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It’s the words that survive

Times Staff Writer

RICHARD HELL sits on a shaded restaurant patio, the chaos of First Avenue muffled by a brick wall, and slurps at a midday bowl of chicken soup as he talks about the fringe benefits of tumbling into middle age.

Getting there, of course, was no small victory. In the early 1970s, Hell’s torn shirts and spiked hair gave American punk its look, and at age 55 the list of Hell’s dead friends and former bandmates reads like a history of 1970s rock counterculture. Johnny Thunders. Dee Dee Ramone. Robert Quine. Most were done in by heroin, which for a time was also Hell’s drug of choice.

But the best part about reaching middle age, Hell says, is the inherent distillation process, the figuring out that some dreams will forever be out of reach.

“You realize there are certain things that you’ll never do that you always thought would be part of your future,” says Hell, who has given up, among other things, an acting ambition. “It’s a big relief to discover what you are best-suited for, and it’s a real advantage to be able then to focus. You can just jettison all this useless floundering around, attempting to do stuff that’s really not in your range, and focus.”

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For Hell, the range is writing, which he’ll discuss Saturday at Beyond Baroque in Venice, part of a tour supporting his most recent novel, “Godlike,” a slim, intense work that imagines the lives of a circle of Lower East Side poets around 1970.

The novel follows a double track, organized as the unedited journal of a psychotic poet in his 50s as he remembers the 1970s and his sexual infatuation with a younger fellow poet. Hell drew the seeds of the relationship from the 19th century affair between the married Paul Verlaine and the younger Arthur Rimbaud, which ended with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud.

But “Godlike” is not a retelling of literary gossip about two key poets in the Symbolist movement. Hell sees the Verlaine-Rimbaud tale as a borrowed frame against which he wanted to measure love, infatuation and poets’ freewheeling obsession with their craft. It’s not autobiographical, but the decadence in which Hell’s characters swirl was only partly forged in his imagination.

Hell washed up in New York City in the early 1970s as a 17-year-old runaway from Lexington, Ky., hoping to make his mark as a poet and writer. He wasn’t running from anything as much as he was just running. “I always just had this urge to just take off, so at least once a year I would run away from home, just to get out from under any restrictions,” Hell says. “That was a big part of my conception of myself, running away.”

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Hell became familiar with a loose group of young poets who gathered at the St. Mark’s Church Poetry Project, known as the “second generation” of the New York School of poets -- writers such as Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan and David Shapiro. It is their existence, if not their specific lives, that propels “Godlike.”

“I was going to try to evoke the atmosphere that excited me without trying to actually depict it,” Hell says. “The main idea was to talk about people for whom poetry was the highest value.... I just knew I wanted to talk about this kind of way of life, and then it occurred to me to do the Rimbaud-Verlaine thing.”

As Hell wrote, he decided to introduce another level “where the ‘70s story is a book within the book, so that I could also talk about this thing that has been preoccupying me, which is becoming middle-aged, outgrowing your youth, and what that makes you think about and what that experience is like.”

HELL went to New York to write, but he made his first impression in music. With his signature look, he gave a style to the nascent punk scene and helped launch the seminal bands Television and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. He left both bands before they started recording, though, and formed Richard Hell and the Voidoids, with whom he recorded one of punk’s first anthems, “The Blank Generation,” channeling the symbolists with the opening lyric, “I was sayin’ let me out of here before I was / even born -- it’s such a gamble when you get a face.”

Hell hasn’t been seriously involved with music for more than a decade. In the liner notes to his recent retrospective CD, “Spurts: The Richard Hell Story,” Hell dismisses people who view him as a musician who became a writer. They are separate paths, one based on words, the other based on the intangible human reaction to sound. “There’s never been a rock ‘n’ roll song that survived on the strength of its lyrics,” Hell says.

There have been other notable double-dippers, such as Patti Smith, who, like Hell, stepped into music from poetry. Steve Earle went the other direction, publishing “Doghouse Roses,” a short story collection, in 2001 after two decades in music.

Hell, though, has approached writing as a primary, if inconstant, pursuit. Over the years he has published poems and short pieces in small literary and counterculture magazines. His first novel, “Go Now,” in 1996, follows a rocker-writer-junkie named Billy, very much like Hell, as he crosses the country with his photographer girlfriend, assigned to capture whatever they discover. Billy’s irrepressible, self-destructive drive condemns the trip before it begins, and it collapses when the girlfriend catches him in flagrante with his dead mother’s younger sister, an Oedipal act once removed.

The book didn’t do well. Hell says Scribner “gave me a lot of money for it and they certainly haven’t made that back.” When it came time to find a publisher for “Godlike,” with its precise descriptions of gay sex and its occasionally “deliberately obnoxious” tone, Hell found no takers until the edgy Akashic Books stepped up.

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“There are characters in it that do deliberately go as far as they can in certain kind of taboo areas,” Hell says with a laugh. In the end, like the punk music that he embraced 30 years ago, the work explores the edges of excess, physical as well as emotional.

As a performer, Hell resented his audience’s instant judgment even as he sought its approval, a conflict he still can’t resolve. Sitting alone in a room, the reading audience unseen, fits him better. He finds it easier to dredge up darkness with a lyrical precision.

“When I do dig down, I’m very pissed off underneath,” Hell says, late summer filtering through the trees overhead. “Why can’t I just write a book about taking a walk and having a cup of coffee? It kind of annoys me about myself. If I could do it differently, I would. It’s not some kind of principle. It’s just in my nature somehow.”

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Richard Hell

Saturday, 7:30 p.m.: Full reading and signing at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. $7. With Darin Klein, opening reader. (310) 822-3006

Sunday, 2:30 p.m.: Short reading at West Hollywood Book Fair, West Hollywood Park, 647 N. San Vicente Blvd. With novelists Trinie Dalton and Benjamin Weissman; readings introduced by Dennis Cooper

Monday, 7 p.m.: Short reading and signing at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Free. (310) 659-3110

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