With his fierce poetic nihilism, Richard Hell embodied and helped set the initial style for ’70s punk rock. Recently arrived in New York from a Delaware boarding school, he invented the Neon Boys with Tom Verlaine in 1971; several years later, they changed the name to Television. He co-founded the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders, thereby injecting a poetic intelligence into mindless self-destruction, and went solo as a venerable figure before most future new wave stars had even formed a band. Malcolm McLaren used Hell’s mode of dress as the prototype for punk style.
Employing the double guitar threat of Ivan Julian and Robert Quine (later a Lou Reed sideman; he killed himself in 2004 in the wake of his wife’s death) and drummer Marc Bell (a former member of the horrifying Dust who would grow up to become Marky Ramone), Hell formed the Voidoids, whose unwavering individualism kept the group out of the big time while producing a demanding and impressive corpus of work. “I was saying let me out of here before I was even born,” opens Hell’s masterpiece, “(I Belong to the) Blank Generation,” on the 7-inch Richard Hell EP, which also includes “Another World” and “You Gotta Lose.”
That lyric sums up Hell’s attitude, which he expanded and perfected on Blank Generation with a new version of the title track and such powerful statements as “Love Comes in Spurts” (an old tune the Heartbreakers recycled into “One Track Mind”) and “New Pleasure.” The album combines manic William Burroughs-influenced poetry and raw-edged music for the best rock presentation of nihilism and existential angst ever. Hell’s voice, fluctuating from groan to shriek, is more impassioned and expressive than a legion of Top 40 singers. (Besides solid liner notes, the 1990 CD adds two tracks — “I’m Your Man,” a non-LP B-side from ’79, and “All the Way,” a Sinatra cover done for the Smithereens soundtrack — and substitutes an inferior alternate version of “Down at the Rock and Roll Club.”)
After a gap of three years (during which Hell issued only one single, “The Kid With the Replaceable Head,” produced by Nick Lowe), the 7-inch Richard Hell/Neon Boys appeared, featuring grimly touching songs by the modern Voidoids on one side and old demos by the Neon Boys on the other.
Destiny Street shows a more contemplative Hell, with even sharper imagery and guitar work (again courtesy of the stunning and underrated Robert Quine) and expressively painted poetry. Supported by Fred Maher’s crisp drumming and produced with little fanfare by Alan Betrock, Hell offers a second version of “The Kid With the Replaceable Head,” “Destiny Street” and covers of Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything” (okay), the Kinks’ “I Gotta Move” (good) and Dylan’s “Going Going Gone” (great). Ruthless yet touchingly romantic, Richard Hell may be rock’s last real visionary.
A résumé of Hell’s post-Television decade, from his 1975 days with the Heartbreakers through 1984 sessions in New Orleans, R.I.P. is inevitably his least polished and most inconsistent work, which may be why it sums up his style so well. Neither as mannered as his first LP nor as professional as his second, this collection showcases his most uninhibited singing on retreads, live takes and previously unissued material. The liner notes (signed with the artist’s real name — Lester Meyers) describe the tape as Richard Hell’s swan song, but he did begin playing out again, with a short-lived new band, a few months after its release.
Despite shitty sound quality, the live performances (from ’78, ’79 and ’85) on Funhunt are totally worth hearing and occasionally extraordinary. Three different sets of Voidoids (including an otherwise undocumented lineup with Jody Harris and Anton Fier) follow Hell through enthusiastic renditions of his own best tunes and such surprising borrowings as the Stones’ “I’m Free” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic.”
Judging by the alternately indulgent and incendiary summit of post-punk hipster demi-gods called Dim Star, it’s probably safe to say that every subculture gets the supergroup it deserves. As befits a batch of collector scum idols — including Richard Hell, Don Fleming, Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley — Dim Stars initially released its work in an extremely small edition as a set of three 7-inch EPs, a format that, despite some aesthetic advantages, wasn’t exactly conducive to repeated play. That self-defeating approach was prudently remedied by letting a larger label release it as a CD EP. The group then recorded an album.
The full-length, no-overlap Dim Stars is clearly a vehicle for the long-inactive Hell, and he takes the wheel with the aplomb of a NASCAR veteran, slipping lithely into the cut-up lyrical style he worked in the ’70s with the Voidoids (whose Robert Quine guests on five tracks). Even though long stretches of the album degenerate into skronky improvisation, “All My Witches Come True” and “The Night Is Coming On” jerk and skitter with the strung-out energy of Hell’s heyday. The musicians even — after a fashion — explores roots you probably never knew they had, covering Howlin’ Wolf’s “Natchez Burning” and desecrating ’60s iconography in “Incense Is the Essence” (a collaboration with Situationist noisemonger Tom Smith of Peach of Immortality and To Live & Shave in L.A.). Dim Stars: more than a curio, less than an essential item for non-fanatics.
Although Hell hasn’t added any other significant musical achievements to his canon of late, his slender back catalogue — the two studio albums (Blank Generation and Destiny Street) and his first anthology (R.I.P.) — has been reissued, with a live compilation (Funhunt) and a spoken word disc (Go Now, verbalized from his ’96 novel and accompanied by Quine) augmenting his legacy a little. In 1995, a tiny North Carolina label assembled a delightful limited-edition fundraiser in tribute to him; the best- known of the 13 Carolina bands is Vanilla Trainwreck, who make credibly enthusiastic work of “Love Comes in Spurts.” Whiskey Town’s country cover of “Blank Generation” is likewise unassumingly nifty.
Later in the ’90s, England’s Gay Dad named a song on its first album “Dim Star.”
The double-disc Time essentially augments the contents of R.I.P. with live tracks from New York (1978) and London (1977). Spurts, 21 tracks with extensive annotation, successfully attempts to reconcile the whole Hell experience in one place, from the Neon Boys through Dim Stars. As such, it’s a fascinating document of New York punkology through one man’s anti-Zelig career. Partly due to the fact that Hell was never a prolific songwriter, there are renditions of “Blank Generation” by Television and the Voidoids, and two “Love Comes in Spurts,” one by the Neon Boys the other by the Voidoids. Judicious selection by Hell himself presents his rambling oeuvre in the best possible light, as a unique bridge between Tom verlaine’s high-strung pretensions and Johnny Thunders’ strung-out despair. Hell is an important artistic figure, no doubt about that, and this is the proof. Perhaps the most surprising impact of rehearing Hell’s work in the 21st century is how innocent it all sounds. When it was new, his obstreperous yelping, surrounded by intense musical iconoclasm and bathed in drug use, made him seem a ferocious figure. The angsty gist of what he was doing back then is still fully audible, but like a lot of ’70s punk, it has been marooned in a pacific past by the subsequent de-evolution of popular culture. Having lived through Hell and survived, nothing’s shocking anymore.