New York City in the late 1970’s must have been amazing. From the glorious din coming out of CBGB’s in the Bowery to the B-boys up in the Bronx throwing dance parties on basketball courts, to Andy Warhol’s coke-dipped crowd hopping in and out of limos throughout Manhattan to the lofts and galleries of Soho buzzing with amphetamine-drenched creativity. Quality music, art and film were being churned out at record pace, and the various documents they left behind have stood the test of time. Every scene has their star, their untouchable resident genius and towering figurehead, and while the punk/new wave scene that centered around clubs like CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City and the Mudd Club had it’s more than fair share of icons, one stood taller than the rest.
Richard Hell was once Richard Lester Meyers, and he was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949. His father, an experimental psychologist who specialized in animal behavior, died when Hell was seven. The family pulled up stakes and landed in Delaware, where Hell attended Sanford, a private college prep school. It was in these conservative halls that Hell befriended Tom Miller, a lanky, sullen teen that was into poetry, jazz and the Rolling Stones. Hell and Miller became fast friends; both of them had an admiration for poetry and a penchant for trouble. The troublesome duo ran away from school, got busted for petty crimes, and along the way Miller changed his last name to Verlaine.
Hell and Verlaine landed in NYC, yearning to dip their feet in the city’s prominent poetry pool. Verlaine stuck to the city, but Hell had a short stint in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The beautiful Southwestern town is well known for it’s kindness and appreciation for the artists that live there, and it must have paid off for Hell. It was there that Hell’s poems were first published in various national magazines, and it was there that Hell created Dot Books, an early publishing company.
Hell returned to NYC shortly after, and this time Hell settled down, got a day job at a movie memorabilia store and most importantly, he and Verlaine picked up instruments. They formed the Neon Boys in 1973. They landed Billy Ficca on drums, and Hell’s manager introduced him to a young guitar prodigy named Richard Llyod. Shortly thereafter, the band changed their name to Television. Television, with their noirish lyrics and guitar interplay that would make the Grateful Dead blush, was Verlaine’s band through and through. The emphasis was on the spiral-like guitar work from him and Lloyd, and Verlaine had no time for Hell’s blunt lyrics, much less his heroin habit. Hell was kicked out in no time.
Television was one of the earliest bands to have a regular gig at CBGB’s, the legendary scrappy dive-bar that gave birth to punk rock. Television led the way for the Patti Smith Group, Blondie, The Talking Heads, and The Ramones. Hell didn’t let the termination from the band get in his way. As fate would have it, Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders had just quit The New York Dolls, the seminal ramshackle glam-rock band that had run out of steam. Together, the three of them cut their hair short, spiked it up, spiked their veins and formed The Heartbreakers. The junkie love affair wasn’t to be; a year later Hell quit and formed his own damn band.
Richard Hell and the Voidoids formed in 1976. The original core group - Hell on vocals and bass, beatnik jazzbo Robert Quine and avant-garde noisenik Ivan Julian on guitars, Marc Bell (later to change his name to Ramone and become that band’s most consistent drummer) - is absolutely one of the best punk combos to ever grace the stage. With songs like “Love Comes in Spurts (SOMETIMES IT HURTS!)” and the holdover from the Television days, the anthemic “Blank Generation”, their first album Blank Generation is an essential record and a shattering snapshot of the era. Their sound was abrasive, as was Hell’s image. Tall and junkie-thin, with spiked hair and ripped t-shirts held together with safety pins, Hell was the first stereotypical punk. There’s a reason why his look was copped over the world for years to come. It was copped by the legendary shyster and huckster Malcom McLaren.
McLaren hardly needs an introduction. The notorious manger of the Sex Pistols, McLaren was haberdasher first and everything else second. He was in NYC in the mid-70’s, and when he wasn’t trying to get himself a band to manage, he was taking notes on fashion for his clothing shop back in London. (He did manage a band for awhile, with ill results. McLaren turned the goofy, fun tough-boys-in-drag New York Dolls into red-leather wearing faux-Communists, complete with manifestos.) According to the excellent book on the NYC scene Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by writer-at-large and one time “resident punk” at Punk Magazine, Legs McNeil, McLaren said "I came back to England determined. I had these images I came back with, it was like Marco Polo or Walter Raleigh. I brought back the image of this distressed, strange thing called Richard Hell. And this phrase, 'the blank generation'. [...] Richard Hell was a definite, 100 percent inspiration, and, in fact, I remember telling the Sex Pistols, ‘Write a song like Blank Generation, but write your own bloody version, and their own version was 'Pretty Vacant’.”
McLaren wasn’t the only scenester with a keen eye. Hell’s stunning looks, his unbridled charisma and sense of danger appealed to those who eschewed instruments for film cameras and boom mics. Hell was a big player in small films by Amos Poe, Lech Kowalski, Nick Zedd and Susan Seidelman. He wasn’t cast far from type; Hell turns in decent roles as sullen rock stars or desperate bad-boys. Blink and you’ll miss him as Madonna’s boyfriend in Seidelman’s zany Desperately Seeking Susan. In the massive book Destroy All Movies: The Complete Guide to Punks On Film, Hell says “I wasn’t cut out to be an actor. I did those movies because they asked me to and I could make some money. It was just a job to help pay the rent. And I loved movies, so that had a big part in it too. They meant a whole lot to me, and there’s a lot about the whole process that’s really interesting. But I have no ambitions as an actor and I never really did.”
With the exception of the Dim Stars, a one-off band that Hell started with Thurston Moore and Steve Shelly of Sonic Youth, and Don Fleming of Gumball, Hell has stayed away from music. In the meantime he’s been a prolific writer; churning out novels, short story collections, non-fiction essays and even a bit of film writing for the magazine Black Book. If you want to spend a few days stuck to your computer screen, I recommend the online “Guide to the Richard Hell Papers.” It’s an exhaustive collections of Hell’s work. From the website: “The Richard Hell Papers consist of comprehensive documentation of Richard Hell's career as a poet, novelist, author, publisher, musician, and filmmaker. Materials include personal journals, manuscripts and materials relating to the publication of several works, correspondence, clippings, reviews, posters, photographs, film, video and audio materials and objects and artifacts. In addition the collection contains financial and legal documents pertaining to Hell's publications, and musical career. The materials span 1944-2003 with the bulk of the material covering 1969-2003.”