Most downtown Doc Marten stompers probably connote the name Richard Hell with his former bands—Television, the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell and the Voidoids—but for the last 30 years he’s mostly been writing. Hell essentially retired from music after 1984’s compilation album R.I.P., with the exception of 1992’s Dim Stars experiment with Thurston Moore et al., and he told us, “People have lots of reasons for going back on the road. It’s not tempted me for a long time.” Instead, he’s produced a stack of books, including the well-received autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, and the collection of poetry, prose, and essays (and lovingly-produced penis drawings) Hot and Cold. Hell’s latest is a collection of his nonfiction writings, Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001-2014. We caught up with Hell to talk about the new book, analog versus ebooks, and people stealing his haircut.
How were the choices made in what to include in the new book? Does it contain any previously unpublished pieces?
Well, I was pretty inclusive. I only wrote about things I wanted to think about, and my editors would generally give me slack because they expected something personal. (But that doesn’t mean sloppy. I’m fanatically scrupulous about getting facts correct, for instance.) The only essays I left out from the 15 years was when a piece overlapped another too much, or else I had had a rare hard time getting an editor to see things my way. I used one piece that was commissioned but then never ran; everything else appeared somewhere or another.
It’s exciting that some of your Cuz editions are still available. Do you have any plans to publish others?
Wow, you’re up-to-date—or retro. I loved those Cuz books, a series of mostly poetry pamphlets I published in uniform format in 1998-2001. There are examples by Ron Padgett and Nick Tosches and me and Will Patton and Mike DeCapite and Rene Ricard. Eight altogether, before I ran out of steam. I won’t do any more in that series, but when I get an urge to bring something out as a publisher, that is the imprint I use.
Most of your artistic aesthetic has been very hands-on, DIY, and analog. How do you feel about the shift of most publications to the internet world? What about ebooks and Kindles?
So far, I just haven’t been drawn to ebooks. I like well-made paper books. Well, not even necessarily well made. I like cheap DIY pamphlets too if the content grabs me. On the other hand I don’t have room for any more books—maybe I should start stocking ebooks just for the canonical stuff. But would I ever read it is the problem. I should experiment. And, for me, Internet writing is previews or samplers—I might discover or research something there but if I get turned on I’ll want the physical book.
Do you ever wish you had some kind of copyright on some of the style choices that you kicked off back in the ’70s? What do you think when you see a 14-year-old wearing safety pins in the Village? Or the “middle-aged movie stars” you describe on talk shows with your haircut? (in “Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute Punk Catalogue, 2013”)
You know, it means nothing to me. I’m glad it happened to the extent that it helps get me work, but there’s nothing personal invested in it. I’ve known people who are always snarling about others they reckon have used their ideas. For one thing, my aim was to have an effect, and I did kind of learn that’s meaningless itself, and, two, thank god, you can’t copyright ideas (unless you’re already rich enough to pay enough congress people). Nobody owns a style or an idea, and anyway, it’s the execution that counts, nothing you can define for legal purposes.
In the same piece, you said, “anything associated with a desired state gets appropriated by profiteers.” It reminded me of what Chris Stein said at SXSW 2014, “When we were starting out, if you were in a band you were totally on the fringe. You were completely on the outside of culture. Now the whole mass of culture is all on the inside.” If everything is appropriated, how can an artist stay on the outside? Is it even possible to be punk in the current landscape?
Sorry, but I just am not interested in ideology, “punk” or otherwise. Everything’s a unique case, and if it isn’t, if it’s all cliché and received ideas, I mostly just disregard it. I used to think of myself as wanting to have an effect on the “culture,” as if part of my job was to be having a conversation with it, bending it, but I don’t feel that so much anymore. I think I still make my positions clear, but the main aim is to try to do work that I think is good, and the chips can fall where they may. I don’t have some kind of mission to be on the “outside,” though I am disgusted by a lot of mass culture and its values—how could you not be?