Posted: Tuesday, January 14, 2014, 8:37 am
The brilliant/stupid diary of a jerk-genius.
Forage through Amazon, dive into your record store bargain bin or, better yet, go to your library for punk rock and CBGB compilations and you'll find him. The bewildered face and not-quite-tuneful voice of his generation, a man who launched and aborted great bands at will: Richard Hell. I enjoyed Blondie, I admired the Sex Pistols and I saw the Ramones live four times (be jealous), but on these best-ofs, Richard Hell and the Voidoids usually steal the show.
So why did he never reach even a VH1 level of stardom? (The Voidoids soar high, while Richard descends into his own private hell. When Behind the Music returns.) The glib response is heroin, but the more subtle answers are found in this aggravating autobiography.
Like all things Hellish, the book is an exercise in frustration. I, for one, wanted to know little of his '70s conquests and even less about his childhood fantasies. But as Hell admits freely, sex wasn't a benefit of the rock and roll lifestyle; it was the raison d'etre. "It was about making young girls want to pay money to be near you. That was the relationship with the anonymous audience, and the audience you actually met as well." He's equally honest about his drug use and career and, frankly, everything else.
The amazing thing, though, is that someone this self-absorbed has such insight into others. Hell's character sketches of Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Thunders and Bob Quine are so concise, detailed and telling that they evoke the best detective fiction. And, miracle of miracles, he even makes Sid Vicious relatable. "Sid understood he was a comedy of helplessness and uselessness. That doesn't mean he could have been any less of a stumblebum but just that he was self-aware and because of that he was twice as funny and sympathetic." That was an epiphany for me. A-ha! He's hopeless, but not worthless. Much like the author himself.