Transcript for Making Punk - Richard Hell

Richard Hell: I hated the raw oppression of being a kid once I became self aware. I don’t like alpha people, as a rule, and in the random, enclosed societies of schools, you had to deal with them. I didn’t like being stuck with strangers, period, either. I also didn’t like being told what to do, and of course school, and childhood itself is about the authority of all grown ups. I knew as well as any of them what was worthwhile. But because I was a kid and they were bigger and had more power than me, i was cheated.




Jim Fleming: That’s Richard Hell reading from his memoir “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp.” When he co-founded the band Television in the mid-70s, he also created a look and a sound that would eventually be called punk. Steve Paulson asked Hell to start with a reading from his book.


Hell: I remember making some promises to my adult self when I was still a kid, or extracting some promises from my adult self. I promised not to forget how arbitrary and unfair adult rules are. I promised to remain true to the principles I grasped, that adults sometimes pretended to know but hardly ever behaved in accordance with. I wanted to have a life of adventure. I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do. I knew this was the most important thing and all would be lost if I pretended otherwise like grown ups did. Those monstrous, box-like, snouted, yolk-colored school buses with their rotten black lettering symbolized loneliness and humiliation. The weather they rolled through was grey and rainy, and I gazed out the window, hoping not to be noticed, except by a particular girl.


Steve Paulson: Now that is a great passage, thank you. And you know what I find so striking about your memoir is how you stay true to that vision. You created a life for yourself that challenged all kinds of authority figures, all kinds of social rules. But I have to say, you must have been a handful for your parents.


Hell: Yeah, in retrospect, I kind of feel sorry for my mom, even though on a scale of delinquency, mine was pretty minor.


Paulson: One thing that was striking that while I reading about yourself as a teenager, as far as I can tell, you really didn’t play music, you know, considering you made your name later on as a seminal figure of the punk movement, but I mean, you weren’t in garage bands. Was music a big part of your life when you were growing up?


Hell: No, not any more than anyone else. It was a great period for music. I think that was important. Because, I mean, once I did start a band, it was out of the frustration with the horrible stuff that was on the radio at the time later. In the mid-60s, the music was either kind of teenage news, it was about real life, it says things to you about what the world was like that you weren’t hearing anywhere else. Those early electric Dylan stuff, or the crazy Rolling Stones stuff like Paint it Black or Who’s Driving My Train, the music of the band sort of showed you a wider world.


Paulson: You have a great passage where you reflect on the rock music of your time, and especially what it means to be a rock and roll star. Could you read that?


Hell: I remember Rainy Weather with the Aftermath LP by the Rolling Stones playing in someone’s room off the common area in my dormitory. “Stupid Girl,” “Under My Thumb,” “I Am Wating.” The record was so ragged and tense and expert, and full of personality, cavernous and wise-ass. I didn’t buy into the mythology of rock and roll bands though. As I said, the music was just a common feature of the environment. I wasn’t a fan. The style of some of the groups was exciting, but the musicians were people who had taken a chance direction into music.  I still prefer that angle on it, the way it is when a band starts out. Half of the beauty of rock and roll is that anyone can do it in the sense that it’s not about being a virtuoso. It’s just being plugged in in a certain way, just having an innocent instinct and a lot of luck.


Paulson: So there you were, a rebellious kid, you didn’t fit in in 1966, you just dropped out of high school and moved to New York. What were you looking for?


Hell: Well, I was looking for an arena. I was an aspiring poet. New York was the center of the world for every kind of doing things well. Period.


Paulson: You hooked up with your old high school friend Tom Miller who later changed his name to Tom Verlaine. What was the connection between the two of you?


Hell: I guess what we had in common was a kind of sense of humor. Sort of perverse and martian. An interest in art and writing music, especially a sort of obsessed, compulsive kind of art making.


Paulson: Why did you change your name from Richard Myers to Richard Hell?


Hell: Well, I’ve had a few names. There are others too. But Hell came from when I was first starting a band with Tom. A lot of what was exciting to me about switching to rock and roll was how rock and roll had all these different means of communication apart from simply the writing and performing of songs. There was a whole, complex package, for instance, hair. Hair’s been really important part of rock and roll from the beginning.


Paulson: And you had very distinctive hair. You had that spiky hair.


Hell: And your name, and your clothes, and the way you behaved on stage. And what your interviews were like, what the album covered looked like, what the posters looked like.


Paulson: There was a whole style it sounds like you were trying to create. You had your ripped clothes, and the safety pins, as well as your spiky hair. What were you trying to communicate?


Hell: Just the same way that my writing was trying to express what was going on inside of me and my perceptions of the world, I wanted all those other media, all those other means to do the same. It was about putting your insides on the outside.


Paulson: So you and Tom Verlaine started your own punk band which soon morphed...


Hell: It wasn’t a punk band.


Paulson: Well, later, later.


Hell: They weren’t calling bands punk back when we started.


Paulson: Then it became the band known as Television


Hell: You get a lot of arguments from people about whether or not Television was a punk band. but when I was in the group at the very beginning, it was a lot more like what people ended up calling punk. The kind of attention that we got was about those qualities for sure.


Paulson: How would you describe that? What were those qualities? We’re talking early 1970s, especially the music around the club CBGB in lower Manhattan. What was that that was happening there?


Hell: What was different about us and about many of the bands about the bands that started centering around CBGBs was that it was spare, cut down, fast, short songs that were often angry, but also with this lyrical feeling about them too, but also they were about real life, returning real life to rock and roll. The kind of real life that was in it when I was a kid, defying authority by speaking the truth to it.


Paulson: You have a great passage in your memoir about the power you felt creating music, and kind of about this whole scene we’ve been talking about. Could you read that?


Hell: The power and beauty of it was unimaginable until then. It can’t be overstated, that initial rush of realizing and experiencing what’s happening as you’re standing there in the rehearsal room with your guitars and the mics turned on, and when you make a move, this physical information comes pouring out, and you can do or say anything with it. It was like having magic powers, the ability to create action at a distance. The sounds that came from the amplifiers absurdly moving and strange, the variety of them so wide in the view that they came from flicks of our fingers and from our vocal noises and the way that it was a single thing, an entity that was produced by the simultaneous reactive interplay of the four band members combining various of their faculties. We were turned into a sound, a flow of sound. It was like being born. It was everything one wants from so-called God, the joy of it, the instant, inherent awareness of that you could go anywhere you wanted with it and that everywhere was fascinatingly new and ridiculously effective. It was like making emotion and thought physical, to be undergone apart from oneself and every moment had that surging astonishment and pleasure. Even if in the service of anger and disgust as it often was, that anything was possible to make happen. It was like creating a world. The feeling could never quite happen again, or be sustained anyway, because familiarity and habit take the edge off.


Fleming: Steve Paulson talking with Richard Hell, one of the cofounders of punk, one of the progenitors of punk. His memoir is called, “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp.”

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