Though known as a punk rock pioneer, Richard Hell picked up the pen long before he picked up the bass guitar. Richard talks to PKM about his upcoming retrospective at White Columns in New York, documenting his 50-year career in publishing
There he is on the front cover of Please Kill Me. Richard Hell (nee Meyers) was one of the most distinctive faces and voices of New York’s early punk scene as a member of the Neon Boys, Television, the Heartbreakers and, of course, Richard Hell & the Voidoids. Though forever linked to his signature “Blank Generation”—enshrined (embalmed?) at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as “One of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock”—he more than amply has filled the blank in the ensuing years with his writing, acting and graphic design work.
A 50-year (!) retrospective of his publishing work (1968-2017) will be on view at White Columns, New York’s oldest alternative art space, from Jan. 16 to Jan. 27. The exhibition will celebrate Richard’s parallel careers as a small press writer, publisher, editor and book designer. Hell, under his original name of Richard Meyers, began his first small literary magazine and press long before he picked up the bass and lurched onto the stage at CBGB’s.
Indeed, he had already gone D.I.Y. as a publisher by the tender age of 17, shortly after arriving in New York. His first such venture was a magazine called Genesis : Grasp, also the name of his press imprint. Genesis : Grasp ran for six issues (numbers 1-5/6, 1968-1971), and also released three authors’ first books and two folders of broadsheets. His publications have appeared over the years under his own name (Richard Meyers) as well as pseudonyms like Ernie Stomach, Theresa Stern, Genesis: Grasp Press, Dot Books and CUZ Editions. Many of these publications were typeset, hand-printed and designed by Richard.
The January 16 opening of the exhibition will also be a publication party for his most recent small press book, Untitled, which contains new fiction as well as poems, and is published by Merde : Press, edited by Kyle Void. Richard will give a brief reading and will sign copies of his new book. Also available at the party will be the new issue, number 3/4, of Merde magazine, featuring cover art by Richard and contributions from Elaine Equi, Christopher Wool, John Godfrey, Katherine Faw, and Charles Henri Ford, among others.
Richard Hell talked with PKM about his career in publishing:
PKM: Many of our readers may not realize that your writing and publishing endeavors predated your musical pursuits. When you arrived in New York, were you primarily focused on writing and poetry? How big a part of your creative life was music at that early time?
Richard Hell: I was wrapped up in poetry, but in retrospect I realize that I liked the idea of the free, extreme life of it as much as anything else, and that was actually more like rock and roll. It was 1967. I was 17 and dropped out of high school and came to New York alone. I was a pretty typical teenager in my relation to music. The good music on the radio excited me, but it was still more or less background music rather than anything I thought about much.
PKM: I just finished reading the new Lou Reed biography by Anthony DeCurtis, and it struck me that Reed’s trajectory toward music was not unlike yours. When he went to Syracuse and came under the influence of the poet Delmore Schwartz, he was playing music but he was far more interested in his literary efforts. It was only when he realized that he could use rock ‘n’ roll as a conduit for his writing that he really became THE Lou Reed we all know and love. Was that the impetus for you to pick up the bass and begin singing your lyrics? To create rock ‘n’ roll for adults?
Richard Hell: I hear that Luc Sante is working on a bio of Reed. I’ll wait for that one… No, it wasn’t that I wanted to make rock and roll for adults—it was more like I wanted to get everyone to stay 17 forever, and sing to them using the chops I’d developed messing a while with words in poems.
PKM: It’s astonishing to think you were still a teenager when you had the idea to publish literary journals and chapbooks. What were the forces that pushed you in that direction? Or what were the literary influences that sent you down that path? (Rimbaud? The Beats? Etc.)
Richard Hell: I’m obsessive and also restless. Actually I like to rest a lot, but between rests I like to be busy. Anyway, at 17 I discovered poetry and it excited me (as it continues to). For those first couple of years that largely meant Dylan Thomas. I liked his life as much as his writing. But pretty soon Lautréamont replaced Thomas in my affections. I appreciate things about the Beats, but my favorite was the least typical one, namely [William S.] Burroughs. I was always inspired by Rimbaud, but I didn’t really come to know him very well until I was middle-aged. Part of the reason I started a literary magazine at 17 is that I didn’t like having to depend on other people (editors) for validation. I was more happy to just do it myself.
PKM: Over the years since you have cut back on the music, you have continued to produce/design many handsome editions of your writing. Are there any that you are particularly proud of now?
Richard Hell: I’ve published—in the sense of paying for and designing and producing from scratch—one pamphlet of my own and one that was a collaboration and another under a heteronym, among many pamphlets of other people’s, but the far greater number of my writings have been published by larger publishers like Scribner and Harper/Ecco and powerHouse. This exhibition is about my history as a tiny publisher, but little of the writing in it is mine. On the other hand, I usually have a large participation in the design of the books of mine published by other publishers, big and small. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, my 2013 autobiography, came out well, but probably my two other favorite books of mine are Psychopts (JMC & GHB Editions, 2008), an artists’ book I did in collaboration with Christopher Wool, and Weather, which I did publish (CUZ Editions, 1998). Wait, there’s also Wanna Go Out? by Theresa Stern (which was secretly collaborations by Tom Verlaine and me), which I published in my Dot Books series in 1973. OR my artist’s book uh, published under the heteronym Ernie Stomach by my Genesis : Grasp Press in 1971… The latter three will be in the exhibition, as will some of the others.
PKM: Your 1996 novel Go Now has echoes of Kerouac but with an interesting twist, a road trip seen through the lens of the New York bohemian/punk scene. Did you pitch the novel to Scribner’s or did they come to you on bended knees?
Richard Hell: Not completely sure what you mean, but I didn’t pitch the book to Scribner or any other publisher. I wrote it and then found an agent for it and we sold it to Scribner. I’d actually gotten a higher bid from one other publisher, but decided on Scribner mostly because I liked what the editor said to me, though she was sitting in an ordinary chair at the time.
PKM: What works of yours are we going to see at the White Columns exhibition?
Richard Hell: There will be all the issues of two literary magazines I edited, one in the late ’60s and one in the late ’80s, along with fifteen or twenty books I’ve published as publisher, including the three I mention above. I’ll also exhibit some of the books I wrote or collaborated on that were published by other small and independent publishers. A limited amount of material will be for sale. A major thing for me, too, will be that the opening night reception, January 16, for the exhibition is also a party for the publication of a new pamphlet of mine, not published by me but by Merde : Press, and on that night copies of the book, called Untitled, will be available for sale and I will sign them for anyone interested.
Exhibition dates: 16 – 27 January 2018 / Tues – Sat / Noon – 6pm.