Friday, November 24, 2017

BOOK EXCERPT: Richard Hell and the Voidoids' "Blank Generation" at 40

Today marks the release of the 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of one of the greatest albums ever - Richard Hell and the Voidoids' 1977 classic, Blank Generation. In celebration of this momentum occasion, I have posted an excerpt of my chapter on that album that appears in my book-in-progress, Albums That (Should've) Changed the World (which is really just a grandiose way of saying, "Albums that deserve a second listen.") The book has been a pet project of mine for the past 12 years, and it's something I hope to finally unveil in full within the next year or two. What appears below is roughly 30 percent of the Richard Hell chapter, and it represents some of the earliest writing I did for the project when I started it in 2005. The words below are a snapshot of a work in progress; various tweaks and edits will very likely occur between now and the final publication date. I hope these words will provide the uninitiated with a strong introduction to a truly fantastic record

Long before the great Dee Dee Ramone first shouted “1,2,3,4!” and John Lydon unleashed his anarchic whine, Richard Hell pioneered a sound, attitude and aesthetic that would (for better or for worse) launch a thousand bands. A disheveled court jester with an intellectual bent, Hell is responsible for proving early on that punk rock was not always the battle hymn of imbeciles. Since making his musical debut in the early ’70s, Hell has lived a life marked by drug addiction, music industry indifference, self-imposed obscurity…and truly amazing rock ‘n’ roll. Although his celebrated work as a writer/essayist/poet has often overshadowed his sporadic musical endeavors, Hell is the man behind Blank Generation, one of the smartest, most exhilarating music collections ever produced in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
But before diving into any of that, a history lesson is in order. 
Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, the man who would become Richard Hell began life as Richard Meyers, a rambunctious problem child with a gift for getting into trouble. At 16, he was awarded for his talents with a one-way ticket to a Delaware boarding school. There, the young miscreant met fellow student Tom Miller. Sharing a mutual love of poetry and music, the pair quickly became inseparable. Belong long, the two partners in crime were hatching plans to escape Delaware and explore new creative opportunities.
After a botched attempt to run off to Florida, Meyers and Miller eventually made their way to New York City by the close of the ’60s.  With the help of Delaware drummer Billy Ficca, they formed their first band, the Stones-flavored Neon Boys, in the fall of 1972. Like most inaugural music projects, the Neon Boys’ existence was crude and short-lived. Although the trio disbanded in the spring of ’73 without performing a single show, they stuck together long enough to record a now-legendary six-song demo. While the tape marked the recorded debut of Miller’s skillful guitar playing, bassist/singer Meyers was clearly the star of the show – even if the man couldn’t sing a lick. Like all great artists, Meyers made the absolute most of what he had, using his shaky, Dylan-esque pipes and barely adequate string plucking to their fullest advantage. The recording’s standout track, “Love Comes In Spurts,” showcased the new performer’s gift for wordplay:

I stood and stared at her face and nothing seemed to come
And then she smiled and that look just licked me like a tongue

Because love comes in spurts for sure
Though sometimes it hurts far more
You just get love in spurts

By early 1974, Meyers and Miller were ready to take a second stab at music. After reconnecting with Ficca, they joined forces with guitarist Richard Lloyd and began writing new material under the name “Television.” Around the same time, the pair reinvented themselves with new monikers: Miller became “Tom Verlaine,” while Meyers went to Hell.
With Verlaine and Hell splitting songwriting and vocal duties, Television quickly found their niche. Hell’s strongest number, the incendiary “(I Belong To The) Blank Generation,” utilized Ficca’s jazzy drumming and a sly Verlaine/Lloyd rockabilly attack to showcase the singer’s expanding lyrical talents:

I was sayin' let me out of here before I was born – It’s such a gamble when you get a face
It’s fascinatin’ to observe what the mirror does
But when I dine it’s for the wall that I set a place

I belong to the blank generation and
I can take it or leave it each time.
I belong to the _________ generation but
I can take it or leave it each time.

While it is tempting to categorize “Blank Generation” as well-crafted nihilism, its author clearly had other intentions in mind. In Clinton Heylin’s exceptional 1992 book From The Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock, Hell cleared the air on his most (in)famous composition:

People misread what I meant by ‘Blank Generation.’ To me, ‘blank’ is a line where you can fill in anything. It’s positive. It’s the idea that you have the option of making yourself anything you want, filling in the blank. And that’s something that provides a uniquely powerful sense to this generation. It’s saying, ‘I entirely reject your standards for judging my behavior.’
Before long, Hell developed an image to accompany his hard-hitting sound. Rejecting the flamboyant pomposity of glam rock, Hell took to the streets in dirty, torn clothing (often held together by safety pins) and wildly unkempt hair. While major, soon-to-be-obsolete rockers celebrated glamour, Hell championed the grimiest aspects of human existence.
Appropriately, Hell found his first audience at one of New York City’s biggest dumps. In the spring of 1974, Television started a live residency at a brand new Bowery dive characterized by its funny name (“Country Bluegrass And Blues”) and less-than-sanitary amenities (the regular presence of owner Hilly Kristal’s dog brought new meaning to the word “shithole”). For the next several months, Television performed weekly at “CBGB,” drawing greater crowds with each performance. Before long, Television were the undisputed toast of the town, regularly sharing the CBGB stage with such up-and-coming acts as the Stilettos (featuring a young Debbie Harry) and the Patti Smith Group.[1]
With Hell and Television leading the way, CBGB quickly became the hotbed of the newly dubbed “punk” music scene. Although the name would eventually come to symbolize Mohawks and three-chord blasts, “punk” was originally used to describe virtually anything that fell outside the drab spectrum of mainstream radio. Not surprisingly, “punk” music of the day included everything from the roots rock of Tuff Darts to the sophisticated geek chic of pop wizard Jonathan Richman. The rapidly expanding New York crowd soon featured a host of new faces, including a young San Francisco Bay native named Roberta Bayley.
Worldly and well traveled, Bayley is one of a small few who can claim to have seen the beginnings of punk rock on both sides of the Atlantic. While living in London in the early ’70s, Bayley had briefly worked at Let It Rock, a clothes shop owned by budding impresario Malcolm McLaren. Finally settling down in New York, Bayley first met Hell in the summer of 1974. Needless to say, the striking southern boy made an immediate impression.
“I thought Richard had a combination of charm with a little danger added,” remembers Bayley. “He was smart, funny and as it turned out later, extremely photogenic.”
In addition to her regular gig as the doorperson at CBGB, Bayley soon built a reputation as an ace photographer, providing some of the earliest visual representations of New York punk. Her legendary work includes the cover shot for the first Ramones album, the infamous Heartbreakers “blood” photo (used as the front cover as the notorious Leg McNeil/Gillian McCain tome Please Kill Me), the Joey Ramone/Debbie Harry “Mutant Monster Beach Party” spread for Punk Magazine and “some of the only photos of Johnny Ramone smiling.” Of course, Hell became one of her most frequent subjects.
With Hell’s theatrical persona now in full swing, it wasn’t long before his notorious act caught the eye of Bayley’s former employer. First introduced to the thrills and spills of American punk while serving as the final manager of the New York Dolls, Malcolm McLaren became infatuated with Television’s intense bassist while staying in New York following the Dolls’ demise. Always looking for new and exciting ways to shake things up, McLaren decided it was time to introduce the Hell look and worldview to the young musicians who frequented his London shop, a plan he detailed in the pages of Please Kill Me:
I came back to England determined. I had these images that I came back with, it was like Marco Polo, or Walter Raleigh. These are the things I brought back: the image of this demented, strange thing called Richard Hell. And this phrase, “the blank generation.”

Soon, McLaren was hard at work overseeing the development of the band that would become the Sex Pistols. In his 1990 autobiography I Was A Teenage Sex Pistol, founding member Glen Matlock recalled how McLaren lobbied for the soon-to-be infamous John Lydon, a spiky-haired wiseass who clearly couldn’t sing, to be the Sex Pistols’ lead singer:

What we didn’t realize at the time was that one of the main reasons that Malcolm was so keen on John was that he was so like Richard Hell – who was one of Malcolm’s mates in New York. He was as near as dammit to being a stylistic carbon copy of Hell.

By early 1975, Television could do no wrong. With label interest mounting, the illustrious Brian Eno came on board to supervise the recording of the group’s five-song industry demo. Yet, despite Television’s growing success, nothing could mask the mounting friction between the band’s co-founders. Verlaine, keen on expanding the band’s music into long-form, improvisational territories (exemplified by the eleven-minute “Marquee Moon”), resented Hell’s primitive musical abilities and trashy image. Hell, meanwhile, watched as more and more of his songs (including the decidedly unsophisticated “Fuck Rock ‘N’ Roll”) were deleted from the set list. With his role in the band clearly disintegrating, Hell jumped ship in the spring of 1975.[2]
In Bayley’s mind, Hell’s absence left a noticeable mark on his former band.
“I was a big fan of the original Television with Richard,” she says. “They were a lot more fun, with a sense of outrageousness and humor and stage ‘antics.’ Verlaine was not one to follow antics. I kind of like the second version of Television now, but then I thought they were kind of like the Grateful Dead.”
Hell, meanwhile, didn’t have to wait long to find his next musical venture. Within days, he joined up with Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan of the recently defunct New York Dolls to create the Heartbreakers. After a shaky live debut as a three-piece, the Heartbreakers auditioned a series of second guitarists (including future Plasmatics maniac Richie Stotts) before settling on Walter Lure.
Armed with an impressive pedigree and a batch of amazing tunes, the Heartbreakers quickly became one of the scene’s most popular attractions. Hell’s greatest musical contribution to the band came in the form of “Chinese Rocks,” a catchy slab of junkie blues written with the help of friend Dee Dee Ramone. While a truly fantastic song, “Rocks” provided clear proof that Hell was more than a mere observer of drug culture. Like bandmates Thunders and Nolan, Hell had become fully submerged in the world of heroin.
Although enormously popular, the Heartbreakers would not survive in their original form. With two established (and equally strung out) scenesters vying for the spotlight, it was inevitable that that the Hell/Thunders union would eventually crash. By the spring of 1976, Hell finally hung up his second fiddle status for good.[3]
Wasting little time, Hell began scouring the scene for musicians to fill his new outfit, the Voidoids. After sharing the stage with the likes of Thunders and Verlaine, Hell had no choice but to find a guitarist who could really play. Luckily, he found his man in the remarkable Robert Quine. 
Born in Akron, Ohio in 1942, Quine was around early enough to discover rock ‘n’ roll at its glorious inception. By the early ’60s, the young guitarist had developed wider tastes, becoming well versed in almost every genre imaginable. While a student at Earlman College in Indiana, he spun jazz and blues records on his own campus radio show. After attending law school in St. Louis, Quine relocated to San Francisco in 1969. While there, he was lucky enough to catch (and tape record) a series of shows by his favorite band, The Velvet Underground.[4]
After arriving in New York City in 1971, Quine spent three years writing tax law before the tedium of the job forced him to pursue his first love. To pay the bills, he took a job at Cinemabilia, a Village bookstore that also happened to employ one Richard Hell. Nearly two decades after first picking up a guitar, Quine had finally found his musical home. Of course, that home needed further decorating.
Born in 1956, Brooklynite Marc Bell began his musical career as the drummer for Dust, a power rock trio that released two hard-to-find albums before splitting in 1972.[5] After losing out to Jerry Nolan for a spot in the New York Dolls, Bell enjoyed a two-year stint drumming for outrageous transvestite rocker Wayne County. A chance encounter with Hell at New York’s Max’s Kansas City club led to an offer Bell couldn’t refuse. While Bell was intrigued by the idea of working with the ever-present punk progenitor, the drummer admits to having his reservations.
“I knew he wasn’t from New York, and Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan warned me that he would be difficult,” he remembers.  “I was told he had a drug problem, but I decided to give it a chance.”
Opting to flesh out their sound with a second guitarist, the Voidoids soon enlisted the services of 21-year-old whiz kid Ivan Julian. A musician since his early teens, Julian spent his formative years carving out one of the most adventurous careers in music history. In addition to a stint studying gypsy scales in northeastern Yugoslavia, the classically trained bassoonist spent time as a touring member of The Foundations, the British soul group best known for their 1967 hit, “Build Me Up Buttercup.”
With his newfound conspirators in place, Hell was finally free to explore his own ideas without restrictions.
Debuting at CBGB in November 1976, Hell’s latest creation quickly succeeded in standing out from the crowd. Even in a scene brimming with weirdoes, the Voidoids – the scrawny poet, the dread-locked soul fan, the longhaired New Yawker and the balding, 34-year-old sport coat aficionado – seemed to arrive on the CBGB stage from another planet. Yet, these differences were precisely what made the whole thing work.
As Bell says, “We all liked different kinds of music. I liked the British Invasion and the Phil Spector stuff, and Bob Quine liked jazz. So you mix it up and you have an unusual punk rock group.”
“There was no ‘lead guitar,’” adds Julian. “Sometimes I would play lead, and sometimes Bob would play lead, and we’d both contribute to the song. We’d always go over our parts and make sure that neither one of us was playing on the same part of the neck. We’d say, ‘What’s the point of having two guitarists if they’re both playing F down at the bottom?’”
Thanks to his bandmates’ various skills, Hell soon gave his former bands a run for their money. Vastly improved from its original version, a completely re-worked “Love Comes in Spurts” benefited from all new lyrics and an explosive solo by Quine. Other early Voidoids standouts included a revamped “Blank Generation,” the ballad “Betrayal Takes Two” (co-written by Julian) and the Bell-driven “New Pleasure.”
With the Voidoids’ star quickly rising, Hell was finally able to commit his musical ideas to vinyl. In the fall of 1976, the Voidoids (with financial help from Cinemabilia owner Terry Ork) unveiled the three-song Blank Generation EP to rave reviews. By year’s end, the unlikely ensemble was cutting songs for Sire Records. 
Produced by Hell and Sire co-founder Richard Gottehrer, Blank Generation found the one-time Kentuckian at the highest peak of his powers. In addition to boasting Hell’s markedly developed bass playing and literary charms, the 10-song album brilliantly expanded on Hell’s earlier work thanks to a healthy production (the result of scrapping and re-recording most of the album) and flawless contributions from his eclectic cronies.
Like any decent bandleader, Hell allowed each of his sidemen an opportunity to perform under his own spotlight. Quine and Julian were born to play together, as the two effortlessly fluctuated between disjointed sheets of white noise and moments of sheer bluesy beauty. Bell, who found the right pocket each and every time, flavored Blank Generation with a steady performance that mixed the best parts of Bill Ficca’s intricate jazz leanings with Jerry Nolan’s to-the-point timekeeping. Of course, these ingredients made for an album full of highlights.  
Aided by Julian’s seductive intro, the album’s title track easily eclipsed the original Television version by incorporating Bell’s swinging drums and a typically intense Quine/Julian twelve-string assault. Four years after its onstage premiere, “Blank Generation” finally took its place as the American punk movement’s definitive call to arms.
While the lyrics to “Blank Generation” may have been up for interpretation, the chorus to the funk-driven “Who Says (It’s Good to Be Alive”) offered little to the imagination:

“Who says it’s good good good to be alive?
Same ones who keep it a perpetual jive,
Who say’s it’s good to be alive?
It ain’t no good, it’s a perpetual dive.

Opening with a series of dissonant guitar slams that instantly set the mood, the venomous “Liars Beware” found Hell in full-attack mode, offering a healthy slab of pointed rage to the unfortunate objects of his disaffection:

Look out liars and you highlife scum
Who gotta keep you victims poor and dumb
Your motives and your methods are not disguised
By your silk, soap, sex or your smiling lies.

Bolstered by an obvious ’60s garage rock influence, “Down At The Rock ‘N’ Roll Club” effectively summed up the fashion and self-indulgent spirit of a trip to New York’s most infamous punk nightspot: 

They say, “Richard are you going to go out tonight?”
I say I’m uncertain, I ain’t feeling too right,
But I rip up my shirt,
Watch the mirror n’ flirt.
Yeah, I’m going out, out inta sight.

Blank Generation also made excellent use of Hell’s downright sick humor, as the lyrics to the deceptively poppy “The Plan” can be summed up as follows: Boy meets girl, boy impregnates girl, girl gives birth to daughter, girl splits, boy sleeps with daughter.
While “The Plan”’s subject matter was certainly shocking by ’70s pop standards, Quine’s bulletproof performance on a chilling cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Walking on The Water” remains Blank Generation’s most stunning element. In a scene dominated by anyone-can-do-it incompetence, Quine was a musician capable of turning a single note into a jaw-dropping epiphany. 
The album’s closing opus, “Another World,” recalled the spirit of Hell’s former Television days by offering a musical jam well beyond the six-minute mark. Backed by the same kind of angular drive that would soon characterize Gang of Four’s early material, Hell concluded “Another World” by turning his already key-impaired voice into a whirlwind of whines, moans, groans and uncontrollable hacking. A star was born!

[1] In August ’74, four twentysomethings from Forest Hills, Queens called the Ramones made their CBGB debut. The Television guys already knew the Ramones’ quirky bassist, Doug “Dee Dee” Colvin, from when he unsuccessfully auditioned for the spot later taken by Lloyd.
[2] Television quickly recovered, picked up former Blondie bassist Fred Smith and eventually signed with Elektra Records. The band’s debut album, 1977’s Marquee Moon, remains an undisputed classic.
[3] With Billy Rath replacing Hell, the Heartbreakers issued LAMF in 1977. The band split and reformed innumerable times throughout the ’80s, while Thunders pursued a solo career with varying success. Thunders died of a heroin overdose in 1991, while Nolan died of pneumonia a year later. Lure continues to perform in New York City, often busting out “Chinese Rocks” and other Heartbreakers classics with his longtime band, the Waldos.
[4] In 2001, Polydor Records released a three-disk box set of these recordings, Bootleg Series, Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes.
[5] Following Dust’s demise, bassist Kenny Aaronson became a member of Stories, who topped the American charts in August ’73 with “Brother Louie.” Guitarist Richie Wise later produced the first two KISS albums.

Copyright 2005-2017 Joel Gausten/Gausten Books. Reproduction of any of the above material is prohibited without permission from the author. 


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