Saturday, September 24, 2011

"You Will Be Like God..." The Richard Hell Story

In my all-too-obvious attempt to understand my childhood, I have undertaken a study of exactly what happened in the ‘80s, musically. In order to do that, one must understand the prerequisites. In this particular case, the prerequisites involve what happened at a club called CBGB which is located in the Bowery in Manhattan. It was the locus of the American underground rock ‘n roll scene in the mid-to-late 1970s. Cutting their teeth at CBGB at that time were such icons as The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, Blondie, and Patti Smith.

There are many parts of that era that would interest a Mockingbird-oriented person and one of them is the career of a guy named Richard Hell. Hell was a fairly well-read fellow (and from an upper-middle class family as, ironically, many “punks” were). He was a forceful and uncompromising visionary who floated, unsatisfied, from Television to The Heartbreakers (no, not THOSE Heartbreakers) and, finally, to his band Richard Hell and the Voidoids.

One of his earliest songs is his most misunderstood. It is also his most interesting. It is called “Blank Generation” and it is mistakenly taken as an anthem for an uncaring and apathetic group of rock ‘n roll punks like “Pretty Vacant” by The Sex Pistols. Hell describes it differently, however:
“ That is the ultimate message of the New Wave: if you just amass the courage that is necessary, you can completely invent yourself. You can be your own hero, and once everybody is their own hero, then everybody is gonna be able to communicate with each other on a real basis rather than a hand-me-down set of societal standards."

Ugh. (Good tune, though) Blank Generation = Blank Slate or Blank Canvass. Here again, we have an advocacy of self-creation. Just another example in another place. By virtue of the right choices and considerable inner strength, the objective reason of the mind can create the self in any form it wishes. Ah, the glories of free agency. Always ever-present.

It does raise a couple of questions: Why was Hell consistently unable to get his vision across to the other free agents of his revolving door of bands? (To be fair, the Voidoids did for a time.) More importantly, why did Hell feel the need to obscenely self-medicate with some of the heaviest drugs around? (Listen to “Chinese Rocks”!) There seems to always be massive disconnect between the philosophy of free will/agency/identity-creation and a nagging, vociferous reality. We must sound like a broken record about this, but history dictates that it bears a fairly regular hearing.

Perhaps the best assault of reality into this mode of thinking came in Manchester, England during the same time period. Ian Curtis of Joy Division was at the pinnacle of what would soon prove to be the steep cliff of suicide. Nihilistic self-creation was the order of the day, ironically, in a declining United Kingdom with very little opportunity to advance oneself. It was in this atmosphere that Curtis wrote “Isolation”, the other side of the coin to free agency. It was shortly after this song was released that he hanged himself. Rather than liberation, self-creation and free agency lead to an impossible burden and deep defeat.

With this burden of free agency, it isn’t very satisfying to cast your faith on something else (we would argue for the Resurrected Lord) that isn’t true. But that is a different scope for a different piece. For now, we can stand with one half of Richard Hell (his unconscious, perhaps), Ian Curtis, and a host of others who find themselves crushed by the false idea of free agency.

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