So while contemporaries like Blondie and Tom Verlaine- with whom Hell formed Television in 1973 – have reformed in various guises for nostalgia tours and others have carried on with diminishing relevance and sales, Hell has been virtually retired from music since 1984. As Rolling Stone noted when reviewing his only outing since then (1992’s “Dim Stars” made with Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth and Don Fleming of Gumball) “rarely has a rocker been so influential with such a small body of work.”
Indeed, having left both Television and the Heartbreakers before they made studio albums, “Dim Stars” was only his third full-blown album in what is now over thirty years of music making. 1977’s “Blank Generation” – with the Voidoids – was chosen as one of the ten best albums of the seventies by the New York Times, while the title has been appropriated for films, websites and compilation albums documenting the era.
1982’s “Destiny Street” was the final official release as Richard Hell and the Voidoids, though it is “R.I.P.” –a collection of out-takes and otherwise unreleased material that came out on the cassette only label R.O.I.R. – along with a similar collection of writing (“Hot and Cold”) which have become the reason for his current visit to these shores.
“R.I.P.” has been repackaged by Matador Records as a double c.d. package called “Time” – the second c.d. featuring live material, recorded mainly at the Music Machine in London in 1977. Though the live recordings would be flattered by the description rough, the energy is abundant, and Hell’s sleeve notes are another interesting part of the package.
“I have always felt that ‘R.I.P.’ was worthy and should have been in print,” he reflects, “but increasingly I found that it was being licensed for c.d. release around the world without me being consulted. By the mid nineties, I had come to some sort of arrangement with ROIR where I at least got to see some money from these releases and straightened out with them that they couldn’t do it anymore, but I also thought it was important to establish my own proprietorship of the stuff.”
“I was introduced to Gerard Cosloy from Matador by a mutual friend, and he was both a fan and keen to do something around “R.I.P..” I am just pleased that they have helped put it out in a format and package that is up to date, and though that I accept the sound quality of the live stuff is dicey, it is about putting you there in a time and place rather than representing the songs in their most desirable way.”
Hell has only been in a recording studio once since Dim Stars, to complete a one-off commission from the Music Blitz website along with the original Voidoids line up of Robert Quine, Ivan Julian and Marc Bell. While his career has moved into writing, art, acting and film making, he is still able to give an insightful overview of both his own music and the current music scene – most notably on the subject of The Strokes –surely the current band who would most like to be the Voidoids.
“All my opinions on my own music are provisional,” he says. “I respond in different ways on different occasions. At times, I listen and shudder and switch off, at other times I think that maybe the music was really coming from somewhere unique. Even when I am writing or thinking about it, I find my opinions changing as well. I read the liner notes that I had done for “Time” recently and was concerned that I had made the whole period out to be more grim and gruesome than it actually was. During parts of it, I was ecstatic as well.”
“My favourite music just now is by the White Stripes, Guided By Voices and Will Oldham. The Strokes’ music is very catchy and I guess it refers to a certain strain of New York punk, but I see it as having more relation to Blondie than things with more drive to them. Certainly all the correct pop culture buttons are being pushed: I think it is just pop music that refers to the past in a very thin way. I think what the White Stripes are doing is rediscovering the blues with a degree of flair, respect and pleasure. I like them and the spirit about what they do a lot. After all, rock’n’roll will always just be blues changes.”
It may because of the genre’s limitations that Hell has diversified, or more plausibly, it could be simply that he has equivalent or greater skills in other areas. His writing, particularly his 1996 novel, “Go Now” – the story of “a burned out junkie punk driving across America with an ex-girlfriend – has been well received, and is the culmination of years of publishing (he edited the literary magazine CUZ in New York during the 80s) and appearing in various anthologies. “Hot and Cold” – like “Time” is retrospective, that can hardly qualify as a “best of” – more a selection of curiosities and left-overs.
“It’s very similar to ‘Time,’” he says, “as it represented a chance to gather stuff that hadn’t had a proper release, but I was very conscious that I didn’t want it to include excerpts from novels or longer pieces. I wanted everything in it to stand alone, but mainly it is a clean up off things I have written that haven’t previously been in books, but which I am still pleased to have written and let people read and hear.”
The hearing part comes in the shape of a scattered number of readings that Hell is undertaking to promote the book. His last appearance in Glasgow was a similar reading at the since departed John Smith’s bookshop on Byres Road, but it is a promotional task that he finds slightly burdensome.
“You certainly feel a lot more exposed than when you are playing music,” he says. “With a gig you can ride the waves noise and you are assaulting the crowd in a way, whereas with readings the crowd has to pay attention and it is more anxiety producing. In now find that I can tell anecdotes and go off at tangents when doing readings: I’m a lot more at ease.”
If he is more at ease with the concept, the environments in which he is placed present more of a problem, hence the small number of readings (three) on his twenty day visit to Britain.
“I allowed the promoter to book a batch of shows in the UK,” he says, “but I didn’t want to appear in places where I was represented as an old punk guy. I wanted it to be in a literary context, not in rock clubs, because I am not like Henry Rollins or Lydia Lunch – it is a reading not a show.
”However, the guy hadn’t really paid attention, and it came to light that the type of places I was playing were not right and I cancelled a few of them. At one place, in the monthly programme, I was alongside a Fleetwood Mac tribute band, a comedian and hypnotist.”
If this anecdote proves anything, it that, in travelleing a long way from punk rock, its spirit still governs his many other ventures, making that Voidoids’ tribute band or reformation as remote a possibility as ever.
Richard Hell reads from “Hot and Cold” at the 13th Note Club on Wednesday 27th March