Friday, March 09, 2007

Richard Hell, The Dolls Redux - (And So On)

The trouble with the Dolls: their flirtation with chaos - like all high wire acts carried out without aid of a safety net, at some point someone is going to slip and fall and get hurt.
The trouble with Johnny Thunders: the bad habits he learned with The Dolls - a junk habit, a truculent attitude, a disinclination to practice his art. All of the foregoing amplified within The Heartbreakers.
The New York Dolls - they coulda been, they shoulda been the biggest, the greatest.

Richard Hell: Johnny was really lazy ... I was pretty lazy but Johnny was really lazy.

Thunders, in a career spanning some twenty years helped create only four albums proper (or three and a half if you're nitpicking ... his first solo album was stitched together from a number of disparate sessions); the rest of his oeuvre consists of shoddy collections of shitty live cuts, outtakes and studio floor sweepings. Post Dolls, he wrote perhaps two or three half-good songs.
'You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory', though, if you like that sort of thing, is an absolute classic.
Hell, for his part? From the early-to-mid 1970s (on and off), a professional (more or less) musician (more or less), and three albums to boast of - two with the Voidoids, one with The Dim Stars. Where, he once asked, did those years go? A few sessions with The Neon Boys/Television - forever buried (apart from three or four songs) due to Verlaine's intransigence, some demos with the Heartbreakers (again, only some of which have seen the light of day).

Hell (of course) was a, perhaps the, pivotal figure. A founder member of The Neon Boys/Television, and The Heartbreakers - he would suffer the indignity of being turfed out of both bands by singer/guitarists jealous of sharing the limelight. Certainly, with Television, Hell was responsible for the conceptual/visual side of the group ... which made up a good 50% of what made that group interesting (a rough analogy can be drawn here with Hell's beloved Eno-era Roxy Music, although one would obviously argue percentage points). The banks of televisions onstage. The look, customised, grafitied thrift-store, chopped-up hair, old geezer's clothes, was a million miles from both the glam fag-end and trad rock image prevalent in the rock scene as a whole and, more importantly, in their little corner of New York.

Not musical enough for Verlaine? Hmm ... I always found Hell a good solid bass-player, a lyricist of rare distinction and, on a good night, a fascinating, febrile performer. Is it true that Verlaine gradually sidelined Hell, progressively cutting down the number of Hell-penned songs from the set and forbidding him to jump around on stage? What Hell possessed, mostly absent from Verlaine, was a fine, sly sense of humour. What Verlaine didn't want was a rival.
Insecurity can be so ugly ... Television may have garnered more critical kudos but for me The Voidoids always had the edge ... far more visceral while at the same time more oblique ... Hell's lyrics and preoccupations, the wonderful twin guitar attack courtesy of Ivan Julian and Robert Quine (gone but not forgotten, Quine).

The Blank Generation - blank as in tabula rasa, a space where one could write one's own persona, one's own demands (not as in vacant ... the productive misreading by The Sex Pistols, 'Pretty Vacant' an attempt to come up with their very own little 'Blank Generation').

A tale repeated so (so) many times, one is sick of hearing it ... but Hell really did invent the punk template; the spiky hair, the ripped-up and customised clothing, the provocatively nihilistic demeanour.
His music, though, was always far more interesting than three chord punk thrash - lyrically, too complex, too romantic and poetic, musically too grown-up. (This is all so obvious, it barely needs stating. Which is why I'm stating it). The Voidoids? They coulda been, shoulda been, if not the biggest (too stubborn, too individual for that), at least not reduced to supporting The Clash.

The genius of Hell: that nom de guerre ... alienated, smart, Romantic, bitter.

The genius of Hell: his comment that he formed the Voidoids because he was lonely.

The genius of Hell: the Voidoids gig when he went onstage with a dog on a lead.

The genius of Hell: the vocal style - an impassioned yelp, untutored but capable of expressing contempt, yearning and ennui ... all within the same song.

The genius of Hell: the lyrics ... take 'Love Comes In Spurts'- "And it murders your heart/They didn't tell you that part". Has anyone ever better articulated the danger and desire of love and sex and death and all that crazed Bataille-type stuff in a pop song?

The Hell visage - the two thousand yard stare (brilliantly reduced to, erm, blankness in the image on the back cover of the Sire 'Blank Generation' 12", the eyes cut out), the provocation, the ugly/beautiful dichotomy, the bitterness, the hurt, the vunerablilty, the toughness.
Enigmatic, a mirror looking back at you. Fragile and bruised, Poe and Rimbaud.

As Gilbert and George were asking at around the same time - are you angry or are you boring?


Blogger Dominic Zero said...

'The Doctor Grabbed My Throat And Yelled "God's Consolation Prize"'.
A genius indeed.

8:02 AM  
Blogger farmer glitch said...

Bloody genius indeed - love the guy - weird seing your post after watching some doc last night on the box featuring Hell being interviewed recently on the Dolls etc - then immediatly after having a load of BBC re-runs of the Dolls, Television, Robert Quinne et al - alas no Hell ..

Lucky enough to have seen him along with Elvis Costello and John Cooper Clarke late 70s in Taunton - rock-n-roll lineup or what ?

Regarding his playing with Verlaine and Television - a damn fine bit of documentry evidance is the ORK LOFT rehearsals DVD - Verlaine tends to come across as a moody old bugger - but then playing with seriously zonked out Hell/Lloyd must have been somewhat exasperating at times !

5:49 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Great lyric, that. Always loved Hell ... the whole bit, the look, the lyrics, ('though, yes, I can sympathise with a perfectionist like Verlaine having to deal with Hell ... he didn't exactly have the Puritan work ethic, Hell).
Saw him play London a number of times and always thought they were great gigs.
Cor! I didn't know any of the early rehearsal stuff was on DVD ... have to look into that.

I'm pleased that anyone else likes his stuff ... all the little punkettes in my hometown, when punk had gone overground, hated him (or didn't know who he was). I had old codger tendencies, even as a thrusting young punk, and always namechecked the Dolls, Stooges & the N.Y. bunch - some little twerp said the Stooges were old hippies (the long hair? God knows) and laughed increduously when I pointed out 'No Fun' was a Stooges song ... "it's a Pistols song!" Mind you, he was part of a little group of punkettes who walked around with spiky hair and safety-pinned clothes who reckoned Hell had stole it from Lydon ...

9:03 AM  
Blogger Dominic Zero said...

In the late 80s I managed to get 'Blank Generation' played as a request on daytime radio as my favourite song from the 70s...Very proud of that I am.

1:53 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Excellent ... it's always good to sneak such stuff in, particularly when it's completely incongruous.

4:43 PM  
Blogger iLL Man said...

I love Blank Generation. I'd go as far as to say it's lyrics are some of the finest and wittiest ever penned. An almost perfect single.

Yet my heart belongs to the Verlaine/Lloyd incarnation of Television, the melody craving rockist that I am.......;)

A fine post.

8:51 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Cheers! Blank Generation ... who was it who said that "I belong to the blank generation/ And I can take it or leave it each time" was as perfect a piece of generational summing up as you could find?

Yes, perhaps that's why I'm more of a Voidoid-head, having an uneasy relationship with melody. The Verlaine/Loyd axis, Television - had their glorious moments, for sure.

7:54 AM  
Blogger rockmother said...

I've always been a big fan of Richard Hell. Just the name - Richard Hell and The Voidoids said so much to me and stayed with me as a rebellious 12/13 yr old. Blank Generation is played alot in my house still - I love that bit where he says:

I belong to the ___________

It's really obvious but fucking cool. I remember him being very beautiful in the same way Keith Levene had that white, pale, angelic glow about him. I was shocked to see him look so ravaged the other night on BBC4. But I guess he has 'been around the block once or twice' so there you go.

11:21 PM  
Blogger farmer glitch said...

Voidoid Head - love it ! I think the main difference between Television and the Voidoids was not so much melody - as perfection as a goal - I love those first 2 television LPs - but certainly by the time of Adventure - the whole dynamics of the songs had been watered down through perfection - Friction from the first LP is the only thing that comes close to touching the intensity of anything from Blank Generation ...

For classic 3 minute pop - nothing can touch Kid with the Replaceable Head - an almost forgotten classic that managed be an almost perfect slice of pure bubble-gum pop - with a somewhat twisted edge ...

For non-music stuff - GO NOW is a nice jaunty doped-out road-trip semi-autobiographical thang - made me smile when I first read it anyhows ...

6:28 AM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Hell's whole look/demeanour was so influental ... the image for the front cover of the first LP is genius: 'you make me -'.
Yes, both Hell and Levine show the ravages of time and certain habits ...
I'd agree totally with the Television/perfection thing versus the more ragged brilliance of the Voidoids - Verlaine being more into the idea of being a musician. 'The Kid With The Replaceable Head' - what a great single that was. Should have been a hit. And hats off to Elvis Costello and Jake Riviera for their efforts to help Hell's career (stymied by Hell, naturally enough). Hell's writing is great, actually - his journalistic pieces are brilliant. Go Now and God Like are very good novels, too. Renaissance man!

7:39 AM  
Blogger rockmother said...

Cool geezer!

9:55 AM  
Blogger farmer glitch said...

Never seen or read God Like - must track down a copy ...

Just downloaded from Dimeadozen - a rather cool artifact - Hell and The Voidoids - Live at CBGBs 1977 - you heard this one ? If ya can't grb it let me know and I'll mail-ya-something ...

9:40 AM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

God Like is very good, and worth a read.The CBGBs stuff sounds good ... be great if you could mail something, as I always screw up attempts at downloading.

2:55 PM  

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