Monday Interview: Richard Hell

Posted by John Kenyon 3 comments

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
-Leonardo DaVinci

“Time and time again I knew what I was doing
And time and time again I just made things worse.”
-Richard Hell, “Time”

Painters are allowed to endlessly touch-up their canvases, novelists can update and revise their writing in subsequent editions and classical composers often issued numerous versions of their works as they tinkered with and refined them. Popular music, for whatever reason, is often the exception. When the record button is released and the tape goes in the can, save for overdubs and mastering, the final document is just that — final. Many artists have taken a second crack at an early song, often trying in vain to improve something ragged with ill-conceived polish. But an attempt to completely re-do a completed album? That is an extremely rare exercise.

Richard Hell not only took on the challenge, he succeeded. I’m the rare fan who prefers his sophomore album, Destiny Street, to his debut, Blank Generation. That initial shot is bracing, with high points unequaled in the rest of his brief catalog, but Destiny Street is the more complete package, an album with more consistently good songs and a more mature focus. That said, it is a flawed album, though the flaws were not necessarily discernible until Hell decided to “repair” the songs.

“At the time of the original recording I was so debilitated by despair and drug-need that I was useless,” he has said. “The record ended up being a high-pitched sludge of guitar noise. It was a shame because the songs were clean, simple, and well-constructed, but those values were sabotaged by the inappropriate arrangements and production.” He acquired rights to the album in 2004, then let it go out of print. In 2006, he came across a two-track tape of the original rhythm parts and decided to use that as the basis for a re-recording. “I couldn’t resist trying to use them to fill and patch up the sinking feeling that the thought of the record had always produced in me,” he added.

“Only time can write a song that’s really really real
The most a man can do is say the way its playing feels
And know he only knows as much as time to him reveals.”
-Richard Hell, “Time”

What time has revealed is a Hell that is, if anything, more well-suited for this music than the Hell that originally wrote it. The music is, to borrow his description, cleaner, simpler and better-constructed on the new Destiny Street Repaired. Hell recorded new vocals and enlisted the help of guitarists Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and original Voidoid Ivan Julian (who did not play on the original release) to redo the guitars. The original guitar work by Robert Quine and Naux is at times spectacular, but it does, as Hell says, tend to get lost in the overall sludge of the recording. In contrast, the lines of Ribot, Frisell and Julian positively crackle, giving these already propulsive songs additional lift. And Hell’s vocals, though he is singing lyrics now nearly 30 years old, seem more simpatico; where he sang the lyrics in 1982 as if he was trying at times to convince himself of their veracity, here he puts them over as a sage imparting wisdom. The result is a clutch of songs that are at once immediate and lived in.

Destiny Street Repaired was clearly a risky experiment. Had Hell simply found a way to remaster the original album and reissue it, he would have been guaranteed coverage and hosannas from critics. Instead, he decided to attempt the nearly unheard of feat of rebuilding a structure on its foundation (occasionally knocking out a closet or staircase in the process), and offering it as the new-and-improved version to supplant the original. That it worked, creating what is to these ears the essential long-playing Hell document, is testament to his talent and vision.

The new version of the album is available from Insound.com in a deluxe vinyl package for $29.99 with a poster and a CD with the 10 original tracks and two never before released tracks: “Smitten” and “Funhunt.” These are in a signed, numbered edition of 1,000. A CD-only version for $16 also will be available that lacks the two extra tracks. Hell has both editions for sale on his excellent web site as well.

In what I believe is the longest interview Hell has granted about the project, he talks here about the process of repairing the album,

TIRBD: Your answer is likely summarized in your chosen title for this release, but how do you see Destiny Street Repaired? Is it a completely new, separate album, DS 2.0 or something in between?

RH: I’ve been surprised to see how the new version’s impact keeps morphing for me since its release, and so does its relationship to the original Destiny Street keep changing. I shouldn’t have been surprised because I’ve seen over and over how works always keep transforming in meaning and quality over time. One of the specific surprises was that it gave me a new respect for the original album.

My original plan was to release the two albums together in one package, but I realized that that would encourage the cheapest shots from writers. (I’d hoped writers and listeners would treat the new record as distinct, on its own merits, without perpetually comparing it to the old one.) There are a few ironies about how reviewers reacted to the new record, but the biggest one is that until I did this hardly anyone gave any respect to Destiny Street (the original). Whenever I was written about I was treated as essentially a one-album guy: Blank Generation. I’ve always thought that Destiny Street was a better collection of songs than Blank Generation. But when I brought out this new version so many writers acted all outraged that I’d tampered with the sacred Destiny Street. Where were they when Destiny Street could have used some respect? Most of the objectors are just inane and irresponsible.

So, to answer your question, my original purpose when I decided to do this was to replace the original version, because I had problems with the original for all the reasons that I’ve s
tated over and over in the record’s press releases and in interviews, though I intended to keep the original available. Now I see the two versions more as complementary, a chance to get an unusually multi-dimensional take on a release. Though, as I said, in my opinion the new version succeeds in being a better presentation of the material, overall.

I feel kind of stupid giving all this dry attention to the thing here. I’ve moved on since the new album came out. I guess that’s part of the reason this is dry — it’s just intellectual, not something I get all worked up about. I’m just analyzing because you asked…

You took some heat from some fans when you announced you would be erasing Robert Quine‘s work on Destiny Street. Given where your relationship was with Quine when he died, would you have sought him out for this project? Would he have agreed? Have the catcalls abated now that people have heard the finished product?

Yeah, you are misrepresenting this. I didn’t “erase” Quine. I wish that the original multitrack tapes with Quine on them had been available to re-mix and mess with. But they were lost by the same guy who had been illegally offering territories around the world licensing “rights” to the original record. It’s because he was doing that illegally that I was able to sic lawyers on him and get myself full ownership of the performances. I’d always hoped I could do something to improve the original record, but without the original multitracks I had no raw material. I couldn’t even do a proper “re-master” since all we got from Marty Thau (“Red Star” Records) was a copy of the CD itself — not even a flat two-track tape. I spent a year or two searching for the studio twenty-four track that had been Thau’s responsibility to preserve but couldn’t find it.

Then I found the tapes I ended up using as the basis for Repaired. There’s something I didn’t reveal about those rhythm tracks I used on the Repair versions. I didn’t reveal it because I knew that it would lead reviewers (or listeners in general) to find much more fault with the new versions than if I kept it to myself. (The same way I knew they’d take advantage of knowing that the songs are resung by the 59-year-old me — and they did take advantage. But the re-singing was too big a change to try to hide (though maybe I should have tried)). Reviewers/interviewers who somehow missed the info that I’d resung the songs invariably commented on how well the singing worked. They thought it was just different takes or mixes from 1982! But half of the others, who’d read the press release carefully so knew I’d redone vocals, got really sarcastic and sneery about the geezer’s pathetic attempt to match his punk youth, as I expected. Nobody at all, not one person, complained about the inferior production of the bass/drums/rhythm-guitars, though I guarantee you a large number would have been offended and mocking if they knew they came from an unproduced direct live two track cassette that’d stretched out of tune in the 27 years it’d been in the bottom of a bag in a closet.)

So, what I’m getting to is that the core rhythm tracks I used for Repaired were NOT the original rhythm tracks. Some of them were the same takes that went on the record, some were not, but more to the point, the rhythm-tracks tapes I found were raw un-”produced” cassette tapes run off in the studio while we played live (bass, drums, two rhythm guitars). The playing went right to cassette just for my reference, for me to take home and listen to overnight and judge where to go next. The tapes had no post-production and no mixing, they were run directly to cassette without any trouble taken with them except to assure that every part was audible and on the correct channel(s) (as I recall–drums and bass in the middle and a guitar on each side). That’s what I had to work with last year. The instrument tracks could not be altered individually at all: they were already mixed onto the two cassette tape channels. I couldn’t isolate a snare or a bass drum for instance to beef it up, or change the relative volumes of the rhythm guitars. Furthermore the tapes had stretched in the intervening years, so that the pitch (and speed) of everything had slightly changed. Ribot, et al, had to change the tuning on their guitars to play with the tapes (and I had to do my best as a singer to be in the vicinity of the pitch even though I’d had the songs in their original rock-solid keys in my head forever).

So that’s what I had to work with to make the new version. I loved that the tapes existed and that they made possible this fun plan, but they had their limitations too. Anyway I did talk to Quine about it. I assumed from the beginning that Bob would do all the new soloing and when I asked he committed to it without hesitation. He often thought some of my ideas were eccentric but he always trusted me and always agreed to do any studio playing I asked him to. And he agreed to do this. But then he offed himself. (Ed: Quine committed suicide in 2004)

What are your thoughts about this now being the only version of the album available? Would you ever consider releasing the original for an exercise in compare/contrast to bolster your stand that this version is superior?

As I wrote above, my original plan was to release the two versions together as a double album. But since my personal concept and intention in making Repaired was to improve on the original by keeping it clean and clear and doing some editing, I realized it would be a bad idea to bring them out together. It would just have encouraged people to compare the two versions rather than take the new one on its own merits, as if it was a simple re-release, which is how I conceived it and hoped it would be received. (Also it would have been a bit pretentious and self-important, wouldn’t it? Two versions of one album as a single release? The present plan is more natural and self-consistent–bring out Repaired as the equivalent of a re-release-with-bonus-material, and eventually return the original package to print for anyone who’s interested.)

As I said above, while I do regard the new version as having successfully achieved a better representation of the songs, altogether, the whole experience of doing this has given me a greater respect for the original. There are definitely two or four cuts out of the ten that are better on the original than on Repaired. In fact I knew that going in–I originally planned to keep the original versions of the first two songs (“Replaceable” and “Gotta Move”) and only work on the remaining eight. But it was clear pretty quickly that that wouldn’t work–there would be such a schism in the sound that it would ruin the whole effect of the record. That schism was created by the difference in the production of the original and the Repaired. That difference being what I described above–the original is actually produced, with a strong snappy and booming drum sound, and care taken with the vocals in an excellent recording environment, whereas I was working with plain, direct, unproduced rhythm tracks from a 27-year-old cassette, so that it was impossible to work on their sound at all, and my new singing was in a different off-center pitch and recorded in a
closet-sized digital studio really meant only for computer-mixing.

It’s true, too, that Quine’s solos are treasure and matchless in the original, even though they’re often bobbing in and out of a morass of overdubs, and they appear in badly constructed songs. On the new version, one song is greatly improved by radical editing (“Downtown at Dawn”) and another gets an ineffable extended outro that was curtailed on the original (“Destiny Street”).

Anyway, I intend, as I did from the beginning, to get a handsome new release of the original album arranged to come out once the first strong demand for the new one fades, in a year or so.

You have been writing your memoirs. Have you had any realizations about this time that were revealed to you by the process of reworking this album?

I’m not really writing memoirs — it’s an autobiography, a straight autobiography. The story of my life from childhood in Kentucky through about age 34, when I left music. And, nah, working on the album didn’t really play into the book at all. The book is just about finished. I feel pretty good about it.

You’ve said about the recording of Destiny Street that “I was so debilitated by despair and drug-need that I was useless.” Does that only apply to your performance? You didn’t change the song structures or the lyrics in any discernible way, so you must be happy with them — why weren’t those faculties as compromised by your state as your ability to perform?

But, as I said above I did change the song structures. The worst mess was “Downtown at Dawn.” I consistently cut out measures from every go-round of the verses. The new version is way streamlined and concise compare to the original. The original ran 5:55, the new one 4:28. A minute and a half has been cut and that’s all editing of the structure, not paring the outro or anything. Also the new “Destiny Street” song is 7:13, which is about two and a half minutes longer than the orig (4:42). I love the extended moronic-guitar duel between Marc and Ivan on the new one. If it had been possible I would have written some bridges for the songs on the new one too, but there would have been no way to match the rhythm track sounds.

Another way in which I altered the recordings, improving on the neglectful originals, was to add some backup harmonies, namely on “Lowest Common Dominator” and “Staring in Her Eyes.”

But as I’ve said over and over, the main defect, that came from my 1982 laziness and inattention, is the way the overall production is an undifferentiated muck of piercing guitar layers. Rather than attend to giving the songs their due in appropriately thought-through kick-ass guitar arrangement, I just had the players throw in the kitchen sink. It’s like a diversionary tactic. Or Woody Allen leaping around like he knows king fu. Well, not that bad. Those guys could play, but all the backwards guitar and multi-effects from strings of boxes, in dub on top of screeching dub, sabotage these songs.

It’s the playing of the new soloists that really knits the release together. I didn’t bring this up with them, but I know that they all knew the album well, and had all played with Quine, and admired and fully appreciated him — and I think that in a way their playing is a kind of salute to Bob. In spots I think they refer to him. But it didn’t even have to be conscious, and it is most certainly not imitation — they play differently than Bob — but they have similar values. Bob respected and appreciated all three of them too. Anyway their playing is great and everything I had any right to hope for. It’s the consistency of their fluent and perceptive participation in the songs that makes the album into what I hoped it would be.

In doing this, you were singing lyrics written nearly 30 years before. This is different from live performance, where it is acknowledged that the artist has aged and grown. In this case, you are recreating something from another time. Did any of the lyrics strike you differently in this context? Did you consider any changes or updates?

I didn’t think of it as recreating something from another time. The songs, and their performances as caught on the rhythm-section tapes I used, were good and the performances were faithful to the songs. I never thought twice about singing them last year. It didn’t require any conceptual leap or any unusual mental framework — I just sang them as well as I could, just as I’d played them and music-directed them as well as I could on the 1982 tapes. I neither tried to imitate the 1982 vocals, nor to deliberately depart from them. I just tried to be true to the songs. No contortions were required whatsoever. It was a pleasure to do.

You said before the release of Destiny Street Repaired that “there are a few qualities of the original that this version couldn’t better.” What are those and why wasn’t it possible to improve upon them?

Quine’s and Naux’s guitar solos of course. I truly believe Quine is the best soloist in the history of rock & roll. Unfortunately, he’s not given his best presentation on Destiny Street. I could have made an amazing Repaired, though, rearranging the mixes to highlight his playing, and having him add new solos is other spots. But Marty Thau lost the original multitrack (and the original two-track mix!), and Quine killed himself before we could go back into the studio.

Then there’s the matter of the impossibility of getting a professional production on the rhythm tracks because they came from a raw live performance on cassette (as detailed above). The subtleties of mix variations and the basic competence of the production as in getting a strong drum sound were unavailable to me on the new version (though as I said no one noticed!)

Also, I did have a more flexible wider-ranged voice with more depth at the age of 31-32 than I did last year at 59. As said above, the recording conditions were also better in 1982. Though I believe I managed well enough to compensate with other qualities in the singing on Repaired, so that overall the new vocals — all or nothing — are better.

But I still have no doubts whatsoever that I was justified in making Repaired and that the record is a success, accomplishing what I intended. The two versions don’t mix, and taken as stand-alone albums, as song suites, as sequences of material on disk, the new version is superior to the old.

You have focused more on writing in the past several years. Did this process reignite any desire to make music on a more regular basis? If so, what form will that take?

I’ve always loved making albums and that hasn’t changed. Unfortunately that wasn’t and isn’t enough to justify the expense of rehearsing and paying salaries and for recording time and for the manufacture and distribution of records. If
it were possible for me to take off six months (or even two months) every two or three years to write and rehearse and record an album’s worth of material, and then return to writing books or whatever, I’d love it. But each time that would cost $150,000 and who’s going to pay for it? Especially now when listeners just steal music rather than pay the musicians anyway.

What is the status of the memoir and your other writing projects?

The autobiography will be a big book, well over 300 closely-packed pages, and I’m on the last chapter. I’ll start showing it to publishers by the summer I expect. I would think it’d be published in 2011.

Let me add one last thing to this ponderous (sorry!) interview. Namely that I’m really gratified by the reception of Destiny Street Repaired altogether. It might have sounded like I was being pretty cutting about the reviewers, but actually I feel great about the record’s reception. The proportion of positive to negative has been about 50/50 or maybe 60/40 in favor, but, seriously, the positive reviews have been so much more intelligent and accurate than the negative ones (I mean in obvious ways!), that it ends up feeling more like 85/15, since most of the negative ones are just mean-spirited and had obviously made up their minds before they listened. Ultimately, I got a better reception with this than I expected. And regardless of any of that it’s been a great experience.

3 Comments
Mar 23, 2010
2:04 am
#1 Loren :

wow — great posting! thank you John.

Mar 28, 2010
5:19 pm
#2 britneyland :

~ And thanks to Loren for tipping me to this so I can re-post. John, is there anything you DON'T do?

Apr 8, 2010
5:33 am
#3 Anonymous :

Odd — Seems obvious to me that after pulling the old tape tracks into the digital audio workstation, you'd digitally correct the pitch and speed, and THEN lay down the new guitars and vocals, in the proper key. Problem solved: no retuning or having to sing "off-center".

Sorry, comments are closed.

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