Massive Pissed Love by Richard Hell (Soft Skull Press, 2015)
REVIEWED BY JOHN AMEN
In a piece first published in the Village Voice, now included in his collection of essays, Massive Pissed Love, Richard Hell mostly elegizes Lester Bangs: "People like a writer's writing because they like the writer's company." I like Bang's company too, though I tend to agree with Hell's assessment, that with Bangs "all the appeal is in the tone and ethical/aesthetic values, and you get them immediately, so a little goes a long way." Hell also suggests that "Kerouac…influence[d] Bangs a lot," though I'd venture that Kerouac was actually more of an influence on Hell, and that Bangs and Hell were both more significantly influenced by Hunter S. Thompson, particularly the "gonzo" or "new" approach to journalism, which encouraged, even mandated, first-person subjectivity, a writer's voice, tone, and perspective integral to the presentation of content.
Hell is certainly part of the gonzo lineage, though his interests are broader than those of his compadres, including Bangs, his tone more literary and for the most part explorative rather than proclamatory. In the opening essay, for example, he discusses Robert Bresson's The Devil Probably: "Bresson is in a class of his own…for his heroic insistence on fidelity to the soul and truth of film as moving pictures in sequence with sound, rather than mere filmed theater." He concludes the paragraph: "…his movies are like life. Not very much happens in life. But in life, as in Bresson's movies, that not very much that is happening is very important, in fact it's God"—an eloquent interpretation of Bresson's apparent focus; how, at least in this particular film, dialogue, character development, and narrative arc seem to be shaped in such a way as to not eclipse; to the contrary, to highlight, the emptiness of consciousness itself; albeit, and this is my opinion, with a nihilistic bent.
In "A Favorite Bob Dylan Song," Hell points out the "banal[ity]" of lines from "You're a Big Girl Now," especially when they're taken out of musical context. And yet, as he proceeds to say, "the song breaks your heart." As a way of explaining the success of the tune, he alludes to Dylan's gift for melody, knack for phrasing, and command of tone—craft and performative elements for which Dylan is (still) insufficiently credited. Hell of the Voidoids and Blank Generation days doesn't make much of an appearance in this book, though Hell does in several pieces expound on the nature and relevance of punk; for example, in "Picturing Punk," reaching the conclusion that "Punk is an idea, not a band…no definition of 'punk' is true. It's poetic that way." In "The Velvet Underground vs. The Rolling Stones," Hell compares and contrasts the strengths and weaknesses of the two bands, almost as if he's participating in a debate (with himself). At times, the weighing of pros and cons grows a bit tedious; that said, reading the piece led me to listen again and perhaps more attentively to my 1966-1970 Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground albums. In fact, one of the major triumphs of Massive Pissed Love is that Hell's words will catalyze most readers, as they catalyzed me, to visit or revisit the work of any number of writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians.
There are several moving tributes in this book, including to Robert Quine, Jim Carroll, and Joey Ramone, pieces that highlight Hell's personal and professional relationships, the extended communities to which he centrally and peripherally belongs or has belonged. "CBGB as a Physical Space" is a nostalgic but levelheaded acknowledgment of the famous NYC club where Hell and his abovementioned band got its start alongside Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, the Talking Heads, and others. Hell comments on the work of Peter Schuyff, Marilyn Minter, and Robert Creeley. Two of his essays are titled "Writing Sex" and "Cunnilingus." So it goes: Hell has much to say on many topics; each essay, truncated or elaborative, reflecting Hell's lifelong love affair with poetry and language.
"Sadness Notes," the final piece in the collection, and possibly the book's pièce de résistance, is an exquisitely crafted and atmospheric inquiry into the mystery of human experience. Hell's varied references and footnotes combine to create an aesthetic context a la Eliot or Pound. Also included in this piece are two personal anecdotes involving Hell's daughter (hmm, that doesn't sound quite right) and which illustrate profound points, how conditioning occurs and forgiveness is time or age-sensitive, not necessarily because at some point others no longer forgive us, but because at some point we forget how to forgive ourselves.
Perhaps Hell is playacting a bit when he announces, "Art is boring," lamenting how sad that is "considering how much one loves and needs it." Posturing or not, Hell's broader mission in Massive Pissed Love, whether he's writing about paintings, photography, or life in NYC post-9/11, is to plumb and reflect upon the paradoxes of human life. As a writer, curiosity is his Virgil. And that's the kind of music this world can use more of.
Massive Pissed LoveRichard Hell Soft Skull Press ISBN: 978-1-59376-627-6