Richard Hell was the co-founder of Television, the original bassist in the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunder, founder of the Voidoids—who introduced the world to singular guitarists Bob Quine and Ivan Julian—and of course one of the most recognizable faces (and bare graffiti-ed torsos) in New York City punk. But he was a writer before that and became a writer after that, as well, and his recent autobiography I Dreamt I Was A Very Clean Tramp is a deliberate and unsparing outsider coming-of-age story that fits nicely between Ed Sanders’ Tales of Beatnik Glory and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. 1. He’ll be reading a brand new work—inspired in part by the brutal noir of Jim Thompson—this Saturday at the Broad, with original musical accompaniment by the extremely appropriate Haxan Cloak. This interview by Chris Ziegler." /> L.A. Record


July 29th, 2016 | Interviews

Richard Hell: I shouldn’t have published a lot of dicey stuff when I was a kid. I sure make plenty of mistakes, but yeah, I guess I probably repressed them? Because I’m not coming up with any. Or else it’s so constant that I tuned it out. When I used to write poetry … I’m not a poet. I don’t write any poems anymore—maybe once every two years some occasion might kick in—but for me, writing poems was almost a whole exercise in making mistakes. The whole thing was about saying something and then figuring out how to recover from it by myself. A lot of art is like that. It’s almost comprised of mistakes. Art is all mistakes. You make a gesture and you think, ‘Oh, I gotta do this thing to counteract that.’ Or compensate for it or improve it, and then you have to add something else to take it to another direction. They’re all mistakes. It’s just a whole series of mistakes.
You’re well-known for how much you love to leave. You write about it often. To leave town, leave yourself, leave what you’ve come to call home—that seems like another way to throw yourself off balance and then try and figure out a way to recover from it.
Richard Hell: And also just to have everything be fresh again. I think that’s part of the reason I’ve worked in different mediums. It’s more fun and more interesting, and you have a better chance of doing something strong when you’re ignorant. [laughs] It can be very useful to be ignorant, because you don’t know what the rules are.
You don’t know what you can’t do.
Richard Hell: Yeah. So if your instincts are okay, and you have the right temperament, you’re capable of doing something in an area with which you’re completely unfamiliar, at a higher quality than something you know how to do well. Because when you know how to do it well, you’ve got all these habits you’ve developed, and you’re not even aware of them half the time. They’ll make the work be more monotonous and less alive.
In Tramp, you say ‘writing well is thinking well, if you think clearly you’ll write clearly.’ How have you taught yourself to think more clearly?
Richard Hell: That’s a really good question. When I think about it I do feel like whatever I’ve learned, however I’ve improved as a writer, it’s at least half that—me having discovered weaknesses in the way my mind works and repairing them. A lot of it is trying to go a little bit deeper—you try to look for the thought that underlies the thought. You don’t accept just the immediate spontaneous reading of something; you try to take that for granted and find out what’s underneath it. It’s always a matter of pushing the frontiers of your consciousness of your own perceptions, as you try to find the perceptions of what’s underneath the perceptions.
You said the genius of your guitarist Bob Quine is that he took what other guitarists would consider genius to be a starting point—he’d begin where they finished. So he didn’t take the first thoughts for a breakthrough either.
Richard Hell: Yeah. You write about something that you’ve experienced—you’ll have your immediate reaction, and it may very well be accurate, and you may describe it accurately, but it’s just … superficial. You gotta go a level deeper, and you gotta keep pushing levels deeper, as far as you can.
What are you reading at the Broad? It’s a new work, isn’t it?
Richard Hell: It’s pretty dicey. I started out to write a really cold-ass noir, like Jim Thompson or something like that. But then it mutated and has other aspects to it, but there’s still this very kind of … offensive violent and sexual stuff going on. I’ve only read from it once before at MoMA PS1 here in New York, and even good old friends of mine were kind of outraged. It makes me a little bit nervous, because for me, it’s just aesthetics, but it does have this viscerally ugly component to it. So I’m reading the first twenty-some pages of that, with Bobby [of Haxan Cloak] coming in and out with music at certain spots.
If people start throwing things, do you prefer they throw drinks or hors d’oeuvres?
Richard Hell: [laughs] I don’t really know what the setup is there. Are they going to be within throwing distance of me? I do hope they don’t have bottles, you know? Just plastic cups.
You’re very candid about bad sex in Tramp—bad sex that is your fault. Why did you put that in? It would have been very easy to leave it out, or exaggerate for your own benefit.
Richard Hell: I wasn’t really very self-conscious when I was writing the book. I wasn’t really taking into account how the reactions would be—I was writing it just to describe my experience over all those years in order to get a handle on it myself, you know? In order to see if I could both figure out what it added up to and dispose of it., I think that those kinds of criticisms I got … I’m also called misogynist sometimes, I’m called egotistical. I mean, I wrote it almost as if I were talking to myself. I tried to write it as well as I could—that was one way that I was taking into account that there was an audience that was going to be reading it—but apart from that, it was just to recount what had happened so I could kind of see the picture myself. You don’t hide from yourself—your experience. I mean, sometimes people do—
There are entire industries based on that.
Richard Hell: I wasn’t worried about what people would think—I was just trying to describe what had happened, you know? The way it felt to me. My criteria for describing something was how significant it seemed to me in my life. I just wanted to see all those things lined up and see what it’d look like.
There’s a point early in Tramp where you’re talking about the first girl you ever had a crush on, and your fantasy is you’ll get hit by a car and then you’ll get to hold her hand. So the first idea you ever had about love was that you’d get to it through pity or maybe through injury—why?
Richard Hell: I don’t think it was really about that I would get her sympathy because of getting hit by a car. It was because I would lose all my inhibitions because I was dying. So I wouldn’t be afraid to tell her I loved her. I couldn’t tell her I loved her under those normal circumstances, but if I’d been hit by a car, and she was walking by, I’d have nothing to lose—so I could tell her I loved her.
Mike Watt has a story he likes to tell about when he and D. Boon saw your phone number in an old ad, and they called it and you answered, ‘This is Hell.’ And they got so freaked out it was actually you they immediately hung up. I know there’s no way you remember that—
Richard Hell: I do remember it. I mean, I’m 90% sure [laughs] that I remember it. He told me that that happened. It was an ad when my first single came out on Ork, and it was just a picture of me and it said CALL HELL and it had my phone number. I saw somebody misrepresent that as being, ‘Okay, you call that number and you hear a recording of a song,’ like you’d hear ‘Blank Generation’ if you called the number. That’s not it. That was my home phone number, and I picked up the phone. [laughs] And I said ‘Hello,’ or ‘What’s up?’ [laughs] And yeah, I got some phone calls. It wasn’t like I was famous; nobody had ever heard of me or the Voidoids, but when Mike mentioned that happening, I had this memory of picking up the phone, and there was like this … sort of silence and tension, and then click and it was over. [laughs]


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