“Fuck Rock and Roll (I’d Rather Read a Book),” Richard Hell sang in 1974, back when he played in the band Television. He also co-founded two other influential New York punk groups—The Heartbreakers and The Voidoids—something that tends to overshadow Hell’s half-century involvement in the publishing world.
“I’ve always loved books,” he told me over coffee at an East Village diner in New York. “The way they looked and the interplay between the words themselves and the way they are presented,” he said, “the ways that all of those elements of a book interact with each other to produce an impact—that has always been important to me.”
We were talking about his new collection of nonfiction essays, evocatively titled Massive Pissed Love (Soft Skull Press). “I designed the book, I organized it,” Hell said. “I’m kind of eccentric that way, as a writer. Most writers, they basically hand over the manuscript and get back a book. But me, I want control over that stuff, and I’ve gotten a lot of control from my publishers because I have a background in this.”
“On all the books I’ve published since I was a kid,” he said, “I designed them and made all the choices about the publication process.”
Discussing Genesis : Grasp, his first dive into publishing, he said, “That magazine, I started when I was seventeen and I brought out six issues across four years. It was like a high school literary magazine. I was very ignorant, and I was not a very good writer, and I was just trying to figure out what I was capable of.”
“I kind of cast around floundering after I left music … I had to find out some way to make a living.” — Richard Hell
“The very first issue was actually letterpressed,” he added. “It was still early enough that it was common. I just found a printer on the Lower East Side that typeset books, basically the same technology from the sixteenth century, but by the time I did the last issue I was printing them by myself on a three hundred dollar desktop offset printer, like the size of a milk crate…So that was this whole process of getting a grip and knowing what excited me in writing, and figuring out the technology—but it was really, really primitive. Very high school, until maybe the last two issues.”
After doing Genesis : Grasp, Hell started a poetry book imprint before getting sidetracked by rock’n’roll. Then, after a decade in the punk trenches, he more or less hung up his bass guitar. “I didn’t know what to do,” Hell told me. “I kind of cast around floundering after I left music, which was in 1984, because I had to find out some way to make a living.”
“I had a day job for the first time since I was in my twenties. I was proofreading for a year for a company that typeset, but I used that too, because I got friendly with them and I ended up using their facilities to print a literary magazine with their equipment for free. They let me typeset my own magazine and let me run it off on their super-modern photocopier…It was called CUZ, and it was sponsored by The Poetry Project, but it was completely done by myself.”
Richard Hell’s first foray into freelance writing happened after he and Punk magazine co-founder Legs McNeil convinced SPIN to send them rafting down the Mississippi in conjunction with the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “That was a blast,” Hell said. “I thought, ‘This is the life, you just think of something interesting to do and approach some editor and get them to pay for you to do it—and not only that, but then they pay you more to write what it was like?!’ [laughs] That looked promising.”
“I kept doing that, and come 1992, I had enough chops, and I was interested in doing something a little more ambitious, so I started a novel and I just continued from there,” he continued. “I’ve been really lucky because I’ve always been free, and I basically freelance and do whatever interests me.”
The writing in Massive Pissed Love reflects Hell’s independent spirit, as well as his diverse interests in film, art, music and culture. For instance, when he was approached by the editors of BlackBook to write a profile on Snoop Dogg, he convinced them to let him write a regular movie column instead. “It’s a pretty even mix of pieces that I initiated and pieces that came from editors who asked me if I would do something,” Hell said of his new collection.
“I always took my journalism and essays I’d done for all different kinds of outlets very seriously—from big establishment newspapers like the New York Times to very small papers like this magazine called Toilet Paper, to art catalogs, to the movie column.” Because of the wide range of media outlets that published his writings, it’s unlikely that even the most dedicated Richard Hell aficionado would have seen more than a small percentage of it—which is one reason he put together Massive Pissed Love.
“Usually, these kinds of books are trivial. People knocking out topical newspaper articles and whatnot, as a rule, it’s not very attractive to a reader. They’re like fishwrap,” Hell said. “My agent, who I love, he said, ‘It will hurt your career.’ And I said, ‘I’m sixty-five years old. If we’re doing a career trajectory thing, you know…” he trailed off, laughing.
Massive Pissed Love isn’t your run-of-the-mill edited collection of fishwrap, for every aspect of the book was carefully considered. “If the writing is worthy at all,” Hell said, “the book itself—from the way it’s designed to the way the content is organized to all the choices that are made when creating the book itself—it all really matters to me. So that was really fun and interesting to me, figuring out how to organize this book. It was literally a fulltime job for me.”
Kembrew McLeod hearts New York City. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 188.