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Hell's Inferno

Punk progenitor lives an open book

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Hot and Cold
Richard Hell
powerHouse Books

It's a rare biography that seems to contain a fully lived life in all the complexity, intrigue, drama, intention and love with which it was carried out. These books read like the unanalyzed evidence of a crime against banality, full of the soiled underwear of the life as it was lived -- never making a stultified case for a life the way talking tombstone biographies and autobiographies often drone.

Richard Hell's Hot and Cold, a collection of "essays poems lyrics notebooks pictures fiction," is one of those volumes, allowing the reader to play both voyeur and sleuth to the unsolvable mystery of how he defied an entire culture on his own terms.

More of a maker than a self-promoter, the Kentucky-born Hell (n Richard Meyers) dropped out of high school and moved to New York City to become a poet in 1966. After helping to form several bands in the early '70s (including the Heartbreakers and Television), Hell departed to form his own group, The Voidoids. Along with The Ramones, The New York Dolls and Patti Smith, Richard Hell and The Voidoids -- with their album Blank Generation -- became one of the seminal progenitors of punk. Hell's style, energy and gravelly rock 'n' roll became a major influence on the Sex Pistols, Sonic Youth and other punk bands that followed in his wake.

In much the same way he nearly abandoned poetry, Hell also drop-kicked his rock career and all but left it behind in the '80s when he returned to fiction, essays and journals.

The pleasure of Hot and Cold comes from the odd cohesion born from Hell's constant dissatisfaction with any single form.

Beginning with his brilliant early poems that can't help but evince comparisons to the precocious Arthur Rimbaud, Hell's writing has a visceral irreverence and stripped lyricism that sets him far from his Beat predecessors: "the drooling old sun crosses/ the slum rooftops and slobbers goo/ up from my neck into another/ grimacing semi-face// So this is being a young 20th-century/ poet, I think."

Following the early poems is a selection of poems from Wanna Go Out?, a collaboration between Hell and future Television lead-man Tom Verlaine. Calling the combination of themselves Theresa Stern -- a kind of Puerto-Rican-hooker-living-in-Jersey sendup of Marcel Duchamp's cross-dressing alter ego Rose Slavy -- Hell and Verlaine prove to be among the most interesting collaborators from an era of New York poetry when "team poetry" was rigueur and often dull. "The stranger and the moon are good buddies./ The stranger is a puddle/ and the moon is the moon's reflection in the puddle./ This is as close as we poets can come to life."

In addition to Hell's poetry, the collection also includes reviews of shows, band profiles, many of his song lyrics, short memoirs of dead musician friends, photos of naked friends and lovers, and a full frontal self-portrait.

Among the most compelling glimpses into Hell's life are the "Notebooks (1988-1988)," a decidedly introspective period of his life that fills in yet another of his ever-morphing shapes. Open without being overly indulgent, Hell lays everything down in a kind of Whitmanic listing: affairs, travels, aphorisms, ideas, fragments of poems and fictions, drug excursions, self-deprecations.

Ultimately it's Hell's candor and willingness to put all of himself into this book that makes it so approachable and engrossing. The fact that he has always been a do-it-yourself man and self-publisher makes him all the more charming and relevant as a model for self-determination.

As he once crooned on "I Live My Life": "I live my life to please myself/ And don't worry about nobody else/ Well if you love the life you live/ Live it all by yourself."

-- Noel Black

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