Graded on a Curve: Richard Hell and
the Voidoids,
Blank Generation

Of New York punk’s first wave, only Richard Hell and the Voidoids truly embraced the nihilism that punk has come to represent in the popular imagination. The Ramones, great as they were, were one step away from being a joke band; Television was far too ascetic and monk-like; and the Talking Heads were too intellectually frigid. As for Patti Smith, she flirted with the idea of anarchy, but was far too positive a soul to be a nihilist. It’s not her fault; nihilists never hail from New Jersey.

I could go on but I won’t, because the only point I want to make is that Hell was the only musician at that time and place asking the only question the existentialists found pertinent, to wit, “Why should I bother living?” And his grappling with this question—along with the excellence of his band, which included the late, great guitarist Robert Quine—are what makes 1977’s Blank Generation such a seminal punk recording.

Hell, aka Richard Mayers, was born in Kentucky and took the scenic route to the Voidoids. Having moved to New York City, he commenced his rock career as a member of the Neon Boys, which became Television. Friction with Television’s Tom Verlaine led Hell to leave and co-found the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders, but Hell found it no easier to work with Thunders than he did with Verlaine, so he finally set about establishing a band in which he was boss. The Voidoids—they got their name from a novel Hell was writing—included Hell on vocals and bass, Quine and Ivan Julian on guitars, and Marc Bell on drums.

Hell—he took his name from A Season in Hell by that enfant terrible of French letters, Arthur Rimbaud, whose life and work made him a totem amongst the intellectual wing of the CBGB’s crowd—was a well-read poet who gravitated towards literature’s dark side, and found there—just as I did—plenty of reasons to give the gimlet eye to human existence.

While he was formulating his black and absurdist view of existence, Hell was also busy inventing the look—the ripped t-shirts bearing messages like “Please Kill Me” held together by safety pins, and the spiky and unbrushed Rimbaud haircut—of punk. But his “live or die—who cares?” philosophy of life was so dark—and exacerbated by his addiction to heroin—it even irked the great rock writer Lester Bangs, who ended an essay on Hell with the words, “If you choose to go down, I promise to dig up that crypt and kick your ass.”

Ultimately he didn’t die, unlike his brothers in nihilism Darby Crash and Sid Vicious, and I believe it’s because he had something to sustain him that they didn’t, namely poetry. And good thing for us, because by continuing to draw breath he managed to encapsulate his antipathetic view of the world in 1977’s Blank Generation, which sounds just as scathingly nihilistic as it did when it was recorded.

Blank Generation opens with the classic “Love Comes in Spurts,” with Hell singing like a soul in purgatory while the band repeats him on the chorus. Quine—a master of the atonal—opens the song with some crazed riffs, and plays a great but too brief guitar solo—while Hell takes all the fun out of the sex implied in the title by repeating, “Oh no, it hurts!” Meanwhile, “Liars Beware” opens with some clanging guitar chords, before it takes off in a herky-jerky manner, with Hell singing, “Oh oh oh oh oh oh etc.” before Quine plays one hell of a solo.

This one’s fast, really fast, and ends with those “Oh oh ohs,” which Hell sings in as tortured a voice as possible. “New Pleasure” is a relatively melodic tune, and opens with Hell singing, “Your mind’s a wreck/But that’s fine/It corresponds to mine.” As for the new pleasure the song’s about, I have a hard time imagining Hell’s discovering one he hasn’t tasted, so I’m holding that the title is ironic.

“Betrayal Takes Two” is a lurching ballad with an almost fifties feel, and when Hell isn’t singing about burning down the house or meeting in a “bar with a motel attached” Quine is playing some really atonal shit on the guitar. It’s a thing of wonder, Quine’s solo, as are Hell’s vocals on “Down at the Rock and Roll Club,” which follows. This one comes across as an old school, knock-down-drag-out party tune, only filtered through Hell’s sense of being trapped and victimized, and always in the wrong place. He may say he’s going to have some fun but somehow it’s doubtful; he may get drunk, but it’s not going to provide him with either relief or release.

Meanwhile Quine goes wild in the background as the song comes to an end, and the Voidoids move on to the jaunty and fast-paced “Who Says?” Hell gets down to the existential brass takes on this one, singing, “Who says it’s good good good to be alive?/Same ones who keep it a perpetual jive/Who says it’s good good good to be alive?/It ain’t no good it’s a perpetual dive.” He spits out his words like they’re a curse because they are, a curse and a condemnation and probably the biggest “Just Say No to Life” in the history of rock.

“Who Says?” is followed by the title track, which is manifesto and great song rolled into one. The guitars introduce this one, then the tempo shifts and Hell enters swinging, spewing the lines, “I was sayin’ let me out of here before I was even born.” Between explosive shards of guitar he sings those famous words, “I belong to the Blank Generation and/I can take it or leave it each time.” There’s long been controversy over just what that “blank” means; in an interview with Lester Bangs, Hell denied that by blank he meant empty or lifeless. Rather, what he meant was that everyone was free to reinvent themselves as he had.

But that “take it or leave it alone” makes one wonder whether he was being disingenuous, as does the way he spits out the words. “Blank Generation” doesn’t sound like a song of liberation; it sounds like a howl of rage from a man who has seen his whole generation turn themselves into ciphers. In the end it doesn’t matter; you’re free to fill in that blank any way you want, which is part of what makes the song so great.

“Walking on Water” is a mid-tempo cover of a Creedence Clearwater Revival song. Hell sings about how he saw a man walking on the water and calling out his name. The man is obviously Jesus come to collect a soul, but Quine sings in a desperate voice that he doesn’t want to go home, while Quine plays yet another fantastically scrambled guitar solo to end the song. “The Plan” is a perky number with a set of lyrics I can’t quite make sense of, although they seem to involve Hell and a woman who gives birth to a baby girl who becomes Hell’s lover. Nor can I make much sense of the chorus (“Now I know oh/They don’t tell you so… but I can recall it all.”)

As for LP closer “Another World,” it has a funky feel, while Hell sounds as desperate as ever. “I could live with you in another world… Not this one” he repeats, while Quine and Julian play like the strings on their guitars are barbwire. Quine plays a particularly ferocious guitar before Hell comes back slurring his words and singing, “Oooh ho ho oh.” Finally he lets out a great scream, and then proceeds to sing nonsense while Quine unleashes an unhinged solo behind him. And I’m reminded of the words of the Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, who makes Hell look like a happy camper but puts his finger on Hell’s anomie when he says, “All my life I have lived with the feeling that I have been kept from my true place. If the expression “metaphysical exile” had no meaning, my existence alone would afford it one.”

It took Hell and the Voidoids five years to record a sophomore disk, 1982’s Destiny Street, after which Hell turned his attention to his writing. He briefly returned to music a decade later, recording an LP with Dim Stars, a group composed of Quine, Don Fleming, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and Steve Shelley. Over the years he’s published a pair of novels, poetry, essays, and even drawings, and in short has opted for life rather than death. He may have told the rock writer Legs McNeil, “Basically I have one feeling… the desire to get out of here,” but at some juncture he made his peace with the world, ironically outliving Lester Bangs by decades in the process.

As for Blank Generation, it remains one of the most pessimistic and feral appraisals of life ever recorded, which is also ironic, because I can’t listen to it without feeling happy to be among the living.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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