Songwriter Interviews

Richard Hell

by Greg Prato

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Although some fail to see the connection between first wave punk rock and poetic lyrics, there are certainly a few artists who combined the two: Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, and especially, Richard Hell.

Despite being an original member of two renowned and respected punk acts - Television and the Heartbreakers - Hell will forever be known as the frontman of Richard Hell & the Voidoids, who are responsible for one of punk's all-time great anthems, "Blank Generation," off the group's classic 1977 debut of the same name.

And while Hell has authored several poetry books and novels, it was not until this year that the singer/bassist finally got around to penning his autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography, released via HarperCollins, which is a wild tell-all read of sex, drugs, and punk rock.

Hell took the time to discuss how Clean Tramp came to be, as well as his memories of penning the aforementioned Voidoids classic (plus another early punk classic he helped create), and his favorite traditional and rock poets.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): I just finished reading I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp and I thought it was great. What made you decide to write your autobiography now?

Richard Hell: The subject had come up a few times over the years of the possibility of me doing a kind of autobiography or a memoir or something. And I always waved it off because I didn't expect to. Partly because it's always seemed more natural and even more honest to treat my own experience in fiction, because there are no constraints: I don't have to worry about getting facts perfectly right, I don't have to take an attitude towards myself, I don't have to wonder whether I might be hurting anybody's feelings or anything. But I can talk about what I've known and how things look to me in a multidimensional way in a novel. So I didn't think I ever would write anything that was autobiographical. Strictly, I mean, a book's worth. Though I've written a fair amount of anecdotal stuff here and there about my experiences that I always kept in notebooks since I was a teenager.

But after I finished my last novel, I had to decide what to do next. I had been thinking about what it meant to outgrow my youth for a long time. I started thinking about that in my mid 40s and now I'm 63. And it all just fell in place. It seemed like it would be an interesting challenge to try to describe what I'd been through.

I also wanted to take a look at it. I wanted to figure out what happened and see if when I put it all into one object I could get a better handle on what it was. It also dispensed with the necessity of coming up with a plot for a novel, though that was a kind of delusion because you have to shape the autobiography, too. It really takes as much attention picking out where you're going to go next as it does with writing the plot of a novel, even though it's actually all true.

So I think that covers it.

Songfacts: Something I really liked about the book is that you're very honest with all of your memories. Was there anything that you chose to leave out that was maybe too personal?

Hell: No. That's part of the reason that I stopped the book where I did, which is 30 years ago. So that everything happened long enough ago and everybody was a different person, and a lot of people have died. I didn't feel like I had to censor myself at all. I wouldn't have written a book if I had to censor myself. And part of the reason I stopped it where I did was it would have started getting too complicated the closer I got to the present. It would get too delicate.

But it's pretty clear that the book is frank. No, I didn't leave anything out on purpose, because, of course, you can spend 300 pages writing about one day. I didn't describe everything that had ever happened to me, but I didn't leave anything out because it was too sensitive or controversial or embarrassing or anything like that.

Songfacts: And like you just said, the book stops about 30 years ago. Would you ever consider writing a follow up and taking up where this book leaves off?

Hell: I can't imagine that I would, because I think I'll be dead by the time I'm 30 years further in the future. Or at least senile. So I don't expect to.

Songfacts: Would you say that drugs fueled your creativity in the late '70s/early '80s, or did they become a hindrance after a while?

Hell: Well, there's a long passage about that in the book. You don't demand as much of yourself when you have a narcotics habit.

Songfacts: Who would you say are the best poets in rock as far as lyric writing?

Hell: I would say Velvet Underground period Lou Reed.

Songfacts: Can you talk a little bit about why you feel that Lou Reed, circa the Velvet Underground, was one of the better poets in rock?

Hell: Well, I don't think of him as a poet. When you asked me about poets and music, it's just that the lyrics are the most inspired. I would never refer to song lyrics as "poetry." Every once in a while, very rarely, usually in some old folk song that's really wacky, like off of that Harry Smith collection [Anthology of American Folk Music] or something, you'll get lyrics that can almost stand alone on a page and work with the power of just pure poetry, just for the words. I wouldn't say that's true of any songs - very, very few.

So my answer about Lou Reed is just that he's the guy that comes to mind as being a guy who wrote lyrics at that time in the Velvet Underground that had a lot of the power and art and beauty and illumination of what you can see in the best writing. Which is also very rare. Rock n' roll isn't about the lyrics, really. Take "Tutti Frutti": "A wop bop a lu bop a wham bam boom," that's great lyrics for rock & roll. But it's a different category, rock n' roll lyrics, than poetry.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite traditional poets, as well?

Hell: There are so many. I have a whole wall of poetry books. And what's great about it is if you have the taste for poetry - most people don't, and no reason they should - but it's an interest of mine and when you have a personal interest in some endeavor, some undertaking, like poetry, whether it's poetry or bird watching or astronomy, is that's a huge range of interesting stuff. I like people who are opposite from each other in poetry. I like Shakespeare, but I also like Joe Brainard. I like Rilke, but I also like Bill Knott. Probably in terms of affinity, the richest body of work for me would be Baudelaire. You can tell I'm talking about personal affinity, where I always go back and get the most stimulation from Baudelaire.

Songfacts: Do you find any recurring lyrical themes in the songs that you write?

Hell: Hmm. That's an interesting question. I was just actually listening to it, because I've been in the studio doing this remastering of a compilation, it's like a "best of" kind of thing. So I've listened to my whole 20 odd songs straight through that are the ones that I would pick to represent me. Intensity is the only thing they have in common - for me. I always write about stuff that really has shaken me and moved me in an intense way. I tend not to write something that's just about taking a walk in the park.

Songfacts: Thinking back to some of your song lyrics, I guess you could say that New York City and maybe the downtown area sometimes, maybe that comes up a bit in some of the lyrics.

Hell: Not much. There's a song about a rock n' roll club ["Down at the Rock and Roll Club"], a kind of experience of going to a rock n' roll club, it just happened to be where I lived. It could have been anywhere.

Songfacts: But I'm also thinking of the song "Downtown at Dawn" [off the Voidoids' underrated sophomore effort, 1982's Destiny Street]. Isn't that about New York City, as well?

Hell: But I live in New York City, so if I'm going to talk about something that happened to me, it will have happened in New York City. But I don't think that I pay special attention to New York for my songs, no.

Songfacts: What do you recall about the writing of the song "Chinese Rocks"?

Hell: Well, my only contribution to that song was to write two of the three verses' lyrics. I had nothing to do with the music and he already had the chorus - I wrote it with Dee Dee Ramone. And Dee Dee just brought it over to me one time. We used to see a lot of each other in those days, in 1975. He came over one day with his guitar, telling me he was working on this song and he knew the Ramones wouldn't do it. I think they'd already told him they weren't going to do it because of the subject matter, which is heroin. Which is sort of ironic since they don't mind writing about sniffing glue [their 1976 song "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue"]. But he didn't want to do that one musically.

So he hadn't finished writing it and he said that if I wanted to write the two verses that hadn't been written, I was welcome to, and I could play it with my band; my band at that time being the Heartbreakers.

Dee Dee was a madcap. He was a butterfly, that Dee Dee. I've seen in interviews that he's done that he describes the origins of that song as being that he and I had challenged each other for who could write the best heroin song, and what he came up with was "Chinese Rocks." That's complete fabrication. He completely spun that off out of his head. He liked that idea and so that's what he said in an interview at least once.

But no, I've never written a song about heroin - except I almost think of "Blank Generation" as being about heroin, because it's sort of a heroin mentality, though I'd never done heroin when I wrote it.

But yeah, that song comes from Dee Dee offering it to me in that state where there were two verses still to be written, and so I did. So officially, technically, in copyright and with BMI, et cetera, et cetera, I own 25 percent of the song since I wrote half the lyrics.

Songfacts: And you just mentioned the song "Blank Generation." What do you remember about the writing of that?

Hell: Well, that was a really early song for me. I think it was maybe the second song I ever wrote, in 1973. I really liked the stuff I was writing really early like that. I don't feel like I ever really got stale or anything. I feel like my lyrics and my songwriting sort of held up, that I kept trying new things. But there's something about when you first start where you don't have many habits yet in how you go about writing songs, and you're really ambitious, you want to get everything you can into a song. I'm thinking of the lyrics, really. You want to make the lyrics as effective and interesting as possible. What benefited the writing of that song was that I hadn't written many songs yet and I was really ambitious, I really wanted to make the lyrics do everything I could make words do. So that's how I remember it. It was really exciting to write it.

Songfacts: And something I've always liked about the first two Voidoid albums is Robert Quine's guitar playing. I've always thought he never got the credit for his guitar playing, so I'm just curious, how was it working with him and what did he bring to the band?

Hell: Well, I think by now Quine is really pretty widely acknowledged. It can never be enough, really, because to my mind he's in a class of his own. But we had a fairly long history. We actually recorded for the last time together just a couple of years before he died in I think it was 2004 [May 31, 2004]. We'd been working on and off, now and then for five or six years steadily at the beginning since 1976. So it was near 30 years. It went through many stages. It wasn't like any one thing.

I always knew that he was really exceptional and how interesting and inspired his guitar playing was. But I kind of took it for granted at the very beginning. It was also because he was a little bit more inhibited at the very beginning, because it was my group and my songs and he wanted to do what I wanted for them. He wanted to do what was appropriate for the songs, so he was a little bit reserved, because he was worried about finding what worked without us having the familiarity with each other that we eventually had and without him having quite the confidence that he eventually had.

So at the beginning the way it usually worked is that he would be holding back too much, and I would have to really get him pissed off to play great. [Laughs] Because I just wanted him to break free and go crazy, just have an intensity that he was too nervous to arrive at on his own. So I would really provoke him. That's how a lot of his playing on Blank Generation came about - he played really pissed off.

Songfacts: Now that I think about it, that definitely comes through in his playing, that he's pissed off when he's soloing.

Hell: He can play really sweet and beautifully, too, though. There are plenty instances of that. But on Blank Generation, the material was generally pretty aggressive.

Songfacts: Something else I found interesting that I learned from reading the book was that you never played bass until you started playing with Tom Verlaine in the early '70s.

Hell: Well, yeah, when we decided to start a band, that's when I picked up a bass. My bass playing is really crude and I wouldn't recommend my route as a bass player to anyone. I played bass because the band needed a bass player, but I thought of myself as a songwriter and singer and sort of conceptualist of the message of the bands that I was in.

The bass playing I never took seriously. And that's probably the main thing that is a weakness of my bands. I feel like I recognize good bass playing and I would have been capable of it, but that I just didn't care. The songs would have benefited from better bass playing, so it's not something I'm proud of. It's not like I have horrible regrets or anything, either. It's just the way things went down. But it sure isn't something that I'm affirming as being good.

Songfacts: I know, for instance, Mike Watt lists you as a very big influence.

Hell: I don't think he lists me as a bass influence. He just lists me as an important person to him as a musician. I think that's as much for my songs - it's definitely not about my bass playing. Although I think it meant something to him that there was a bass player who had a lot to say.

There are little touches here and there that serve their purpose in my bass playing.

Songfacts: What would your thoughts be if someone approached you and wanted to make I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp into a film?

Hell: I'd have a lot of mixed feelings about it. If they gave me enough money, I'd probably do it... but then I might not. I'm not sure if I would or not. Because it is kind of dangerous. When you see a movie of a book, it can influence your reading of the book as a reader, when you actually come to the book itself. I'd have to judge it on a case by case basis. I don't know what I would do.

June 21, 2013. Get more at
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