November 9, 2015
6. Ball by Tara Ison (Out November 10th)
Set mostly in Los Angeles, Ball is a collection of stories about desire. Twisted, dark, and wild, the stories in Ball focus on characters seeking love, adventure, and attention that is deeply intense and crushing. Ison, who has also written Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies and A Child Out of Alcatraz, is a talented writer who may have slipped under your radar. Be prepared to become obsessed.
Want to win a free copy of Soft Skull author Andrea Kleine‘s thrilling new novel Calf? Visit literary agent Betsy Lerner’s site here, and tell her about the most violent book you’ve read and how it affected you. The top three answers, chosen by Andrea herself, will each win a free copy of her new book!
November 6, 2015
Before reaching its 20th anniversary this year, Counterpoint Press traveled a winding road, from its founding by Frank Pearl (founder of Perseus Books Group) and Jack Shoemaker, to its current iteration as part of Counterpoint LLC, which includes imprints Soft Skull Press and Shoemaker and Hoard.
Counterpoint Press’s current home, Counterpoint LLC, came together in 2007 when Charlie Winton, now chairman, CEO, and executive editor at large of Counterpoint, sold the Avalon Publishing Group to Perseus but kept the Shoemaker and Hoard imprint, acquired Counterpoint Press from Perseus, and then bought the independent Soft Skull Press. In 2014, the press also acquired the Sierra Club’s backlist titles.
When Winton acquired Counterpoint, the editorial mix was fiction and memoir. Winton wanted to add “serious nonfiction,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in provocative, journalistic-type publishing, truth telling with a distinctly progressive bent.” Between Counterpoint and Soft Skull, 65 to 70 original titles are published each year. (Shoemaker and Hoard doesn’t release new titles anymore.) Winton believes they might be “the only for-profit literary publisher west of the Hudson—and there aren’t that many east of the Hudson.”
Winton stepped down as publisher in 2013, and Rolph Blythe—who has worn a variety of hats in publishing, including bookseller, marketing director, and literary agent—assumed the role. Blythe joined a team that includes Shoemaker as editorial director, Dan Smetanka as executive editor, and Megan Fishmann as publicity director.
“Counterpoint is an author-driven house,” Smetanka said. “We exist in service of the authors that we publish.” Counterpoint’s authors agree. “When Counterpoint makes an offer to publish your book, you know your book is loved,” said author Tod Goldberg, adding that “they believe in you artistically, even if you don’t create a giant bottom line figure.”
Author Elizabeth Rosner, who has worked with Smetanka since 2000, said she used to “imagine that the advantage of being with a large house meant access to more resources, more support, more visibility, prestige,” but finds the “noncorporate version of a publishing house to be a genuine relief. I’m grateful to be published by people who still care about the written word.”
Going forward, Blythe said the press will likely expand through internal growth and possibly acquisition. “There aren’t that many of us—for-profit publishers doing the kind of work we’re doing. It’s a really challenging model. To grow the list organically is a slow way to grow. So we also consider acquisitions and look at other presses that might complement what we’re doing,” Blythe said. “We are moving the house in a more commercial direction. Since I’ve been here we’ve had two authors on the Today show: Lisa Bloom (Suspicion Nation) and Kevin McEnroe (Our Town), which is not insignificant for a small publisher.”
Reviews and critical success have also increased. Since the fall of 2013, the press has had 18 reviews in the New York Times Book Review, with one title making the cover. Karen Bender’s Refund recently won the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and was long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award.
Smetanka is currently excited about Abby Geni’s debut novel, The Lightkeepers, set for release next January, and said “bringing new voices like Geni is something you can do when you have a legacy of quality, thoughtful publishing.” Another book set for early 2016 is M.F.K Fisher’s posthumous second novel, The Theoretical Foot: A Novel. The manuscript for Fisher’s novel was found among the belongings of her longtime agent, Robert Lescher, after his death, and publication is set for next February, some 24 years after the death of the celebrated food and travel writer.
While Counterpoint continues to publish big-name authors such as Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and James Salter, Winton makes sure that the press is always attuned to new writers. “The thing we’ve been able to do successfully, which is the calling card of an independent literary press, is balance the values that we’ve always tried to have and maintain our relationships with our core authors while introducing new writers,” Winton said.
Goldberg continues to be impressed that the press takes risks, citing as an example Counterpoint’s decision to publish Les Pesko’s No Stopping Train through the Soft Skull imprint after the author and highly regarded creative writing instructor’s suicide. “Dan heard about this manuscript that Les couldn’t sell, got a copy of it, and published it to rave reviews. I have no idea if the book sold very well, but it almost doesn’t matter. That book is out there for a greater good, and that matters. I feel like that ends up being a kind of defining quality of Counterpoint’s 20-year run: they publish books that matter.”
The Austin American Statesman ran a review of Robert Jensen‘s new book Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully, calling it “no buddy book but a serious, cerebral (albeit with light touches) meditation on how hierarchy is an impediment to human understanding, humans can flourish only in a community based on a collective commitment to love and care, and there’s no cookbook for making decent communities work.”
Saturday, November 7
“Radical” in the title of University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen’s intensely personal and affecting paean to his late friend and mentor Jim Koplin is not pejorative as in “dangerously extreme” or “fanatic idealogue.”
Rather it means “going deep, to the root of a problem” while “Plain” refers to Koplin’s “unvarnished analysis” of the world without jargon or posturing and his simple, unfancy way of living.
Because Jensen believes we need both radical analysis and plain living more than ever these days, he wrote this book to do what his friend never allowed him to do while alive — make a fuss about him.
But it’s about much more than a transformative figure, a life-changing teacher, who took part in every important U.S. political movement of the last half of the 20th century: civil and gay rights, radical feminism, New Left, anti-war and the environment.
It’s a love story, for Jensen and Koplin cared deeply for each other and indeed briefly were lovers; an intellectual memoir about the unflinching world view the elder Koplin passed on in talks and more than 3,000 letters and a political polemic about how we should create a decent human future, that is “if there is to be a human future at all.”
This is not a book about pretending to be fearless in this situation, the author says, but about moving into the dark with our fears. And while Koplin and Jensen had lived through the same kind of darkness in their early years, each had developed different ways of dealing with it.
They met in 1988 in Minneapolis, where Jensen, a naïve graduate student at the University of Minnesota researching feminist responses to pornography, interviewed Koplin, a volunteer at the Organizing Against Pornography office.
Despite an age difference of 25 years, the men, recognizing a mutual quirkiness, bonded at once and shared revelations of unsafe, chaotic childhoods defined by terror.
But while Koplin remembered an abusive, violent father, who treated his animals better than his wife and child, then set aside those memories, the bad things that happened to Jensen growing up went into a black hole known as dissociative amnesia.
What made life easier for him, Jensen says, was not being normal and finding a community of kindred spirits. “And the not-normalist person I knew was Jim Koplin.” By that he means Jim had decided not to expend time, energy or money on style or fashion but on values and the frugal way he lived.
For Jim, “thinking about difficult subjects was one of the great joys in life,” Jensen writes. He thought it was much more fun than gambling in casinos or sitting with a video game in his lap.
So for the three hours they met each Saturday morning at a table with the best eastside window exposure in the Upper Crust bakery, Koplin encouraged Jensen to go deeper and think more critically about systems and structures of power.
This is no buddy book but a serious, cerebral (albeit with light touches) meditation on how hierarchy is an impediment to human understanding, humans can flourish only in a community based on a collective commitment to love and care, and there’s no cookbook for making decent communities work.
The memoir revolves around Koplin, a gay Minnesota farm boy with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, who served in the military, married, worked in a bank, taught at Vanderbilt University, helped found Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and, true to his rural roots, loved to garden.
But it’s also about the progressive coming-of-age of the author, a native of Fargo, N.D., who was a newspaper reporter for ten years before earning a Ph.D. in media ethics and law and joining the University of Texas journalism department.
If Jensen was an Invisible Kid growing up, once he found his activist voice, he says, he couldn’t shut up. Especially after he discovered that the U.T. faculty was not a hot bed of political involvement.
Before he knew it, he was emceeing rallies and appearing as an anti-war representative on local and national talk shows almost always with conservative hosts like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity or Joe Scarborough and other guests hostile to the left position.
Jensen likes to joke with graduate students, telling them that the secret of his success is that he’s mediocre and he knows it. Instead of trying to be “a big thinker,” the professor says, he’s content to be a second or third-tier intellectual, who works hard to become a better teacher and present the ideas he’s synthesized to the public.
Though the author often felt like a ventriloquist dummy espousing Koplin’s views and there is little in his life as teacher, writer and speaker that didn’t originate from a conversation with Jim, the friends didn’t always agree.
When Jensen found comfort and community at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, his intellectual guru, who didn’t believe in organized religion, was baffled. But Jensen, believing religion did not require a supernatural certainty, defended his decision to join.
What emerges from this double biography’s unblinking look at our living at the end of affluence, comfort and cheap energy is the portrait of a passionate, concerned and radical U.T. professor, who learned from one of Nature’s Mystics that “it’s time to get apocalyptic, or get out of the way.”
Congratulations to Helle Helle and her forthcoming book This Should Be Written in the Present Tense: A Novel for making the Dublin Literary Award’s longlist. Organized by Dublin City Council, the 2016 Award was launched on November 9th by Ardmhéara Bhaile Átha Cliath Críona Ní Dhálaigh, Patron of the Award, who commented “the Award, now in its 21st year, has made a fantastic contribution to the literary life of Dublin and brings significant benefits to the City.”
View the full longlist here.
“The idea you never knew had shaped Star Wars.” Salon runs an excerpt from John Higgs‘ new book Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century to explain a little more about the iconic film series.
November 7, 2015
The opening of the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Dune, would have been the most ambitious single shot in cinema.
It was to begin outside a spiral galaxy and then continuously track in, into the blazing light of billions of stars, past planets and wrecked spacecraft. The music was to be written and performed by Pink Floyd. The scene would have continued past convoys of mining trucks designed by the crème of European science fiction and surrealist artists, including Chris Foss, Moebius and H.R. Giger. We would see bands of space pirates attacking these craft and fighting to the death over their cargo, a life-giving drug known as Spice. Still the camera would continue forwards, past inhabited asteroids and the deep-space industrial complexes which refine the drug, until it found a small spacecraft carrying away the end result of this galactic economy: the dead bodies of those involved in the spice trade.
The shot would have been a couple of minutes long and would have established an entire universe. It was a wildly ambitious undertaking, especially in the pre-computer graphics days of cinema. But that wasn’t going to deter Jodorowsky.
This scale of Jodorowsky’s vision was a reflection of his philosophy of filmmaking. “What is the goal of life? It is to create yourself a soul. For me, movies are an art more than an industry. The search for the human soul as painting, as literature, as poetry: movies are that for me,” he said. From that perspective, there was no point in settling for anything small. “My ambition for Dune was for the film to be a Prophet, to change the young minds of all the world. For me Dune would be the coming of a God, an artistic and cinematic God.
“For me the aim was not to make a picture, it was something deeper. I wanted to make something sacred.”
The English maverick theatre director Ken Campbell, who formed the Science Fiction Theatre Company of Liverpool in 1976, also recognised that this level of ambition could arise from science fiction, even if he viewed it from a more grounded perspective. “When you think about it,” he explained, “the entire history of literature is nothing more than people coming in and out of doors. Science fiction is about everything else.”
Jodorowsky began putting a team together, one capable of realising his dream. He chose collaborators he believed to be “spiritual warriors.” The entire project seemed blessed by good fortune and synchronicity. When he decided that he needed superstars like Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí or Mick Jagger to play certain parts, he would somehow meet these people by happenstance and persuade them to agree. But when pre-production was complete, he went to pitch the film to the Hollywood studios.
Jodorowsky pitched Dune in the years before the success of Star Wars, when science fiction was still seen as strange and embarrassing. As impressive and groundbreaking as his pitch was, it was still a science fiction film. They all said “no.”
By the time this genre was first named, in the 1920s, it was already marginalised. It was fine for the kids, needless to say, but critics looked down upon it. In many ways this was a blessing. Away from the cultural centre, science fiction authors were free to explore and experiment. In this less pressured environment science fiction became, in the opinion of the English novelist J.G. Ballard, the last genre capable of adequately representing present-day reality. Science fiction was able to get under the skin of the times in a different way to more respected literature. A century of uncertainty, relative perspectives and endless technological revolutions was frequently invisible to mainstream culture, but was not ignored by science fiction.
* * *
The script for George Lucas’s 1977 movie Star Wars was influenced by The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a 1949 book by the American mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell believed that at the heart of all the wild and varied myths and stories which mankind has dreamt lies one single archetypal story of profound psychological importance. He called this the monomyth. As Campbell saw it, the myths and legends of the world were all imperfect variations on this one, pure story structure. As Campbell summarised the monomyth, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Campbell found echoes of this story wherever he looked; myths as diverse as those of Ulysses, Osiris or Prometheus, the lives of religious figures such as Moses, Christ or Buddha, and in plays and stories ranging from Ancient Greece to Shakespeare and Dickens. This story is now known as “The Hero’s Journey.” It is a story that begins with an ordinary man (it is almost always a man) in a recognisable world. That man typically receives a call to adventure, encounters an older patriarchal mentor, undergoes many trials in his journey to confront and destroy a great evil, and returns to his previous life rewarded and transformed. George Lucas was always open about the fact that he consciously shaped the original Star Wars film into a modern expression of Campbell’s monomyth, and has done much to raise the profile of Campbell and his work.
Star Wars was so successful that the American film industry has never really recovered. Together with the films of Lucas’s friend Steven Spielberg, it changed Hollywood into an industry of blockbusters, tent-pole releases and high-concept pitches. American film was always a democratic affair which gave the audience what it wanted, and the audience demonstrated what they wanted by the purchase of tickets. The shock with which Hollywood reacted to Star Wars was as much about recognising how out of step with the audience’s interests it had become as it was about how much money was up for grabs. Had it realised this a few years earlier, it might have green-lit Jodorowsky’s Dune.
The fact that Lucas had used Campbell’s monomyth as his tool for bottling magic did not go unnoticed. As far as Hollywood was concerned, The Hero’s Journey was the goose that laid the golden eggs. Studio script-readers used it to analyse submitted scripts and determine whether or not they should be rejected. Screenwriting theorists and professionals internalised it, until they were unable to produce stories that differed from its basic structure. Readers and writers alike all knew at exactly which point in the script the hero needed their inciting incident, their reversal into their darkest hour and their third-act resolution. In an industry dominated by the bottom line and massive job insecurity, Campbell’s monomyth gained a stranglehold over the structure of cinema.
Campbell’s monomyth has been criticised for being Eurocentric and patriarchal. But it has a more significant problem, in that Campbell was wrong. There is not one pure archetypal story at the heart of human storytelling. The monomyth was not a treasure he discovered at the heart of myth, but an invention of his own that he projected onto the stories of the ages. It’s unarguably a good story, but it is most definitely not the only one we have. As the American media critic Philip Sandifer notes, Campbell “identified one story he liked about death and resurrection and proceeded to find every instance of it he could in world mythology. Having discovered a vast expanse of nails for his newfound hammer he declared that it was a fundamental aspect of human existence, ignoring the fact that there were a thousand other ‘fundamental stories’ that you could also find in world mythology.”
Campbell’s story revolves around one single individual, a lowly born person with whom the audience identifies. This hero is the single most important person in the world of the story, a fact understood not just by the hero, but by everyone else in that world. A triumph is only a triumph if the hero is responsible, and a tragedy is only a tragedy if it affects the hero personally. Supporting characters cheer or weep for the hero in ways they do not for other people. The death of a character the hero did not know is presented in a manner emotionally far removed from the death of someone the hero loved. Clearly, this was a story structure ideally suited to the prevailing culture. Out of all the potential monomyths that he could have run with, Campbell, a twentieth-century American, chose perhaps the most individualistic one possible.
The success of this monomyth in the later decades of the twentieth century is an indication of how firmly entrenched the individualism became. Yet in the early twenty-first century, there are signs that this magic formula may be waning. The truly absorbing and successful narratives of our age are moving beyond the limited, individual perspective of The Hero’s Journey. Critically applauded series like The Wire and mainstream commercial hit series such as Game of Thrones are loved for the complexity of their politics and group relationships. These are stories told not from the point of view of one person, but from many interrelated perspectives, and the relationships between a complex network of different characters can engage us more than the story of a single man being brave.
In the twenty-first century audiences are drawn to complicated, lengthy engagements with characters, from their own long-term avatar in World of Warcraft and other online gameworlds to characters like Doctor Who who have a fifty-years-plus history. The superhero films in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” are all connected, because Marvel understands that the sum is greater than the parts. A simple Hero’s Journey story such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit becomes, when adapted for a twenty-first-century cinema audience, a lengthy trilogy of films far more complex than the original book. We now seem to look for stories of greater complexity than can be offered by a single perspective.
If science fiction is our cultural early-warning system, its move away from individualism tells us something about the direction we are headed. This should grab our attention, especially when, in the years after the Second World War, it became apparent just how dark the cult of the self could get.
We’re thrilled to see that Publishers Weekly has selected not one but two of our titles as their pick of the week. Congratulations to Noy Holland, author of Bird: A Novel, and Tara Ison, author of Ball: Stories!
November 6, 2015
Bird by Noy Holland (Counterpoint) – In her powerful debut novel, Holland (What Begins with Bird) tells the story of Bird, a mother and wife who, over the course of an innocuous weekday, reminisces about her drug-fueled spell with Mickey, a past flame, after a telephone call from an old friend, Suzie, tips her off to his latest escapades. Alternating between past and present, Bird mentally slips into her former life—a time of squatting in rundown buildings, risky sex, suffering a miscarriage, traveling cross-country, and encountering odd characters—as her contemporary self watches her son board the school bus and, later, soaks in the tub with her infant daughter, in Bird’s rural home in a vague Northeast setting. Telephone conversations with Suzie, who is embracing the wild existence Bird abandoned, bridge the eventually blurring time lines and result in a surreal journey. Holland crafts a deceptive narrative, one that on the surface appears to chronicle the dreariness of domesticity, yet ultimately transforms itself into a densely layered tale of lust and ache, filled with touches of the bizarre. A fascinating novel.
Ball by Tara Ison (Soft Skull) – The synthetic blond, the berserk lover, the horny teenager—Ison delves into the minds of these characters and others in this captivating and disturbing collection of stories: think Mary Gaitskill or Miranda July, but more demented. Ison writes about sex as the undercurrent of all adult life. Past abuse, current relationships, future encounters—none dispel the magnetic tug of human sexual attraction. The erratic narrator of the title story is just as annoyed by her dog’s obsession with playing ball as her boyfriend Eric is annoyed by her obsession with the dog. Eric breaks up with her, but she can’t break up with the dog. Or can she? In “Fish,” the main character waits for her dreaded uncle to die so that she can quietly feed his remains to the fish at a botanical gardens. Another story dramatizes the wig shopping one friend must do for her friend dying of cancer. The resentment between the friend builds to a startling climax with a pair of tweezers. These stories may shock but they also provoke, with many leading to an unexpected, and not always happy, ending.
Newsweek sits down with Richard Hell, Soft Skull author of Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 – 2014, to discuss his infamous punk rock style, why he finds new music disappointing, and the quest for immortality.
October 31, 2015
If you heard a certain famous someone say that, “without a doubt… the single most influential thing I’ve done was my haircut,” who would you guess said it? Here’s a hint: it wasn’t Jennifer Aniston talking about the infamous “Rachel” cut, dubbed after her character from Friends. Nor was it Farrah Fawcett dishing about her feathered ’do. Or even Elvis. It’s instead a declaration uttered by a true punk rock renegade, Richard Hell, and is one of many aphorisms (and wisecracks) tucked into his salient new essay collection, Massive Pissed Love. Call Richard Hell what you want, but he’s nothing if not honest.
Massive Pissed Love, which is not Hell’s first or even second literary coup, isn’t exactly a barbershop handbook. Nor is it a tell-all. The author and musician admits in the beginning of his new nonfiction book—a collection of essays from the ’90ish and beyond, though the book’s subtitle says they were written from 2001-2014—that it’s experimental by design. For one thing, it bears a “semi-arbitrary” organization, with subsequent essays, journalistic pieces and film reviews filed under loose categories such as prolonged musings, indignant or reverent. Hence, Massive Pissed Love.
Hell tells Newsweek the pieces were either commissioned by editors who “thought that I was qualified to talk about this certain thing and it would interest me and I agreed,” or were ideas he had himself. After examining his writing over the past 15 or so years, Hell went to his agent, who advised him against publishing the collection. “He said that it would actually damage my career,” Hell says, laughing. “And so I said, ‘Well, I’m going to disregard your advice this time.’” As for writing the contents of Massive Pissed Love? It was “almost all fun,” as he posits in the book’s author’s note—and it does sound like it was. The essays all fall under the loose umbrella of things that “move” Hell, things as varied as “movies and painting and writing, and even life that isn’t art yet.”
In in one particularly sharp essay about rock and roll, he analyzes the legacy of the Velvet Underground against that of the Rolling Stones. Another essay muses about the perils and pleasures of sex on drugs. (“When you have sex on drugs, you’re having sex with the drugs, not sex with a human. That’s cool too, I’m not denigrating it,” he writes.) In another piece, he’s taken by the photographs of Christopher Wool. He also contends with the label of “weird” that was placed on him by writers who reviewed his 2013 autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, and with Page Six picking up part of an analytical essay he wrote about Day of the Locust author Nathanael West, in which he also grapples with becoming “publicly identified as a Jew in a way I hadn’t been before.”
Still, most people know Hell, now 66, from the Tramp era. Which is to say, people are familiar with the narrative of how a sharp, albeit rebellious Kentucky boy (née Richard Meyers) moved to the big city during a cultural rupture/renaissance, had a prolific, poetic, near-feverish creative output in the 1970s, and helped establish what we now think of as “punk,” as much an ethos as an aesthetic. Formerly of Television, and the Neon Boys, and the Voidoids, he changed his stage surname from the ordinary Meyers to Hell because, as he writes in Tramp, “it was assertive but negative without being too specific, and it captured my condition.” Hell bore a mug that provoked people to either pucker up or punch him out, and with his bands he penned unlikely anthems (such as “Blank Generation”) that represented a “furious, if icy at times—and somewhat poetic—alienation and disgust and anger, expressed in the way we looked and how we behaved.”
Perhaps most famously, he scrawled “PLEASE KILL ME” on a white T-shirt, gashed as though it had come straight from combat. Malcolm McLaren—who, at the time, was cobbling together a group of miscreants to hurl into the spotlight—saw Hell’s look (there’s that haircut again), took the idea across the pond, slapped it on a dopey bass player named Sid Vicious and made legends of the short-lived Sex Pistols. It must be said that his hair isn’t as herky-jerky now, and his answers are careful, sure: But even if you don’t know Richard Hell by name, you should, as you surely have an innate understanding of how his ideas, and his legacy, have since spidered out into our culture at large. All you have to do is walk into any mall in America.
What punk purveyors might not know is that Richard Hell doesn’t love talking about helping make CBGB the stuff of legend, or about how New York, and the East Village, has changed in the 40 years he’s lived here. It’s almost difficult not to think about it, considering that the popping noise that occasionally interjects into our conversation taking place in a Ukrainian cafe is coming from the construction next door. (It’s unclear what is being built, but it’s probably not a music venue.) Hell has lived in the same apartment on East 12th Street since 1975, around the same time he had a falling out with his childhood friend Tom Verlaine and quit their band Television, formed and parted ways with The Heartbreakers, and began Richard Hell and the Voidoids.
Since then, Hell has seen the stomping grounds that he and other punks kicked about in dirty boots evolve from a wino country slum to today’s bourgeoisie playground brimming with people looking for the Next Big small plate eatery at which to impress their Tinder dates. No wonder he doesn’t go out much these days. “I don’t get exposed to too much,” Hell says over a lunch of chicken noodle soup and coffee. This is especially true of new music, which he says so often disappoints him that he doesn’t seek it out: “Somebody has to force me to listen to something.” He tells me that he’s been meaning to dive deeper into hip-hop, a realm that’s become so massive that it’s hard to break into these days. “I heard some cut by Kanye West [from the past five years] and I was just astounded by the imagination of creativity and the way that it was all constructed,” he admits. “It covered such a range, it was brilliant.”
Music is, of course, a frequent subject of Massive Pissed Love, though Hell’s two-year stint as BlackBook’s resident film critic comprises a surprising bulk of the book’s essays. One thing readers might not be expecting, though, are the various memorials and elegies he includes to old friends and collaborators gone, such as Robert Quine, author Jim Carroll, and CBGB owner Hilly Kristal, some of whom died young and other wiry, lively, perhaps lucky ones who made it a bit further (For the record, when the time comes, Hell thinks a good inscription for his own tombstone might be “Out of Control”). I was intrigued, so I ask Hell if he ever imagined being the one who would be writing his friends’ memorials. I was insinuating what it meant to be a survivor, without putting too fine a point on it, but it didn’t come out that way.
Instead, it sounded like I asked if he knew he’d someday be a kind of literary undertaker, and his booming laughter at my question rivaled the sounds coming from the construction next door. “I mean, it’s just been going on a long time now, that people have been dying,” he says. Pausing, he continues: “I sometimes wonder whether the fatality rate is higher in rock and roll or not. It’s a kind of…quirk of perspective that makes it look that way because they all get so much publicity, but it probably is slightly higher.” It’s true that the lore of rock martyrdom has spurred its fair share of myths. (For instance, never carry around a white lighter, as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin—all a part of the unfortunate “27 Club” of rockers who died at that age—were rumored to have had on them upon their deaths.)
But the pursuit of rock stardom is in itself a quest for immortality. Who wants to be a one-hit-wonder, a might-have-been or, worst of all, a never-was? Rock music is scrapped together in the moment, and released in the hopes of longevity. Hell writes in Massive Pissed Love that rock and roll, an exercise in “aggressive self-assertion,” includes the critical element of being “godlike to teenagers,” particularly where frontmen (and -women) are concerned. It’s perhaps why bands like Television, and the Voidoids, had such an immediate resonance.
Still, Hell won’t readily admit that the essays of Massive Pissed Love pass the barometer for being considered something artistic. “Analyzing phenomena and culture isn’t thought of as art because it’s not entirely spun out purely from your imagination,” he says. I disagree, which devolves into a rather extended interlude in which I explain the magnificence of The New York Times’s 2012 review of Guy Fieri’s restaurant in Times Square, which is how Richard Hell found out about the celebrity chef. So, if not art, what does Hell hope that people draw from his lengthy, compelling book of essays? “It’s a stretch to call a book like this art, [but] I put as much care into it as I do novels or music or anything else,” he says. “It’s just about stimulating people’s faculties. To me, that’s the definition of art, which is just…you hope to have that effect.”