AT HOME WITH RICHARD HELL
Punk for Posterity
By JOHN LELAND
Published: January 1, 2004
THERESA STERN'S only book, "Wanna Go Out?," appeared in 1973, with 17 poems
and the author's photograph on the cover. It is not a beautiful face. In
his East Village walk-up apartment the other day, Richard Hell, who
published the book, looked at the cover photograph as if he were revisiting
an old joke. A page at the back of the book directed readers to "other
books from the Blank Generation." This too seemed to be waiting for a punch
The joke about Theresa Stern is that she was a fictional creation of Hell
and his friend Tom Verlaine, her image a photo composite of their two
faces. They were Richard Meyers and Tom Miller then. This was before they
persuaded the owner of CBGB, whose name stands for country, bluegrass and
blues, to book rock acts, and before they performed there in their seminal
punk band, Television.
The joke about the blank generation, which provided the name of Hell's
best-known song, is that its legacy has proven anything but blank.
Thirty years after CBGB gave birth to a soundtrack for urban decay, punk is
moving to the ivory tower. Last month New York City officials dedicated
Joey Ramone Place, named for the singer of such tunes as "Now I Wanna Sniff
Some Glue" and "Beat on the Brat," who died in 2001 of lymphatic cancer.
(It's at the Bowery and Second Street).
And chez Hell on this December afternoon, the topic of the day was literary
preservation. Hell, 54, who published his first poems before picking up a
bass guitar, withdrew from music in the early 1980's and published a novel,
"Go Now," in 1996. This spring the Fales Library at New York University
persuaded him to part with his collected archives, including Theresa
Stern's original manuscripts. Given the ephemeral nature of downtown
literature and punk rock, to say nothing of the lifestyles of the people
who made it, Hell's archives are a marvel of accumulation. In his life Hell
walked away from his Kentucky upbringing, his family name, his musical
career and a drug habit. But if you sent him a letter, or if he started a
poem, it probably found its way to a box or filing cabinet in his small,
cluttered apartment, in a building where Allen Ginsberg once lived.
"I do come from this background of an interest in collecting," he said.
Around the living room were meticulously organized bookshelves and a rare
poster for his mid-70's band the Voidoids. "I'm not as extreme as Ginsberg,
who was driven. But I just assume that's what you do, save things. One of
the first jobs I had in New York was working at the Gotham Book Mart when I
was 17 or 18 and seeing all this great ephemera they had in boxes upstairs."
In pristine surroundings, scholars will soon be able to pore over old set
lists, posters, videotapes, audiotapes, drafts of lyrics, manuscripts and
erotic drawings. The papers will be part of the library's extensive
collection of documents from the downtown art scene of the 1970's and
1980's. They will not go unvisited, said Marvin Taylor, director of the
library, who paid Hell $50,000 for the materials. Though the library has
tweedier stuff, including papers of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Erich Maria
Remarque, it is material like Hell's that draws a crowd.
"Students at N.Y.U. come to us and they want to do papers on tattoos,
graffiti and punk rock," Mr. Taylor said. "They know that they can come in
when some crazy punk guy came and talked in their class."
On a recent afternoon at the library, Hell offered a tour of some of the
materials, which are now packed in 30 cardboard boxes. It will take a year
to catalog the papers and make them available for use, Mr. Taylor said.
Pulling papers at random, Hell found a handwritten note from Mr. Verlaine,
written in the early 70's, when the two were working in used-book stores.
It is a slice from the prosaic side of the punk revolution: "Richard, if
you have time, can you sell this to my bookstore? My boss gets weird if I
try to sell him things. He pays pretty good. Ask him for 10 bucks. He may
give you nine. Need money to eat with."
A scribbled set list in the same box included a Verlaine song called
"16.50," never recorded. Hell explained: "That was how much the prostitutes
working Third Avenue charged at the time ? $16.50." Such was the quotidian
texture of the music.
The instinct to preserve one's mundane papers involves a mixture of
introversion and extroversion. It creates a public record of a private
life, blurring the boundary between the two. When Hell talks about his
materials, it is as if they are his home, reflecting more of him than the
oddly assorted furniture in his apartment. The furnishings seem incidental
and transient, the writings ? and even the dirty pictures ? solid and
"Not to get too intellectual and pretentious and overwrought," he said,
"but in a strange way you only really exist in the works you do. If you
don't keep them, then you don't exist.
"I really find myself going back through things when I don't know what to
do next. You look at them to figure out who this person is and what there
is to do now. It's like looking at a movie. I've often felt that way about
my whole life, too. It's like I'm trying to make a movie that's happening
in real life, and the thing that's interesting to do next would be the
thing that would be interesting to see happen in this movie." The papers
and materials, he said, help him decide what turn he would like the story
to take next.
Hell is the first punk musician in the Fales archives, and his collection
will not include things like guitars or the famous T-shirt that Hell
designed for Richard Lloyd, a guitarist in Television, with "Please Kill
Me" stenciled on it. Instead, the focus is on the written word. "What I
learned from Richard's archives was how thoughtful and literary the punk
scene was," said Mr. Taylor, who watched the punk movement of the 1970's
from Indiana University, where he studied classical music. "You can see him
clearly making a connection between his work and the French symbolist
At the time Hell started playing music, he was trying to start a publishing
imprint called Dot books, using an offset press and a corner of his
apartment. He published one book of poems by Andrew Wiley, who has since
become a major literary agent, and was preparing manuscripts by Patti Smith
and Mr. Verlaine and his own novella, "The Voidoid," which was eventually
published in 1996.
Though he lost interest in Dot, the Verlaine manuscript, which was never
published, remained in his apartment and will be available in the archives.
Like many collectors, he has regrets, not for the things he saved but for
the rare times he violated the code. "In the 80's when the nightclub scene
was starting to take off, I used to get invitations every week. And for a
long time I was saving those, because they just seemed to carry so much
information about the moment. Those I finally threw away. I hardly ever
threw anything away, but those I did."
Though Hell is happy to have someone take care of the materials, and pay
him for the privilege, he said he had some reservations about having
strangers going through what are often private documents. If his papers are
his home, they will soon be available for anyone to visit. Scholars with
legitimate research projects will have access to the collection by
appointment, Mr. Taylor said.
"I'm looking forward to going through it to get a better idea of how much
stuff is potentially embarrassing," Hell said. "I negotiated with Marvin
that I would be allowed to set a few things aside as being not available
until something like 20 years after I die. But then I just ended up burning
"I don't want people to read this and think, `Oh my God, is now anything
that I wrote to Richard going to become public property?'"
Hell laughed. "But of course, part of my whole persona was to be shameless.
I don't hide very much."