Richard Hell is one of the few main cogs in the late '70s NYC punk scene that isn’t easily associated with a single band, as he co-formed not one, not two, but three legendary punk bands: Television with best friend Tom Verlaine, then the Heartbreakers with former New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan (the Dolls broke up the same week that Hell quit Television), and finally Richard Hell and the Voidoids. This would seem to imply an egomania, or at least an inability to get along with others, but Hell is quoted in Pete Astor’s 33-1/3 book as giving plenty of credit for classic punk album Blank Generation to his fellow Voidoids. Circumstances seemed to have just conspired to making Hell the wandering soul of punk such that he is often forgotten when talking about the punk legends. He shouldn’t be though – after all, Malcolm McLaren said that Hell was his inspiration for the Sex Pistols and that the song “Blank Generation” was the inspiration for the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant”. That’s high praise.
That is why I’m disappointed with Pete Astor’s Blank Generation. This was a chance to take a truly great album and re-introduce it to the public so that it gets the attention it deserves. That’s one of the critical functions of a 33-1/3 book. It’s what Kevin J.H. Dettmar does so well in his mini-book on Gang of Four’s Entertainment! Prior to reading that book, I didn’t appreciate the complexities and depth to be found in Entertainment! I didn’t agree with everything Dettmar had to say, but I could see where he was coming from. It made me think about and appreciate the album in a new way. Astor’s book didn’t do that for me.
At the very beginning Astor highlights exactly why Hell is such a compelling figure. I highlighted the very first paragraph in the preface, taking particular note of this passage: “Like all the best rock and roll, here was someone … who remained mired in the emotional onslaught that adolescence brings. And had no intention of doing anything other than continuing to wallow in its endless contradictions and rail against it with poise, poetry and an elegant sneer. Just another permanent adolescent, staring down the world.” The book could have been – should have been – an exploration of how Blank Generation exhibits this, how the album is the best example of Hell railing against adolescence with poise, poetry and an elegant sneer. It’s easy to see those qualities in the best tracks off of the album, like the slow “Betrayal Takes Two”, the Frank Sinatra cover “All the Way” (included in the album reissue only, but mentioned in the book as if it were on the original), the brilliant title track, and my personal favorite “The Plan”. It’s there too in most if not all of the other tracks – but it’s not my job to show you to them, its Astor’s. Astor had a theme fall right into his lap, and instead his theme was …
None. There is no theme to the book overall, nor are there ones even within the chapters (which are given headings like “Worlds” and “Texts” that have no apparent meaning). I acknowledge that as someone who wanted to get to know Hell better, there’s a decent amount to like here. I think there is some unique information offered about the man, the song-writing process, and the skills and roles of the other Voidoids (the short bio on guitarist Robert Quine is particularly good). I’m better off for having read it. Having said that, there’s just so much missing. Astor could have (and probably should have) given Blank Generation historical context, explained why it was important. He could have (and most definitely should have) broken down each song, analyzing the structure, instrumentation, texture, and of course the lyrics. Richard Hell is a brilliant lyricist! In a single paragraph review of the album, AllMusic.com says “while most punk nihilism was of the simplistic ‘Everything Sucks’ variety, Hell was (with the exception of Patti Smith) the most literate and consciously poetic figure in the New York punk scene. While there’s little on the album that’s friendly or life-affirming, there’s a crackling intelligence to songs like ‘New Pleasure,’ ‘Betrayal Takes Two,’ and ‘Another World’ that confirmed Hell has a truly unique lyrical voice, at once supremely self-confident and dismissive of nearly everything around him (sometimes including himself).” I’m at a loss as to how Astor could have generally neglected to discuss the album’s lyrics when he spends page after precious page (the book is only 112 pages long) discussing Hell’s non-musical influences, though it’s explained somewhat here: an interview Astor gave to 33-1/3 almost two years before the publication of Blank Generation where he talked about why he chose this particular album and what he hoped to accomplish with the book. Astor is an academic, who intended all along to take at least a partially academic approach to the book. Good for him, but I kept thinking as I read, “Perhaps I’m not enough of an intellectual to understand what Astor is saying.”I personally needed a lot less Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautréamont and a lot more Richard Hell and the Voidoids (or even other punk comparisons).
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