PRINT September 2009


Richard Hell

Richard Hell as Nick Detroit in John Holmstrom’s photo story “The Legend of Nick Detroit,” Punk 6 (October 1976). Photo: © Roberta Bayley.

“I DO NOT REPUDIATE any of my paintings,” Henri Matisse once wrote, “but there is not one of them that I would not redo differently, if I had it to redo.” Once a painting is out of the artist’s hands, of course, the opportunity to rework it rarely presents itself—though Pierre Bonnard is said to have carried a little paint box with him during museum visits in case he felt the need to revise one of his canvases on the spot. Prose writers and poets, on the other hand, more readily revisit their earlier efforts (not always happily, as the onslaughts of Marianne Moore and W. H. Auden against some of their younger works show). And music tends to be a still different story. Composers in the European classical tradition can worry at their published scores the way some poets do with their poems, and of course performers can repeatedly record different versions of the same scores. But rock musicians treat their primary products as, indeed, records—documents of the moment when disparate elements, brought together by technological alchemy, crystallized into something definitive. To truly redo a finished record has been rare. One of the few instances I can think of is Paul McCartney’s 2003 revision of the Beatles’ 1970 album Let It Be—shorn of the Phil Spector “wall of sound” McCartney had always objected to—as Let It Be . . . Naked. But as the title indicates, McCartney’s intention was not so much to redo the album as to bring it back to some original condition—a fictional condition, of course, since it was the Beatles’ inability to finish the record themselves that led to Spector’s intervention.

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All of this to say that Richard Hell’s Destiny Street Repaired, released this month by the online distributor Insound, might be the first rock record ever “redone” in Matisse’s sense—and this despite a title that likewise evokes a lost-and-regained original state preceding the first version of Destiny Street, made by Hell in 1982 with the Voidoids. Destiny Street was the much-anticipated follow-up to the band’s brilliant Blank Generation (1977), which had immediately been recognized as a quintessential expression of the punk moment. Its very title was a manifesto of refusal. This very quality, however, made it hardly surprising that what followed was five years of silence. This time lag could perhaps be explained by Hell’s increasing substance dependence, which certainly enters into his long-standing dissatisfaction with Destiny Street. He recalls often missing studio sessions, merely phoning in to instruct guitarists Robert Quine and Naux to layer more guitars into the mix. For admirers, the resultant squalls of noise are one of the album’s pleasures. Yet by the time Destiny Street finally appeared, punk’s initial impetus had spent itself. The term post-punk had been coined as early as 1980. While Blank Generation had paradoxically managed to become a manifesto of the times by articulating an existential isolation (“when I dine it’s for the wall that I set a place”), Destiny Street embodied that isolation concretely, in part through its untimeliness. Though its songs were the equal of those on the first album, and if anything were more open in emotion, the record never had the same impact, because it no longer had a context.

Cover art for Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ Destiny Street Repaired (Insound, 2009).

Hell’s “repair,” then, also amounts to a sort of pruning, but unlike McCartney he’s done this by adding as well as subtracting: Retaining the original 1982 rhythm tracks (by Quine, Naux, Fred Maher on drums, and Hell on bass), he has rerecorded the vocals and substituted new lead guitar lines (by Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and original Voidoid Ivan Julian). Hell’s singing was always brilliantly on the edge of control, and as he nears sixty he can still push his voice to its limits; what’s astonishing is that he now also projects an inner clarity that was not there before, putting the lyrics across with unequaled conviction. Oddly, considering that he has lived in New York for more than forty years, his phrasing now betrays a hint of southern drawl retained from his Kentucky childhood.

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Checking on that quote from Matisse’s “Notes of a Painter,” I just noticed that the translator has slightly changed the artist’s meaning. In the original, it reads, “I do not repudiate any of my paintings” . . . not but, but rather “and there is not one of them that I would not redo differently.” Matisse’s desire to redo his old paintings is perfectly consistent with his refusal to repudiate them. The artist’s commitment to his work resides in his never deceiving himself into believing it has reached its ultimate form; it maintains a potential claim on him. Hell observes, “Destiny Street Repaired better represents the intentions of the original 1982 sessions than does the Destiny Street that was released that year.” That doesn’t mean he was capable then of wanting the record to sound the way the new version does. On the contrary, he is capable now of grasping the intentions that back then he could only vaguely make out. Many artists experience such belated clarity about their earlier work, but only rarely do they act on it.

Barry Schwabsky is a London-based writer and international reviews editor of Artforum.