Richard Hell: Punk's Peter Pan Goes Henry Miller at CAMH
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
“And for the last one — it is the only poem of mine that I know by heart — goes like this: You know what is my favorite book? Your butt.”
Laughter ascended as Richard Hell read the last of a series of poems, the latter of which was for his wife who, ironically enough, is a librarian. Hell is a punk Peter Pan; the boy who refused to unspike his hair and remove the safety pins holding up his torn and tattered clothing is now 65 years young. Although his garb resembled a professorial guise for Saturday afternoon’s reading at the CAMH's showcasing Marilyn Minter’s first retrospective, Pretty/Dirty, his spirit, and his readings, were playful, at times insightful and provocative.
Hell read a discerning and respectful reflection on the art of Marilyn Minter, a visual artist whose once-incendiary sensual works have stirred and inspired artists and Hell's fellow musicians like Madonna. He referred to Minter's 100 Food Porn as revolutionary, exhuming the toxic, and morally suffocative, Reagan era. Orange caviar dripped from the tongues of various subjects emanating an overtly sexual nature, however, at the same time commenting on the inseparable distinction of our most carnal appetites. “They are not only a terrific example of their periods,” Hell mused, “or genre unto themselves, but cosmic.”
Having only known Minter for several years, Hell found out from someone that she had tweeted praise about Hell’s autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. Not knowing who she was, Hell Googled her and was blown away by her paintings because of their evocative themes — fortuitously complimenting Hell’s latest novel that he is still in the process of writing.
Hell contacted her and met through mutual friends. Inspired by her work, he felt compelled to ask her to collaborate with him, supplying pictures to illustrate Hell’s dark, yet sensual, narrative that he referred to as a type of “cold noir.”
Nihilism abounded, as the reading filled the room with humor coupled with psychological extremes. The novel’s working title? Chasm of Goo. “To fuck the ass of the girl you adore. Disarranged. I am what I am,” and countless other references to assplay, fucking, drug use, and despair, the beginning narrative read like Henry Miller, if Miller ever encountered a long-term fight with heroin. And like Miller, interspersed between descriptions of a beautiful dark woman lain Hell’s musings on life. The most revealing of these lines emerged early during his reading:
“She was flawless somehow, despite being slightly reduced by her nakedness. I was drunk enough that I didn’t have a full erection. She curved forward and took my cock in her mouth. I was grateful, and in a few minutes she swallowed my cum.”
Unlike Minter, whose paintings reflected sensuality as empowerment, Hell’s prose was devoid of empowerment. In fact, feebleness, not strength, echoed throughout the early phases of his novel. Amoral, like an Americanized version of Andre Gide’s Michel from The Immoralist, his character was difficult to invest time, emotion and memory into. Darkness for darkness' sake is like a snake eating its own tail; and at the CAMH, the reading became flat, going nowhere fast. Whereas Minter’s work made statements that ignite cultural shifts of feminine liberation, separating itself from millennia of patriarchal archetypes, Hell’s attempt to mirror Minter’s effort, at least in the novel’s nascent stage, fell short, creating more retrograde by showcasing archaic violence and sex from a male perspective.
Yet, no one seemed to mind or notice. The snake-charming gifts established artists, musicians and celebrities perform often negate their latter-day sins. After all, this is Richard Hell — one of the men in large part responsible for the image and ascendency of punk. “Blank Generation” is still a time-capsuled anthem. Strip the royalty away from the person, and who would have subjected themselves to some third-rate Laurence Durrell or Celine? It was an opportunity to see an aged hero read bad prose and sign books and musical paraphernalia.