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Noir’s not dead

Writer and punk pioneer Richard Hell talks film and music history

Original theatrical poster for “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

Richard Hell has never been to Tulsa, but the city looms large in his story. During his early years in New York City, he became acquainted with the work of the Tulsa School of Poets that joined the second generation of the New York School—people like Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, and Dick Gallup. Hell learned from their verse as a young poet in NYC and would later publish a book by Padgett.

“I got a whole lot of my education as a writer from my exposure to those poets when I came to New York in the very late 60s,” Hell said. “They were my main inspiration as I was starting out as a writer. They showed me the way to get out of the ideas of writing that were confining. That group from Tulsa was one of the largest impacts of any experience, as a reader who wanted to be a writer … The idea of Tulsa is really powerful in my mind. I think of this western, roughneck town. And it happened to have these poets that meant a whole lot to me, who came from there.”

Hell is known for his writings—from early, self-printed poetry magazines to novels, criticism, and autobiography—and for making music that led the vanguard of the punk rock generation.

As a founding member of the proto-punk band Television, Hell performed at NYC’s CBGB—before the Patti Smith Group, the Talking Heads, and the Ramones, all of whom were marked by Hell’s influence. In 1976, he formed and fronted Richard Hell and the Voidoids, whose seminal debut Blank Generation landed the following year. By this time, punk could not be stopped.

Famed promoter and manager Malcom McLaren even lifted Hell’s personal style and took it overseas to form the Sex Pistols in late ‘75, which has remained the iconic “punk” look.

Hell’s writing and music concern the reality he encountered in New York during the late ‘70s and is imbued with a deep knowledge of literature and culture. His influence on art is wide-ranging and uncontained by rigid categorizations like “punk musician” or “novelist.” One such example is his passion for cinema and film criticism.

He’s familiar with Jim Thompson’s dark visions of Oklahoma and refers to noir as “probably [his] favorite film genre.” The Bob Dylan Center is bringing Hell to Tulsa for a March 30 event at Circle Cinema, where Hell will introduce one of his favorite noir films: Richard Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955).

Adapted from Mickey Spillane’s 1952 novel, the film outpaces its source material both in darkness and intellect, as misanthropic P.I. Mike Hammer attempts to unwind a conspiracy. Hell appreciates the beauty of its cinematography, all done up in classic noir tropes: “nighttime shooting, a lotta squalor, violence, shadows.” Hell’s description brings to mind the “decaying underbelly” of NYC that inspired his music and books. But as he points out, the film is set in Los Angeles and has its sunshine too. He describes it as “something eternal.”

“It’s a quintessential noir,” Hell said. “There’s a few movies in the history of Hollywood filmmaking, movies by people that aren’t thought of as radically auteur, movies that are more like the Hollywood dream factory model of filmmaking, not so personal, but that turn out to be timeless masterpieces.”

“Kiss Me Deadly” is not personal and is yet regarded as a piece of art—on the other hand, Hell set out to make music that was personal, music that expressed actual life instead of trying to please a certain demographic. Hell’s music was the catalyst launching the punk movement, from the sound of the bands he formed to his style and attitude. Once he let it out, on stage and on his albums, it was beyond his control.

However, Hell wasn’t beholden to punk as an ideology, even before he retired from music to write full-time in 1984. One example is his cover of Dylan’s “Going, Going, Gone” (from Planet Waves), on the Voidoids’ second and final studio album, Destiny Street (1982). While he doesn’t remember exactly how this came about, he assumes it was at the suggestion of Voidoid guitarist Robert Quine. Hell describes the attraction to covering Dylan:

“I liked the idea of doing a Dylan song partly because there had been this thing in punk of—this classic rock and roll thing of young artists: ‘All the previous generations were idiots and we know better what to do,’” Hell said. “I understand that stance. I had enough of that myself. But I definitely thought it was time for some changes, it was a big motivation for me when starting a band, to change things. I did think that it was wrong and dishonest to pretend that a guy of the capabilities of Dylan would just be treated like a tired old guy who we’re better replacing.”

In Hell’s 2014 autobiography “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp,” he writes that Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home was one of the three albums he owned as a kid and played on repeat.

“It was only later that I realized how important he’d been,” Hell said. “Because he brought an adventurousness and an amazing facility for language to his songwriting that was really fresh. You do have to look at the music that inspired him to find anything at that level … It was only after that moment was gone that I realize how valuable it was—that moment that Dylan was on the radio. But when I was a kid, it was like wallpaper, it was a part of your daily life.”

The earnestness and virtuosity of Dylan’s music in the mid-‘60s revealed, by comparison, the degradation of rock during the ‘70s. Things had changed for the worse, in Hell’s opinion, and it was then that he picked up a bass and switched to penning lyrics. His songs wouldn’t look back, rather he wrote what he knew and felt during that period.

Hell describes early punk as “white urban folk music.” This description is not meant to exclude African Americans from punk, he pointed out. (Ivan Julian, one of the founding members of the Voidoids, is black.) It’s to acknowledge that hip-hop developed in parallel with punk and should be recognized as an equally powerful form of contemporary, urban folk music.

Just as both forms of “urban folk” were concerned with the harsher realities of life during the late ‘70s, the earlier iterations of folk that inspired Dylan dealt with other harsh realities, as his songs did in turn. Dylan stimulates Hell on a macro level. He appreciates Dylan’s raw talent as songwriter, much more so than the revolutionary messages, which are frequently associated with Hell and punk as well.

“It still amazes me that what was called ‘punk’ ended up having the impact on culture that it did,” Hell said.

Hell’s own archives were purchased by NYU’s Fales Library in 2013. Like Dylan, scholars will be able to research his career, from the manuscripts of his early poetry collections to drafts of his songs and books.

In addition to his talk at Circle Cinema on March 30, Hell will also be spending some time in the Dylan archives, researching for his contribution to a forthcoming BDC project. Addressing this research opportunity, Hell brings to mind a gumshoe noir protagonist: “I’m really curious. It’s like being able to be a detective. To go down into the archives and see what I can suss out.”

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