Forsaking the Punk Clubs of His Youth for a Well-Stocked Library

Forsaking the Punk Clubs of His Youth for a Well-Stocked Library


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“I worship books,” says the former punk rocker Richard Hell, 68, in his New York apartment. “They are the purest, most complete, most effective means for delivering knowledge and feeling.”

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Adrienne Grunwald for The New York Times

It’s hard to imagine too many other punk rock musicians being taken seriously when they cite as equal inspirations the Kingsmen’s three-chord garage stomp “Louie Louie” and 19th-century French poetry. But Richard Hell has always thrived on intellectual contradictions, bitterly dismissing the countercultural ideals of the 1960s just before singing a heartfelt Creedence Clearwater Revival cover, as heard to memorable effect on his 1977 album with his band the Voidoids, “Blank Generation.”

The record receives the deluxe 40th anniversary reissue treatment this month, a testament to the enduring power of its songs as well as the iconography that Mr. Hell created himself (better known to Warner Music’s accountants as Mr. Meyers). T-shirts featuring Mr. Hell’s spiky-haired visage are ubiquitous in fashion circles; the contemporary art world seems similarly besotted, with a who’s who — from Nicole Eisenman to Christopher Wool — invoking him in their work.

Still, Voidoids fans shouldn’t expect a reunion tour. Sitting inside the East Village apartment where he’s lived since 1975, Mr. Hell, now 68, explained that his music career was over. “It was really a challenge to find a way to make my singing effective, since I can barely carry a tune,” he said matter-of-factly. Leaving the punk scene behind was partly an act of self-preservation (“There’s the danger of drugs, which is an issue with me” — a subject compellingly detailed in his 2013 memoir, “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp”) and partly a return to his first love.

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The original cover for the “Blank Generation” album by Richard Hell & The Voidoids, which is being re-issued to commemorate its 40th anniversary.

Credit
Adrienne Grunwald for The New York Times

“I’d come to New York when I was 17 with the idea of being a poet,” he recalled of his arrival in 1967, having dropped out of high school in Kentucky. He found himself gravitating toward the writers of “The Mimeo Revolution,” an early ’60s loose network of poets including San Francisco’s Jack Spicer, Cleveland’s d.a. levy, and most formatively on Mr. Hell, New York’s Ted Berrigan, who all sidestepped the commercial publishing milieu to design their own handmade books on mimeograph machines.

Soon enough, Mr. Hell was hand-cranking his own press, producing a literary magazine, “Genesis : Grasp,” and then books of poetry by Andrew Wylie and Theresa Stern, a pseudonym for his collaboration with his future Television bandmate Tom Verlaine (copies of which now fetch $2,500). Mr. Hell’s 1973 detour into music was borne out of frustration over not finding a mass audience — and deciding to explore an alternate path to one. Though he’d never previously played a note of music, or even sung publicly, he bought a bass guitar and began composing lyrics. “As obnoxious and pretentious as it sounds, I wanted to influence the culture,” he said. “You’re not going to do that with poetry. Allen Ginsberg did it, but it happens once, maybe twice a century.”



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