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Before Hell Freezes Over

The case for inducting Punk pioneer Richard Hell into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame

By Steven Rosen · June 19th, 2013 · Music
music1_richard_hell_photo_inez van lamsweerde and vinoodh matadinRichard Hell (Photo: Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin)

So far, this has been a hell of a year for Punk.

By that, I mean it’s been a great year for recognizing the formative influence that Richard Hell, now 63, has had on Punk – and, by extension, all Rock & Roll and pop culture that has followed in its aggressive, assertive, rebellious wake. 

Hell just published a literary, frank, edgy autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, that has earned comparisons to Patti Smith’s Just Kids. It tells how the roots of his restless disaffection with society, his hell-raising personal conduct and his interest in the arts (and Rock music) all began while growing up as Richard Meyers in Lexington, Ky. His dad, who died when Hell was just 7, was an experimental psychologist at the University of Kentucky. 

Hell can also claim a very important role in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new blockbuster fashion exhibition, Punk: Chaos to Couture. His impact on the creation of 1970s-era New York Punk is represented in the very first gallery, which is devoted to the Bowery punk club CBGB where he performed. Also, a late-1970s photo of him in a signature ripped-around-the-collar T-shirt is one of the show’s more widely seen images. He and John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) wrote prefaces to the show’s catalogue; fitting, as the two have been singled out as the New York and London originators of Punk. 

A restless sort, upon arriving in New York and deciding upon music, Hell left bands Television and the Heartbreakers before either had developed much of a following. But his own Richard Hell & the Voidoids did release a famously influential album on Sire in 1977, his pinched voice delivering up such classics as title song “Blank Generation” and “Love Comes in Spurts.” 

It took him five years to come up with a follow-up, Destiny Street. By then, his momentum was gone; it wasn’t until 1992 that he joined up with Dim Stars — a Punk/Post-Punk studio super-group — for an album. He was trying to rid himself of a drug problem by avoiding the music scene, he explains in his book. But he has kept busy as a writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction.

For Hell, this current national recognition has been a long time coming. As it happens, it coincides with a similar musical awakening by residents of Kentucky who take pride in their Bluegrass State containing “the roots of popular music,” as the subtitle of a 2012 book by Jason Howard, A Few Honest Words, puts it. 

But should Hell be among those musicians that Kentuckians revere? After all, the music usually associated with Kentucky is Country, Bluegrass and Appalachian Folk.

Punk? Not so much. 

At the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum (kentuckymusicmuseum.com), a Renfro Valley complex built by the state and operated by a nonprofit, he’s gotten some recent public nominations for inclusion.

“The guitarist from Lexington? Yeah,” says Robert Lawson, the Hall of Fame’s executive director, when asked if Hell has ever been mentioned as a possible inductee. 

To qualify for inclusion, a potential inductee must have spent part of his or her life in Kentucky and have been active in music for at least 10 years. While public input is welcome, the official selections are made by a designated committee, which has inducted classes six times since 2002. Current members include the Everly Brothers, The Judds, Rosemary Clooney, Bill Monroe and Grandpa Jones. 

Hell has a very influential supporter in Ron Pen, professor of music at University of Kentucky and director of the school’s John Jacob Niles Center for American Music. (Niles, a Kentucky Folk singer/songwriter/folklorist who was one of Bob Dylan’s influences, is in the Hall of Fame.)

“I was on the Advisory Board of the Kentucky Music Museum and some years ago I suggested Richard Hell and (Covington-born virtuoso Rock guitarist) Adrian Belew, even though they did not fit the ‘mold’ of the traditional and Country musicians generally associated with the Commonwealth,” he wrote in an email.  

“Meyers certainly is an easy sell for the Kentucky Music Museum, but I have not assembled the biographical material, etc., to submit his name. If there is an autobiography out now, that should be all the ammo you need. He was a core cultural icon in the (Punk) movement, though it was his work in New York City and on recordings, not in a scene in Lexington, that was central to Punk.”

Hell’s publisher, Ecco, declined an interview request and Hell did not respond to an email. But in A Very Clean Tramp, he explained how life in Lexington inspired his Punk attitude. 

You can see the seeds of the album Blank Generation arising from this description of suburbia: “My flat, vacant, smudged 10- or 11-year-old face. There’s a panorama or montage of local vistas, the empty suburban hills shifting slowly behind it, all silent and soft and cold, with visible grain, as I glide around the quiet newly built streets on my bicycle, alone, with no else in sight.”

He moved with his mother to Virginia in 1965 and left on his own for New York around Christmas 1966, while still a teen. His background and attitude might make him a somewhat radical choice for an institution that this year chose as inductees Exile, Christian music star Steven Curtis Chapman, Kentucky Headhunters, Skeeter Davis, ’50s vocal group The Hilltoppers, Old Joe Clark, and Emory and Linda Martin. (Emory was a one-armed banjo virtuoso.)

This year’s induction class has its Rock influences. Kentucky Headhunters make Country Rock. Exile — before becoming Country mainstays — had a sexy hit with a Rock ballad in 1978 called “Kiss You All Over.” And the late Country singer Davis, born in Dry Ridge, Ky., had a huge 1963 pop hit called “The End of the World” and two decades later recorded an album with the Louisville-originated rock band NRBQ, whose bassist Joey Spampinato she subsequently married. Previous induction classes have had a few rockers — besides the Everly Brothers, Louisville-born Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary is in the Hall, as is Pikeville native son Dwight Yoakam, who brought a Cowpunk sensibility to Country.

The engrossing museum, itself, has far more variety in its many exhibits. NRBQ is represented, for instance, as is Harlan-born Rusty York, a Cincinnatian who had the Rockabilly hit “Sugaree” in 1959. For more information, visit kentuckymusicmuseum.com.

(Here in Greater Cincinnati, Covington’s Behringer-Crawford Museum has partnered with Northern Kentucky Music Legends Committee to start a separate induction process just for their own hall of fame. The first 13 were selected in tandem with a related exhibit that opened June 2 and continues through Sept. 1. It’s a “strange brew” of initial inductees, ranging from 1960s/1970s local television-show/singer Bob Braun to Belew, with an actual band called Strange Brew among the others. For more information, visit bcmuseum.org.)

Hell, short of a statewide (or national) public campaign, probably isn’t going to get into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame anytime soon. But just in case, executive director Lawson says he plans to learn more about his music.  

After all, Hell is a Kentuckian. 

“I take a lot of pride in trying to learn something new each day and figuring out more artists, because we’ve got to honor and support them as much as we can,” Lawson says. 

 
 
 
 

 

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