RICHARD HELL: ART IS ALL MISTAKES
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. He speaks to L.A. RECORD now about writing, thinking, making mistakes and the time Mike Watt was too freaked out to say ‘hello’ to Richard Hell. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
The idea of the ‘private eye’ comes up every now and then in your work and your life—why?
Richard Hell: For me it’s more Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, sort of B movies. The private eye was this sort of archetypal American loner, trying to uncover what’s really going on under the surface of things. And there’s also an idea of the private eye having this code of behavior…
The code! Like ‘No divorce work.’
Richard Hell: And no matter how much they are an alcoholic or bitter or terrible husbands, they have some kind of code. And I like their suits, too. Usually they’re in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and I like those suits.
How about the trench coats?
Richard Hell: My whole life I’ve been looking for the right trench coat. I have not yet found it. You see good ones in French movies. Bogart wears a good one. And I don’t know where they keep them.
I like the idea of the private eye because they do seek the truth, but also you have to pay them. They don’t seek truth for free. Although the best ones never get paid anyway.
Richard Hell: Yeah. They’re usually pretty cynical.
Do you have a code? What is the code of Hell?
Richard Hell: I have a few ways of behaving where I feel wrong if I ignore them, and it’s a kind of a code, I guess. I have this kind of phobia—not phobia, but this extreme reaction to anybody acting as if they know more than they actually do. [laughs] Like you ask somebody a question and they give you an answer because they don’t want to look stupid or something? It really makes me queasy to do that, so I bend over in the other direction. If I don’t know something, I say, ‘I don’t know.’ And if I’m 90% sure of something, I’ll even say that. I’ll say, ‘This is the case. I’m 90% sure.’ That’s kind of a pet peeve, but it is sort of a code. I have this horror of being a know-it-all. [laughs]
You’re self-taught in almost everything—no formal education in music, in writing, in film. That gives you a lot of freedom, but do you worry that you’re unknowingly repeating mistakes everyone else was told to skip?
Richard Hell: There’s pros and cons to it. I’m not so much worried about repeating mistakes that I might have learned about, but there’s cases of that. Mostly technical terms—grammar or whatever. I’ve learned not to really be discouraged because of that, because basically nothing’s new. [laughs] It really isn’t. My feeling is that every generation has to discover everything all over again anyway, and put it into their own lingo. You can find precedents—there has to be existing examples of almost any kind of stuff. The thing for me that I’m a little bit wary of—that has to do with being an autodidact—is that it can make you get over-formal. You like … compensate. You try to talk the way that you think educated people talk. That’s a danger. I’ve seen it happen to other people, and I’ve caught myself doing it, too. You use more words and syllables than are necessary. That to me is something more to beware of than the fear that there’s something I don’t know. I used to see Jim Carroll do that shit. I loved his whole way of talking and writing, but we had a little email back and forth, and sometimes I would see him do that, and it would make me self-conscious that I had probably done the same thing, too. Because he had no education either. I don’t think he went to college at all. It can make you a little self-conscious and make you overcompensate by using ten-dollar words and shit like that.
What about making mistakes? What is one of your most ridiculous mistakes?