"Symbolists die young because they have the courage to 'lay the heart bare' and write the book after which only death (or maybe conversion, as d'Aurevilly said of Huysmans) remains."
- Richard Hell, diary entry (December 29, 1974)
Ok. The press release to get the facts straight before it all goes to pieces.
Richard Hell was the original Prophet of Punk, appearing in 1974 with the spiked haircut, ripped, safety-pinned, written-and-drawn-on clothes and seminal punk anthems ‘Love Comes In Spurts’ and ‘(I belong to the) Blank Generation’ that would trigger an era that continues to this day. As founding member of ‘The Neon Boys’ and ‘Television’ with Tom Verlaine, and later The Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders… Hell was already punk ringleader before forming his own band, ‘The Voidoids’, whose ‘Blank Generation’ is heralded by the ‘The New York Times’ as one of the best ten albums of the decade. A timely two CD release of Hell’s R.I.P with bonus tracks and a live CD from the Music Machine (London) in 1977, (with a certain anarchist and anti-Christ taking the stage to demand an encore) and a short set from CBGBs with Elvis Costello performing ‘You Gotta Lose’ is out early 2002.
Hell has since made a spectacular reputation for himself in every conceivable medium – from music, film and writing to fashion, design and graphics. His work has consistently appeared steadily in ever-ephemeral media: poems and notebooks in literary magazines and small-press books; essays in periodicals (from Spin and GQ to Dazed and Confused); as well as photos, drawings and paintings on the walls of New York City galleries. In addition to publishing books of poetry, fiction and journals, his own novel Go Now (Fourth Estate, 1996) was received with critical acclaim: William Gibson rightly offered that ‘Go Now is vile, scabrous, unforgivable, and deserving of the widest possible audience.’
On the pages of Hot and Cold, Hell’s multifarious work is finally gathered under one cover. It includes essays, poems, lyrics (to every song Hell has recorded), notebooks, drawings and photos.’
So then let’s get on with it. ‘I’d rather write a poem than be a person anyday.’
When everything’s wrong there’s just bollock-breaking humour and passion and if you’re lucky great stuff, stuff you can hold on to.
‘ To write a comedy one requires comedy only, but to write a tragedy, tragedy is not sufficient: the strain of emotion on an audience must be lightened: they will not weep if you have not made them laugh…’ (Oscar Wilde, letter to Mary Anderson). And sheer intense tragic stuff is funny in and of itself if you think about it – Schopenhauer asking the whole world to go walk into the sea and die is hilarious – but carries with it the blank nihilistic pessimism that asks for the genocide of the human race forever at the same time. Beckett is the funniest writer around, or rather, not around now that he’s dead. And that’s funny too. Comes through in a conversation, in an event – some wild party, a concert, a fuck – or you hear it in the defining substance of recorded words or pictures. You get Edgar Allen Poe, you get Arthur Rimbaud, you get Baudelaire, you get Caravaggio, Jarman, Wilde, Bowles, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Dylan, Patti Smith, Artaud, Dennis Cooper, Van Gough, Beckett – and thank god now, Richard Hell who can write like these other demons. These are our great broken-hearted comedians.
Hell comes to us with his hands full of bleeding hunks of beauty – that’s the thing – he stinks of the pure juices, like maybe Billy Childish, and you just know that any latter day Doctor Gachet would kill him if he could because of his writings, his songs, his whole attitude and genius. (Gachet was the psychiatrist Antonin Artaud accused of having killed van Gogh in his great essay ‘the man suicided by society’.) This is the kind of writing you value because it is full of wonderment – the body, the mind, they are both there as questions and as answers – and it is poetry - ruthless, intense – ‘I don’t want to chat I want/to be rumbled by a big thing.’ (p126) And its hilarious, like Muhammed Ali is hilarious – grand, defiant, angry, dying and clever. Tragic. Look at it from the black humour rebel eye, where even the saddest or most intense emotion is just a thing mammals do. Mammals, they’re fucking hilarious.
So the context here is poetry because Hell is a great writer, better than we’re used to, better than we deserve for reading the crap the papers review – if they ever do. Poetry like this is funny and dangerous – such an intense manner – not mannerism – is ‘…intense emotion with a background of intellectual speculation.’ (Wilde – letter to Mary Anderson, 1883) but he used to be a punk rocker and he used to be young and now he’s neither – another laugh at his expense – but he’s come through to a better place than, say, TS Eliot who was a maimed and passionate guy who couldn’t get through to the laughter in his work and ended up being frigid and locked up in Modernism’s white identity politics by critics who refuse to let him out.
Insanely, Eliot’s whole life and thought are considered templates for us all by those who think he can write poetry, whereas anyone with any sense would say he was a terrible guy with disgustingly racist, misogynist views who, nevertheless, wrote some decent poetry. Hell has views that are better than Eliot’s and he can write as well too- sex and sanity, like Eliot, are his focus, but he has the guts to expose truthfully the tradition out of which he writes – maybe an invented tradition of course, but what’s a boy to do? Like the great black avant-bard Stewart Home suggests somewhere, if you can’t find a tradition to judge your work by, then invent one.
So Hell makes himself look like it’s coming out of his cock, easy as that, dead natural and fizzy. But. ‘Nature is a foolish place to look for inspiration, but a charming one in which to forget one ever had any.’ (Wilde, p 257)
In Hell there’s a quality of intensity, of a wired up gut, writing that’s to the moment, of rough hewn spawn writing, writing that crashes out without the dainty recourse to redrafting, forcing its way through an invisible iron wall which seems located somewhere between what one feels and what one can do, and so it seems natural – but this is the force of the writing’s vernacular pulse. Through the use of humour and other rhetorical techniques there’s a dialectical overflowing in the stuff. It’s consciously shaped, but not completely mastered or controlled. There’s an irresponsibility in it, so meaning can curl this way and that, out of control at times. That said, Hell places limits on his irresponsibility, making sure no meaning goes off too far from where he feels he wants it to go. At these moments he can sound moralistic, responsible and very grown up. It’s a rare blend. Difficult.
Unlike so much duff British writing, Americans have always been happy to understand the power of the speaking writing voice and from its great journalists have come some of its greatest writers – think Hemmingway, Dorothy Parker, Mailer, think Hunter S Thompson, Gore Vidal think Christopher Hitchens who, although a Brit has removed to New York where his fiercely partisan troublemaking is partly a matter of his making style and content marry.
‘Nature’ in Hell is where a… ‘Fucking cop has to search the junk heap and give me $60 ticket for going 67 in a 55 mph zone. Was all fine until now.
Jesus the ecstatic suffusion of well being just rolling (@ 70) down those two lanes. Haven’t done it justice yet. Thus the cornfields thinking of that scene in whateverthefuckmybookis called sitting in crop by motel. The windblown stiff puffs of tree-stands also resemble the clouds.
Crop dust plane acrobatics. Swollen underside, red nose, yellow behind…’ ( p 131) Nature. It’s not just the American pastoral stuff – but it’s a sudden dramatic shift from the first line of that entry to the startling, brilliant and beautiful ‘ The windblown stiff puffs of tree-stands also resemble the clouds.’ This is what he does – he notices the details of things, not just the details inside himself but the things in the world around him and he can register them with a precision and an ear that’s a kind of dissection. And he gets you to join in.
Hell invites you to listen to his details, but that’s not all he wants. You’re to take part in the argument because this is, he makes it very clear, this is just his personal point of view. What he does is promote an exchange, not so much of body fluids although there’s a lot of that here too – but of opinions. And opinions are chemical– they are the coordinated, encouraged, stretched premises and conclusions of the writer as both absorbtive and resorbtive conducter. This is writing that fucks and gets fucked.
Its qualities, however, are not singular – there’s much to admire. It’s because of how he says things, but what he says as well. Like, I really like the self-disgust he records after visiting Burroughs in Lawrence where he says – ‘ … I feel kind of dirty. I have no real connection with the guy ( I don’t think he even remembers our evenings in New York) – I was just sight-seeing and taking advantage of the opportunity.’
‘Sight-seeing’ is everything Hell is trying to avoid and he catches himself doing it with one of his heroes, doing it to one of his heroes, and the confessional mode opens up something tender and righteous in the prose that pulls you in. When a writer begins to tell you that they dislike themselves its usually a lie, a way of asking for praise. But Hell isn’t doing that here, he doesn’t let himself off the hook – but what he does is place the episode in a context of quiet farce where he gets his just desserts in a way and lets us laugh at him. This is the way he avoids the vile high art male pomp romanticism of the tragic sublime aesthetic that bases itself on sacrifice that can mar this kind of confessional writing. But it also exposes something in himself that extends to the reader where recognition kicks in as we read the episode – that tourist detour into fan worship, hero worship, whatever, which both reaches out to honour the hero and at the same time sullies her. Here’s something to note about the whole book then; Hell doesn’t come on like he’s special, an artist with higher aims than the rest of us. He’s on a level – our level.
And it’s a quality that happens again and again. His essay on Peter Laughner , founding guitarist of ‘Pere Ubu’, contains the same quality of compassion and insight – insightful into himself as well as his other subject – ‘I’m not going to sentimentalise him, and I don’t want to glamorize his self-destruction. I knew him slightly and always thought he was annoying, and anyway everyone suffers and everyone dies.’ ( p45) A severe and swift take like this sets you up for a sketch of the guy which is poised and revealing – its as if from the perspective of distance he is able to dissect what was valuable and beautiful in the work of Laughner – it’s a prose piece that let’s us value the results of the self-destruction rather than the self-destruction itself.
It’s a theme that runs through Hell’s book – here is someone who knows that going crazy, going outside reason, society, civilisation is to be valued for the beauty it brings rather than for the destruction it brings, to those who do it and those who have to receive it. It’s the difference between getting stoned all the time and getting stoned and then getting off your arse and writing “Dear Richard”, say. It’s a curious and powerful essay, curious about the power of self destruction, curious about its own terrible beauty, and also cautious, warning us off at the same time. There’s a black and white picture of Hell with Laughner in the book that is an eloquent crash-out snap of that mixture of sexuality, glamour and mess that guys with a hard-on for death can represent. Hell is knowing about this. And he doesn’t make out that it’s alright doing that stuff if you’re an artist. It happens, and good and bad things happen out of it, but don’t make excuses for anything in terms of art. Acting mental is acting mental and no priviledged space exists where it becomes something else.
So one of the things his book is doing is transcribing those three elements of death – the sex, the glamour and mess of it. Could be that another word for this would be desire. But he’s also balancing out feeling and thinking – the emotions of all this don’t swamp his rational thinking about them. It prevents his writing suffering the familiar warping into messianic, apocalyptic tendencies that can happen to material coming out of the so-called underground counter-culture.
There’s a naïve art element to the writing – not as pointed as in, say, the extraordinary work of Billy Childish, but it’s there and it communicates intelligence and experience. The pieces here work like the keepsakes of soldiers and sailors – this is someone who was in the war, who went away and suffered, rode the storm, saw it – and came back. Or is coming back. Another quality is the sense that Hell’s still bobbing around – Ishmael after the Pequod’s gone down – but not yet home yet, rather, he’s still hanging on to the coffin, bobbing on the ocean and far from the shore, gathering remnants to him, trying to build something new out of the disaster. There’s a trapped optimism and a stoicism in the language – when he writes about the film Sid and Nancy he registers in their story a combination of the personal powerlessness of the main players alongside a sense of pride. ‘It reminded me that I’m glad to have outgrown those days. But they sure were exciting. I can’t think of a better way to have been young.’ ( p 49)
But within that, Hell is never too rational to miss the personal perceptions that have to be noted if the account is to remain more than just another lie from a burned out,‘has been’. So he adds undiluted feelings, his emotional response, minus the thinking - ‘However, one does resent the people who die.’ (p49) Hell understands that he required other people to die for him – they died so that others can live. It’s an obvious echo of the Christian conceit, but Hell is abrupt and up-front about the role of the spectator and art. Although he recognises that the artist is just like us he can’t help but feel the idea as artist as special, even though he knows enough to dismiss this regressive, totalitarian view.
From this ridiculously tragic sublime point of view, however, it’s the role of art to do the job of religion at so many levels. The artist becomes a priest, even a Christ. Hell writes -‘We want people to push themselves to the limit for us, so we can identify with them and imagine we’ve lived.’ But his thinking doesn’t just end there. There comes with this thought the next thought – that somehow there’s something wrong with surviving. ‘People who die rather than adjust to the demands of life form a secret society – in dark hours you wonder if maybe they were right. If maybe they’ve left you behind, eating their dust.’ (p49)
Again then the subtle dramatic self-consciousness of this passage and indeed the whole of this essay reminds us of another theme that Hell is wrestling with throughout his massy work – survival, authenticity, guilt. The idea of the elite ‘secret society’ can have a twin appeal for anyone wanting to reject constraints and reject being ordinary and early death seems to give a force to lives and works which the living can not have. The totalitarian Ahab, like Dracula, has sex appeal, not Ishmail, but it’s Ishmail who survives.
And Hell knows that he was there, but he survived. And with that there’s a haunting fear that maybe surviving is in itself is a betrayal of some ideal of life ‘as an impenetrable phenomenon’, is a mark of cataclysmic compromise, cowardice – of not going all the way. This ideal, the imperial male artist as Thanatos/Eros Godhead seems pretty daft in the cold light of day – but then again, in the cold light of day most great orgies seem pretty daft too. How does Hell deal with this?
Well, he runs it through everything he’s writing here and reminds us that, far from being just an option for spaced out, self-indulgent arty-farty types self-destruction is a function of society, and he rues the fact that maverick film maker Alex Cox doesn’t do more to link the fate of Sid and Nancy to the social structures implicated in their deaths. He notes with approval, however, that Cox, without glamorising death, honours them, not so much for dying, but rather for ‘not having a clue.’ It’s a great moment. And it’s not easy to write like that. There are no ghosts, no visions, no hallucinations in Hell’s writing – just the torrid truth of … whatever it is he’s describing. And maybe description is too rigid an idea; its more like a gradual unfolding – a slow fertile nightmare elucidated little by little without nightmare and without effect. It’s how he balances feeling with rationality. Dennis Cooper is right to notice that this is, amongst many things, ‘brainy’ writing.
There’s something I remember Elizabeth Bishop writing to Robert Lowell where she says : ‘ There is a deadness there – what is it – hopelessness… that sort of English rottenness – too strong a word – but a sort of piggishness… Oh I’m all for grimness and horrors of every sort – but you can’t have them, either, by shortcuts – by just saying it.’ It seems to me that Hell is battling with centuries of tainted cultural inheritance by trying, and succeeding, in unsettling it with the rootless and impotent thinking of the dispossessed whilst at the same time resisting the complacent expropriations of the tourist. It seems that like Bishop, or at least the Bishop of the essay by Tom Paulin ‘Dwelling without Roots: Elizabeth Bishop’, Hell is neither wanting to settle himself into one place of dwelling ie punk nostalgia, nor is he wanting to be accounted as being merely a tourist back then. This is why throughout the book we encounter notions of luck and guilt.
It’s perhaps in this area that Hell works hardest, and so with it is a kind of hard-won moral position. The moral rightness is actually in the confrontation with the contradiction of dwelling/non dwelling, insider/outsider. He is always looking to do the right thing, to overcome his satisfactions – he trades in the language of self-doubt, self- loathing, sometimes even – certainly - uncertainty. He crawls about his own life with a quick-fire judgemental mouth that leaves him confused and not a little seedy. His self-awareness leaves you to wonder if that self-knowledge makes a difference. The troublesomeness of the writing is that it has the pulse and drive of the quest – it is in the act of confronting the agonies of contradictions that he finds an ethical position. But it never finishes itself off of course.
So the book is restless, ‘Lots of dope and masturbation.’ It’s a remorseful book where he feels ‘ … petty, small and mean. Inadaquate and a hypocrite. ..’ (p103) all the time. Or a lot of the time. He sometimes poses as the great man, other times he says its all a joke, some times he shows pride in his writing and other times laughs at himself for being who he is. Like I said, he doubts whether he should have survived. He wonders what the survival means. And he laughs at the idea of survival at other times and just wants to get on with things. He’s a writer now. An artist. But at the same time, he’s just a vowelled arsehole, just like the rest of us.
In this wildly erratic place he is nothing if not like Artaud writing of ‘Coleridge the Traitor: ‘As for me, I love nothing but poetry. Yes, and that’s just the obscenity of the thing; for the middleclass tongue, the blow of the erotic tongue of Mrs Obscene Little Middleclass, has loved nothing but poetry’ –it is irremediably anti-middlebrow. It has to be.
And then in ‘Political Stand’ he meditates on Blake and politics and art and he makes short work of the idea of the artist as hero, as special. He cites El Salvador ( this was written in 1984) and writes brilliantly : ‘ A totalitarian, military government treats its citizens as children. Any sign of maturity is suspicious. (Fatherland!) The inner deaths necessary for a person to grow are not allowed. Resurrection is punishable by death. Only the docile, the unchanging, the conforming beings are allowed to live.’ (pp200) Here we have Hell expressing a politics that again attends to his anxiety of dwelling (fatherland!) and of unchanging.
Transformation is where he finds a way through the contradiction, or a suggested way through and by contrasting it to another kind of death he alerts us, and himself, to the fact that some deaths are real and others not. He puts himself and all the other artists in their place. Whereas he and they were/are using death as a transformation, in El Salvador ‘The reward and punishment for being yourself is one final, government imposed, unfunny death. The deaths Blake speaks of are not murders, they are transformations [word for the death that precedes resurrection.].’ (p200) Bluntly, what Blake is talking about is growing up. It’s an ordinary thing. It’s what the book’s been about. It’s that innocence to experience thing again. Hell is growing up. And so when he says, ‘Reagan must be stopped…’ he is showing a dissenting spirit that aggressively addresses US foreign policy in a straightforwardly responsible, humane, manner.
What is crucial about the book, however, is its fragmentary structure. It is a rag bag of lyrics, poetry , diary entries, short stories, sketches, notes, critical essays stitched in with drawings and photos. There’s a risk about this kind of format – connections can be stretched to strike you as being random, arbitrary, incoherent leaving the whole to not add up to the sum of its parts. Conversely, such a structure also raises the question as to whether the fragmentary nature is hiding some inadequacy in the writing itself.
But it’s through its broken structure that the book gathers a genuine internal momentum as it picks its way towards defining itself and its themes. It’s a book about how to write – but not in the too clever by half po-mo manner – it’s about ‘funny death’- the transformations required to get you to survive intact. It’s about making up a tradition against which you can be made accountable and it requires that each fragment has to be able to carry the vision of the writer truthfully and as a whole. Here is a statement about how you might find that tradition and thus the judgement that goes with it: ‘ Where is the most information? It’s Wednesday morning/9:40 A.M., February 25, 1998 on the Lower East Side, New York City/ and I am totally without joy/except that which might follow from succeeding at this…’ (From ‘Winter Poem’, p 244)
Maybe judgement is too hard a word – perhaps its more a field of response. It’s where to go. And then where to leave. Throughout there is death and sex and passion and fucked over weariness, fear, elation, stupidity, boredom, glamour, hypocrisy, evil shit sometimes, sometimes beauty, hope ( though not optimism) and its naked – “your nakedness: the sound when I break an apple in half…” ( from ‘Winter Poem’ p 245) If this is a Biblical apple, its absolutely no more than is necessary – Hell insists on the mistake we make in being too human ‘ humans are a small part…’ ( ‘Winter Poem’ p 245).
In the prose fragments there is a necessary improvisory, spontaneous freshness to it. There are rapid dashes, quick shifts of perspective and angle that work like home movie cine film and bits and pieces fit together like parables that are kind of revolting buit garishly fascinating as well – its an eye that catches the brightness of things as well as the underbelly dark – he has miseries and fantasies that leave him stranded like a hog but the prose brings even this stasis to life, skips it up into something that’s eager and buzzy.
Look at this : ‘Up on a second story balcony, a housewife is lounging on a deck chair, surrounded by her brood of kids, watching tv and catching a few rays. She doesn’t seem concerned that she’s trapped in her home, the river raging through her downstairs living room, catfish making minnows in the guset room. We call up to her, asking for directions to the nearest town where we can pull the rafts ashore. But she can’t hear us, the volume on the TV is up too high. “Well gentlemen, let’s see what your wives predicted you’d say…”’(p 197) This is a winning language – the absurdist descriptions of the fish, coupled to the precise loving detail that’s like something out of one of Elizabeth Bishop’s letters, coupled again with the glistening iron judgement ‘ trapped’ that is serious despite all the distractions – this is how Hell composes his prose.
Even the fragments, the notes, they retain the skilful detail, the tell-tail sign that he’s not just saying it, which Bishop in her letter to Lowell I cited earlier so hates. ‘ Dante and Beatrice didn’t/have this, did they: cock pushing/through lips? I do, I want/to kill you with it/so you’ll want it forever.’ Now this works as a poem or a fragment – it’s the start of a lament, he ruminates over a girl he’s losing, lost, it’s intense and painful with feelings that cloud over him and he catches it in a a way that’s actively all inside what’s happening at the moment. He doesn’t stand back but clears itself in a pitch that’s like speech, happening now and present.
Through this nothing too formal, nothing too exact, takes place and this allows us to catch the accidental nature of it all and avoid the solid weight of a written prose that would turn the speed and humour of the despair into something refridgerated, self-regarding, pompous, cloying, and ultimately nasty.
There’s an aching emigrant texture to the poems and lyrics although the collaborative poems seem to betray too much composure, too much self-regard. Not that Tom Verlaine, Patti Smith et al don’t bring their own authentic vibe to the stuff, its just that for me there’s too much interference in that section for it to be clear and volatile enough. These poems don’t snatch at existence like the other poems, like the prose either and so they lose a bit of their spunk, their chemical sperminess and although better than 99% of the dreck that’ll be published this year its drier than the other stuff, testier and more brittle . What you get in the best of the prose and the best of his poems and songs is a surprise, a shock, something unexpected and careless, something thrown up out of ‘exhausted … habitual self imagery’ (p70) and the result is a gorgeous layer of beautiful, spontaneous lyric, like a cold snap will conjure a white perfect frost on rubbish without warning. I guess collaboration in poems can sometimes mean committee work.
It is love and desire, as well as death that we find in these writings – and it’s the snap accidental quality that shapes them into a grand, transgressive writing for lovers. A million Rimbauds and Baudelaires have flowered, but the inquisitive wit and intelligence of this particular dissolute, love-sick, romantic poet of sex and death removes him for the pack. Again, he’s not just writing it. No ,literally, he’s not just writing it. Some of these lyrics he’s singing – either for the bands ‘Television’, the ‘Heartbreakers’ or the ‘Voidoids.’
‘Love Comes In Spurts’ ( soon to be the title of a forthcoming Stewart Home novel) is an example of this daft, committed imagination – stripling love and lust with the disarming gravity of grief and loss mixed up, rounded up by a hilariously, aggressively, joyously sexual image in its chorus – that shakes with the drive and comic routine of the serious profanity punk used to be. It’s as madly beguiling as ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but works its routine faster and its bodily core isn’t hidden. ‘Love comes in spurts/ I just can’t get wise/to those tragical lies -/Though I now know the facts/they still cut like an axe…/ / Cuz love comes in spurts/in dangerous flirts/and it murders your heart -/They didn’t tell you that part.’ There’s no elaboration, no false metaphor, no slowed up emotion, no grasping for something that goes outside of the thing itself. The drive transfixes itself, it is like nothing else – this is the tragedy of love, - so don’t reach for a metaphor, just run it over, again and again, repeat it, ‘Insane with devotion.’ There’s something gorgeously exhilarating in this. Inhibitions all thrown away. No need to hide your feelings. Just spit it out. So it’s inspiring. Deft in its naivity – ‘just see-through’, as he sings in ‘Funhunt.’ It’s also bloody funny.
Sharp as well. ‘Dead man Poem’ is just four lines, but they’re all you need. ‘God, I just/had the funniest thought!/ What if the only thing left of me/were these lines?’ (p71) As a reader you have to wonder what Hell thinks the answer is. Perhaps we are to think he’s some sort of terminal ironist, going for art over life, identifying with the unreconciled and the damned. Is there a kind of anguish here, something still and nearly perfect, close to Beckett or Derek Mahon or TS Eliot “ In order to arrive at what you do not know/You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance./ In order to possess what you do not possess/You must by the way of dispossession.’ There is clearly something running through Hell’s work that allows us to believe something like this – like Joyce he seems to have at times ‘ a cruel playful mind like a great soft tiger cat’ as Yeats said of him somewhere.
But of course what strikes Hell as ‘funny’ here is the thought that the lines would no longer be embodied were they the only thing left of him. Here again is an image of the annihilated self, where he becomes a negative print of Herbert’s ‘Prayer’poem – a poem which imagines itself annihilated in its last line. Without him, the lines seem strange – ‘funny’ as in weird. What would they mean then? There’s a paradoxical flavour to the question posed, it’s almost of the kind that asks if the sentence ‘This sentence is false’ is true or not. Hell seems to be requiring that life is not opposed to art after all, that art has to be part of life. But all the same, the possibility that this might not be the case strikes him as a possibility, and disturbs him. Here is an extension of the way he pulls in opposite directions at once – ‘identify with the cockroach one is compelled/to viciously crush on the kitchen floor..’ (from ‘Poem By Someone’ p62).
You can also get some insider stuff on the Players too. Great stuff on Tom Verlaine.
Great stuff on ‘The Ramones’ - ‘ Joey’s an amazing guy – built like a praying mantis with the coloring of Snow White..’
There’s a generous re-evaluation of the role of Malcolm McLaran in the Sex Pistols' story – ‘Malcolm wasn’t the sort of cynical character it makes him out to be. Malcolm was having fun. He was shaking things up and making art. The mass media was his artform and he was master of its properties. He was also quite honest, I think, and very politically sophisticated, which is to say thoughtful and consistent in dealing with people. He was something of a megalomaniac where his work was concerned, but an artist has to be. He was a lot like Warhol (Or Picasso for that matter) in that he took his ideas wherever he could find them (including many from me). But ideas aren’t property, nobody owns them. His collaborators in the Sex Pistols were eager volunteers, not captive victims.’ (p52)
There’s some brilliant definitions of Johnny Thunder and his stuff – ‘the rock and roll Dean Martin of heroin’ – ‘Themes Of Johnny’s Songs – a million girls want him but he kicks them all in the face – he’s completely lonely (uh, see previous) – the world is fucked up, don’t bother me – party time…’
He also writes hauntingly about his father in a moving piece ‘What My father Did The Second Time I Ran Away a few months before he died ( heart attack at 38: heavy smoker for one) [runaway notes] which, after the father has acted in a beautifully kind, generous way towards his unhappy son, ends with the line ‘I don’t remember anything else about what happened and the only one who remembers it at all is me…’ and a picture of Hell in his pyjamas with a woman and child. It’s like something out of Dennis Cooper
There’s also a short admiring essay on Burroughs ( ‘My Burroughs’ p 212-213) where he makes explicit his interest in the issue of ‘staying the course.’ He refers us to Rimbaud and his programme – ‘… to banish the ego and undo the controlling, classifying brain (“derangement of the senses” in order to “become a seer” – AR) What Hell admires in Burroughs is that ‘he had nothing to prove, only to discover.’ And that ‘…his writing is beautiful and of course hilarious: meticulously seen, sawn and nailed, deadpan, fearless. Matchless ear.’ And when we gather up Hell’s strength, its in his ear for language – there’s rarely a bum note, it too is meticulous, freed up, spontaneous like speech. He must work like hell to get that!
And a curious aside on narcotics – a warning to those who follow Burroughs all the way through – ‘Burroughs was a soulful and decent guy – an old-school gentleman – a Johnson, and he shouldn’t be held accountable for the weaknesses and cluelessness of some of his followers. Still, it’s useful to remember that a lot of what you hear when you listen to Burroughs comes from a lot of despair and narcotics. Thing is, it makes a lot of sense, little as he wanted to…’ gives us the opposite of Rimbaud’s program – contrary to the idea of undoing the classifying brain Hell can’t resist slapping a public health warning on the whole tradition he builds up around him. Again, its an example of Hell realigning rationality with feeling. It’s necessary.
For after all this is a dangerous tradition where self-indulgence, egotism and acting like a twat can end in disaster. Hell knows this. That’s why he remains part of it and why in his hands it seems both satisfying, genuinely visionary in the sense of revealing hidden things, and spontaneously funny.
Dennis Cooper writes: ‘ Richard Hell is my hero, and this is why. ‘Hot and Cold’ is a rhapsody of Hell’s rigorous intentions, pure thoughts, and amazing feel for words. It’s a defining history lesson, a moving, brainy personal exploration, and literature at its most uncompromising and greatest.’ By balancing the rational with the emotional Hell has brought a dissenting stability to the lunatic sensibility of the anti-middlebrow and produced a book that doesn’t, in the words of Stewart Home, ‘…produce a bad infinity by obnoxiously universalising the perspectives of centred white male subjects.’ Fucking great.