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Richard Hell

Richard Hell was a pivotal figure on the nascent New York punk rock scene as it first came to flower in the mid-1970s. As an early member of two seminal groups, Television and the Heartbreakers, Hell helped establish CBGB as the home base of what came to be called punk, and with his air of defiant cool and edgy fashion sense (he pioneered creatively ripped clothing and T-shirts with challenging slogans), he crafted a template for the punk image that was taken up around the world. Hell's music was jagged and immediate while showing a sophistication many later bands lacked, and the literacy of his lyrics -- full of keen observation along with youthful nihilism -- set him apart as one of the most eloquent figures in punk's first graduating class. Hell's time as a professional musician was relatively short, and his legacy with his band the Voidoids amounted to a mere two albums, though those LPs -- 1977's Blank Generation and 1982's Destiny Street -- were as distinctive and incisive as any others of their time and place. Richard Hell was born Richard Lester Meyers in Lexington, Kentucky on October 2, 1949. His father, an experimental psychologist, died when Richard was seven years old and he was raised by his mother, who was an educator. In his teens, Richard attended the Sanford School, a private academy in Hockessin, Delaware, where he struck up a friendship with fellow student Tom Miller. The two ran away from school and hit the road; when they set a field on fire somewhere in Alabama, they were arrested and later expelled. Richard headed to New York City and tried to make a name for himself as a poet, publishing verse in several magazines and producing his own homemade mimeographed chapbooks. In 1972, Tom Miller joined Richard in New York; they wrote a book of poems together under the name Theresa Stern, and Miller, who was an accomplished guitarist, proposed that they form a band. Miller persuaded Richard to get a bass guitar and learn to play; Tom then adopted the stage name Tom Verlaine, and Richard became Richard Hell. With the addition of drummer Billy Ficca, Verlaine and Hell's band became the Neon Boys. The Neon Boys attracted little attention, but in 1974, with the addition of guitarist Richard Lloyd, they evolved into Television and landed a Sunday night residency at a new club on New York's Bowery, CBGB. Television developed a buzz after news began to spread about the new music emerging from the Bowery that some were calling punk rock, and Brian Eno produced a demo for the group. However, Hell and Verlaine butted heads over control of the band and how many songs each could contribute to the group. In May 1975, Hell quit Television, and within a week he was invited to join the Heartbreakers, a new band formed by ex-New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders. The Heartbreakers quickly became a popular club attraction in New York, but Hell again chafed at not being able to play as many of his own songs as he wanted. In early 1976, Hell left the Heartbreakers to found his own band. Named in part after a novella he'd written called "The Voidoid," Richard Hell & the Voidoids featured lead guitarist Robert Quine, a jazz fan who was Hell's co-worker at the bookshop Cinemabilia; rhythm guitarist Ivan Julian, who had previously been a member of the R&B group the Foundations, and drummer Marc Bell, formerly with proto-metal band Dust, alongside Hell on lead vocals and bass. Richard Hell & the Voidoids were soon one of the most talked-about acts on the nascent punk rock scene, and Hell's moody charisma led one magazine to call him punk's answer to Mick Jagger. Sire Records signed the group to a deal, and in 1977, they released their debut, Blank Generation. The album won rave reviews from critics, but the music was too challenging for mainstream audiences, and the Voidoids had little success touring in the United States, in part because few venues were willing to book visiting punk acts. A tour of England opening for the Clash proved to be problematic, as Hell and his bandmates faced spitting and uncomprehending audiences while Hell's addiction to heroin sent him through frequent bouts of withdrawal. The original lineup of the Voidoids splintered as Bell left the band in 1978 to join the Ramones (taking the name Marky Ramone in the process), Julian formed his own group, the Outsets, and Sire dropped their contract. As Hell regrouped, he played a punk rock musician named Billy in 1980's Blank Generation, a film by German director Ulli Lommell; Hell also received credit as a co-screenwriter on the project. In 1982, he once again played a character not unlike himself, down on his luck rocker Eric, in Susan Seidelman's independent feature Smithereens. (He would later play a bit part in Seidelman's next film, Desperately Seeking Susan.) By this time, Hell had put together a new lineup of the Voidoids, with Hell and Quine joined by guitarist Naux and drummer Fred Maher. The Voidoids' second album, Destiny Street, was released by Red Star Records as Smithereens was becoming a critical success, but despite strong reviews, Destiny Street wasn't a commercial success. The group once again collapsed. In 1985, Hell took one last stab at resurrecting the Voidoids, touring with a lineup that featured Hell on vocals, Jody Harris on guitar, Ted Horowitz on bass, and Anton Fier on drums. One track by this edition of the band would appear on the 1990 retrospective live release Funhunt, but they faded out before the band could enter the studio. After 1985, Hell would record only sporadically and very rarely performed live, pursuing a career as a novelist and essayist. Hell was lured out of musical retirement to join the underground supergroup Dim Stars, in which he contributed lead vocals and bass alongside Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth and Don Fleming of Gumball. Dim Stars would issue an album in 1992, and the same musicians backed Hell on a three-song EP under his own name, Three New Songs, which came out that same year. In 1995, Hell brought out an EP, Go Now, in which he read excerpts from his first novel (also called Go Now), with Robert Quine providing accompaniment on guitar. In 1999, Hell and the original Voidoids lineup (Robert Quine, Ivan Julian, and Marc Bell) came together to record a fresh song, "Oh," for the compilation Beyond Cyberpunk (produced by Wayne Kramer), but the death of Quine in 2004 effectively put an end to any further Voidoids reunions. Hell brought out a career-spanning collection via Matador Records in 2002, Time (it also included a complete, unreleased live concert from 1977), while another, Spurts, was compiled by Rhino in 2005. Hell occasionally expressed displeasure with the final version of Destiny Street in interviews and his writings, but he was unable to access the original studio tapes in order to remix the album. After locating a work tape that that featured the rhythm tracks for the album without vocals or lead guitar, Hell created a variant edition of the LP, Destiny Street Repaired, which featured new vocals from Hell and guitar work from Bill Frisell, Ivan Julian, and Marc Ribot; it was issued by Insound in 2009. Ten years later, three of the four original multitrack master reels for Destiny Street were found at last, and Hell teamed with musician and engineer Nick Zinner to give the album a fresh remix. January 2021 saw the release of Destiny Street Complete, a package from Omnivore Records that included remastered versions of the original Destiny Street mix and Destiny Street Repaired, a new Hell-approved mix of the material, and 12 demos and single sides as a bonus.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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