The Backpages Interview: Richard
King Punk remembers
the [ ] Generation
Barney Hoskyns, for Rock's
Backpages, March 2002
Bowery ripped-shirt nihilist — born plain Richard Meyers in Kentucky
— is back with two collections of odds'n'ends: the two-CD
Time (Matador) and a book of writings and drawings called
Hot and Cold (Powerhouse). Barney Hoskyns talked to Mr Hell in London about
Television and Johnny Thunders, the Strokes and the Rolling Stones…
and just why there are so many genitals in his book.
RBP: What made you decide to go back
to these recordings and repackage them now?
RH: Well, the idea was that I wanted to
reclaim R.I.P., because it had been turning up licensed
without me playing any role in it. ROIR only had the rights to bring
it out on cassette, and then they kept licensing it for CD use. So I
wanted to get it out in a CD version that was entirely ours. There's
a guy in New York who runs a record store called Subterranean that
specializes in '70s New York material — mostly me and Tom and Patti
— and he put me together with Matador 'cause he knew they liked my
stuff. He also knew there was some archival material that had been
floating around and that we thought was worthy of getting some kind
of release. So I just talked it over with Matador and we decided
what stuff would make a good package. So that was it: it wasn't
because I thought, oh, now I must go back… I mean, if I'm gonna
bring something out, it's gonna be something from the '70s, 'cause
that's all I have!
What about Hot and
a complete coincidence that Time happened at the same time as
the book, because essentially they're the same concept, in two
different media. They're both odds and ends that hadn't been turned
up in a proper release before. So it was just like this conjunction
Have the two things been a way of
taking stock of your life and career?
Nah, I'm not taking stock. But it is
nice just to dispose of the fucking shit. It clears the desk, you
know what I mean? Inevitably, you can't help having your own sort of
view of the material refreshed by looking it all over again, but
that happens periodically anyway. In a way it's like looking at
somebody else's work anyway. What does it mean that I made this
stuff? Not very much.
But you talk in the booklet essay
about "how slapped-around and bewildered and angry and driven I was
for most of those years" and how "strangely sad" that makes you
But even that… even when I wrote
that, that was the mood was in when I wrote it. Now when I
think about it, I think, hmmm, I kind of overdid the negative there,
because I was laughing a lot in all those years too.
Listening to Time, to those
songs again, made me freshly aware that you're one of the defining
New York voices — a petulant, jaded, evil-little-boy sneer that’s
like a cross between Tom Verlaine and Johnny Thunders. Where did
that voice come from?
I like "petulant"!
Where did it come from? Oh, straining to overcome all my
weaknesses! I only started singing when we first rehearsed Neon Boys
material — the first time I ever played in public was in
You could almost apply to the voice
what you say about Thunders’ guitar sound in Hot and Cold:
"the way it sounds sarcastic; the drawn-out, bent
I prefer "petulant"! But yeah, there's
some of that — sarcasm and sneeringness — but I wouldn't pick those
out as being defining traits. I like your "petulant"! It does sound
like a whining child.
It’s funny to reflect that you first
came to NYC in 1967. Was Gotham a good place to be a struggling
Well, I had dropped out of high school
and I'd just turned 17 and I was a complete hayseed. I knew
nobody in New York.
Did you have a southern
Yeah, and people who know can still
detect it. But pretty much I did my best to dispose of it right
away, because I could never say anything without somebody, like,
remarking on it. Though when I go back to Kentucky, it comes back.
So I really didn't know my way around: it took me years to make a
friend [laughs]. I was really alienated by the Love and Peace thing,
though I made some effort to fit in. By the time I was 19, however,
I had a girlfriend who was 34 who was in the middle of the New York
art scene. She was Claes Oldenberg's wife, Patti, and she's still a
friend. And through her I got to hang out with Jasper Johns and De
Kooning, and it was really stimulating. She taught me a lot. And by
then, Tom was in New York. It seemed really hard and lonely,
and I must have had 30 jobs. I worked as a longshoreman unloading
crates from ships. I worked as an encyclopaedia salesman, door to
door, and that is not fun in New York!
It's funny how few people appreciate
how what you call "twisted French aestheticism gave birth to punk
rock. You could argue that the Sex Pistols wouldn't have happened
without Rimbaud and Lautréamont, given how immersed you were in
writers like that. Not that Sid Vicious ever read Un Saison En
Enfer or Les Chants de Maldoror…
Except that Malcolm was very
sophisticated and highly educated. And he really had a lot to do
with what made all that stuff work.
Well, that's a fair point. But I
wondered if, when you came to Britain, you connected with anyone for
whom punk was more than just stomping noise and hails of
was into stomping noise and violence and confrontation. I
chose that, and so did Rimbaud and Lautréamont. I wasn't looking for
some kind of intellectual soulmates. I didn't think that literature
was superior to the sound of the Velvet Underground.
The Velvets were crucial, weren't
they, because they showed you could combine sonic aggression with
Well, except that when I first heard
the Velvets, they sounded like an inept attempt to be Bob Dylan. I
would put Bob Dylan before the Velvets in terms of being ambitious
in rock'n'roll and its possibilities on all levels. On the other
hand, although Dylan's first few electric records sure did have an
amazing sound to them, there was nothing there like Lou Reed's
guitar playing on, like, 'I Heard Her Call My Name'.
How did the Neon Boys' garage-punk
aesthetic evolve in 1972/3? ‘That’s All I Know (Right Now)’, from
April 1973, could have been a track on
that was the kind of music we were playing when we first started out.
We were listening to the Seeds and Paul Revere & the Raiders.
The Kingsmen were my idea of a band when I was a kid, and that's what we sounded like when we
first started. Even when Television first started, that's
what we sounded like.
Did Tom make a rapid adjustment from
acoustic hoot nights to lo-fi trash-punk?
I think he was always into the British
Invasion and punk stuff. He loved the Velvets. The acoustic thing
was just because he couldn't conceive of how a band could be formed
until he and I started planning it. He didn't even know where to
start with the acoustic stuff. Maybe twice a year he would go to
some hoot night in the Village, but mostly he was just fiddling
around at home, because it was just all so overwhelming.
Why was your generation [
Well, I used that phrase first in the
back of the "Theresa Stern" book that I wrote with Tom, when I was
publishing these little books of poems. I had four books in the
works, one of them by me, one by Tom and one by Patti… only the
Theresa book ever came out. Anyway, in the back of the Theresa book I put a list of the
forthcoming titles, and wrote "Other books from the blank
generation". And that's when I conceived of using that. It's
possible that I could have been working on the song already, but I
don't think so. Or actually, maybe I'd written it. I can't remember for sure. As for the song, I liked the idea of doing my
versions of sorta genre songs, and a "generation" song was one of
them. I was way into the Who's first album [The Who Sings My
Generation in the U.S.], and Tom had this funny, kitsch single
by Rod McKuen called 'I Belong to the Beat Generation', so it just
seemed like a perfect conjunction to use that classic 'Hit The Road
Jack' chord sequence as the structure of that song.
Were you aiming for something as
anthemic as the song became?
the idea of the blank generation to me… well, the whole point was to
make you struggle to figure it out. Number one, any way you
interpret it is correct. Two, the point of it is to make you have a
hard time figuring it out. But obviously it carries these
connotations of emptiness, and obviously it carries these
connotations of "fill in the blank". For me, it was an awareness of,
like, Andy Warhol and Beckett and a whole bunch of people that I
identified with but that were actually very different from each
other. Samuel Beckett and Andy Warhol had very little in common,
except that you could imagine applying the word "blank" to them. But
ultimately, when anything was discussed long enough, my conclusion
was that I didn't care! It was kind of a defensive thing that kids
that age will use. I think I felt just overwhelmed by input: the
Vietnam war and the collapse of the '60s and the proliferation of
media… it just felt like everything was too much to handle and you
just tuned out. Blank seemed appropriate to me, because my own
feeling was of sensory overload.
How much did heroin have to do with
When I wrote 'Blank Generation' I had
never done heroin.
Of Television Mk 1, you've said: "We
were these notch-thin, homeless hoodlums, playing really powerful,
passionate, aggressive music that was also lyrical." Can you
remember the demos you recorded with Brian Eno in
It was really excruciating going in and
doing that. I mean, that has nothing to do with me. I'm just a robot
Why did you and Tom fall out?
Was it simply a case of This Band Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of
Us? Would one of you have had to be more pliant for the friendship
and partnership to survive?
I don't know. At the time, I was so
angry at how things went. I mean, we were best friends, and I felt
really, like, betrayed and fucked-over. Tom's not very good at…
Exactly. He just has no grace in
relating to people at all. In the classic sense, we were best
friends who hated each other. There were a lot of things that we had
in common that we had in common with no one else, but I knew how
responsible I was for all this stuff getting off the ground.
Television would not have happened if I hadn't been there with the
ideas and the initiative and the enthusiasm… but mostly the ideas.
It was a given, it was obvious, that he was the musician who had
some skills developed, whereas I was starting from nothing and would
have to learn as I went along. But the moment we started getting
attention, which was from the first gig, Tom started shutting me
out. So it was really excruciating. But at the same time, in
retrospect, I probably would have felt the same way if I'd been him.
I think I might have handled it a little more gracefully. And
ultimately I did feel the same way. I went from there to the
Heartbreakers, and though that gave me a lot of satisfaction, I
realized that I needed to lead a band completely, where I had the
last word. And that's basically what Tom felt like.
Was there any irony in going from
one band that had become too arty and pretentious for you
(Television) to another that was too doltish and unpoetic (the
Heartbreakers)? And were the Voidoids, in that case, a sort of
middle passage between those two?
With the Heartbreakers, it was just a
narrow range, that's all. I liked that range, but… I needed to be in
a band where I got to make the decisions. After I left the
Heartbreakers I didn't know where I was gonna go, except I
wanted to find out.
What do you make of the Strokes, who
seem to be a synthesis of all the CBGBs bands, with a singer who
recalls nothing so much as a young Richard Hell?
really see that. To me, the Strokes are like a teenybopper band. I'm
into the White Stripes. The Strokes are catchy. My daughter
loves them. But they remind me of Blondie more than they do
the Voidoids. They're doing this skinny-tie, tight-pants music, and
to me it's like a style thing. And my God, their graphics are
horrifying. They look like something Queen would have
Is it strange or amusing to see this
resurfacing of the Bowery aesthetic a quarter century
I don't know about it. I don't see a
Bowery aesthetic, I just see a superficial homage. It's like a paper
doll where you put on the little paper punk outfit with the
Given that we’re in Golden Jubilee
year, does that stir memories of how Malcolm turned ‘Blank
Generation’ into ‘Pretty Vacant’? Was ‘Pretty Vacant’ as good as
Well, I thought the Sex Pistols were
the cream of the crop. They came in and topped everybody, for sure.
They took all the existing strands and made a perfect package out of
The heart of Time is what you
call "five songs recorded in the cold preoccupied between-times
(decline) of the band, when people were giving up on me because I
was not much use…" It's great to hear the original version of the
title song again, which you rightly say is far superior to the
Destiny Street version. These songs all have a certain dark,
melancholy strain, not least the version of Dylan's 'Going Going
Yeah, I think that's what I was
referring to when I talked about being "bewildered and
It’s funny that Time features
covers of Dylan and Stones (and Creedence and Fats Domino) songs,
when punk was supposed to be in opposition to '60s
Well, that music had a lot to do with
forming me. I didn't feel like I had to pretend otherwise. I didn't
wanna strike poses about shit, y'know? I wasn't gonna deny that I
loved those bands, 'cause it's not in my nature to act contemptuous
towards someone who once mattered to me. In my early years,
rock'n'roll really was life or death to me. I look at it in a
different way now, of course, and it seems silly to see people
define themselves by what bands they like or don't like, but I can
remember when the Rolling Stones did 'It's Only Rock'n'Roll' and it
really repulsed me. I was so disgusted: it was like, who are they
talking to that they're calling it "only rock'n'roll"?
That was like the ultimate betrayal. But at the same time
they had a point: it is only show business!
Is it true there was some sort of
competition between you and Dee Dee Ramone to write a better drug
song than ‘Heroin’, the result being 'Chinese Rocks'?
No. He and Johnny have said so much
bullshit — those guys never gave a fuck what lies they told. If they
didn't know the answer to a question they'd just make up something.
They just said what they thought might be amusing.
What’s the difference between you
and Johnny Thunders. Why didn’t you die?
A lot of it is luck. I could very
easily have died many times. The other thing, probably, is that I
had other options, and I don't think Johnny could conceive of other
options. There was nothing he could do but go on slogging around
Was he really as "smart" as you and
others have said?
He was perfectly smart. But it's very
hard to age in rock'n'roll. I decided I wanted out because it was
killing me, and I couldn't see where to go with it that wouldn't be
fatal. So I could leave. He couldn't leave, because he didn't have
anything else to do.
To Susan Sontag in 1978 — the day
after you’d written ‘The Kid with the Replaceable Head’ (and she was
just finishing Illness as Metaphor!) — you said: "I want to
encourage in my songs… that feeling of being an adolescent
throughout your whole life, of rejecting the whole idea of having a
self, a personality."
I don’t really think about it very
much. I try to learn from experience, and I try to behave decently.
But I also think there's a lot of truth in this sort of thing about
adolescence that I was advocating… that it is really hard to
maintain the openness and the fluidity that I was talking about as
being desirable in teenagers. The thing I meant was that state that
precedes having something to defend as a person: This is who I am,
and I reject everything else. Where there's still all the
possibilities and you're still interested in everything because you
haven't rejected anything yet, and you're not set in your ways and
crusted-over. And I think it's trying to keep that in my work, and
it's why I like switching around between media. It keeps you fresh
if you don't have habitual ways of doing things.
Why are there so many penises and
vaginas in Hot and Cold?
[Laughs] It's funny, I was
telling somebody how it's really conspicuous that out of the ten
interviews I've done so far here in England, nobody has mentioned
the dicks! Whereas in America, it's always the first thing they
bring up! I don't know why, because America is a notoriously
puritanical place. [More laughter] Apart from anything else,
there's the naked picture of me! I couldn't decide whether to
use that or not, and I finally decided I would for two reasons: 1)
Because I'd put in a couple of naked girlfriends, and I thought it
was only fair to put myself in, and 2) Because I wanted to see what
it would mean! As for all the drawings, I have to admit that a lot
of those had to do with taking stimulants and being alone late at
night… and that was the way I figured out how to prolong the arousal
as long as possible, when there wasn't anybody else present! [Yet
Does love still come in spurts, and
does it still "murder your heart"?
Well, that was that kind of teenage
wail of angst. It's not like it's my last word on
© Barney Hoskyns 2002
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