Autobiography of Richard Hell

The first Central Park Human Be-In took place at the end of March that year. I went up and took a look. It felt strained. People were standing around looking at each other and some of them were wearing little bells on their clothes. There was pot smoking.

Like George Bush’s flag waving after the World Trade Center attacks, it was more repellant for the way the underlying basis of unity was assumed than for the dubious underlying idea itself: the virtue of patriotism for Bush’s Americans, and the practicability of universal kindness and generosity for the hippies. The people who were joined together by those unexamined ideas seemed false and mechanical, like puppets. On the other hand, my inability to fit in was involuntary, too.

In Sheep Meadow they were waving their arms and singing and they reveled in the power of their scary love numbers. Sheep Meadow is big, and there were thousands and thousands there, some with face paint and beads and flowers. Drugs were a theme. People would chant things about love. Most of them weren’t really dressed right (just a hasty bead necklace or a hair-daisy), but then neither was The Velvet Underground usually.

I was confused and disconcerted. Crowds bothered me, for one, and I knew I had a bad personality and I didn’t see any way out of it. There was an exhiliration in the intimidating strength of the numbers though, and it did seem to promise that there would be serious consequences before the generation got old. It was spring in the ward.

I do remember once seeing a guy who was young and who had long blond hair and a handlebar moustache and a square jaw, back then. He was handsome and seemed self-confident and rich, looking around upstairs in the gallery of Gotham Book Mart with his friend. Maybe it was Dennis Hopper. He was probably someone like Dennis Hopper. Perhaps he helped organize the Woodstock festival. He was wearing a western suede jacket with very long fringe, including a row along the back of each sleeve, so his leather trailed psychedelically and swung, rippling, with casual cowboy majesty as he gestured. I envied him that jacket. I wished there was a world in which I could wear it. I’d dress Elizabethan style, myself, if I could get away with it.

At the beginning of June, 1967, two months after the Be-In, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. I had to pretend to like it because it was played for me by this girl I’d met in the office where a temp agency had sent me that week. She had pot, too. I wanted to fuck her so much. My facial expressions, speech, and gestures were the unprepossessing facade on a huge warehouse of hope to fuck. She was short and perky, with that little dash of a nose-tip and the disproportionately large nostrils that say “nose job.” She had pretty skin—poreless, white and smooth, like a soft milk-plexiglass light box. I was a beardless seventeen-year-old stick figure, all wrists and ankles, with rumpled hair starting to cover my ears, little wire glasses that had a thin tortoise shell casing around their round lenses, work shirt, jeans and not much sign of any status outside of dispossessed youth. I did look like a poet. I had deepset eyes and thick lips and I smoked Lucky Strikes. Fran was probably five years older than me.

She lived in a renovated building on Second Ave. near 5th St., in a one room apartment with lots of candles and batik pillows, but she was totally middle-class straight. I was depending on the implications of her willingness to smoke grass alone with me. The Beatles record had come out the day before. She played it on a portable stereo. I grew up on the Beatles. They were exciting when I was in the eighth grade. It was dewy, highly delineated, cute rock and roll. The new record was embarrassing. The band was presenting itself in a winking, music-hall get-up to explain social problems to us. The public event nature of the album’s release, following from the Beatles’ incredible popularity, was like the Academy Awards on TV—glitzy but dull, and left me feeling not so much let down as left out, elsewhere, while still a little tacky by association.

I acted impressed for Fran’s sake, as you would for a stranger telling you a personal anecdote, especially if she was wearing a very short skirt. I’m not saying I wasn’t boring, too. I was. Did that mean I’d have to do without sexual intercourse? No!

We lit some candles and turned off the lamps. I succeeded with Fran but it was hard work, and, as usual, still hard work once I’d gotten my dick inside her. As the sex act proceeded, she behaved like she was resisting it. She didn’t fight, just passively refused to participate. What’s up with that? I wouldn’t even know where to begin forcing myself on her. Well, maybe I’d know where to begin. But I was no epicurean voluptuary myself. I probably wasn’t even putting my mouth between a girl’s legs yet, at least not with any skill (though the fact is a girl like Fran would probably have been so embarrassed by it that it would turn her off and she’d have discouraged me).

In those days pubic hair was not groomed. That was sexy—it was a little feral animal sign, and one of individuality, despite a girl’s otherwise carefully managed appearance. Fran’s pussy got damp but not soaking wet. It was slick, like a squeaky rubber duck. Of course I ejaculated within seconds of squeezing my penis into it. Then it was back to having to try to think of something to talk about and trying to seem relaxed, while the brain wheels spun, like a car in the mud.

In the late summer of 1967, I received orders to appear before the Selective Service. I would soon be eighteen and eligible for the draft. It was the time of the Vietnam War.

There were lots of stories about how a guy could get away with presenting himself as homosexual or crazy or drug-addicted to get out of the draft. I couldn’t see doing that. It would grate too much to be turned into an elaborate liar by the government. It wasn’t really a principal, just a gut feeling. (And I realize it was a luxury.) Anyway, my ambivalence about faking would probably keep me from being able to pull it off. I wasn’t going to claim to be a conscientious objector either. I could imagine wars I’d fight, and I didn’t want to go into alternative service.

I finally decided to go to the induction center and do whatever came naturally, to just trust my reactions. The Army could not really want someone like me.

The day came and I stood in line with the other candidates in the ugly exam rooms. The physical testing seemed routine. Then we were put in a desk-filled classroom and given papers with multiple-choice questions on them. I began. My indignation started to build. The questions were boring and obnoxious and I didn’t feel like submitting. I stood up and left. There must have been an official in the room, but I don’t remember. It wasn’t a situation where they’d physically prevent me from leaving.

The halls of the building were dead quiet; everyone was behind the doors. I wandered around uncertainly for a minute or two before a surprised officer walked by and asked me what I was doing in the hallway. I told him I’d been taking the written test but had gotten fed up with it. He asked me if I wanted to see a psychiatrist and I said OK. He led me to an office.

In the office was a shrink right from Central Casting. He not only had a goatee but he had a Viennese accent. He asked me vat zeh pkroblem was and I told him I resented the test, that the questions on the test were insulting and that’s why I’d stopped answering them. I said I didn’t think there’d be any point in putting me in the Army. I was a high school dropout who couldn’t hold a job and a lot of the reason was that I was a loner who’d never been part of any organization and that I couldn’t stand authority. I knew what would happen if I was drafted into the Army—I’d end up in the brig. What would be the point of that? I meant what I said, and I guess I was convincing because I got a psychological deferral. I have no idea what the chances were that what I did would get that result, but I know that I was lucky.

I worked at Gotham Book Mart on 47th St. between Fifth and Sixth Avenues for a few months in late 1967, early 1968. By then I had an apartment on 6th St. east of Second Ave. It was one dark room and I was lonely there a lot. The loneliness was unpleasant but you came to think it was inevitable, not only because it never went away, but because there was a whole literature of alienation to go with it. (There’s a whole literature for every stage of maturity, but especially the earlier ones.)

I learned a lot at Gotham Book Mart. It was the most famous and best literary book store in New York—probably second only to Paris’s Shakespeare & Co. in the whole world, for literary associations. It had a huge out-of-print stock. Every year, for decades, the management had been saving and storing each year’s unsold obscure and ambitious new poetry and fiction, as well as film literature, and all other high culture in printed form, much of it from obscure small presses. The whole little old building on 47th St., with its rowboat-fishermen/hooked-fish signboard poking out from among the row of diamond merchants to claim that “Wise Men Fish Here,” was store property. Miss Steloff, the owner, who’d started the shop in 1920, was still there practically every day. She had the brightest pale blue eyes and whitest hair. She was quick and focused and you didn’t want to try her patience or disappoint her.

The store had low ceilings, like an Orson Welles movie, and was a jumble. It was all made of worn, painted (blue) wood that seemed home-carpentered. Books and papers and pamphlets were stacked and stuffed everywhere. The shelves were “double packed”—behind the visible was another row of books. Mr. Lyman, a thin, stiffly upright, cartoonishly crisp-featured man with black-rimmed glasses on a tense face that reddened under pressure, was the harried store manager. He was like a character from a Victorian novel—it seemed as if the store was his whole world. Or like he was a non-com military lifer, getting all his pride and dignity from his commitment to the service, like a mildly femme James Stewart in the Ward Bond role in a John Ford cavalry movie.

When I arrived, Miss Steloff, at eighty, was in the process of completing transfer of ownership of the shop to a young book man from California she’d come to trust. This was Andreas Brown, who soon became my boss. Mr. Brown was a focused, no-nonsense person too (who also wore black rimmed glasses and had a sharply-chiselled, very regular, WASP-looking face and JFK hair cut). It was a serious enterprise up there, though they all regarded themselves as being the devoted servants of the writers and their literate public. Many writers had relationships with the shop. James Joyce had been a mail order customer, and the James Joyce Society held its meetings there. The shop had sold his books as well as D.H. Lawrence’s and Henry Miller’s when those books were banned as obscene. Scuffling poets like Gregory Corso would show up with paper bags of messy poem drafts and trade them for enough money to get drugs or keep their hotel rooms for another week. Mr. Brown wasn’t exploiting them, but showing them respect. The store had been a hangout for the emigre French surrealists, like Breton, during World War II. A famous picture taken on the premises in 1948, at a reception for Edith and Osbert Sitwell, included my literary corrupter Jose Garcia Villa, as well as W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Delmore Schwartz, Gore Vidal, Richard Eberhart, Randall Jarrell, and Tennessee Williams. In 1972-73, the store would publish Patti Smith’s first pamphlets.

Because Andy Brown got there just when I did, and one of his first projects was an inventory of the store, I had the luck to get assigned to helping catalog the hundreds and hundreds of old little literary magazines filling up a storage room on the second floor. I spent day after day alone up there with such signifying artifacts as Eliot’s Criterion, Harriet Monroe’s Poetry (Chicago) when it was publishing Pound’s circle in the teens and twenties, Eugene and Marie Jolas’s Paris Transition, where a lot of early modernists and surrealists published, Princess Caetani’s Botteghe Oscure, a gorgeous high-toned bohemian thing from Rome, Wyndham Lewis’s Blast, Margaret Anderson’s The Little Review, Charles Henri Ford’s View (where all the temporarily New York European Dada/Surrealists like Breton and Man Ray and Max Ernst published), Ashbery’s and Koch’s and Schuyler’s and Mathews’s Locus Solus, Diane Di Prima’s and LeRoi Jones’s The Floating Bear... Elegant stacks of timeless high design in letterpress on laid rag, to exclamatory spectra of lithography and free-form poetry on yellowing tabloid newsprint, to utilitarian spontaneous stapled mimeo zines with the cancelled postage stamps pasted, and handwritten addresses of underground writers scrawled across them.

I love poets’ magazines. I was aware of them before I went to work at the Gotham—we all fantasized having our poems debuted on the pages of literary magazines (though most that had any distribution were sponsored by universities)—but the love was enflamed by what I saw at the Gotham. My very favorite example, though I didn’t discover it till a few years later, and which I rate the greatest literary magazine of the whole 20th century, was a cumbersome, shoddily slapped together, stapled mimeo on legal-sized paper, published on the Lower East Side, 1963-1966, called C magazine, edited by Ted Berrigan. You could extrapolate everything of interest in the universe from an examination of its thirteen issues, and you’d have a great time, laughing to yourself, doing it.

David Giannini and I had decided to start a poetry magazine. Being lyrical and unconventional and full of ourselves and Dylan Thomas, we called it Genesis: Grasp. At the Gotham I’d met a guy named David Kherdian, who was doing some kind of research, probably William Saroyan related, and he planted the idea that maybe Giannini and I should move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where it’d be cheaper to live and get printing done, as well as being pretty and quiet. He’d been living there with his young wife (they were both a few years older than me). I wonder now if it was mostly that he wanted some company, or validation for his own choice. I don’t know, but David and I were kind of nervous about how we were going to be able to afford to publish this magazine and we were curious about the desert.

We signed up for a driveaway car, which I totalled in Illinois, drunk. When I nervously called the owner in Texas, he didn’t yell at me but just whispered a deeply disappointed, “Oh no.” We took a bus the rest of the way.

Two months later, I couldn’t afford a bus, and returned to New York hitchhiking. The grim time in Santa Fe was like a prolonged case of that feeling you get when you wake up in the morning and don’t really want to get out of bed and face the day, but can only doze a little, unable to fall back asleep, and that’s actually more tiring, and not in the sense of “sleepy,” until you’ve stretched out the postponement of getting out of bed way too long, into brainlessness like the inside of your head has turned to chalk….

The town was a backwater, and worse was the mediocre-artist demographic, with its pretense that it’d rejected corrupt worldly striving for natural Santa Fe. There was no one to talk to. We got a flat-top adobe house set on a slope on the edge of town. It was $50 a month and spacious but unheated except for one fireplace. There was a violent alcoholic Chicano Vietnam vet in the house below who’d come up to drink and rant every day or two. The center of town was a long, dull walk, and we’d have to carry groceries too.

I got a lame part time job in an artsy-trashy souvenir store in town. I’d pass the time smoking grass when I could afford any. The one good moment was getting a poem from Allen Ginsberg for the magazine, that he’d kindly sent on receipt of our pathetic solicitation, and then rejecting it. It didn’t meet our standards of craftsmanship. He wrote a cold angry note back. The only thing I can say in our defense is that we literally did not know what we were doing.

I did find a pretty girlfriend, kind of the low-energy teenage Marlon Brando girl of Santa Fe. She was inarticulate but broody and rebellious and dressed in a black turtleneck and jeans. Her parents had positions at the tiny local college, St. John’s. As usual though, sex was tense. It was claustrophobic, like the sex act was a compartment that had pencil thin infra-red alarm-trigger beams criss-crossing it, like in jewel heist movies. Only the alarms were in the sex partners’ heads. Everything seemed to set off apologetic feelings and uncertainty. And the social part before and after was no more relaxed. (This is all with hindsight though. As I said about loneliness, the difficult sex seemed normal at the time. God knows I loved it.)

My co-editor couldn’t stand being away from his future wife, Helen, in New York and so he bailed a couple of weeks before me. He got the money to fly back.

In those days hitchhiking was still common. It was illegal on the big interstates but there were plenty of well-traveled roads to thumb, and it was easy enough to station yourself at the entrance ramps to the interstates too. In the midwest somewhere a farmer brought me home to his family’s big noisy dinner table piled with fresh vegetables and butter and bread and iced tea and ham and fried chicken, like out of a cowboy movie, and I slept for a night on the living room couch.

A couple of days later I got caught in the rain as it was getting dark on a two lane road where no one stopped.

But I got back to New York fine, and that was the only time I’ve ever tried to live anywhere else since.

Tom ended up graduating from public high school in Wilmington and going to a college in the Carolinas somewhere for a year or two, but then he dropped out and came on up to the East Village.

Within a few weeks we were spending most of our spare time together. Our mentalities got intertwined. When we didn’t have girlfriends, we’d often be together for entire days except when we were at work. We shared apartments for short periods, but though we usually had our own, half the time I’d find myself in his so late at night that I’d just crash on the floor, and we’d keep talking (it was actually more a kind of lazy verbal gunfire, with ammo made out of cartoons and César Vallejo, discharged from distant fixed positions, than sensible conversation), usually as we were separately reading books—him up in his loft bed, me with a blanket and pillow on the floor in the next room—for another hour before we passed out. We did almost everything together. People thought we were brothers. Our speech tones and patterns even became similar—we’d be mistaken for each other on the phone.

There was a gap of a year and a half or two in this mutual subversion though, that began a few months after he arrived. It was because I got involved with a woman.

As everyone notices, so much more seems to happen in a length of time when you’re young because everything is new and makes strong impressions and you’re changing so quickly. The five or six years from 1969 to 1974, from when I was nineteen to when I was twenty-four, seems like ten or twelve years now. At the time, it seemed like fifteen years for the opposite reason—that there was nothing to do (which actually contributed to the sense of freedom—you were so bored and isolated you might try anything). Now, time is packed full, but not as much is new. I do prefer the present. But I wish there was more time now. I don’t want time to lengthen—I’d like it to broaden. It would be good to have three or four simultaneous lifetimes.

Tom and I were sharing an apartment on 11th St. just west of Second Ave. We never meant to share apartments—it only happened when one of us was temporarily between places. Apartments were so cheap and plentiful there was no need to have a roommate. But, for a few months in 1969, we had this little three-room shotgun place five or six floors up in a tenement on 11th St. That was the apartment where we threw the refrigerator out the window. It had been leaking on the kitchen floor and the landlord ignored our complaints, so one boring afternoon we squeezed it through the window to the airshaft. There’s not a much better feeling suspense than that endless second or two during which a heavy machine is falling. Life was slow and you could get high off doing something like that. (Another example of this type of activity was how, now and then, when we were walking down a street together, we’d hunch forward, and, rapidly flapping our elbows and humming a buzzing sound, nose up to parking meters, flitting between them, like we were fertilizing them, for a block or two.)

Every couple of months Tom and I would have enough money between us to go have a drink at a bar. We pretty much shared everything we had (except girlfriends). Since neither of us had anything, it evened out fine. We’d only go out and spring for expensive bar booze, rather than a quart of beer at home, to check out artists’ bars, where we thought we might find good looking girls who had the right values. Max’s Kansas City was the standard. Other bars would arise to be temporarily as hip as Max’s, just for variety, and then sink again. A new artists’ bar that year was St. Adrian’s, at the Broadway Central Hotel on Broadway at 3rd St. The hotel was a huge old flophouse—a century past being the fanciest hotel in New York—that extended all the way back to the next street over, Mercer. (A few years later it would host, in its backside there, the Mercer Arts Center, where the New York Dolls were house band at the Oscar Wilde Cabaret.)

St. Adrian’s was a giant, dark ground floor, with a very long bar. It was crowded with lots of gesturing, sleek, long-legged girls who had clean hair and fresh clothes. Some people had paint spatters on their pants, others wore sunglasses.

That night we hit paydirt. Two girls talked to us and bought us drinks and invited us to their table. They were clearly older than we were but they were less inhibited than us and obviously had more money. They were having a girls’ night out. Everybody got drunk. Eventually one of them, Patty, came back to our apartment with Tom and me. Tom and I shared a big double mattress on the floor. I don’t think there was any other furniture in the apartment except maybe some cushions and milk crates and a couple of kitchen chairs and a kitchen table. The three of us, too drunk to do anything else, lay down in bed. It was dark. I didn’t know what Tom was thinking, but I was not going to let this chance to have sex with Patty go by. I took the initiative and Patty and I started kissing. Tom went up on the roof to sleep.

In the morning she gave me her phone number when she left. That was the start of a two year romance.

It turned out Patty was the wife of Claes Oldenburg, the famous Pop artist, known for his giant sculptures, soft and otherwise, of food and appliances. Patty and Claes were getting divorced after a nine-year marriage, during which Patty had been his muse and assistant (she was seamstress of his sculptures, and frequent star of his happenings) as he came to prominence. She lived in a fifth floor loft that was just east of 1st Ave. on 14th St. Claes had recently moved out.

The loft was huge, a block long, stretching back to another entrance on 13th St., and it was the whole four-window tenement-building’s breadth wide. At the time, I’d never seen anything like it for size and style. Soon I’d be spending most of my nights there, and circulating with Patty in a world where everyone lived that well. The living space, half the block long (about 45 yards), was separated into four rooms. They were all well-lit by big windows along the eastern wall, and they were all painted white (the outer walls were brick, wallboard partitioned the rooms). The big industrial metal door from the building’s stairwell opened into the dining room, which was usually empty except for a rope hammock and a little glass cabinet displaying some drippily painted life-size plaster food sculpture of Claes’s, cakes and hamburgers mostly.

The front room, from there to 14th St., was more than twice the size of the dining room. A double bed was parked along the wall, but that general area was also the living room, with a couch and some chairs and a glass coffee table in the vicinity. Against the wall past the bed were bookshelves of artbooks and New York poets. Down in the far reaches towards 14th St. was a full-sized biplane framework; a giant hardwood replica of the balsa skeleton of a model plane, hung with Christmas tree lights.

The room past the hammock room towards 13th St. was the kitchen, lined with chrome and enamel new appliances, surrounding a long heavy plain wooden table, polyethelene-sealed and shiny, with bent-wood cane-bottomed chairs around it. The portable record player was usually in that room too, because that’s where we sat around. There was always a quart of Johnny Walker Red, my arbitrarily chosen liquor, in reach. Past the kitchen was a smaller room with another bed. That section of the loft was wall-divided lengthwise to allow for a very large bathroom. The bathroom had a gigantic tub set right in the middle of it.

Scattered among the rooms were Oldenburg works on the walls, as well as maybe a Lucas Samaras, an Oyvind Falstrom, a Walter De Maria, a Red Grooms, a Warhol.

This was half the loft, the 14th St. side. The 13th St. side had been Claes’s studio. It felt enormous, having no dividing walls, and it was unrenovated. The walls were dark, dusty, unpainted brick, and the ceilings splintery rafters and planks. Windows lined the western and southern walls. The floors were also unfinished wood as in an old-fashioned city factory. A lot of Claes’s collection of lovely little dime store knick-knacks and generic clothing and hardware and magazine ads and toys, etc., that would become his intoxicating “Mouse Museum” was scattered around on shelves and tabletops, and there were unfinished sculptures and tattered remnants of ephemeral early works here and there down the length of the room. It was magical.

I didn’t acquire all this knowledge immediately. It took weeks and weeks to learn about what was what in the apartment, who was who around Patty and what they’d done; what her life had been in the previous few years. At the beginning, she was just a funny rich chick who seemed to like my company and took good care of me and liked to have sex. We did enjoy each other. We were always laughing. When I say she was rich I mean she had enough money that she didn’t need to work and all her material requirements seemed to be stylishly met and she seemed to be able to afford to do what she felt like. But she was really a working class Polish kid from Milwaukee, with no sense of economic entitlement and no kind of snob. She was like the wise-ass, hard-ass chicks I went to Junior High School with in Lexington, only she was an artist and she’d been in the middle of things in a wild time in American art for the past few years. She hadn’t actually been making art herself for quite a while, but she’d come to New York to do that at the end of the fifties, when she was just out of art school, and she was now as sophisticated about art and the “art scene” as everybody else in her rarified circles. She knew that half the art world were crooks and that, when not creepy, it was all a circus and a game, but a lot of the players in it were amusing, interesting people—and the best art itself was probably more highly respected by her than any other human undertaking. All of it was regarded lightly, and pleasure and wit were what mattered.

(A tense night towards the end of our romance was partly salvaged when she observed wistfully, “Absolutes make the heart go flounder.” How could you not love someone who could say something like that? Another thing I remember she said once was, “A fool and her money are soon poeted.”)

Physically, she was a firecracker. She was small and bow-legged and quick, with a pretty little hard ass. She had stringy greasy peroxide-blond hair and a wide flat Slavic face that was also a bit hard. She strutted like a sexy girl-rooster, often in her teeny brown leather mini-skirt, or her short, silky, leopard-print wrap dress. It was always impressive to be with her in high-pressure situations, like say when she was having to deal with the emotional repercussions of some contact with Claes, such as when we went to his big opening at the Museum of Modern Art, when you could see that she felt a little shaken, slightly challenged, but it stimulated her and she’d come through, wisecracking, in a way that didn’t leave room for any doubt, disarming any potential intimidators. She was like some tough Howard Hawks broad, the life of the party, who would fall in love with an impossible person but always bob to the top no matter how rough it might get.

The regular routine was that I’d come over to her place after work and we’d sit in the kitchen, often smoking grass, but always drinking scotch, with the record player playing—Aretha Franklin or Bob Dylan say (I can hear “Respect” and “Call Me” and “Belle Isle”)—and she’d make us a salad and a baked potato and broil us thick top-quality steaks. Then we’d keep drinking the scotch until we went to bed and maybe watched a little Johnny Carson and Joe Franklin and then have sex a few times. I’ve read that masculine sex drive peaks at nineteen, while women’s does at thirty-five. We were well matched there for a while.

Larry Rivers, the hawknosed, fast-talking painter who was a bridge between abstract expressionism and pop and who was close to Frank O’Hara and all the other first generation New York poets, lived in the loft above Patty’s. (Patty’s best friend was his British wife Clarice, formerly nanny for his kid. Clarice was a funny party person herself, one of whose conspirators in those days was Jim Carroll, who was as young as me. Patty told me about Clarice playing with Jim by putting women’s makeup on him.) Larry could hear noises coming from Patty’s the same as we could hear him honking on his sax near dawn. We eventually learned that he’d drilled a peephole into his floor above Patty’s bed so that he could match the visual to the audio and watch us. Patty told me he sometimes referred to me as “Tarzan.”

The two and a half years from early 1969 through summer/fall 1971 that began when I met Patty and ended with the composition of Wanna Go Out? (a set of collaborative poems written by Tom and me in the persona of a despairing, faux-vicious hooker named Theresa Stern) were probably my most formative.

I can see in the notebooks and diaries I kept at that time that I haven’t changed much since then. I’ve learned things about writing and other behaviors and means of “expression” but it’s that development of skills that’s the difference, not me myself, not what underlies the outer appearances. But then, maybe what’s deep down inside is boring, and it’s the surface—what’s done and shown—that’s interesting. We’re probably all the same deep down inside. A little above that, but still underneath the outward signs of a person, are the qualities that most think of as defining character. But people are usually assessed according to their social manifestation, and that’s not really any more fair than that they be judged by how well they write (or make art). Anyway, people don’t really have the right to take credit for themselves at all. At bottom, not only are we all the same, but what happens is out of our control. I suppose this is what religions are about—coming to terms with the way that behind the veil, nobody is different from anyone else, much less better, and no one even has any real control over phenomena, including themselves—and it is the sense in which religions are true, recommending surrender to “God.” What’s left are the entertainments of love and work; the hope of keeping as interested as possible.

Contributor

Richard Hell

Writer and musician Richard Hell is the author of the novels Go Now and Godlike, and the collection Hot and Cold. He is currently writing his autobiography and will be reading from it at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on 10/11.

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