The storied punk rocker, autodidact, and memoirist (I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, 2013) careens among a host of lit- and culture-crit topics.
The best parts of Hell’s collection of essays, taken from various publications over the last couple of decades, concern himself. Why punk? “I wasn’t choosing doubt and suspicion and despair,” he writes, “I was taken there by reality.” The author nods at intellectual ancestors: some are the usual suspects, such as Rimbaud, Warhol, and the Velvet Underground (“the first completely hitless rock and roll band to end up in everyone’s short-list pantheon of all-time best groups”), while some are less obvious—e.g., Robert Bresson and Nathanael West. Most of his scattered pieces work, as with a lovely meditation on the sometimes-unlovely graffiti found in the infamous CBGB bathroom and a muscular if unlikely celebration of muscle cars. (But does anyone really need to hear, at length, that Orson Welles was a genius?) Sometimes wistfully, sometimes nostalgically, even though he would certainly disavow such sentimentality, Hell limns an aesthetic that, like the New York scene of the mid-1970s, is part dumb and part profound. Though he takes The Ramones down a peg or two by calling them the cartoon, Bay City Rollers–ish creation they were (“they conceived of themselves as a boy band and a brand…more than anything else”), he praises tutelary spirit and partner in crime Patti Smith for a moment of punk brilliance in a book the two worked on called Merde: “She drew some pictures for it and one of them was just the penciled word ‘There’s not enuf time’ (she first wrote ‘enough’ and changed it to ‘enuf’ which was better.” Punk, he adds, is subversive, snotty, and adolescent—and, he adds from a wizened point of view, “a good idea.”
Fuel for Hell’s minions, a fan’s notes for fans.