pleasure, new pleasure
(Whisper in my ear, we go away)
New Pleasure, new pleasure

trampRichard read for 20 minutes from his book I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography. He talked about what it was like playing in bands like The Heartbreakers or the Voidoids in the mid-70’s: the “physical information” pouring out of the amps, the “emotion and thought in a physical form” of high-volume sound waves. You ride an energy current of drummed-up rhythms which can carry some musicians a long way. There was a musical scene coalescing around a dingy biker bar in the Bowery called CBGB (country, blue-grass, blues) which included the Ramones. Unfortunately, his exhilaration only lasted about “six weeks.” I don’t think a musician gets tired of music that fast, but a writer might. He said, “Familiarity and habit take the edge off.” He was on the edge of music, hanging on by a few steel strings and his amplified voice. Now 63, he said he wrote the book to “get a handle on how I got to be old.” It happens to the best of us, but some go quietly without leaving a trail of words so they don’t get lost.godlikeLG

He read another section which was more sexual, in honor of being in San Francisco where sex was discovered in the 1960‘s. He said he fell into S & M in 1979, meeting a woman in the loft of his crystal meth dealer and bringing her home. Their clothes hit the floor and she wanted him to dominate her. He later realized he was too lazy to dominate a woman. He also noted an odd reversal, with the slave controlling the master, if the latter is conforming to her wishes of being dominated in a certain manner. At any rate, the rock and roll made him handsome and women were falling for it. He left a trail of fallen women.

He said writer Kathy Acker is mentioned twice in the book, but “very much in passing,” like an unpleasant thought.RichardHellspikyhairstyle

In the next section he read from, he referred to his respect for people with ideas, something he found lacking in someone like Sid Vicious, who he found “infantile and clownish,” not to mention self-destructive. He wrote a long review of the film “Sid and Nancy” in Spin. He liked Lester Bangs, who gave his music a good review. He mentioned Peter Laughner, singer/guitarist with Rocket from the Tombs (out of which came the Dead Boys) and Pere Ubu. Laughner managed to drink and drug himself to death in 1977 at the age of 24. Richard spit on his grave.

Hell said he would refer to people like Gertrude Stein, Nietzsche and Nerval when he was being interviewed. (Nerval was a nervous 19th century French poet who walked a lobster on a blue silk ribbon and hung himself.) Richard has a line near the end of his book which sounds like Gertrude was sitting on him, but fortunately it’s just one line.

By the mid-1980’s, Hell had left music and drugs and was trying to write for a living, putting a different spin on things by writing for Spin. He wrote books like “Go Now” (1996) and “Godlike” (2005).

Simon & Schuster 1996 Calvin ChuThere were questions and answers for another 20 minutes. A woman asked if music had an influence on him anymore and who he listened to. He paused, and mentioned an English band, The Libertines. Responding to other questions, he said he was offered $10,000 for the Voidoids to get together for just one song. I told him I saw him with the Voidoids at CBGB’s in ’79 or ’81 and asked him what happened to that group. He wasn’t on bass and was getting frantic onstage, pulling out his hair. He said he had been impersonating himself after 1978 and the line-ups of the bands came and went. He would scrape together another band if he needed money, but otherwise had other things on his mind.

Someone asked him about periods in his life which were not in the book. He admitted he had forgotten to include a few things, like recording in New Orleans in the early 1980’s.

After he had been reading and talking for about forty minutes, he decided he had had enough. Time to sign books. The line went out the door, and City Lights ran out of his book.

steven Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).