Cycling down to the South Bank from Honor Oak Park, I'm water bombed by some kids in Peckham. The people at a nearby bus stop laugh, and I give two fingers to the little fuckers. I'm easily discouraged. Fuck it, I think, I don't really want to go to the Hell reading much anyway. These events are invariably overlong and boring, with plenty of chin stroking, appreciative nodding and polite applause. Yawn. At the 3:AM Horse Hospital reading, I remember getting daggers looked my way by Billy Childish's wife for laughing out of turn while hubby was giving it his moustachioed all. Show some fucking respect. So, I consider turning around, going home, getting dry and simply pretending that I'd been at the reading. Perhaps write something along the lines of Paul Morley's infamous early 80s NME review of Theatre of Hate which was all about Kirk Brandon's ears. No way was Morley at that gig. He was at home reading Barthes' Mythologies, while sipping cocktails, as did everyone in those louche and decadent mutant disco days. "The writer's language is not expected to represent reality, but to signify it. This should impose on critics the duty of using two rigorously distinct methods: one must deal with the writer's realism either as an ideological substance, or as a semiological value -- the props, the actors..." Or, um, ears… You could almost see the lightbulb appear above Paul's head. Clearly, this style went down a treat with an 80s NME readership desperate for pseudo-intellectual sensation, but would it sit with a 3:AM crowd in love with the real world, its desperation and drama portrayed in language that circumnavigates emasculated, fussy artistry and plunges into life itself? Hair, I think to myself with a flippant dandyism, an urbane scepticism, and epicurean sensibility, I'll simply write about Hell's hair…
The last time I'd seen Richard Hell on stage, at the Camden Underworld, he revealed, rather bravely (although, hey, in the future, all art will be confessional, as they say), that the closer he got to a woman's anus, the more he believed in God. I remember this when, halfway through the Meltdown reading, a young woman, clacks down the stairs and walks out. "I hope she's going to the bathroom," quips Richard, with the slickness of a self-deprecating stand up. He carries on reading, but soon stops, pauses for a few seconds, looks into the middle distance, shakes his head as if in wonder, brushes the hair out of his eyes, and says: "I can't get the thought of that woman in the toilet out of my mind". He laughs and continues reading, but to no avail, as far as I am concerned. He's lost me because, now, what is going on in Richard's fetid, stinking mind is of far more interest than the stuff he is reading out: the shit, the stench, the horrible sounds. It is what he isn't saying that reveals more about Hell as artist and person -- with those silent implications of the shit, the stench, the sounds -- as well as about the ridiculous human condition, rather than the blurred words repeated from the pages of his new book, Godlike… the belief in whom, of course…
I'm a bit scared of Richard Hell. He seems pleasant and polite enough, but you should read his exchange with one poor chap on Bookslut. Hell kills him. Critic: "As a poet now, Richard Hell is perhaps not as good as he could have been had he not spent upwards of twenty years playing music". Hell: "Fuck you. If you want to say something like that, say it to my face. You don't hear me making claims about how 'good' my poetry is, but who the fuck do you think you are? All this writing of yours is presented as if you're a person called upon to make judgments from some position of earned respect. That's not who you are. You're a callow kid with a job reading slush for a pretentious irrelevant 'poetry' magazine [Poetry, not Bookslut]. You sought an interview from me, I was kind enough to grant it, and now you're being an asshole by exercising some grotesquely deluded misapprehension that your role in this includes some call to fucking critically assess my skills". There's more where that comes from. Have a look and shudder. So, during the reading, I'm drifting, looking around checking out who's turned up… anyone I know from the old days?… when I'm jerked back to the reading… by fear. Fear of Richard. Concentrate, you fool, what if Richard finds out you're not paying attention? Some bits of the reading I find a bit boring. I slap myself around the face. No, it's all good! What are you, some kind of critic! Have I earned the right to critically assess his skills? Who the fuck am I to suggest that Richard has a stinking and fetid mind? Who the fuck asked me? You fuck. Fuck you! No, I mean, fuck me!
First off, though, Hell admits to the expectant crowd -- there's about a hundred of us in the posh Purcell Rooms -- that he's a writer, not an entertainer. He's embarrassed about being flown all the way out here, but he'll strive to give people their money's worth. He huffs and puffs. His schtick is give a little preliminary ramble, or an interjection, to illustrate some point or other, but he struggles to make the connections, to hit the links. And you know what, it works. It's endearing. He digresses. But so what? As remarked in Sterne's Tristram Shandy, digressions are incontestably the sunshine, the life and soul of reading. Especially this reading. His stories frustrate our sense of tidy form by refusing to end properly, just like Chekhov, I think, stroking my chin.
The words flow over me in endless confabulation. No, really, they do. I always dug Hell's lyrics, the dopey cleverness of "Destiny Street", for instance. I also enjoyed the tough braggadocio of Hell's 90s novel Go Now in which our man, drugged, fucks and fucks up, earns cash for nothing, like a peddle-to-the-metal hopped-up drop-out crossing the States with the larger-than-life aplomb of a pulp fiction anti-hero. Vagabond poet rogue of the open highway, as it were. Vicarious thrills are to be had here.
The new stuff, Godlike, is more thoughtful. It's clear that Richard has been sitting in his East Village apartment, I presume, and over a couple of coffees, scratching his head about the Big Picture. The important stuff. The philosophy of the isness of being is. How the world turns. What makes the soul sigh, the tears flow, the synapses fire. How high is the ocean, how deep is the sky (metaphorically speaking). Like a proper writer. He works things out, and comes up with some answers: "Fuck the hippies and their emotions," to paraphrase one of his character's sneering aside. I like such succinctness and directness in philosophical writing. Nietzsche and Adorno would agree. Brevity and speed is what it is.
Of course, Hell also continues to write about the vomit, the cocks, the cack of the city, which is probably what he's best at: malicious imagery that explores disturbing and inconsolable situations; tossed together random bleak pictures to provide some anxiety about the unbearable pathos of life; an atmosphere laden with fucked-upness and failure relaying some long distance loneliness, all jittery and wired. It's all very rock 'n' roll in that respect.
Afterwards, a bunch of people hang around for a signed copy of Godlike. There's some frazzled rockers present soaking up the NYC Ramones/Thunders/smack connections, relics from the Speakeasy circa 1977, swaying and tottering, weighed down by tattoos, living the bleakness and smelling of gin, Benson and Hedges, and regret -- or, is that me? I sniff my armpit. Then Hell pops up to make his mark wearing a voluminous black and white striped shirt and some serious strides; quite retro, Truffaut-esque, perhaps. He's put on some weight, maybe. Certainly some gravitas. And, well, there's the hair to consider. So, I think, yes, let's plug, and plug into Richard Hell's luminous brilliance because, you know, even though his hair is now as lank and long as a 19th-century Symbolist poet's, his thoughts remain as spiky as his hair used to be.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Cabut has written for the BBC, Guardian, Telegraph, Big Issue and many other publications. He writes fiction, takes pictures and cycles around town. He used to play in the punk band Brigandage and publish the fanzine Kick. You can contact him here.