Richard Hell’s New York City

Witching Hour: Making a Scene: A Conversation About Downtown New York City

Englert Theatre — Friday, Oct. 12 at 6 p.m.

Witching Hour: Notes From the Underground

Prairie Lights Books & Cafe — Saturday, Oct. 13 at 4 p.m.

Punk rock pioneer Richard Hell. — photo by Rebecca Smeyne

Richard Meyers landed on New York City’s Lower East Side in late 1966. Within a few years he had reinvented himself as Richard Hell and transitioned from poetry to punk rock. This blending of art forms was not unusual among the residents of the city’s dilapidated downtown neighborhoods, a topic that he and writer, photographer and actress Lisa Jane Persky will discuss during Making a Scene: A Conversation About Downtown New York City, a free event that I will moderate at the Englert Theatre during the Witching Hour Festival.

As a child growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, Hell and his mother had visited his grandmother in the West Village every three or four years, so he already had an impression of the city. “The West Village was — in terms of New York — deceptively quaint and peaceful and beautiful,” he said. “It wasn’t until I actually came here that I got exposed to 14th Street and 42nd Street and the East Village — the real New York, which is much more squalid than this isolated Village where my grandmother lived.”

According to many accounts from residents at the time, each block in the Lower East Side had a different character, with Italian, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Chinese, African American and Puerto Rican sections that were like little hamlets, where everyone knew each other. Immigrant families and the working poor were packed in tenement buildings with four or five apartments per floor, living like sardines in a can. Family fights would break out, and all kinds of accents filled the air — as did the scent of marijuana.

The Lower East Side’s carnivalesque atmosphere grew edgier as one went farther east. “You just did not go east of Avenue A [in the late ’60s], which covers a lot of territory,” Hell said. “It was really ruthless, and the poverty was so extreme. That was really clear-cut, it was really nasty and hard. About half the time I lived in New York, I lived in those areas. You hoped to make a nice impression on the kid who ran the block because they would protect you, too.” He added with a chuckle, “There was a fine line — it would mean they would only rob you every few months.”

A view of East First Street and Bowery in New York City in 1971. — photo by Chris Stein, from Kembrew McLeod’s ‘The Downtown Pop Underground’

Life in much of downtown New York could be exhilarating — and scary. “People would break into your place for nothing, for chump change,” said Persky. “Speed freaks, they could be really menacing.”

The Village — a catchall term that included the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village to the west — was filled with criminals, eccentrics and bohemians. But it was also where many families and kids resided, such as Persky, who grew up there.

“This place had a certain history in it,” she said. “It called to people who wanted to feel comfortable being different.”

When Persky’s parents first moved to the Village in 1962, they stayed in an apartment building off Sheridan Square. One of the first sights she saw while looking outside her bedroom window was Bob Dylan, who was sporting the same coat he wore on his first album cover. Three years later, she and her family moved into a Christopher Street tenement building that housed many colorful characters, including building superintendents Yoko Ono and her then-husband, artist Tony Cox.

“When I got there, hippiedom was peaking,” Hell said of the moment when 1967’s “summer of love” faded into a winter of discontent. “While at the same time it was collapsing, where ripeness turns to rot. There were head shops everywhere and barefoot kids with flowers in their hair who were panhandling and were tripping. But then every few months there would be a headline story about a Lower East Side crash pad where somebody had overdone it and put out everyone’s eyes with an icepick, taking ‘flower power’ a little too far.”

After meeting his friend Tom Miller in the mid-1960s at a boarding school in Delaware, the two ended up in downtown New York and settled into a life of letters. Hell had been enthralled by the scrappy writers whose work appeared in poetry zines, and immersed himself in that scene.

“The street poets I liked wanted to have fun and be direct and uninhibited,” he said, “and their whole thing was mimeo.”

Miller — who would rename himself Tom Verlaine after the two founded the early punk band Television — also hung around the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. Hell had already been publishing his own poetry magazine, Genesis : Grasp, since the late 1960s. He then started his Dot Books imprint in 1971 with the intention of publishing a list of five books, including one by Patti Smith, but Hell and Smith abandoned the publication when they transitioned into rock music by 1974.

When they formed Television, Hell and Verlaine wanted to strip rock ’n’ roll down to its essential core, doing away with the showbiz theatricality of the glam bands and jettisoning the kind of excesses that dominated 1970s corporate rock. Spending time in the underground poetry scene taught Hell a useful DIY skill set that helped shape the emerging punk aesthetic.

“I had become completely acclimated to that culture of doing it yourself as a writer in the world of street poets,” he said, “so when I started doing music it felt familiar.”

In 1977, Richard Hell and the Voidoids released the classic punk album Blank Generation, followed by two more releases until he largely retired from music in 1984 to focus on writing, mostly freelancing. “I kept doing that,” he said, “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.”

Since then, Hell has published novels, essay collections and a variety of other artist books, art show catalogs, poetry collaborations and other literary ephemera. He is currently working on a new novel, which Hell may preview during his reading at Prairie Lights with authors Katherine Faw, Paloma Yannakakis and Marcus Brown as part of the Witching Hour lineup.

On Oct. 23, Abrams Press will publish Kembrew McLeod’s new book, The Downtown Pop Underground: New York City and the Literary Punks, Renegade Artists, DIY Filmmakers, Mad Playwrights and Rock ‘n’ Roll Glitter Queens Who Revolutionized Culture. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 250.

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