What do Richard Hell, Television, the dBs, Alex Chilton, the Feelies, Cheetah Chrome, Lester Bangs and Mick Farren all have in common? They released singles on a small, shoestring-run label owned by Terry Ork that, collectively, reshaped the musical landscape in America. All of these artists, poets, writers, singers, and players went on to wider notice, of course, but Terry Ork remains something of a mystery. Richard Hell shared his memories of Terry Ork with PKM
In 1975, while studying musical composition and “writing Webern-derivative woodwind miniatures” at the University of North Carolina, Chris Stamey came upon an ad in Rock Scene magazine that changed his life. The ad was for a seven-inch single called “Little Johnny Jewel” by Television, a band Stamey had seen live earlier in the year on a trip to New York.
“I sent a check for two bucks to the bizarre-sounding Ork Records, and sometime later the postal carrier dropped it off in a plain brown wrapper,” writes Stamey in his passionate, engaging memoir A Spy in the House of Loud (University of Texas Press). “The recording inside was crude, ungroomed, and unfiltered but also poetic, punctuated, and improvisational.” That recording, Stamey notes, “started the American indie-rock revolution.”
More personally, the single altered the course of Stamey’s life, pushing him away from Webern miniatures and Chapel Hill academia and toward pre-punk New York City and blissful poverty. That single, he noted, “had been launched from the planet of New York to see if there was other intelligent life out there, beyond its orbit.”
And, alas, there was.
Stamey’s pilgrimage to NYC at that time (1976) paralleled the stories of many other diehard rock fans and musicians all over the country, looking for something, anything, to save them from Loggins & Messina, jazz-rock fusion and the Eagles. Within the next two years, Stamey would record a solo single that Ork Records would release: “The Summer Sun,” b/w “Where The Fun Is.”
And another with his own band, the dBs—all friends from his hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C.: “(I Thought) You Wanted to Know,” b/w “If And When” (with Mick Farren).
Ork Records was the brainchild of Terry Ork, who had been a part of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd before venturing into rock & roll in August 1975. Possibly because he was a film fanatic, Ork had a discerning ear and eye for musicians who could play the antihero roles. Like Television, and Richard Hell, Alex Chilton, Richard Lloyd, Cheetah Chrome. He also took a chance on bands the other labels ignored, mining the CBGB scene for the Feelies, Marbles, Prix, Cheetah Chrome, the Idols, the Erasers, the Revelons, Student Teachers. And then there were the stalwart figures of rock & roll scribes Lester Bangs and Mick Farren, both of whom had the itch to sing.
Ork Records lit the fuse in 1975 and then, like the fabled Roman candle in Kerouac’s On the Road, burned brightly for a while and then burned out by 1979. Sixteen singles that, as the Numero Records, which reissued the entire run in 2015, put it, “birthed punk, no-wave, power pop, and the next four decades of indie rock.” [The Numero reissue is worth having for the book about the label that comes with it, plus the two previously unreleased tracks by the Feelies. “The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness” (from 1978) and “My Little Red Book,” recorded live at CBGB December 14, 1976].
Richard Hell was a member of the earliest incarnation of Television, learning rudimentary bass guitar from his boyhood pal Tom Verlaine. Hell would later go on to form Richard Hell & the Voidoids, whose single “(I Belong to the) Blank Generation,” was also released by Ork Records. The album version of the song would go on to become a rallying cry for the crowds that began flocking to CBGB.
Richard Hell was kind enough to share some memories of Terry Ork with PKM.
PKM: What do you remember about your first encounter with Terry Ork? You were working in the film book shop where he was manager, correct?
Richard Hell: We’re really going back into the historical haze. Tom (Verlaine) and I used to go to Max’s Kansas City once in a while for a drink because it was famous as a hangout for avant-garde artists and musicians. We couldn’t go very often because we couldn’t afford it. I vaguely remember knowing Ork’s face from those Max’s stop-ins. It’s too cloudy. But I remember recognizing him when I would stop in at Cinemabilia back in the early seventies, and Max’s would have been the only way. Anyway, when I applied for a job there I was hired and I got to know him pretty well. Tom and I had recently been writing songs for the band we planned to call the Neon Boys, but had set that aside at least temporarily because we couldn’t find a second guitar player. I would gripe to Terry about it and eventually he suggested this kid he’d been hounding, Richard Lloyd. “Hounding” is a pretty good word for it because back then Ork called everybody “Dog.” His grin was continuous. He wanted to make Richard Lloyd happy.
PKM: He’s kind of a mystery figure, but a really important one in the way the punk scene played out in New York. In the one photograph I’ve seen of him, with that bushy black mustache and wild hair, he looked decidedly not punk, more like a hippie who wandered into an unfamiliar pasture. What was he like as a person?
Richard Hell: He is a mystery figure, partly because he intended to be. I don’t know how much of it was coyness or aspirations to glamour and how much was practical. I know he did some shady things, including, I’m 90% sure, working with an assistant to Warhol to forge some Warhol silkscreens, and much later he did end up doing time in California for, I understand, some kind of accounting scam, so maybe he had just developed a habit of trying to stay elusive. But, yeah, he wasn’t very forthcoming about personal data. I regret not grilling him more about a discovery I made years after I met him—that he’d shared an apartment in New York with Bill Knott, a poet I greatly admire and who was a big influence on me as a teenager, and was among the dedicatees—as William Terry—of Knott’s stupendous first book, The Naomi Poems (1968). I always thought Ork’s real name was William Terry, but I eventually discovered that he’d also gone by William T. Collins and William Terry Drake. I think one of those two names is probably on his birth certificate.
I describe his personality and style in my autobiography ( I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp)…He was a kind of joyous gay hedonist who loved French thought and art, especially New Wave cinema and the Situationists. He was not a business person. His skill was his level of taste, of aesthetic discrimination, not capitalistic competition, nor business negotiation. As a manager he was basically a mouthpiece for his band, not a person who much conceived plans or business models. As far as his management of Ork Records—I don’t think anyone ever thought of it seriously as much more than benevolence, of sponsorship and enthusiasm for the scene that developed at CBGB. He liked to act as if he was an ambitious, inspired operator, but I don’t think that even he really believed it. But maybe he did. I got an email from him—must have been from the hospital—the day before he died of cancer in San Diego. He wanted to know if I’d help distribute a book of his poems he was planning. He died the same year as Bob Quine and Lizzy Mercier (Descloux), 2004; Lizzy in April, Bob in May, Terry in October.
PKM: Do you know if Terry had any prior experience in the music business, or even the recording business?
Richard Hell: No, he didn’t.
PKM: Ork Records just seemed to appear one day. The ads for it began to appear in the back of rock magazines. Do you have any memories of the genesis of that? Did he just one day say, ‘you guys deserve a record contract’?
Richard Hell: We came out of that underground culture, specifically the New York poetry scene, where everyone’s books were printed by the poets themselves, overnight, on mimeo machines. Our whole conception of ourselves “in print” grew from that and the New York Dolls: do exactly the radical, no pandering, extreme work that interests you and take it directly to the public—the commercial corporations will follow if the audience responds. Patti Smith had done this too with her first single the year before. It was normal and logical for us. We weren’t going to wait for the corporations or design our work to please them.
PKM: Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel” was the first release by Ork Records. How did that feel to have something like that in your hands?
Richard Hell: I had already left Television when that was recorded. I left Television after one year. I was barely aware that Terry and the band were planning it. It was exciting to have more recordings of the original CBGB bands, even if I deeply hated Television at that time.
PKM: How much later was it that Ork Records released your “Blank Generation” single?
Richard Hell: I can’t remember how long after “Johnny Jewel” it was that “Blank” came out, but it was the second record on the label. You ought to be able to find the exact dates online. There may have been a little gap and it was only after “Blank” that Terry decided to keep releasing further singles from CBGB’s bands. But I can’t remember very well.
PKM: At that point, did you put aside publishing your literary and art magazines and concentrate on the music? Or was it all of a piece in your creative life?
Richard Hell: As a rule, I stopped publishing writing as soon as I started playing music publicly—1974, a couple of years before Ork Records. I was deliberately switching from being a poet to being a musician/songwriter/singer. I thought I could do rock and roll as well as the next person, and I didn’t want it muddied by me getting identified as a poet. It’s pretty creepy and demoralizing to be called a poet as a rock and roll musician. I didn’t want to encourage that.
PKM: A lot of people, including my friends, bought those early records by mail order because they seemed to signal a true break with the old corporate rock world. Chris Stamey, in his memoir last year (A Spy in the House of Loud), says that first Ork single by Television altered the course of his life, brought him from Chapel Hill to NYC. He eventually (and his band, the dBs) eventually recorded singles on Ork Records. Did you have any sense of the impact of your early recordings with Ork?
Richard Hell: No, I didn’t really, except the singles ended up on the juke boxes at CBGB and Max’s. Also Ork did have an inspired idea for the few small ads he bought for the “Blank Generation” EP. We printed “Call Hell” along with a headshot of me from the cover of the record and my actual phone number. Some people have written that when you called the number, you got a recording of the song, but that’s incorrect. It was my home phone number and I answered the phone. I didn’t get very many calls, but Mike Watt (formerly of the Minutemen, latterly the Stooges revival tours, along with a stream of great projects) tells the story of calling the number but being afraid to talk when I answered. I actually remember that call. He’s a shy guy.
PKM: Do you have any idea of how Terry went about choosing who and what to record?
Richard Hell: I didn’t hang out with Terry nearly as much once I left Television. I don’t know how that process worked at Ork.
PKM: Terry must have had some highly developed powers of persuasion because he convinced Hilly Kristal to open up the club beyond “country” and “bluegrass”. Did you have to do much arm-twisting to get in the door there?
Richard Hell: As I said, Terry didn’t propose plans to others regarding Television unless we’d asked/instructed him to. Verlaine and Lloyd spotted the venue on the Bowery, but the plan to be proposed to a prospective bar was mine. I’d seen how convenient it was for interested parties when a band was a house band and you could rely on their being at a specific venue week after week. At that time there were countless dive bars in the East Village. I figured we had to be on the lookout for one that could work well for a band in terms of space, but that didn’t have much clientele. Then we’d propose to the owner that we play one slow night a week (to start anyway), with our own ticket person at the door (who would end up being Roberta Bayley), and we’d let in his regulars for free. What could he lose? He’d get some extra drinkers from the crowd (which was about 15 people for the first couple of weekends) and it wouldn’t cost him anything. He agreed to let us play Sundays, which is how things started there, in March, 1974. He and Terry hit it off well.
PKM: How should Terry Ork be remembered?
Richard Hell: He was a lovely person who cared more about art in all mediums than just about anything except for pretty boys.