What Fresh Hell Is This?


Richard Hell was the primal Punk, the ur-Punk: the spiky-haired one. The torn t-shirts, the safety pins, the era-defining "Blank Generation"—much of the incunabula of Punk came from him. But the wasted boy in the shades who once wrote "Please Kill Me" on his t-shirt, did not, like many of his peers, self-destruct, nor did he aspire to the role of the high olde Punk loon like Johnny Rotten. But for them, as Hell points out, there was no exit.

Richard Hell, primary artifact of punkology, has always seen himself as part of a more ancient guild: that of the eternal bohemian, the seeker after strange truths, chronicler of the eeriness of existence whether in Lawrence, Kansas with William Burroughs or in neon-blinking motels. This is beginning to sound oddly like a Twilight Zone episode: "Consider the case of one Richard Hell, assembler of ferocious alphabets, printer of stapled pamphlets and esoteric magazines, and one half of Theresa Stern..."

Among Hell’s other curious publications is Theresa Stern's Wanna Go Out? (1973), a book of poems by a sassy poetic broad conjured up by Hell and Tom Verlaine. They incarnated her by having their photos taken in wigs and superimposed on each other to create a quite plausible and mysteriously attractive woman writer for whom they also created a biography and gave interviews.

I wasn't aware of any of this subterranean weirdness until I came upon Artifact, one of those tiny three-by-two-inch books published by Hanuman. Hell describes Artifact: Notebooks from Hell, 1974-80 as "a kind of elaborate index or appendix to some missing primary text, a strange mislabled exhibit in a dusty cabinet along a dim hidden corridor in an obscure (Kentucky) institution…" Artifact is one of my favorite books. Everything about it is perfect, including its size—the roiling self-examination, those great subterranean epigrams ("Love is really eternal when you're full of heroin") and eccentric perceptions—the uva jed (reverse déjà vu). It reminded me of my other favorite underground notebook, Taylor Mead's On Amphetamine and in Europe.

And now cometh forth from the pen of Hell: Hot and Cold: essays poems lyrics notebooks pictures fiction—a sort of omnium gatherum of Hellish stuff wherein are to be found: his complete song lyrics ("Blank Generation" and "Love Comes in Spurts" among them), absolutely great writing on rock (Johnny Thunders, Ramones, the Sex Pistols, etc.), more luminous notebook scribblings (1988-1998), essays, fiction, poetry, drawings and photos. Everything seen through a bemused, compound eye and filtered through a self-interrogating, complex mind. Here is Hell driving relentlessly through Interstates and disturbed states of mind, annotating anomalous roadside attractions with lyrical precision and recording his inner inquisitions with ruthless honesty. Cheek by jowl are metaphysical musings and narcissistic doodlings (there are enough loving renderings of his penis and nude photos of himself in this book that it might be subtitled—pace Baudelaire—Mon Corps mis à nu).

The Notebooks in Hot and Cold are also great. The self-interrogations, the comic-plaintive realizations ("Once again led to suspect that something about me provokes intense hostility on the part of airline employees"), ruminations on matters literary and metaphysical. Hell’s also become something of an affectionate post-modern ethnographer of American kitsch und quatsch, among other things. I would love to read a whole book of Hellish travels. A benign form of Sartre’s Nausea, an existential voyage through an alien and yet intimate American landscape. Blue Highways or Jonathan Raban’s books (or Babu Naipaul, for that matter) are all very well, but who writes motel epics for the Beatniks among us?

Hell is a genuine writer, one of the great literate rock stars. It would be churlish of me to list the others. Oh, okay: Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Henry Rollins. But of all the rock literati Hell has always been the most soul-searching and the least pretentious, an experimental animal of his own existentialist dread—evidenced most recently in Go Now, his "vile, scabrous, unforgivable" (William Gibson) 1996 novel.

Time to bring the sacred monster on stage. Hell speaks in a hipster drawl, phrases punctuated by stuttering and panning for the right word, laughing darkly at both himself and the absurd situations he finds himself in.


Dalton: At some point in Artifact you write, "I am in the position of Lautréamont after Maldoror" (such modesety!) and go on to say, "Once you've questioned the value of so much that comprises being alive you've finally got to find something very powerful that intrinsically affirms life or you die." You've clearly not only survived, but from the current photos of yourself—including a full-length color nude shot—you look appallingly healthy and well-fed for a former punk godling. So, what strategy did you figure out in the end to evolve to the next circle of Hell?

Hell: Basically after having ruled out everything else. Having survived all kinds of self-destructive behavior because that's the way the cards fell to where in all honesty I had to come to a decision. I'd simply lived long enough to outlive my demons. What did I find to live for, that's the question you're asking right? I lived long enough despite all my self-destructive behavior that I came to a point I had to either accept my fate of being alive or put a fucking gun to my head out of self-respect. I couldn't go on whining forever. It was at that point that I started trying to give up drugs because that was something that would be useful. Like going to pick apples, something that would keep me busy. A lot of years trying to give up drugs until I finally succeeded in 1984 with a few short lapses. There was one period of two years I used again in differing amounts and a couple of weekends but that was it. I think I’m lucky because I’m interested in things. Curiosity keeps me going as much as anything. But it is a struggle to deal and I think a lot of it is biological/chemical. I think different people have different amounts of happy or depressed chemistry.

What is your equation, would you say?

I feel like I’m just responding to reality but probably the balance goes to the negative with me. (laughter) I know people who are perceptive and cheerful all the time but I'm not one of them. I know people take prescribed drugs to deal with this sort of thing but I just can't bring myself to do that.

Like Prozac? Did you know Prozac is just time-released Ecstasy?

Are you serious? (laughter)

It's the same drug. I would assume though, you couldn't be all that morbid because you didn’t actually end up killing yourself like Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders.

I feel with Johnny and Sid it was more a case of that they didn't have as many things they were interested in. They were just fucked-up junkies, y'know? Once you're on that dead-end road it's the same for everybody. I was just like that, too. Neither Johnny or Sid would describe themselves as Sad Sacks, depressed characters. They were pissed off, thought life sucked in a lot of ways. When I think depressed I think Woody Allen. (laughter) Johnny Thunders was not Woody Allen.

So what did you find—you have all these other interests, obsessions. Motel rooms, for instance. You have brilliant, painstaking descriptions of motel rooms, for one. The way you study them, man, is inspiring. It makes you want to jump in the car and check out the next tasty neon sign.

Well, motel rooms are my favorite form of recreation. That's what my girlfriend and I do instead of going to the beach. Just go to motels. We just get into the car and pick a direction and follow our impulses. We'll get up at 11:00 a.m., drive till six stopping at restaurants and road-side attractions. We start looking for a motel around six and then do it again the next day. My idea of a good vacation.

I could read about motels endlessly.

You should find a copy of Go Now. It's pretty sick, though. It's a guy taking dope in the course of this cross-country drive. I was clean when I wrote it, that was in the ’90s, but the premise was based on something I did in the early ’80s. A guy gave me money to drive across the country and write a book about it. Jake Riviera. He was the manager of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, started Stiff Records. He had this brainstorm when I was really fucked up, it was a way to dig myself out of a hole—can you dig yourself out of a hole? (laughter). That's what I tried to do. It didn't work. You can't dig yourself out of a hole. He had me pick up this '59 Cadillac in California and drive it back to New York taking notes. Go Now takes off from that premise although it's not what happened to me.

Your idea ("writer’s experience traveling the country advertising in small cities for girls who like rock & roll") sounds like a great idea for a novel.

Did you ever see that Spin article where I put ads in the paper asking for girls who liked rock and roll? They had six to eight writers pick slips of paper out of a hat with the names of cities on them and I ended up going to South Dakota. What am I going to find I thought in Rapid City to describe as the soul of rock and roll? So I thought I'll see what girls come to my hotel room and tell me. (laughter) It did seem like a great concept to pitch for a non-fiction book: get some publisher to get me doing that town by town, describing what happens—it's too late now, man, I'm too old. You've gotta have the vibe to reach the girls arriving at your door.

This collection of pieces of yours in Hot and Cold. What was the idea of putting all this disparate writing, narcissistic-porno-sketching, snapshots in one book? Multiphrenia? An anthology of Hell? Who exactly is the golem of Hot and Cold?

This Frankenstein of a book. I get the feeling you could have done without the poems and the graphics.

The graphics are fine. Hey, everybody is entitled to draw multiple portraits of their penis in their books. It’s the collage aspect of the book I wondered about—so many Hells in so many different hats!

And here I thought I did a masterful job of stitching it together in as cohesive as could be done and thought I succeeded. Obviously I didn't succeed for you. Finding a way both in the ordering of it and the design of it not just like a reader. The most significant way I did that is I didn't use any excerpts from existing books. I didn't use anything from the Voidoid novellina, I didn’t use anything from Go Now or Artifact. No, I wanted it to be a book that used all the material that I thought was worthy but for one reason or another hadn't showed up in a book. I came up with this sort of chronological way of gathering all that stuff. One guy who wrote about it said, hey, the book was like a road trip, going from medium to medium as if from town to town. My idea was it would be almost like a cubist painting where you're looking at this one thing—which is like a kinda consciousness and point of view or mind—from all these different angles according to the lens of the medium.

Richard, you can talk a good talk, man—I'm starting to buy this now. Sort of a portrait of Hell in a convex metaphor.

It's all coming from this same source, this throbbing entity…

But you yourself seem to have some sort of existential doubts about "Who is the person writing this?"

I like subverting the tendency to stiffen, harden into one stance. I think it's a real challenge to find ways not to defend positions, positions you associate with yourself instead of trying to see clearly. I think it's more interesting to subvert yourself than to defend yourself.

In your Notebook entry, August 5, 1993, various Hellish personae seem to oscillate:

Who are the I's that have Experience vs. the I's that make "art" of it? I ("I") wrote somewhere that writing is the passage of time (sequential experience) from which one chooses what's significant (or useful in the translated structure of words). Who has the experience and who edits/arranges/revises it for publication on what basis? What is the basis for choices and how should those criteria be judged as worthy? How can one distinguish between one's "neutral" legitimate taste/sensibility and one’s 'self-serving' desire to represent oneself/reality as of a particular character? Is the point to write what feels like oneself, or what feels beautiful and true, or some-thing more, or less, exact, or what?

One does want to accentuate one's (helpless) individuality, if for nothing else than to assert it as worthy (to say we're different but all are equally beautiful).

Who then is the I that writes, how close is it to yourself and are there different Hells who perform/write songs, poetry, fiction?

That's just a passage I wrote down and have never really looked back at it and tried to solve. (laughter) It is an interesting question and some day I'll have to think about it.

There’s some of the best writing about rock I’ve ever read in Hot and Cold. For someone from the but-I-was-cool school, it’s also very sympathetic towards lost souls like Sid, Peter Laughner, Johnny Thunders and even for your former date, the too-often spat-upon Nancy Spungeon. The most surprising thing I found was your enthusiasm for the Sex Pistols. I’ve always felt that Sid was the purest kind of rock star, but a victim of his own fantasies.

But he was like Johnny, too, in that you couldn't outflank him. He was on top of it. Conceptually you couldn't out smart him; he knew who he was and where he was and you couldn't outsmart him. He was amusing. He was completely pure that way. It was a pretty thing to see, as ugly as it was.

The New York contingent has always been very negative about the Sex Pistols, have nothing but snide things to say about them, slagging them off as exploiters, as Brit-prop, stealing the whole punk fire from CBGBs. But your attitude to the Pistols, is surprisingly, totally enthusiastic.

Well, I mean, musicians are morons. (laughter) It's always protecting your territory and saying what you think is going to promote your interest. It has nothing to do with trying to describe what is going to further your career—that's what goes on in rock and roll. And I'm not immune to that tendency. I want to be seen in the best light but I do also feel I have this obligation not to let my ego get in the way of my perceptions—but that has self-interest in and of itself because I'm trying to produce good work and I think you have to do that to produce good work. I think it's silly to have these vested interests to protect. At the same time I do think Lydon has turned out to be a clown. But there were a couple of years there where they could do no wrong. It was everything you could possibly want from a band. That's my explanation for why I don't show contempt for British bands. I'm not into gang mentalities. I think it's interesting to see things as they are. (laughter)

Still this seems very generous, even noble (maybe open-minded is a better word) on your part especially considering that it’s a matter of history that Malcolm McLaren nicked your look for his new band.

I don't think it's noble. I think it's a matter of record and historical progression. People will be aware of it or not depending on the depth of their sophistication. I would certainly take steps to establish the facts as I know them so it's not nobility. I take credit for my artistic integrity. I'm proud of that. (laughter)

Speaking of Rotten. Lydon seems to have taken on his punk persona as a life-long crusade, and it is lovely to see him with his Technicolor hair going at it as the Mad-Hatter of Punk on Rotten TV, making a bit of a fool of himself, but railing on brilliantly at the ongoing stupidity of fings wot is outta joint. Did you see Lydon on his TV show, Rotten TV?

I saw five minutes of one. And he's a parody of himself—what happens to old rock and roll people. That's the danger. Because rock and roll is for kids and when you have to depend on that persona after the age of whatever—maybe you can get up to 35 with it—you're most likely gonna be a parody. I think that's what's happened to him. But at the same time he likes being a clown so there's a way in which he transcends it. But the thing that bugs me about him is the tricky way he pretends he's the only honest person. It's always self-serving, finally, making himself out to be the only honest person. And I’ve seen him in plenty of circumstances where he hasn't been honest because it doesn't serve his purposes but he'll find a way to present himself as the paragon of truthfulness.

Unlike Rotten, you seem to have shed your Punk persona—if we are to judge from the leering satyr in the Italian wood or the author’s mug shot ("Long Island Businessman Held in Cocaine Ring Sting in Bahamas"). Don’t you feel any responsibility to maintain your role as the John the Baptist of Punk for your legion of fans, in the same way we look to Keith, Lydon, Townshend, Dylan, et alia to see how they are keeping the faith (or embarrassing themselves)? I suspect it may be because you have a parallel career as a writer (as opposed to the many rockers who dabble in it), and that that preceded your punk incarnation and survives it.

It's hard to maintain any credibility in rock and roll terms as you outgrow your… because rock and roll is about explosions of energy and sex and that's just not gonna be true after 35 or 40. The exception is when it's a kind of folk music. Dylan can pull it off because he's not about explosions of energy and sex and the old blues guys. You know who Johnny Rotten reminds me of? Jerry Lewis. I like Jerry Lewis.

He was always goofy and then he got…

…completely full of himself. I saw Rotten in that Filth and Fury movie—they interviewed me for that, I did it for money—I will only talk about that shit for money—but predictably they cut out the dicier stuff I said. He's trying to put a different spin on that "God Save the Queen" shit? He really loves England, he wants to tell you how much he loves England (laughter)—that really made me sick to my stomach. We did a couple of Stones songs when we played in England and in a way that was a deliberate provocation of the British punks because in a sort of fraudulent way they were contemptuous of the Stones. The Stones are show business but the Sex Pistols are show business, too. Last night I was listening to the Charlie Manson record. (laughter) I'd never heard his record until a couple of years ago and I was impressed by how nice his voice is. I was playing it for my friend and there was a song on it that reminded me of Satanic Majesties Request and it occurred to me: if you think about it, Satanic Majesties Request is a much more offensive take on the British royal house than "God save the Queen, she ain't no human bein'." The Sex Pistols made themselves out to be the destroyers of rock and roll as if they did just make themselves up from their own imaginations to show everybody else what's possible. Not only is this not true but their initial line of outrage… that was sure done as well by the Stones as them.

John is Jerry Lewis. That would've been a great team—Johnny Thunders as Dean Martin and Lydon being Jerry Lewis. I did happen to watch a lot of The Ladies Man when AMC ran it the other night and I realize that it isn't really right to call John "Jerry Lewis." He's really more like a combination of Moe and Larry.

In the Notebooks, are these all the entries?

I edited some out but that's just about it.

Some of the approach in the Notebooks reminded me of Kerouac—not necessarily in the On the Road sense but in the sense of Kerouac’s "the novel is dead," that in a way our actual adventures are more interesting than wholescale inventions. I haven’t yet read your novel, Go Now, but let me ask what do you see as the role of fiction as opposed to all the other forms you write in and why? Kerouac didn't think of his books as fiction, and if you reread them in another light they are imaginative riffing accounts of his adventures.

And I'm sure you could say the same thing about Céline or Henry Miller.

Is Go Now in that tradition?

No, it's not. In Go Now, I wanted to nail down my take, my understanding, condition of being a dope addict. It uses the cross-country trip to examine that condition. It does describe plenty of motel rooms. But it's not a recreation of real life; it does comment on a lot of things I went through but it's not like a Kerouacian epic of your life.

That trip to see Burroughs was strangely macacbre, Burroughs behaving like a roadside attraction, getting out his guns…

He was like a carny, both the barker and the exhibit, like W.C. Fields. He was really funny

Theresa Stern is one of your (and Tom Verlaine’s) great inventions. Where did this come from? Was she suggested by Warhol superstars—Theresa even looks like Jackie Curtis and the mock-histrionic poetry is similar to something Jackie might have written (it’s only lacking a few movie-star allusions).

Back in ’71, ’72, hanging out late at night restless and crazed, I started passing the typewriter back and forth trading lines and after Tom Verlaine and I accumulated a few pages of this stuff I saw that the writings had turned out to sound not like either one of us but I thought they were interesting and I got to conceiving of a third party as the author and doing a book. I had a small offset press in my house and had been publishing pamphlets and magazines, editing and publishing them. Basically it was my project, though most of the poems were collaborations, I ended up taking three or four poems from my own files and sticking them in. Tom had the idea of making her a woman which I thought was a great idea. Women's Liberation was at the time in the news so we thought we'd try to exploit it. (laughter) Then I got the idea of doing a composite photograph of Tom and me in wigs and then I wrote a biography of Theresa to go with this book. So, no it didn't consciously have to do with Warhol's transvestites. To me she always was a presence. I didn't feel it was like a put-on or a parody or a joke. She was like a secret ideal, y'know. I took her seriously. At the same time she had an intense sense of humor which is to say all this stuff was solemn or something. Every other line is a joke.

It’s like something that could have been dreamt up in the ’30s by the Surrealists.

Yeah, like Duchamp's Rose Selavy.

You seem to have an interest in androgyny.

I do?

Well, at one point in the book you're fantasizing about a boyish-looking girl.

As I say, I don't hesitate to express that shit when it arises. Where other people would censor themselves when they have thoughts like that. I try to be (laughter) open-minded.

The poetry, maybe I could put this a bit more diplomatically, but has for me the sense of put-on, perhaps suggested by the Theresa Stern poems, for instance, and then there’s this laudatory essay about this poet Bill Knott—I wasn’t sure whether you'd invented him or not.

That's good. I like that.

I had the feeling you’d invented this guy whose idea of poetry is a fart by a dead man who had eaten beans for his last meal.

Oh, that's so cool. No, he’s for real. All those books exist. He's a real interesting guy. In fact I think he was an influence on Theresa.

Isn't there, though, without my being obnoxious, a certain parody element to your poems? I mean your song lyrics are very…


The poetry is the only part of Hot and Cold that puzzles me. Is there an element of parody involved? By which I mean there seems to be a whiff of writing about writing the poem while you’re writing it. I know this is a trope—if that’s the word—of post WWII verse, but with your poetry there seems to be an additional element that involves some poncey bardic persona—the Mike Myers School of Verse, may we say—which is very different from your lyrics. I get the impression you’re either putting us on or taking your role as bard of the lower depths too seriously. Some of this comes from your own comments on poetry. Quoth Hell: "If you understand it, it’s not poetry" and "In a lot of my writing I’m looking to get past something to where poetry lies. What I want to get is past me. But then there’s nobody left to write anything so I end up with something like this." The poems tend to be self-referential and often sprinkled with surreal picturesque images that seem like the sort of thing someone writing poetry would write.

(laughter) Maybe you're right. But I'm trying to do my best, to write good poems. I take no offense. I grant you this: I have mixed feelings about them, too—as I do about everything I ever wrote but I am aware that I do get especially self-conscious when I'm writing poems. You're definitely picking up on that and that tends to make me melodramatic—sort of Norma Shearer, Norma Desmond. But in my defense I would say that it is possible to succeed writing a poem in that kinda mode (though that’s not true of all of them). Number two, like for me in the poems, as in the book as a whole, there’s a big range of approach. I really don’t like to repeat myself and it’s almost that way from poem to poem. I want the poem to be faithful to the impulse and the moment rather than me finding a way of writing poems. So there’s a huge range of poems in the book and the melodramatic, almost parody seeming poems. Beatnik or Surrealist type of poems you’re talking about occur only in a few spots. So that’s my take.

Did the Hellish hair and the name, I’ve always wondered, come from Rimbaud? That famous photograph of Rimbaud with his brush-cut hair?

It’s all hard to put in sequence because it was so long ago but the way I remember it, that definitely occurred to me real early, also the Hell from Season in Hell reference. The way I remember coming up with the haircut was this analysis which was what is it about rock and roll haircuts that makes them work. Like the Beatles. And my conclusion was that it’s grown men more or less wearing haircuts that five-year-olds of their generation wore. What kind of haircut, I thought, did I have when I was five or six? All the kids I grew up with had a kind of crew cut called burrs. It was a ship-to-shore crew cut that grew out because you didn’t go to the barber that often and it became all ragged. That’s the way I remember coming up with it but I think the Rimbaud thing kicked in quickly. The issue of the literary magazine I was publishing when I was about twenty had a big picture of that photo of Rimbaud you’re talking about and a well-known picture of Artaud in the asylum who also has a haircut that’s very similar.

Why Hot And Cold for the title of the book?

I don't know, it contains a lot of extremes, including in-your-face sexual material (hot?) plus death, cruelty, detachment (cold?). It's funny how when you touch something that's either one of those (extreme hot or cold) you can't tell right off which one it is.

Let me ask you about the two-disk set of yours that’s coming out next year of old, unheard, and live songs by yourself and the Voidoids.

Well, disk one is a slightly, embellished version of my RIP thing, RIP plus three cuts, and two out of three of them have been available some other place. It’s got "Chinese Rocks," "Time" and a live version of a track that wasn’t on any release called "Funhunt" all re-mastered. And the other CD is of live dates, one is at the Music Machine in London in 1977—that’s when we did a tour with the Clash at the end of that year. We did one date in London that was just ours and Siouxsie and the Banshees opened for us which is the most crazed we ever did in terms of sheer aggression and actually at the end of it Rotten comes on the stage haranguing the crowd to force us to come back for an encore which is when we played "Ventilator Blues." Then there’s another like four or five songs from the following year in ’78. The Music Machine tracks are really lo-fi, like someone holding up a cassette player in this club with not a very good sound system. It’s more like a you-are-there kinda vibe. You get caught up in it. The other four or five songs are beautifully recorded because it’s off the board, live on FM radio. That’s from a benefit for St. Marks church because it had just burned down. So there was this weekend at CBGBs to raise money and we headlined one night. That year we were doing a tour with Elvis Costello and he happened to be in town and he came on stage and sang my song "You Gotta Lose." Also in that set was "Kid with the Replaceable Head" and "Don't Die." Then a really cool version of "Shattered." The only time we ever played that. We just worked it up for the occasion. Came out really well. I haven’t named the CD set yet but I think I’m gonna call it Time.

How about Emit (time backwards)?


Hot and Cold is available on the web through, but hardcore Hell fiends might be better off ordering a signed copy from Hell's own website (

The two-disk Voidoids set will be released by Matador early 2002: