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In the Poets’ Building

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Last month, I took the 6 train down to Spring Street to hear Richard Hell and Luc Sante read together at McNally Jackson Books. Sante read first, from his brilliant, unclassifiable book (history? miscellany? catalogue? atlas? threnody? love song?), The Other Paris: ‘Until not so long ago it was always possible to find a place in the city,’ he said.

There were cheap neighbourhoods, and failing that there were places to roost, to hide away, places left unattended long enough to allow squatting and repurposing. Until not long ago, except in the most extreme circumstances, there existed the opportunity, for those who wanted it badly enough, to thumb one’s nose at the directives of fashion and progress and authority and carve out an eccentric path of one’s own – this more in Paris than anywhere else because there a wilful eccentricity was respected if not necessarily understood.

Hell read eulogies from his new collection, Massive Pissed Love: Non-fiction 2001-14, for Lester Bangs (d.1982), Joey Ramone (d.2001), Jim Carroll (d.2009), Hilly Kristal (d.2007) and Robert Quine (d.2004). ‘Rock and roll cognoscenti and Robert Quine’s friends were angry and torn up last week to hear that on Saturday, June 5, his body had been discovered in his loft on Grand Street, a suicide,’ he said.

I won’t presume to try to analyse the factors contributing to his ceaseless, abysmal despair of recent months, but he’d never been exactly a cheerful person, though he was always one who had something funny to say. In fact, if you’re not crying, it’s hard to think of him without smiling. Or possibly you could do both at once. Then again, he wasn’t averse to provoking anger, and he was an angry person himself. It contributed to his magnificent guitar playing.

I had to leave before the Q&A. But a few days later, I spent an afternoon with Hell and Sante. My idea had been that we’d spend an hour or two walking around the East Village. But the weather turned a bit, over the weekend, and we ended up meeting in Hell’s apartment in an East Village tenement (sometimes called ‘the poets’ building’) that’s also been home to Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Arthur Russell, Richard Prince, and Rene Ricard. ‘Jim Brodey lived here,’ Hell writes in Massive Pissed Love. ‘Larry Fagin lives here and so do Simon Pettet and John Godfrey. (Look them up.)’

Hell’s been living there – claw-foot tub in the kitchen, books, and more books, stacked up to the ceiling – since 1975; he’s written about it, here and there, over the years. In the living-room there’s a framed photo of Theresa Stern, Hell’s poetic alter-ego, constructed with Tom Verlaine in the early 1970s. Sante moved into the building (the same apartment two storeys down) in 1979, and stayed until 1991. Mary Help of Christians, a Catholic church, stood across the street then – it was torn down in 2013. But Hell and Sante didn’t spend too much time talking about the neighbourhood, or even about the past. They talked, instead, about poetry (Pasternak, Mayakovsky), about the Strand book store, where they had both worked in the 1970s, about people – artists, drug runners – they’d both known. Every once in a while, Hell would duck into another room and return with some treasure: a framed Voidoids poster; one of the poetry chapbooks he’d printed before becoming a rock star, more or less inventing the Sex Pistols and the Clash (their looks, if not their music), and changing hairstyles for ever. I washed my hands before touching the chapbooks.

These were the things that had caused me to drop out of high school and move to the city, where I worked (minimum wage at Tower Records), played guitar (poorly) and starved. Sante would have been writing his first book, Low Life, back then. Hell had quit music already; he would have been writing too, and editing a literary magazine for the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church. They were living the lives I dreamt about while stocking shelves and pricing records; showing people that such lives were possible. It’s something I should resent them for, probably. But it isn’t Hell’s fault, or Sante’s, that NYC rents have become what they are; that the city has turned into a dumping ground for global capital; that it’s harder and harder, with each passing year, to make it as an artist/musician/writer/poet/critic here. (Plenty of other people have said this, but that doesn’t make it untrue.) But the New York I moved to is still there, in Hell’s apartment, and in other apartments all over the city.

Sante didn’t know me from Adam when, years ago, stalled on a book, I sent him a note and he offered hard, encouraging advice, along with his friendship. Hell, I don’t know at all – though I feel like I do, probably more through his writing than his music. He’s a novelist as well as a poet, and, it turns out, a very fine critic. Massive Pissed Love isn’t quite a book of criticism, though there’s a lot of criticism in it: essays on Welles and Bresson, Nathanael West, Christopher Wool, Robert Creeley, Marilyn Minter, along with notes on CBGB, muscle cars, cunnilingus. (A good interview went up last week on the Paris Review blog.)

There is overlap between their careers – Sante played drums in other New York bands in the 1970s, and edited a literary magazine, Stranded, which collected work by Strand employees – and, to an extent, their styles: their meticulous scraping away of myths and encrustations; their mistrust of bullshit and money; the way their life experience bleeds into research. Opening their new books at random:

The populaire can be seen as a mechanism, if unintentional, for keeping the classes in their place… The products of the music hall, the penny press and the vaudeville theatre are kept in a different aisle from those of the Comédie Française, the Revue des Deux Mondes and the Opéra; it is made clear that the former are diversions while the latter constitute culture. Not only did this discourage consumers from finding an excess of meaning in the songs and plays of the working class, but it also kept the classes from making common cause. (Sante)

Seventy or so years ago Nathanael West wrote two short books that remain thrilling and revelatory. I prefer his writing to that of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner. West and Fitzgerald have things in common: a clear, simple style in the service of flashing lyricism; great depth of perception into their characters, as well as into those characters’ positions in relation to each other in the American landscape. But West wasn’t hampered by Fitzgerald’s eager prep-school romanticism. Fitzgerald was the more ambitious of the two, though. West’s intense virtues were also limitations: his books are not multi-levelled. They’re genre works, perhaps better compared to the great detective novels of Raymond Chandler than to those more ambitious guys. He’s not really going after what it’s like to be alive, ‘how things are’ on every scale, or, you could say, aiming to make works that correspond to life, which is what the very most interesting art does. But who succeeds at that? Three or four people a century. (Hell)

Sante’s laconic autobiographical account can be found on his website:

Born 1954 Verviers, Belgium. Family emigrated to the United States several times between 1959 and 1963. Settled in first Summit and then New Providence, New Jersey. Father employed in factory that manufactured fluorocarbon coatings (commercially known as Teflon); mother worked in high school cafeteria, executive dining room, eventually insurance office. Educated in Catholic grade schools, Jesuit high school, Columbia University. No apparent degrees, however.

And Hell has his own biographical chronology:

October 1966: Escapes from school and starts hitchhiking south with best friend of the moment Tom Miller (Verlaine). Within weeks they’re apprehended by Alabama lawmen and returned to their families in separate states.

Television – the ‘only short-haired and best band in the world for quite a few months’ – which Hell and Verlaine formed in New York in 1974, was one of the great New York bands (though Hell was gone by the time they broke through), and Hell’s subsequent band, the Voidoids, was also fantastic – it’s hard to overestimate the man’s influence. ‘I’ve been credited with originating, back in 1973-74, the practice of deliberately wearing ripped clothes, sometimes further transformed with safety pins and drawing and words; with naming myself something negative on purpose; and with inventing the haircut that got identified with punk,’ Hell wrote in the catalogue for an exhibition at the Met a couple of years ago:

All of that’s basically true… Without a doubt, though, the single most influential thing I’ve done is my haircut… It’s sometimes said I based it on Rimbaud, but that’s not true. It came from analysing what made the two prior main rock and roll haircuts – Elvis’s and the Beatles’ – work. That line of thought led me to recall the boy’s do typical of my childhood, which was a short, stiff ‘butch’ or ‘crew’ cut that had gone to seed because kids don’t like going to barbers. When that patchy raggedness was exaggerated the way I exaggerated it, it looked defiant, even criminal. A guy with a haircut like that couldn’t have an office job. And no barber could even conceive of it. It was something you had to do yourself.

Comments on “In the Poets’ Building”

  1. Simon Wood says:

    Nice metaphor, that haircut.

    The hold of global capital over central London, New York and Paris is making them strange – safe, with no danger, not much hell happening. It is an odd one – the safety is most welcome, the parks have become more pastoral and less lurking ground for predators. But the raw edge – the questions asked of the corporate world, of the value of shareholder value, of success and happiness at all costs – this renewing spirit can only grow in cities in the same way that crops can only grow in the countryside.

    This is a trite truism and nothing reallly matters much any more, anyway, now that our needs are catered for the by global, digital culture.

    I myself cycle into the suburbs of south-east London on an old mountain bike I found at the dump, looking for insights in the banlieus, the suburbs, where the minium-wage folks live, which I share on “The Suburban Pirate” on Croydon Radio every Friday afternoon.

    I would go looking in central London, but I just can’t find any insights there.

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