Talking 1970s New York, Boring Politicians, and Pussy Riot with Richard Hell

We caught up with the legendary punk rocker turned memoirist and art critic to talk about his new book, 'Massive Pissed Love.'

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Oct 15 2015, 4:53pm

Photo by Rebecca Smeyne. Courtesy of Counterpoint Press

When a teenage Richard Hell left Kentucky for New York City in 1966, he was planning to be a poet. Pretty soon, he was inventing punk rock. Playing in Television, the Heartbreakers, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Hell helped kick off the NYC CBGB scene and his tattered fashion and nihilistic lyrics inspired a visiting Malcolm McLaren to return to London and assemble the Sex Pistols.

Although punk sometimes gets a reputation for anti-intellectualism, Hell's lyrics were equal parts energetic ("love comes in spurts / [oh no, it hurts!]") and poetic ("and when I want to write a song that says it all at once / like time sublimely silences the whys / I know that if I try I'm going to take a fall at once / and splatter there between my lies"). Since retiring from music in the 80s—save the early 90s project Dim Stars he formed with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley, and Gumball's Don Fleming—Hell has kept up writing, publishing several books, including the novels Go Now and Godlike, and one of the best and most poetic rock autobiographies ever in 2013's I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.

Related: Richard Hell Talks About His Epically Badass New Memoir

Hell can sure as hell write, and his most recent book, Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001–2014, is an eclectic collection of musings, art criticism, memoir, and generally witty and insightful takes on culture from the 1970s to now. On rock stars, Hell writes: "Part of the Beatles' problem was that they were deficient in sneers." On the essence of punk: "Punk was about succeeding without any skills except honesty." On the difficulties of writing about sex: "It's like writing about your mother. I mean your mother, not mine, and me saying things about her."

I met with Hell in a Lower East Side café near the apartment he has lived in since the 1970s to talk about writing, New York, and Pussy Riot.

VICE: You came to New York from Kentucky as a teenager, and I've heard you say it was because New York seemed like "the most exciting place, where the best of everything existed." Do you still feel that way?
Richard Hell: I don't know where else I would go, but as everyone knows it's much different now than it was when I came here. It's funny—I was just looking at this great book called Cleaning Up New York by Bob Rosenthal, who ended up being Allen Ginsberg's sort-of secretary. He's a poet and came to New York in the mid-70s, so like all poets in my world—there are careerist professional poets who go to writing programs and shit like that, but I'm talking about street poets and anti-academic poets—he was living hand to mouth. He got a job cleaning up houses for people, and he wrote the book Cleaning Up New York, and it finally came back into print. The book came out in the 70s, maybe '77 or '78. It's so brilliant and so evocative. He's such a great writer with plain-spoken prose but with a real shine to it. He talks about shine in terms of cleaning, because the book is sort of like a manual. It is like what it was like to live in New York at the time. When he desperately needed $60 to survive and he got this job, which paid $3.50 an hour. So he was able to get $20 his first day of work. It was so evocative of what New York was like then. It was a real struggle, everybody was hand to mouth, but there were always means. You could always find a job, there was always a cheap apartment. That's the difference between New York now and then, because nowadays paying the bills has to come first and it takes up all your time.

Yeah, it seems like those cheap apartments don't exist anymore.
And neither do jobs, and everything is more expensive. But still, New York does have all of the other advantages. It's where you can see all of the movies from around the world all of the time, and it still has great bookstores, amazingly. It still has incomparable museums. It has all that stimulation still. And people are still coming here. I mean, it's almost like the whole political situation in the whole nation more than just New York. It's the classic income inequality. Because New York is the most attractive real estate, it's the people at the upper end of that spectrum who have taken it over.

Politicians are put there to handle all of the information and make logical decisions.

So you're not afraid of art dying in New York? I feel like your contemporary David Byrne writes an essay about that every now and then , about how New York is going to lose its place as a home for art and music because of the rent prices.
Well, I can see how people get obsessed and bitter and preoccupied who knew New York when it was different. I just kind of recognize it and move on. If there was something I can do to change it, I would contribute what I could, but it's still where I want to live.

And you've been in the same apartment for a long time?
Yeah, since 1975.

Speaking of politics, there was a quote I really like in the piece you have on what life was like in New York three months after 9/11. You said, "These politicians aren't 'leaders.' They're entrepreneurs advertising themselves to the public by means of funds that they then repay to their investors with legislation and by decree." That's certainly true, and seems especially true in an age of Donald Trump and Ben Carson—politicians who are just openly advertising themselves. Have you been paying attention to the primaries?
I follow the outlines of it, but it doesn't really engage me. I'm really cynical about it. Another point in the book I talk about how politicians really think people give a fuck about them. They don't. They fucking hire the politicians to handle the stuff that a citizen can't deal with because they don't have all of the information. Politicians are put there to handle all of the information and make logical decisions. Meaningful, just decisions. They're the representatives of the people and [they're] supposed to fucking relieve people of having to think about politics. Whereas they think they are important. They are not important. They are just hired by citizens to do this job; it's a job that has to be taken care of. They really bore me.

Every once in a while, there will be someone that inspires me—like Obama was—and it's amazing and thrilling when you see them make some progress. I just can't get that involved with it because you never even know what's actually going on. You might have an inkling 40 years later when people start telling the truth and papers start being released, but you really don't know what's governing people's decisions. You don't really know what's going on in any of these situations. It's just hopeless. And the best people have the hardest time. My favorite president before Obama was Jimmy Carter. He was a famous disaster as a president, basically because he was too decent. It's just a big mess and it's all full of unintended consequences. You don't even know, really, where this or that choice is going to lead.

You're right. It's a lot of grandstanding to get the public to side with them, when the public doesn't even know about the issue half the time. All of the senators' speeches and stuff over things where the public doesn't even have access to the information.
And the continuing shocks that happen year round, like the shock of police abuse of power and corruption. People act so surprised all the time as if it hadn't happened a million times before. So it is just this ongoing struggle where you hope to be some small force for decency, but I think that's the most you can hope for. You fucking hire the politician to relieve you from thinking about politics all the time. [ Laughs]

I didn't want the mistake to be made: I'm really skeptical of the fashion world.

And now they want you to think about it more than ever. Like the presidential debate cycle lasts two years. One thing I like about your writing is that you are really honest. You aren't afraid to share your opinion on anything, whatever it is. From your personal history to a movie or book. It even seems like you threw some shade in pieces in here that were commissioned, like when you wrote the introduction to the [Metropolitan Museum of Art's] Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition catalogue. And you kind of talk down on couture and talk about how clothes are empty. Do you get pushback about that?
Well, it doesn't happen that often because usually I just say what I think and it's not necessarily controversial. I'm not looking to be provocative—but I have to admit that there was an element of that in the Met punk catalogue intro that I wrote. I didn't want the mistake to be made: I'm really skeptical of the fashion world. It's a little ironic hearing people say New York has been taken over by the wealthy, where the way it looks to me is, the last couple of generations, all people that were young in the 90s and 2000s, completely accept the rule of what the media and rich self-interested corporations say. Completely without any reservation or hesitation or consciousness. They are completely like zombies, except what they are fed and injected with by advertisers about what's "cool." To have your whole ambition be to get rich by designing a cool app, or to be part of an ad campaign of an haute couture designer—that's just assumed to being built into the path to a good life, being an important person or an interesting person. There's no fucking challenge to the idea—like we were talking about with the Met show—of high fashion as being fascinating and art and exciting and, yeah, you want to be associated with it. I think they're all assholes. [ Laughs]

I'm of the generation that you're talking about, but it definitely depresses me when I see an article that's like, "Are App Developers the New Rock Stars?" Like the people we are supposed to look up to aren't interesting, creative people, they are just tech bros.
I'm like, is this what we're wasting ten hours on every day? That's the criterion for success? Because it makes you rich, and you had to think up what people would want to waste ten hours a day on? That's really pathetic.

Even when it's something that people maybe need, we're still supposed to venerate people like Steve Jobs or other CEOs. The people just figuring out how to make money off of everyone's purchases and not truly creating something.
Yeah. I guess the definition of success in life is to be rich and powerful. Yeah, no.

And maybe also there is a sense that capitalism really won in the way that to rebel, to have a different political stance, is merely to buy a different set of products from a different set of corporations.
Yeah, that is really moronic. 'Cause that's what they're trying to get you to believe.

Well, I appreciated that you got that sense across even in that catalogue. What do you think about that show overall?
I thought it was completely misbegotten. Not only that, it was beyond obnoxious. Like, for instance, the idiocy of representing CBGB with a lame replica of its toilets. He thought that was a funny joke. I say: "Fuck you."

Since this is an interview for VICE, I should probably ask you about sex.
[Laughs]

There is a lot of sex in most of your novels, and in Massive Pissed Love you have an essay on the difficulties of writing about sex and another about cunnilingus. Why is sex important to you in art?
Just because it seems to be pervasive in life. I think it's something that pretty much everybody takes seriously and thinks about every day. So if you're gonna talk about what it feels like to be alive, then you are going to be treating it.

In the essays in Massive Pissed Love, you often doubled back on yourself and you kind of change your mind mid paragraph and it gives this feeling of listening to a really smart person articulating their thoughts in real time.
I don't come in to make a case. I come in to try to look at something and try to get a take on it and understand what's being done. So yeah, my reading of the subject will shift around during the course of the piece. It's not like something I consciously have as a value, except in the sense that I'm talking about. I want it to happen, I just want it to be alive. Not an argument that's canned.

It gives the effect that you can change your mind, or the reader can change their mind past the essay too.
Yeah, and that's something I completely believe. For me, all of the opinions and assessments in the book are provisional. They can always change. It's not about being right or wrong about something. It's about responding to it as sensitively as you can in hopes that a reader will be stimulated by it. It's not about establishing who I am by what my opinions are. The opinion part is the least of it, it's just about thinking about something.

I realized that my criterion was: Do I trust Pussy Riot or not? And I did.

You retired from music a while ago, but you came out of music retirement a little bit this year to do a song with Pussy Riot. How was that experience?
Oh, god, it was glorious. It was one of the most ecstatic weeks in memory. It was just a total joy. I was so inspired by them and liked their company so much. I was really surprised when they contacted me when they said, "We want to meet you," and I had no idea they knew anything about me, and I didn't know what they were like, but I knew I liked everything I knew about them, but I didn't know them. I had no idea what to expect. I said, "Well, why don't you come over Wednesday night," and they all came over and we had food and a bunch of food and whiskey, and they were just a complete pleasure. They were really smart, really funny, and completely down-home kind of people.

One thing that I was a little apprehensive about was if I was going to have to be minding my Ps and Qs about having the right positions on anything and not saying anything that would be interpreted as incorrect. It was nothing remotely like that. They were just interesting people. They're artists who have taken this route of making their lives' work trying to find more justice for people who aren't being treated fairly. But that's what it comes down to: They are terrific artists who are really great company. So it took me by surprise when they asked if I wanted to go to the studio, and they took me to the studio, and then it took me by surprise when we got to the studio, 'cause I just figured I'd be hanging and it would be fun to continue the night in the studio. Whatever they were doing. There was a whole crew of talented people there. And the singer they brought with them from Russia, I just adored her. Here name was Sasha. Because nobody in Pussy Riot is really a musician, but neither was I. But they completely oversee the material that comes out under their name, and they were very good at collaborating. They didn't impose themselves; they really respected and learned from what everybody had to offer. But they were in charge of this production.

But, as I said, they aren't musicians, and they had brought with them for this visit to New York this young singer from Russia named Sasha, and she was just a bundle of joy and it was just blissful. We stayed all night in the studio for two nights and they asked me within 20 minutes of being in the studio, they asked me if I would read aloud the last words of Eric Garner. I was like, "Whoooaaa," this is delicate and could really go wrong and really come off as being presumptuous and inappropriate to have this relatively privileged white guy taking on the persona of this black guy selling cigarettes on a corner who had been murdered by the police. I had to decide right on the spot. I realized that my criterion was: Do I trust Pussy Riot or not? And I did. I trusted them that they would know what they were doing. At the same time, it was a little dicey, 'cause I thought they don't really have this issue in Russia and they might not even know what it is making me hesitate.

Did you get blowback?
Not really. There is always going to be a little bit, but it was nothing like the scale of what we were risking. But that's partly because the song worked. I think the song worked. You could feel that it was genuine, and I really believed it was right and good to do. I don't quite understand what identity politics means, but there is a limit to it, a white person has just as much right to be angry about that happening as a black person does. Though I totally respect black people's insistence on it being their issue. Still, it affects all of us when something like that happens.

And there is a difference in sincerely trying to highlight an issue as opposed to trying to take it and turn it into your own thing, the way Kenneth Goldsmith did, who did get a lot of backlash if you followed that.
Right, I know a little bit about that. I don't really feel qualified to talk about it because I don't know it well enough. But it's like you're exploiting it for your own gains. As I said, I trusted Pussy Riot. I felt it was clear where they were coming from and it was an honest and genuine place.

I think people know that Pussy Riot are sincere activists, and not just exploiting these things for some haute couture fashion or something.
Yeah.

Well, thanks so much for talking with me, and I hope this book gets people reading your criticism more.
Books like that are very hard to sell. When I told my agent I wanted to do something like this, he advised me against this. He said publishers hate books like this. A collection of magazine articles. That no one buys them and they can be really tawdry and boring. It's true, you can see it does seem unlikely that you gather these things written randomly over the years and it would turn out to be a worthwhile book, but I took pride in the things I wrote. I really took it sincerely when I was writing it. It was all pretty much stuff of my own volition. Sure, I was paid, but as I say, I'm allowed to write about what I want. It was really a pleasure to take on these assignments, and it was as interesting to me as any other kind of writing I do. I hope people will give it a chance.

Lincoln Michel is the co-editor of Gigantic and the online editor of Electric Literature. His debut collection Upright Beasts was published this October by Coffee House Press. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and on Twitter.

Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001–2014 by Richard Hell is available in bookstores and online from Counterpoint Press.

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