Classic Dionysian Shit: An Interview with Richard Hell


At Work

© Rebecca Smeyne

“Without a doubt, the single most influential thing I’ve done was my haircut,” Richard Hell writes in Massive Pissed Love, his new collection of nonfiction. It’s a characteristically self-deprecating statement from a writer who started as one of the main sparks in New York City’s 1970s punk-rock movement. Hell has authored novels, books of poetry, and an acclaimed memoir—but his most lasting achievement, in his view, is that groundbreaking haircut.

Maybe it’s a strangely fitting legacy: Hell has been fascinated with hair since childhood. “Because it’s dead but personal and because I’m moved by the futility of its attempts to warm and protect the places where it grows,” as he put it in 2013’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. Rachel Kushner’s review of that memoir lauded Hell’s commitment “to the unvarnished truth, about himself and others.” That honesty remains on display throughout Massive Pissed Love; at one point, he imagines asking Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth whether her hair is real or if she scalped an angel.

The collection is divided into three sections: long-form essays (“Massive”), angry takedowns (“Pissed”), and adoring panegyrics (“Love”). Hell, a prolific essayist and critic, has published everywhere: in Bookforum, the New York Times Book Review, GQ, and in the cunnilingus-themed issue of Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal, where he envisions eating out a deer whose “vagina would taste like warm folds of liquefying bubblegum and then like lobster meat drenched in lemon butter sauce.” Elsewhere, he writes on culture, politics, emotions, spirituality—anything he wants, really.

I first spoke to Hell for an essay I was working on about Michel Houellebecq and the nineteenth-century French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, who figures prominently in Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission. The discussion below took place soon after Houellebecq, who did a literary event alongside Hell in Spain in 2008, wrote a widely discussed op-ed for the Times. (Antonin Baudry, The Paris Review’s newly appointed Paris editor, comments on it here.) Houellebecq’s call for France to be run without political parties or a government, through direct democracy, seemed like a fittingly punk-rock place to begin the conversation. 

I’m happy that we’re talking again …

Me, too. When I read your e-mail about that Houellebecq op-ed it came flooding back how bizarre that piece was. It was typical, but it was also an extreme example of how he can just not give a fuck—that he could just be so casual and just mouth all this outrageous stuff that didn’t add up. It was fun to see the French government called morons in the Times, but on the whole the op-ed was also kind of disappointing. And that apparent call to close borders to immigrants was ugly. I can’t think of a more extreme example that I’ve seen of him being so … irresponsible.

But I know where he was coming from. When the World Trade Center attacks happened, I immediately wanted to take some kind of action for the first time in a long time, actually get politically active in a time-consuming, energy-consuming way. One of the things I did was start going to these meetings that sprang up where like-minded people who were opposed to invading Iraq would plan how to have an effect. There would be maybe five hundred people in these meetings, but they worked by consensus in a way I’d never seen before. In order for them to agree to do something, whether it was to plan a demonstration or write a petition, or any action whatsoever—everybody in the room had to agree. Every single person. And you had to stay there until everyone at the meeting agreed to do something. I can’t remember what the criterion was for just giving up, saying, Okay, this isn’t going to work. But they would literally spend three hours discussing the wording of a paragraph or something like that. And that drove me crazy. I guess in the most radical left that’s kind of an accepted procedure? Gloria Steinem had a book out recently, and she describes operating in that way—there was no hierarchy, everybody had to agree in order to move forward. I guess it’s kind of like anarchy. But direct democracy, if I understand what that means, is even more ridiculous and impractical. There’s no way that the entire population could have enough grasp of either the facts or the subtleties of the consequences of specific laws and policies to make decent decisions. That would be a full time job, which is why we elect people to make it their full time job. I don’t know, I’m kind of undecided on the question of anarchy versus capitalist democracy. I’d always thought of anarchy as being kind of like a pipe dream, something that couldn’t be a practical political choice—but it has very sophisticated thinkers who believe in it.

Anarchy seemed to be a bigger deal in the British punk movement than in the New York punk movement—the Ramones and Television and the Heartbreakers weren’t political in the way, say, the Sex Pistols or the Clash were. One of the things that surprised me about Massive Pissed Love is how political some of your recent writings have been—your statement objecting to the Iraq war in 2003, or your recollection of the weeks after 9/11, published in Libération. And in another piece you speak of the punk movement in New York in the seventies being political in terms of ignoring big companies and doing it yourself—your art or your music or your writing or whatever it is. That always struck me as an aesthetic decision, so I found it interesting that you characterized it as a political act.

Calling it political is a kind of classification—but that’s what comes to my mind when I think of deciding not to accept the manipulation of your values and choices by corporations. There’s a huge tendency to regard wealth as the primary evidence of success. You’re successful if you’re published by the largest publishers. You’re successful if you wear expensive designer clothes—even having the damn name of the designer featured as a major component of the design. You become an advertisement for them in order to have the status that comes with showing you can afford their stuff. Wouldn’t you call it political to say that you reject that? That you’ll dress in a way that bypasses them, you’ll publish stuff in a way that bypasses them, that in every facet of your life you’ll refuse to be shepherded by these people whose only interest is to make money from you? You’re saying, “I want to make work that I think is interesting rather than take the path of least resistance and surrender to a system.”

How do you see this new book fitting in with your other works?

I don’t make very much distinction, really. I think it’s consistent with all my other work. In my novels, I give myself a lot of the same kind of latitude I give myself in my nonfiction—to make digressions and to follow lines of thought in this sort of meandering way. And also to mix up the genres. The essays in Massive Pissed Love often have completely different forms, and I let myself do that in my novels, too. There’ll be a chapter that’s like an essay and then a chapter that’s all about first-person narrative and then a chapter that has poems in it—you know what I mean? I’m mostly interested in trying to write well, and the pretext for the writing is really minor. A lot of writing well is thinking well. If you think clearly, you’ll write clearly. But then that’s mixed up with the formal and also musical qualities you want in good writing. It’s amazing how significant the music of a sentence or a paragraph is, and writing can only really be good when it has this musical quality to it.

One of the most musical pieces in the collection is the essay about the Marilyn Minter piece—it’s totally lyrical, right from the start: “Up along the heart of the galaxy slides a tongue. I want the light on my tongue, always coming, coming from—everything … the desire to orally know a photon. The heart is ice cream.”

That piece kind of kicks out the jams, you know? It goes on feeling, and it’s an immediate feeling. It’s about sensuality. It doesn’t make an intellectual argument. It just kind of rhapsodizes, lyrically—it sort of goes off on a flight.

There’s a musicality to your prose even when you’re discussing music itself. In one of the essays, you mention that the good punk bands were too quick to be pinned down, that it’s impossible to define them. You’ve been a punk, a poet, a musician, a publisher, a novelist, a memoirist, a film critic—what do you most see yourself as?

My vocation is a writer. But I do have this weird—I don’t know if it’s arrogant, or naive—urge to want to try any art medium that interests me. If something stimulates me, I want to try doing it myself. Sometimes I think I might still become a painter. And I always thought I would eventually make a movie. I made a few stabs in that direction before I realized that it wasn’t really feasible. Everything I’ve ever done was me teaching myself how to do it. Usually that’s kind of the case with artists. It can be practical to go to school for a while, when you’re a kid, in that period where you’re, like, casting around to find out what you’re suited to do. But I was really terrible when I started writing. It was awful! Starting from when I was sixteen or seventeen, it took me maybe six years to write a poem that I thought was acceptable, that really had something that I could get behind and stay behind. And that’s when I decided to go into rock and roll. After my first album, I knew I had figured out how to do it. And I could see the trajectory—that I would get better and better. I could see where it would all lead. So I lost interest. I wanted to do something else then, so I started a novel. But I regard writing as my native area. Writing is just like a whole universe. I love that Mallarmé quote about how the world exists in order to be a book.

In one of the book’s essays, you write very forthrightly about what it means to be a singer—how a front man has to be egotistical and difficult, godlike. Basically, they have to be dicks. Were you like that?

Well, I’m talking about a very particular stratum of rock and roll—a particular kind of function—that rock and roll serves. I also acknowledge that there are other types of rock and roll. But, for me, I’m into the rock and roll that works the way I define it in that essay, where the front man is this focal point for all the dreams and ideals and fantasies of the audience. But it’s not because the front man is separated from the audience—it’s the exact opposite. It’s that the front man mirrors the audience. That’s what makes that function of the front person—women, too—so powerful and meaningful, that the performance is shared by the audience—the audience gets to feel their own power by surrendering to it. It’s classic Dionysian shit, you know what I’m saying? It’s like a religious revel of the audience feeling its own resources and depths of ecstatic engagement with life personified in the frontperson. But it’s a hard job for the front person, and it makes them cranky. Did I do that? On my best nights, I had some of that, yeah.

And how do you think that relates to writing?

Not much. It’s really, really different. That was part of what drew me to rock and roll, too, was that it involves so many different phenomena than writing. Rock and roll is so physical. Writing is not physical. As I say, it has this whole musical component, there’s a lot of sensual data incorporated—it can be really lush, it can be really elegant, it can have really subtle gradations of color—but it’s not physical the way music is. Music is waves of physical data pouring into your ears, not to mention all the human beings in front of you, if it’s a live show.

It does, of course, include lyrics, and I took that really seriously. It was a very different form of writing than I had ever done. The form itself of a song lyric was nothing like my poems, nothing like any of the sort of writing that I had done. When I wrote lyrics, they were like little mechanisms. I took a really classical approach to the form of songwriting. They were rhymed, they were obviously rhythmical in this strict way, but the rhythms would vary from song to song. I used all these complex forms of clockwork. My songs are almost like John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins, where the form is really strict and everything adds up. You make a statement in a stanza and then the implications are presented in the chorus, and then you make another statement that’s consistent, that moves the discussion along a little further, in the next stanza, and then it gets summed up by the chorus again. It was very formal. People don’t think of punk music as being like that, but my lyrics were really like clockwork. It doesn’t mean it’s cold or mechanistic—it’s just that I liked having the constraints of the form. I imposed them on myself because it was fun. I always wrote the music first, but I wrote the lyrics to fit the construction of the music in this very exacting way.

What is it that made you want to write nonfiction?

My nonfiction is mostly about art. That doesn’t mean that there’s a big distinction between my nonfiction and my fiction. My fiction has probably more to do with reality than my nonfiction does—reality is just a term of convenience. What it refers to can’t be defined. But that’s what’s interesting in trying to make a piece of work—is to try to stay open, as much as you can, to the implications of everything, to have it be present in your writing.

You contend that the most interesting artists are those who aim to make works that correspond to life, but that only three or four people per century achieve that.

That’s the ultimate achievement. And there’s no shame in not being cut out for that or having your area as a writer be more defined and limited. There’s a super-pantheon of unclassifiable masterpieces like In Search of Lost Time, artworks by Borges, Rimbaud, Godard, Bob Dylan, Beethoven. There are three or four artists in a given medium per century who have limitless ambitions and actually have the means to carry them out. I think it was Walter Benjamin who said that the greatest books—I’ll get this completely wrong, you’ll probably have to look it up—the greatest books create their own genre. They follow no preexisting form. There’s no precedent, ultimately, for the way they’re put together and the way they operate. Those are really rare—but it’s not like you’re a failure if you didn’t do that.

Adam Leith Gollner is the author of The Fruit Hunters and The Book of Immortality.