Think Burroughs with a soul. Or Beckett with a ten-year habit and a string of groupies in a motel room he's already checked out of. Having rubbed elbows with Hell in the flooded toilet of CBGB's back in his Television daysˇ I was one of those dope fiends who couldn't say a word or look anybody in the eye, Richard one of those dope fiends who would say anything and had everybody's eyes on himˇI confess to a certain awe that somebody who could stalk a stage like that could go home and write lines that blow your heart out the back of your mouth.
On William S. Burroughs, in his essay "My Burroughs": "It's like he was a detective sent back from death. He had nothing to prove, only to discover." A profound observation. It hardly bares mention that you won't be hearing such aperšus pass through the slack lips of some mainstream toxic dump like, say, Keith Richards. And I love Keith Richards. Then again, you probably won't find any upcoming Behind the Music segments on Hell and the Voidoids, either. But such is the ultimate realization this book engenders: It was never about the music. For Hell, it was always the writing. Always the poetry. Or, as he sang in his most celebrated Voidoids hum-along: "I belong to the blank generation and I can take it or leave it each time." On the street, as in life, there's no greater power than the power to say fuck you and walk away. In Hell's case, he just wanted to walk away and create like Breton.
What becomes clear by the last, lasting passages of Hot and Coldˇ a veritable Cook's tour of Hellabilia: essays, journal entries, song lyrics, stories, and poetry from 1969 to 2000ˇis that part of Hell's process was always finding the right front. He invented a persona from behind which he could launch his verbal missiles before retiring behind the torn shirts, the tracks, and other trappings of the professionally alienated. In the case of "Theresa Stern," the character he created with Tom Verlaine, the facade went even further. Tom and Dick dressed in drag, superimposed their faces in an author photograph, and assumed the identity of a jaded-to-death half-Jewish, halfşPuerto Rican hooker and sometime poetess.
Asked by interviewer Mary Harronˇlater to direct I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psychoˇif she had any advice for her readers, "Theresa" intoned the following: "Oneˇtry to overcome hope; twoˇcultivate your most 'shameful' traits; threeˇhelp me."
This pretty much says it all. From the beginning, Richard Hell has burned with the same blue flame of misfit insight and desperate beauty. In "Winter Poem," written when he was pushing fifty, Hell may have summed up the source of his high temperature: "I am," he writes, "totally without joy, except that which might follow from succeeding at this."
Which, for some of us who stumbled out of Blankville ourselves, is about as life-affirming as it gets.
Jerry Stahl is the author of the memoir Permanent Midnight (Warner Books, 1995). His latest book is the novel Plainclothes Naked (William Morrow, 2001).