By Richard Hell
Q: Why did the punk rocker cross the road?
A: He was pinned to a chicken.
I know. Bad joke. It could have been worse. I could have asked you why Jesus crossed the road.
But this is a book review, so...
I'm not exactly sure if Richard Hell is an household name. He was at the start of the punk rock movement in the seventies. He is often given credit for the punk rock look of torn clothes and safety pins, which explains the chicken joke. Malcolm McLaren gives Richard Hell credit for the visual look, if not the musical style, of the Sex Pistols. Before he started his own group he created the early punk groups, Television and The Heartbreakers (which has nothing to do with Tom Petty and...)If you have heard one Richard Hell and The Voidoids song it is probably "The Blank Generation" which is sometimes called the Punk Rock anthem.
But the interesting thing in this book is how little Hell says directly about his music.While he writes prodigiously about the Punk Rock scene he is more interested in the lifestyle than the music. He thinks of himself as a poet and a writer first and left music in 1988 to devote himself to his writing full-time. He's a pretty good writer. In fact, His writing talent is much better than his musical talent which he admits is on the minimal side. I like Richard Hell but it is the kind of "like" coming from watching a kid put heart and soul into an endeavor where his emotions overshadow his abilities. This autobiography, from someone who can only be called an unreliable narrator, describes the punk rock 70s, especially the New York scene, very well. Richard Hell comes across as over-confident, insecure and defensive all at the same time and it gives a nice tension. He may not be someone that is easy to like but is definitely interesting. The only drawback to this book, and it is a big one,is Hell's constant misogyny. He chooses to tell us every sexual encounter in detail and in usually negative terms to his partner. As I said, he is not easy to like.
Richard Hell is my age. But I felt at some times I was reading a memoir by a perennial adolescent. It can be argued that Hell never really grew up. It is what makes this book so involving at times. Hell recalls the times and its emotions and tensions vividly. I think it is because he never really wanted to leave it. Even if he no longer plays music in the rock scene, Richard Hell may be the Peter Pan of Punk Rock Neverland.
Background CD: Richard Hell & Voidoids - Blank Generation