The Richard Hell Interview
Richard Hell—legendary punk rock iconoclast, intrepid novelist, poet, and now memoirist—is lounging on his couch in the cozy East Village pad he’s called home since 19 fucking 75. Considering how brutally forthcoming Richard is about his drug use in his new autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (“Thirty years later, I still have the scars on my left forearm”), it’s a surprise that he looks significanty younger than his 63 years. His litany of feats since he escaped to New York are a total mind-blow.
In Tramp, Hell vividly recounts his gun-toting cowboy dreams as a young miscreant and his rabble-rousing school-dropout years before hitting New York City and altering its landscape. He helped create the punk template with a fuck you attitude, birthed anarchic style with tattered, thrift-store threads, botched hairstyles that Malcolm McLaren later swiped for the Sex Pistols, started Television with Tom Verlaine, put CBGB and Max’s Kansas City on the punk rock map, wrote era-defining tunes like “Blank Generation” with his band the Voidoids, survived life as a junkie, and penned Burroughs-level dirty sex ‘n’ track-marked novels and poetry.
Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is epic badassness. He hides little about his life’s trajectory and his disdain for Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, his undying love for Dee Dee Ramone and Bob Quine, the drugs, the music, and the debauchery. Just don’t ask him about being Jewish and what he thought of Marquee Moon. He’d much rather talk about his dick.
VICE: When did you start writing I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp?
Richard Hell: Right after my last novel (Godlike) came out in 2006. It’s been a long haul. But I did a bunch of things—other projects—as I was doing it, too. Still, it was a slog. It’s twice as long as anything I’ve written before. And also more confusing. It gets delicate to write about yourself [laughs].
I assume it’s much easier to write fiction.
Yeah, yeah. It’s easier to write fiction. You’re right. But it was a long process figuring out what to keep and what not to keep. Things are coming back to me that I forgot to mention [laughs]. Still, it hits you when you’re working on a book like that, that it will be easy enough to spend 600 pages describing one day.
But you kept journals over the years. Did those help in putting the book together?
I did, yeah, but I was never really systematic about it. They were really useful. But it’s not as if I could wonder what I was doing some month from looking at my journals. I’d go three months without writing anything in there and then just open it up and just write a page. But they were helpful. They did nail down dates and did also just show me exactly what was going on in my head.
When you started writing Tramp, was the book already bought?
Oh, I never do that. I’ll write the book, then I’ll go look for a publisher.
So, there weren’t any publishers on your ass to write an autobiography?
Are you kidding me? Noooo! In fact, I was turned down by probably about six or seven publishers. There were basically two offers. The book was in sloppier shape then. I did send it out because I was so tired of working on it. I really OD’d on it. I was nauseated and I just wanted to find a publisher—just to get a little charge goin’, ya know? [laughs]. But I got the ideal publisher for it, and it worked out great. No regrets, really.
Did you plan on Tramp being your next project after you were done with Godlike?
No, I had to figure that out. I thought writing Tramp was gonna be easy in comparison because I figured I had the… narrative… so that solves a lot of problems. Then I’d just try to figure out how to write good sentences. It sure turned out to be a lot more complicated. I kept getting turned around and all the fuckin’ internal turmoil figuring how to regard my own self… I mean, that’s really confusing.
Did you feel like by writing the book, you were penning a de facto obituary?
No, it’s nothing like an obituary. An obituary is just a really flattering curriculum vitae. That wasn’t the issue.
When you were writing the book, were you cognizant about other musicians writing memoirs, like Patti Smith (Just Kids) and Keith Richards (Life)…
I can’t see this interview in VICE magazine.
Why? OK, I’ll ask you some more provocative questions [laughs].
Yeah, you’re supposed to ask me about my dick or something.
Yeah, you’re right. Who’d you bang?
STANLEY KUBRICK WANTED A TASTE OF TERRY SOUTHERN’S LAMB-PIT
I love fucking Terry Southern. That came out wrong. I never fucked the writer, at least not proper fucked. But I have been fucking him intellectually, off and on, for a few decades now. By that I mean I’ve read his literary work: Flash and Filigree, Candy, The Magic Christian, and Blue Movie, on several occasions, going deeper each time. But no matter how deep I go, Southern’s satiric send-ups, lyrical lines, crazy characters, and demented dialogue always leave me hard. I never fully come to a satisfying climax. I’m always left with the feeling that I could go deeper. That I could explore more of the birth canal that is Terry Southern’s sardonic vision of America.
So, just the other day, after eating a few dozen oysters and taking some Ritalin, I read Lee Hill’s biography of that writer I love fucking so much called A Grand Guy. I mean that writer I fucking love so much. And, sure enough, it acted as the satisfying climax to the intellectual stimulation Southern’s writing induces. It’s the kind of stimulation that makes you hard for days, novel after novel, the kind that only a grand guy like Southern has the ability to induce.
He induces it through the TV quiz-show called What’s my Disease? In Flash and Filigree where a panel of semi-celebrities ask questions of a diseased contestant until they discover the undisclosed ailment and reveal it to an audience that then lets out “a great audible gasp of astonished horror,” before “bursting into applause.” He induces it through the beautiful and innocent title character in Candy when a hunchback buries his hump between her “legs as she hunched wildly, pulling open her little labias in an absurd effort to get it in her,” because, as she tells herself, “it means so much to him.” He induces it through the Dog Show scene in The Magic Christian where Guy Grand, the eccentric millionaire Southern wished he was but wasn’t because of the IRS, buys the three largest kennel clubs on the eastern seaboard so he can introduce in disguise a dog named Claw, not Claude, that wasn’t “a dog at all, but some kind of terrible black panther or dyed jaguar… so that before the day was out, he had not only brought chaos in to the formal proceedings, but had actually destroyed about half the ‘Best of Breed.’”
Even though Southern was indebted to the IRS for most of his life and, as a result, never got to pull off the pranks of The Magic Christian’s Guy Grand, who spends millions a year indulging in his hobby of making it ‘hot’ for the entire world, Southern did manage to make it hot for himself: his satisfying climactic biography, A Grand Guy, reads like some kind of biblical story of a literary action hero who jumps through decades and influences generations. Altering his mind with the likes of William Burroughs, he was one of the most head-bobbin’ Beats in Greenwich Village. As one of the original contributors to The Paris Review, both his writing and his crabs were alive and well in that postwar Paris literary scene of the 1950s. While at the center of London’s Swinging 60s, he hit the road with The Rolling Stones and, according to Tom Wolfe, invented what is now called New Journalism. Although Denis Hopper was too hopped-up to remember, Southern wrote the majority of Easy Rider and was responsible for the quality that came to be expected from American films in the 70s. Then, in the 80s, he wrote for Saturday Night Live when both the laughs and cocaine were still pure and powerful. Finally, just before his death at the beginning of the 90s, he lectured at several esteemed universities where I imagine he spread the last of his seeds like a fiend.
Kaufman on Kaufman: An Interview with Andy’s Brother Michael
When I was a kid I used to love Taxi. It had been cancelled for a number of years by the time I got into it, but I watched the syndicated episodes whenever they came on Nick at Nite. Thinking back on it now, most of the characters—even the ones who went on to be megastars—are blurry and ill-defined in my memory. Andy Kaufman’s portrayal of the bizarre immigrant cab mechanic Latka, however, is crystal clear. That’s not surprising. As with everything Kaufman did, Latka was memorable because he was so damn unique. He was miles away from any other character on television—on Taxi, he sometimes seemed to be on a different, more surreal show—and Kaufman was just as far away from any other human in real life. Whether he was standing alone on stage nervously playing the Mighty Mouse theme song and lip-syncing only the chorus, orwrestling women and declaring himself the World Intergender Wrestling Champion, or fucking with Letterman decades before Joaquin Phoenix, he was one of a kind, which is why he is still so widely respected today. Oh, and he was also Elvis’s favorite Elvis impersonator.
On Saturday, an exhibition presented by Jonathan Berger, titled On Creating Reality, opens at Maccarone gallery in the West Village. The show will feature a boatload of Andy’s personal effects, as well as a rotating cast of his close friends and family members, at least one of whom will be at the gallery at all times. These people—who are part of the exhibition themselves—will be available to chat with visitors and offer a unique look into the life of one of contemporary culture’s most enigmatic figures. In preparation of the show, and because I am a gigantic Kaufman fanboy, I called up Michael Kaufman, Andy’s brother, to talk about the show and his brother’s life.
VICE: Hi, Michael. I just wanted to ask a little bit about the show. Do you know what sort of artifacts are going to be there?
Michael Kaufman:I know some of them. His most recognized Elvis jacket will be there, as well as his famous pink Foreign Man jacket that he would take off to become Elvis, and also the mock shirt he tore away. Andy was an author and we published three books for him after he died. Not only will the books be there—that’s not a big deal—but you’ll be able to see handwriting of Andy’s. The World Intergender Wrestling Belt will be there. His 11th grade report card, which has a lot of red on it.
How did he do?
One of his 11th grade teachers said to my mother, “The only reason I’m passing your son is I don’t want to take a gamble at having him in my class again next year.” Also in the collection is a wonderful series of communications where Andy went to visit a girl who was dying. She was a fan of his, and when his plane was delayed in Chicago on its way to Washington, he drove out to Demotte, Indiana, to visit her. Word got out at the hospital and Andy wrestled three people. I have pictures. They were supposedly nurses and maybe one patient’s mother. It’s the only time he ever lost a match. He let them beat him. And then there’s a letter from the mother, thanking Andy for doing that. Seven weeks after his visit, she died. That whole correspondence will be there. Andy never told anyone about that. I only knew about it because I went through the stuff.
What was it like being Andy’s brother? Were there times when you saw a bit he was doing on TV and didn’t know if it was real or not?
Yes. One time I told him not to let me know what was really going on, because when people asked me questions I didn’t want to lie to them.
Can you tell me about one of his gags that duped you?
A couple of months after I told him not to tell me anything anymore, he was on the TV show Fridays.