Richard Hell Looks Back on Punk's Roots in Place
Punk’s princely poet and auteur, Richard Hell, has a new memoir out. Some might read the book strictly for gossip about punk’s founding, put downs of other artists and well … the sex and drugs. And there is plenty of that. But reading I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography, forced me to ponder the lasting cultural influence of punk on New York City.
For starters, let’s be clear: what I mean by punk is the CBGB variety, which peaked between 1976-1984 and centered around Hell’s bands, including Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television, and The Heartbreakers, as well as Patti Smith, The Talking Heads, The Ramones, Blondie and the like. (I won't get into West Coast punk here, but I welcome comments). This movement, and it was a movement, united a DIY sensibility, an anti-authority attitude, and merged art and consumerism all the while pretending and posturing as if it was anti-consumerist. This movement struck a chord with American youth because it broke traditions and celebrated a nihilism that fit the economic conditions of the period (deindustrialization and stagflation). But let’s not forget how short-lived it was. Hell, after all, "retired" in 1984. And while many of those bands continue, in many ways they are now a point of nostalgia. For instance, the novelist Jonathan Lethem recently wrote a whole book about a 1979 Talking Heads album that changed his life. In many ways this era of punk is now very much a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame thing.
Still, what Hell forces us to confront in his gracefully written book is that one reason this movement developed and thrived, and maybe eventually died, is tied tightly to time, space, and economics. "We, with our rejected and extreme sets of beliefs and values and intentions," he writes, "had managed to materialize an environment." That "environment" was the famous punk palace CBGBs, which was meeting house, gathering space, and symbol of this cultural movement. Hell recognizes that this space and the movement that created it was the result of a combination of cheap rent, a public policy that supported artists through rent subsidies, and New York City's rich cultural history made it attractive despite its then-grim conditions. In a real sense, New York in the mid-to-late 1970s was attacking creatives who could support themselves easily and dedicate themselves to art. It was this movement that helped revitalize the neighborhoods of the East Village and Lower East Side.
In 2002, Spin Magazine ranked The Ramones as the second greatest rock 'n' roll band of all time, just after the Beatles. Younger folks who weren’t even born when the Ramones were around are still wearing Ramones t-shirts. I used to assume they were wearing old punk shirts to exhibit an ironic sense of style and the cultural and social capital of an insider. But now I wonder if their flying punk’s flag is instead a sign of hope or of a dream. Hope for a place of their own, a community of cheap rent and fellowship that allows them to create and live. Hope for an underground, alternative space they define. And hope too that eventually their toiling in these out-of-the way spaces will be noticed.
Recently I stumbled on The Silent Barn, a community-based art incubation center. "The Silent Barn is the living body of a whirlwind of symbiotic relationships between events, interactive installations, residents, and audience," as they state on their homepage, "that simultaneously make the Silent Barn their home." The Silent Barn is not in Manhattan, or even gentrified parts of Brooklyn. Rather it is on the Brooklyn/Queens border, in a more remote working-class area that actually feels and looks a lot like the New York of the 1970s. The artists, artisans and musicians of the Silent Barn are in many ways the spiritual step-children of Richard Hell, and my hope is that their influence is as long-lasting so that in 30 years, someone (in yet another fringe neighborhood) will look at them with the same hope.