Review Summary: When you live on a planet the size of a town..'80-'85 Part IV
In 1975, the quiet war waged between Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine over creative intents of Television boiled over, and Hell left the band to strike out on his own. The first product of that newfound independence, Blank Generation
became something of a cult within New York City, and an oft forgotten document of its time just about everywhere else. Listening to both Blank Generation
and Destiny Street
in the context of Television and Hell’s first career steps with them (most of Marquee Moon
had been written during his tenure with the band), lends clarity and sense as to why he and Verlaine first got together to begin with. There is an underlying parallel aesthetic to the two outfits, a unifying aspect - thin, rangy guitar lines springing off a bass that seems to exist as its own impetus. Where the two differ is in the way those moving parts were strung together. Verlaine’s compulsive arranging habits made most every Television song a perfectly coordinated procession, clean and tight, without a frayed edge to it. Hell’s vision involved something messier, taut structures pulled apart and made to dance on cracked joints.
followed on the heels of “Blank Generation,” a song and album that had turned Hell into a household name on the Bowery music scene, and as close as New York City’s surfacing punkers got to a rallying anthem back then. Following a disastrous tour in Britain, where the band were flung into the exploding English punk scene Malcolm McLaren had spun, Hell felt ready to cement himself with a follow-up.
Opener “The Kid with the Replaceable Head” was his stab at a radio single, a predictable wash, the song’s pop heart trumped by Hell’s off-kilter delivery and design. In retrospect, the song is better off for it, a pep pill of a tune, full of forward momentum and insolent lyricisms. But at the time, its failure to register beyond Lower Manhattan was a punch in Hell’s gut.
The on-and-off relationship he’d maintained with Lizzy Mercier Descloux during that period is felt strongly in Destiny Street
. There are douses of Afro-dub and proto-disco seeping into the angular rock frame, and the songs are muddily atmospheric, something that was entirely absent on Blank Generation
’s lean lurches. Cuts like “Staring in Her Eyes” and the Dylan cover “Going Going Gone” retain a biting punk exoskeleton that floats in a barbiturate-like haze of production fuzz. Robert Quine is back at Hell’s side, his honed guitars slicing and mincing their way through every song, splitting into that patented wonky soloing that had made Hell’s debut such a peculiar, non-pareil presence on the CBGB’s circuit. Though Destiny Street
had tapered the fieriness of its processor, where it does jilt Blank Generation
is in its overall cohesiveness. It’s a much more single-minded album, showing Hell try and construct a new maturity. That maturity is most evident in “Downtown at Dawn” and “Time,” the former a sprawling show of everything sparkling and incendiary dance punk had to offer in its first moulding, the latter a paean to mortality built on chiming guitars and a tired Hell.
What was less obvious at the time was that that maturity was less a sign of future amplitude, and more a point of utter weariness. Destiny Street
would become Hell’s last full musical statement. He would tour the record sporadically, as his ever-burgeoning heroin habit would allow him, and finally would retreat into isolation, to shake off the scag and formulate his next step. By the time he emerged back onto the New York scene, first-wave punk was on the ropes, squeezed from the rafters by cocaine and electronica. All the old dogs had either died off, moved on, or were trying to adapt to the shifting trend. Though Hell would record music again in 1991, it proved to be a one-off moment. Dim Stars, a collective that included some of his old henchmen and Thurston Moore, put out an EP and a full-length, but didn’t play a single show together. Instead Hell immersed himself in writing, rekindling his first artistic inspirations (his original New York endeavours were a novel and several literary magazines), an enduring career that has seen him survive the bulk of his New York peers, both creatively and otherwise, for better or for worse.