Richard Hell,
The TVD Interview

PHOTO: ROBERTA BAYLEY | First released in 1982, Destiny Street was the second of only two albums ever issued by Richard Hell and the Voidoids. After starting the Neon Boys with Tom Verlaine and helping form Television, Hell helped define punk by being one of the first with spiky hair, ripped tight clothes and safety pins—fashion trends quickly picked up by England’s forming punk scene. But mostly he influenced through his music and the anthemic 1977 Blank Generation that helped define the moment.

Voidoids Ivan Julien and Marc Bell left the band after British tours with The Clash and Elvis Costello. Only guitarist Robert Quine remained for the second album, alongside drummer Fred Maher (who, like Quine, would go on to famously work with Lou Reed). Also added to the band was guitarist Juan Maciel, whose stage name was Naux.

While Destiny Street had the material Hell wanted, he was never happy with the production, and having been told that the master tapes were lost, he gave up the idea of a remix, until he ran across a cassette for with the basic rhythm tracks in the early 2000s. He was about to have Julian and Quine come in to re-record their parts when the guitarist died in 2004 at 61. Faux died soon after. So Hell brought in two other acclaimed guitarists with original styles, Marc Ribot and Bill Frissell to join Julian for a remade album called Destiny Street Repaired in 2009.

A decade later, the original 24-track master tapes were found after all, so he embarked on a remix of the original with Nick Zinner, the producer and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist. Rather than decide which was best, Omnivore Recordings is releasing all three—plus some leftover live tracks and demos—in a two CD deluxe set, Destiny Street Complete on January 22. (A stand-alone vinyl edition of Destiny Street Remixed is also on its way.)

We talked to Hell, who has been a writer the past few decades, about the project, the pandemic and his poetry. He assesses his future in music (dim), names the three records that formed him, and dismisses a longstanding myth about his punk legacy.

How are you handling the pandemic?

I was about mentally prepared for it to be winding down by now, so it is dreadful, literally. It fills one with dread to picture the coming months. It’s a good thing about the vaccinations.

But the thing is, for me, as it turned out, I kind of thrived on the isolation. The outside things I was doing, the assignments that I was accepting, the journalism and that kind of thing that I had been doing pretty regularly over the last 20 years or so just kind of dried-up, and I didn’t make any attempt to solicit that kind of work, so I literally had nothing to do all day except what I had my own initiative to do. I’ve been doing a lot of writing in a way that I hadn’t really since my teens and early 20s, so even though It’s been a really anxiety-filled and horror-filled period, for me it’s also been productive. So I have mixed feelings about it.

The thing I was describing kind of got interrupted by the big push for this music release. For the past couple of months, that’s been a full time job. And I’m kind of glad that I can go back to what it was before, where I just get up and have nothing in particular to do, so I start writing in a way that has no other purpose except to meet my needs instead of anybody else’s needs. So, yeah. It’s been mixed.

Is it poetry?

It’s funny you say that because people are always asking me about poetry. I have to remind them I’m not a poet. As a young man I had that ambition for a few years, and then it kind of got replaced by music. Then I started doing other kind of writing—fiction and journalism, non-fiction. Just because I had that couple of three years in my late teens, people focus on that and I always try to correct them about that, because it’s not really accurate. But all that being said, you’re right. It is poetry. And that’s what’s been fun. And it’s weird to call it fun because the writing itself is very work-intensive and takes a lot of focus.

It’s not confessional but I try not to hold anything back. So it’s intense. The actual act of doing it can be really exhausting. But it is fun in the sense that it’s very fulfilling for me. It’s weird, for the last eight months, up until I had to work on the Destiny Street Complete thing, I feel like it is the first time I’ve actually been a poet. At the age of 71, I hit this situation where it’s my identity, it’s what I was doing. It’d be, like, a poem or two a week, which is a big output—way larger than I’ve ever done before. So yeah, as long as you ask, that is what I’ve been doing for the first time since I was 19.

Well, what’s it like to revisit Destiny Street for a third time? You always said you’d been dissatisfied with how it came out. Let’s talk about when it came together. When it was recorded, it had been five years since Blank Generation. So were these all songs that came together at one time, are there some that are older?

Almost all of them were written between the recording of Blank Generation and when I went into the studio to do Destiny Street, which is four years after Blank Generation came out, and I was in really bad shape. I had a bad drug habit, and unlike some famous musician with bad drug habits, it impaired me. My output wasn’t large and I really didn’t care about anything, so the result was a record that I felt good about the material but the execution, especially in the production choices, but also in other ways, I just wasn’t supervising it the way I did on Blank Generation, or the way I would have if I were in better health.

It was always afterwards a kind of thorn in my side. It was one of only two albums I made. And to have the second one be anticlimactic that way, to be as flawed as that record was always gave me a sinking feeling when I thought about it. I always dreamed and hoped I could somehow salvage it. So this Destiny Street Complete is sort of the history of my various attempts to salvage it.

I do feel like now, 40 years later, it’s over and I’m happy with the results and I feel good about how it worked out. And the odd, ironic funny thing is that the theme of that record was time. The song “Time” is on that record, which I’ve always thought of, and many people who pay any attention to what I do as well think of it as well as maybe my best song. But even beyond that, the title song, “Destiny Street,” is about me meeting myself from many years before. And that’s basically the definition of this new release of Destiny Street Complete—three different versions made across 40 years of the same album.

You say in the liner notes that you weren’t even in the studio originally when the guitar solos were recorded.

Well, it wasn’t quite that extreme. I was in the studio for most of the guitar soloing but there was a like a week period, which is probably a third of time we spent in the studio for the whole thing where, yeah, I was so stressed out and strung out that I couldn’t bring myself to leave the apartment and I was called in to Bob and Naux, the guitar players, where I wanted them to put in another solo. So yeah, it was pathetic.

When you found the original rhythm tracks and put out a second version in 2009 with new guitarists, what was thinking behind that?

Well, as I said, it was my fantasy to remix it. Ideally I’d remix it and add more tracks to it but the record company, Marty Thau at Red Star, claimed they’d lost the tapes. What it actually was was that they never paid the studio and the studio kept them. That’s what all the indications are. So I’d been told there were no 24 track original masters that would allow me to remix, so I felt kind of defeated. But then somewhere in the early 2000s, I came across in a box in my apartment this cassette tape from the original recordings in 1981 that I’d made for myself in the course of recording just to use as a reference at home as I was considering how I wanted to proceed. And it was just stripped basic rhythm tracks—the two rhythm guitars, drums and bass, no over dubbing, played live. It’s a rough mix on a cassette but it was decent.

And it occurred to me, well, a lot of my problem with the original was all these layers and layers of noise guitar. You can see on track sheets there are six guitars playing in places, so by finding that basic rhythm track, I make the kind of stripped down, live-band thing that was my ideal, by just adding new solos and vocals to that.

At the time, when I first discovered that, I told Quine about it, he immediately agreed to provide the solos, but then he killed himself in 2004, so that was ruled out. But finally I did carry through with the plan—went into the studio with Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell, and Ivan Julien played really great on two tracks of it, and added new vocals and released that as Destiny Street Repaired.

For me that was really satisfying, for my purposes and from my point of view, it was an improvement on the original, all things considered even though it was terrible not to have the original soloists, but that was not possible. But Frissell and Ribot really applied themselves and the mixes were much closer to my ideal, so I was glad about that. So it was a compromise.

When Ribot and Frissell came in, did they feel they had to replicate the original solos or could they put their own mark on it? How did they approach it?

They both knew the record pretty well. They were both big fans of Quine, and friends of his. I can hear in their playing, what feels like to me, references or the acceptance of the influence of the original in what they played. But I didn’t give them any instructions or anything. I knew they knew the record, and there were sometimes where there’d be a few takes, and I might nudge them a tiny bit this way or that, but we really didn’t talk about that. And they didn’t volunteer saying anything. But I can hear it. I can hear places where they clearly are feeling themselves in relation to the original solos. But that’s not significant. I really don’t think that’s a significant part of what they’re doing. They were just playing what they knew, for the song.

What about your own vocals? Did you think you brought something new to it?

It was a bit of a tradeoff. I was almost 60 at the time, and my voice wasn’t as flexible as it was when I sang the original, but I think I had a feel for phrasing, and I was just more relaxed. When I went in, in ’81, I was so over the edge, it was almost a kind of an hysteria. Everything was done as a pitch of desperation. But going in in 2009, I think I was a better singer, though my voice wasn’t quite as flexible. So it was really a tradeoff.

And you hadn’t sung for a while.

I hadn’t sung at all. The one moment I’d done anything of significance, of a major project, was the band Dim Star—with me, Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley [both of Sonic Youth] and [Gumball guitarist] Don Fleming. But that was like a three week thing, it was never intended to be anything else. We just went into the studio and made this record, from scratch—wrote the songs in the studio, performed them, mixed them, all in three weeks. So it was just like having fun. But apart from that, which was ’90-’91, I had done nothing whatsoever, except one or two little tiny one-off single things that were obscure projects just for kicks.

But when I listen to the two, I can’t choose between them, between the original and the Repaired, I think they’re pretty damn even. And on the remixed version that’s really the centerpiece of the four-part release, the version I just did with Nick Zinner of remixing the original tapes back to 24 tracks, there are three cuts that come from Repaired. And they slot in perfectly. You don’t notice anything different. There’s no shift in the feel. You’d just completely accept that I sang all of those songs at the same time, though some of them were done in 1981 and some of them were done in 2009.

The remixed version was something you hadn’t planned either, but you found those tapes and you finally got the chance to remix it the way you wanted.

Yeah. It was really funny and amazing that after all these years, those turn up and I’m enabled to do what I wanted to do for so long. I actually had in mind this exact dream of having these multiple versions all in one package, and it turned out that I was able to achieve that. It’s really funny, and it makes me really glad, and it’s such a relief to be able to close the book on it.

The Voidoids changed between the first album to the second—you changed members and you also had been on big tours in England between albums. Did those things change the way you approached music? I don’t know what version of the band you had when you were touring with The Clash and Elvis Costello in the UK.

Well, with The Clash, it was the original band that was on Blank Generation. Then, after I came back from that tour and I was so disillusioned with the whole music business and my record company; I sued my record company to get out of my contract. But at the same time, I was in a terrible decline and I lost interest in playing live. And I would only do it when I absolutely had to when I needed to pay the rent. So my band was always pissed off at me. And Marc Bell ended up leaving for the Ramones, because he said he was having to live on dog food. But none of that meant anything to me. I was in my own head and disgusted with the whole business, but mostly in this condition of drug addiction that was this continuous nightmare. Like living in a haunted house with a cobweb brain. I wasn’t really there, from 1978 to 1984.

I’m exaggerating it. I was still me, but the whole music thing was just sort of staggering on out of inertia, rather than any energy propelling it. It was just sort of moving ahead, because that’s the nature of physics. But at the same time I liked the material that I was writing, when I was writing, and I think the material on the record was really good. And that’s part of what was so frustrating about the disaster of its presentation in that original 1982 album.

Did going in to remix it spark any new interest in your returning to music?

My music career has been over since 1984. There’s been a moment or two here and there, but I never played live except for one or two benefits. For years I was getting pretty big money offers, but I had no interest, and never even considered any of them. That part is over, but we did have a blast mixing it. And it did serve that purpose of me feeling like I’d achieved my original purpose of making that playing of a very good band, of good material, sound as good as it possibly can, thanks to Nick Zimmer.

How did you know him?

I knew him because we were both invited by Pussy Riot in 2014 to work on their single that they were doing at that time in New York that was a protest about the chokehold death in Staten Island, “I Can’t Breathe.” So that’s where we met. We worked together in the studio during that, and I really liked him a lot and was impressed with his skills in the studio. And I was a big Yeah Yeah Yeahs fan, so it worked out nicely.

Destiny Street Remixed is coming out as a stand-alone vinyl LP. I wanted to ask about the importance of vinyl as a format to you.

I love the material object of the vinyl—it’s much more pleasing and gratifying than little CDs. In 2017, Sire brought out this big double two disc Blank Generation 40th anniversary deluxe version and I was heavily involved with the creation and design of that just as I am with this one. I basically designed both of them, as well as composed the music and everything. And it was such a drag to go from working on the design of the vinyl and the book that came with vinyl, which was 12 x 12 inches, down to having work on little, tiny CD, which, compared to package of vinyl, it’s like a postage stamp compared to a painting at a museum. It’s like this lesser, degraded version of what vinyl is.

What about the sound?

Absolutely. I mean that as well, going from digital sound to analog.

Were there any records especially influential to you as you were growing up?

When I was a teenager, I only had three albums, the whole time. One was Dylan, Bringing it All Back Home. One was the Stones, The Rolling Stones Now! And one was the Kinks, Kinksize. And those were enough for me.

The funny thing is that that only occurred to me after I’d formed a band—I didn’t start making a band until I was 22, and I was 14 and 15 when I had those three records. But the funny thing that I recognized when it occurred to me, thinking about my early experience listening to albums, is that it’s the same aesthetic. What I was going for was basically what those bands gave me then.

And you ended up covering the Kinks and Dylan on Destiny Street.

That’s true. And there are a couple of Stones covers that I played live that have turned up on various bootlegs and compilations. One was “Ventilator Blues” from Exile, and “Shattered” from Some Girls.

Of course, it ended up being like, tons of other music that I listened to, and had a big effect on me, but it always seemed interesting and cool to me that those were the records I had as a kid. And without consciously aiming for it, when I did end up starting a band, what those records gave me were what I still valued.

People talk about your setting the style for English punk, with safety pins in your clothes and such, but I like the story that you helped physically build the stage for CBGB’s.

Roger, I hate to disappoint you, but that’s a myth. That’s something I think [Television guitarist] Richard Loyd just made up. I think that’s the source of that misinformation. It’s true we were the first band. When we were in Television in 1974, the spring that CBGB’s opened, we were the band that drew everybody there and started the whole movement, the trend, or however you’d put it. Everybody came to see us because we made a lot of news right away.

And actually we sounded very different from the Television that made Marquee Moon. We were much crazier and harder driving and sloppier. You could see how we could have been at that point, in 1974, if you heard what we were doing, the original of what became called punk. But we immediately got written about in all the local papers and became a sort of thing. And within six months, Patti Smith and the Ramones were the first ones to come after us. But they came because we were making news. So we didn’t build the stage, but we created the club in that sense.

You metaphorically created the stage.

Yeah.

Destiny Street Complete, with three versions of the album, along with demos, will be released as a 40th anniversary 2 CD deluxe set January 22, 2021 on Omnivore Recordings. Destiny Street Remixed will also be available as a stand-alone vinyl LP. Omnivore will also offer a limited supply of clear vinyl editions through omnivorerecordings.com.

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