“I wanted to have a life of adventure,” writes Richard Hell in his clear-eyed, surprisingly moving new autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. “I didn’t want anybody telling me what to do.” The kid from the Kentucky suburbs of the Fifties took that basic idea and helped create the punk aesthetic in New York in the early Seventies, first as a co-founder of Television and a member of the Heartbreakers and then as the leader of his short-lived band Richard Hell and the Voidoids, whose “Blank Generation” remains the unofficial anthem of the original CBGB scene.
The shorthand concept of punk may have been confirmed the day Blondie’s Chris Stein opened a magazine to a picture of the Sex Pistols, in their chopped haircuts and torn clothes, and said to Hell, “Four guys who look just like you!” Not that Hell cares one way or the other, particularly. After quitting both music and (eventually) his hardcore drug habit, he returned to his first love, writing, working as a film critic and publishing poetry and the novels Go Now and Godlike. He spoke to Rolling Stone while on book tour in California.
In your rock & roll period, you basically lived fast, died young and left a beautiful corpse, without the corpse part. There’s nobody else I can think of who successfully shut it off quite like you did.
Well, I think what happened with me was I just realized I wasn’t suited for the life. Also, I did have a kind of long period of decline [laughs]. I actually did feel after we made that first album [Blank Generation] that I was ready to stop. That would’ve been kind of pretty. But it didn’t work out that way. I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I was also in this other trance state of narcotics addiction. I didn’t have very much initiative in any direction. It wasn’t that clean – I staggered on for five or six years. It did work out that I made one more record [Destiny Street], and that record has its points. That worked out kind of satisfyingly. I basically left music after that. I had other options. Most musicians are thoroughly musicians. For me, being a musician was a kind of decision. It wasn’t something that just welled up in me, that carried me along in the wave of my confidence in my unique skills as a composer-bass player. No – I decided I wanted to make music, and then I decided to stop.
You write really well about what it felt like to hear your own sound come out of an amplifier for the first time.
I’ve never forgotten what that felt like. It is unbelievably thrilling. It’s about when everything is possible, because you haven’t developed any habits. Everything you do has this power. It’s very different from sitting alone with pencil and paper. It’s this funny experience of simultaneously producing and consuming the music . . . Part of what frustrated me in rock & roll after a while was, when you’re touring, it’s so difficult to make it new every night. It’s almost impossible. You find out what works and you reproduce it. And that’s really tedious. It takes so much fucking energy and inspiration. I think that’s why so many bebop musicians ended up narcotics addicts.
Do you still own a bass?
Yeah. I never take it out of the case [laughs], but . . .
In the book, you write about watching Westerns as a kid, and how there was always a two-man team. You had that, however briefly, with Tom Verlaine [in Television], and then with Robert Quine [in the Voidoids]. Were there others?
I think as a rule you kind of outgrow that. That’s youth, where you have your best friends. I think you stop having friends over 30. Classically, there are all these songwriting teams. It’s about having somebody to confide in, somebody to watch your back, and you watching theirs. As a kid, I always did have a best friend. Those movies definitely did corrupt me, those Westerns. There’s always the sidekick, and sometimes they’re really partners. I think it’s universally understood – I don’t think my experience was unique.
You mention how you don’t feel cool. Have you always felt that way?
It only arose as an issue when I began seeing myself classed like that. But yeah, I guess you could say so. I’m kind of self-conscious. I have maybe relaxed a little in my dotage [laughs]. To me, being cool is kind of an affectation, and I try my best to rid myself of affectations. But I’m also, as I said, self-conscious. I tend to get grouchy under pressure. I’m susceptible with women – I get obsessed, when cool people are supposed to be in control and indifferent, not romantic. My clothes are hit-or-miss [laughs]. Sometimes I pull it off, sometimes I don’t. I don’t like being classed that way, because to me, it’s a very narrow class. It’s not something really to aspire to.
Then who does epitomize cool to you?
As far as being cool in a positive way? [long pause] Jim Jarmusch is cool. He’s never flustered, very self-possessed. Frank Sinatra’s cool. I love Frank. I’m a stumblebum.
Do you have any idea how many copies Blank Generation has sold over the years?
It never occurred to me to wonder. I have no idea. I do get royalty statements. I guess they would’ve told me if it went gold or something. But whatever they tell me is going to be nothing but disappointing, so why disappoint myself?
Did it matter that you were probably a few years older than a lot of your peers when the punk scene started?
That’s not right – most of the bands were our age. Patti Smith was three or four years older. The Ramones were our age. But yeah, the British bands were all, like, four or five years younger. They eventually started bringing it up, as if it were significant. When I first started a band, I was conscious of that. In fact, the first couple of years, I shaved two years off my age when anybody asked. I stopped doing that pretty soon.
I want to ask about the moment Chris Stein looked at the picture of the Sex Pistols and said, “Hey, here’s four guys who look just like you.” You say you were amused, and a little flattered. Has your relationship to that moment changed over the years – how you felt about certain people ripping off your look, your approach, your singing style?
I’ve never said anybody ripped me off. I got ideas from elsewhere as well. It’s normal. You don’t own ideas. But as you said, it was kind of flattering and amusing to see that picture. There were a lot of developments – it was a wild ride over the coming few years. There were various kinds of ups and downs. It’s fairly complex.
You’ve been out of music and the lifestyle for decades. What would you consider to be the most un-punk habit or pastime you’ve developed over the years?
I never really thought of anything I did as being “punk.” That was just something applied to various aspects of what certain bands were doing, among which were bands of mine. I think I know what you mean, though, like, how could I surprise people that I’m not the clichéd idea of a punk?
You haven’t taken up golfing . . . ?
[Laughs] That, yeah. I don’t think that’s gonna happen . . . I love going to museums. I haunt all the museums in New York. Would that qualify?
Not nearly as shocking as golfing would’ve been.
You know what, I have an answer. It’s occurred over the years, in a way I totally reject – the kind of behavior generally attributed to punks. I believe in people respecting each other. I don’t want anybody in my face. I remember when I was a kid, going to the movies, and there were always one or two characters – the theater would be filled with people my age, maybe 12, 14 – always a couple of idiots who would yell through the movie and throw bags of popcorn around. That was punk behavior. That really repels me. I don’t think people have the right to impose themselves on other people without any consideration of the other person’s privacy and comfort. I believe in good manners. That’s not punk, in the way that people usually think of as punk. And I’ve always felt that way.