Last night at the epic-ceiling setting of the Powerhouse Arena bookstore in the also-epic DUMBO section of Brooklyn, legendary punk icon, Richard Hell, stopped by for a chat with the dean of New York rock critics, Robert Christgau. It was a gathering to note the paperback release of Hell’s well-recieved autobigraphy from last year, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp.
After a brief reading from the book by Hell, the convo began. Their banter was friendly and a little catty, if sometimes languid in the manner of two men who’ve known each other forever, in this case since the heady days of the original punk explosion of the late ’70s. Highlights were when Christgau tried, via an elongated question, to dig deep about how there was no mention in the book about Hell’s father who passed away when Hell was very young. “Hey,” Hell briefly quipped, “I mean I was seven, I don’t remember him much.”
Christgau mentioned how about half the reviews of the book were complimentary, that Hell seemed genuine about wanting to let past feuds be forgotten; while the other reviews basically said Hell came off as mean. Hell said he was fascinated by reading the reviews, and that they often said as much or more about the reviewer. He insisted that he “just wanted to get everything down, get it right.” Included in that attempt were some funny explanations about how, among the no doubt numerous women who’ve passsed through the handsome Hell’s life, he definitely tracked down the “seven or eight of them mentioned in there,” and only needed to change one or two names and/or add a nice line to counter negative things he detailed.
Things picked up once Hell suggested jumping to the Q&A which featured the usual assortment of solid queries and rambling statement “questions.” Hell took it all in good fun, especially enjoying and enumerating on a question from a young French lady about his love of books. This writer asked him about the similarities between his iconic 1977 song, Blank Generation and the 1959 novelty tune, Beat Generation. Hell said he recently read an article about how the four-chord/sneaking beat pattern of the song was tracked as being the most common chord pattern in pop, going back even before Hit the Road Jack, and that the article mentioned over 70 songs with that pattern. Also, he talked of how over the years people have claimed he ripped the song off, but that everyone in his circle back then knew about this goofy old novetly tune, and that he was trying to update the song in a funny way. Indeed, the humor of the early years of punk—specifically the CBGB scene—are often forgotten as time goes on. Hell just thought he was being a bit funny with the tune that’s become a defining punk classic. As Christgau mentioned, the word “funny” comes up often in Hell’s book. And it was good to see how in time, Hell has come to terms with much in his life—running away from home, bad relationships, severe drug problems, and quitting music in 1984— to a point where he can laugh at a lot of it once more.
The evening ended with a book signing, and the place was just packed enough that fans got to sneak a few more questions past Richard Hell before they left.