After moving to the Lower East Side in 1966 and became part of the underground poetry scene, Richard Hell eventually transitioned to rock ‘n’ roll with his old friend Tom Verlaine, with whom he started the Neon Boys and then Television, before quitting to form the Heartbreakers and then his own band, Richard Hell and the Voidoids.
In late 1966, a seventeen-year-old named Richard Meyers arrived in New York, enthralled by the scrappy writers whose work appeared in those poetry zines. “The street poets I liked wanted to have fun and be direct and uninhibited, and their whole thing was mimeo,” said Meyers, who later adopted the name Richard Hell and cofounded the early punk band Television. “It wasn’t just that they were simply done cheaply and spontaneously. You could conceive of a book in the morning and have it at the East Side Bookstore on St. Mark’s Place the next day.” He added, “The mimeo magazines were also gorgeous objects. The people who were making them had really advanced ideas and high personal standards for making a book as effective in every area, including its design. The font was a typewriter, but they had great illustrations.” This nearly instantaneous form of printing strengthened the connections that had already formed through face-to-face encounters on the street, and it anticipated a mode of publishing later enabled by the Internet. “There’s no question that mimeo was a community-building tool, but we weren’t thinking of it that way then,” Andrei Codrescu said. “We were thinking of the fact that we could actually publish our works quickly because, if you sent it to any other magazine, it would take about a year to publish it and we weren’t interested. The mimeos took one ink-stained day and three-hour street-corner distribution. Our poems were news and we had in mimeo the technology to make them news, but I’m not sure the Internet has the same kind of intimacy, even though it’s instant. It doesn’t have the touch of the flesh and ink on the hands.”
From Chapter 5 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When the Holy Modal Rounders’ Peter Stampfel arrived on the Lower East Side in 1959, the midwesterner was a bit leery of living in a slum. Is it dangerous? he wondered. Is there trouble? Yes, it could be a bit sketchy, but this was counterbalanced by the incredibly cheap rents. Bibbe Hansen—who lived at 609 East Sixth Street, between Avenues C and D—recalled that it was an extremely poor neighborhood. “It was more about poverty than anything else,” she said. “There were artists living around where I was living, but mostly because we were poor. There are so many important people that were part of the everyday landscape that are now these monumental, awesome giants of alternative culture and experimental art.” Agosto Machado had always found the West Village to be a little expensive, so he mostly lived on the East Side. “Now, we’re talking thirty-, forty-, fifty-, sixty-dollar-a-month apartments,” Agosto Machado said. “That allowed a generation of people to come to New York City and spend, like, three-quarters of their time being an artist and a quarter of their time doing some sort of pickup day work to pay for your rent.” By the mid-1960s, the social and economic dynamics in the neighborhood were shifting—as was the Lower East Side’s name. “The landlords changed the name to the East Village so they could make a little more rent,” recalled Peter Crowley. “That began in the early sixties, and by the mid to late sixties it was like a gold rush.” Richard Meyers was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and landed on the Lower East Side in late 1966; within a few years he had reinvented himself as Richard Hell. As a child, he and his mother had visited his grandmother in the West Village every three or four years, so he already had an impression of the city. “The West Village was—in terms of New York—deceptively quaint and peaceful and beautiful,” Hell said. “It wasn’t until I actually came here that I got exposed to Fourteenth Street and Forty-Second Street and the East Village—the real New York, which is much more squalid than this isolated Village where my grandmother lived.”
From Chapter 7 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Holy Modal Rounders’ Peter Stampfel remembered the neighborhood surrounding Tompkins Square Park as being relatively safe in the early 1960s (with “relatively” being the operating word). “A lot of speed freaks had a bad reputation for running around stealing and being sociopathic and that sort of thing,” he said, “which was partially true. Things started getting a little dicier in 1962, which was the year a lot of runaway kids hit the Village, so then the Forty-Second Street sleaze started hanging around the set. But when the Summer of Love bullshit happened, it really went downhill. The counterculture suddenly became something everyone was aware of. Around 1967, the flower people were being touted far and wide in the mass media, so every ex-con semi-sociopathic creep in the country was like, ‘Teenage girls who fuck, take drugs, let’s go!’ So there was a huge influx of sleaze.” Richard Hell, who arrived in the Lower East Side in late 1966, recalled, “When I got over there, hippiedom was peaking, while at the same time it was collapsing, where ripeness turns to rot. There were head shops everywhere, and barefoot kids with flowers in their hair who were panhandling and were tripping. But then every few months there would be a headline story about a Lower East Side crash pad where somebody had overdone it and put out everyone’s eyes with an icepick, taking ‘flower power’ a little too far.”
From Chapter 14 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Punk compatriots Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine followed a similar path from poetry to music. Born Richard Meyers and Tom Miller, they met in the mid-1960s at a boarding school in Delaware and were both drawn to New York. They settled into a life of letters and worked at several bookstores, including Cinemabilia, where future Television manager Terry Ork and An American Family’s Kristian Hoffman worked. Verlaine also hung around the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, a block from his apartment, and Hell had already been publishing his own poetry magazine, Genesis : Grasp. Hell started the Dot Books imprint in 1971 with the intention of publishing a list of five books, including Patti Smith’s poetry, but he wound up printing only a collaboration between himself and Verlaine, as well as a book by Andrew Wylie—who became the infamous literary agent known as “the Jackal.” During this time, Hell and Verlaine began writing collaborative poems, sharing a typewriter much as Smith and Shepard did with Cowboy Mouth. As their writing experiments progressed, Hell thought it would be fun to conceive of it as a work of a separate third person. Verlaine liked the idea and suggested making the author a woman, Theresa Stern. “Feminism and androgyny and transvestitism were in the air,” Hell wrote. “We’d cash in! I started imagining her biography.” Theresa Stern became a Puerto Rican prostitute-poet who worked the streets of Hoboken, New Jersey. Her debut book, Wanna Go Out? was published in 1973 just as Hell and Verlaine were forming their first band, which evolved into Television. “I had a book of Patti’s that we had compiled with me as editor, and there was a book of mine, and a book of Tom’s,” Hell said. “But it was just Andrew’s book and Theresa’s book that were actually published. The other books were ready to go, but then I got into rock ’n’ roll and I just transferred all my energies to music. And so did Patti.”
From Chapter 25 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Lance Loud and Kristian Hoffman found out about the Dolls when the British music weekly Melody Maker raved about them. “Lance and I thought, ‘God, they’re just playing right down the street,’ and so we went and saw them, and then we went every single time they played.” They would sometimes bring along Lance’s mom, Pat Loud, who was game for anything. “I have pictures of Pat Loud in the audience at Mercer’s,” Hoffman recalled. “I was on the dance floor right in front of the stage and I had my Brownie Instamatic, and she got in the picture in front of the New York Dolls.” Their new friend Paul Zone had first seen the Dolls at the Hotel Diplomat, where the crowd numbered about a hundred and everyone dressed in their own original styles. “It just seemed so different from anything that we’d ever seen before,” Zone recalled. “We just knew right then and there that there was a place that we could feel like we can express ourself without feeling like an outcast.” The New York Dolls became downtown stars after they began performing every Tuesday night in the Mercer’s two-hundred-seat Oscar Wilde Room, which was perfect for the group because of its theatrical lighting. “Just walking into the Mercer that first time and seeing them onstage and everyone in the audience,” Zone said, “you were just like, ‘This is it.’ ” Richard Hell was also drawn to the Dolls’ simple songs and sloppy performances, which he found riveting. “Their gigs were unlike any I’d ever experienced,” Hell recalled. “They were parties, they were physical orgies, without much distinction between the crowd and the band.” The Dolls attracted future members of Television, the Ramones, Blondie, and other early punk bands to the Mercer Arts Center.
From Chapter 27 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Future Blondie members Clem Burke and Gary Valentine also hung out there when they were crashing at a friend’s storefront pad. “I was living in New York,” Valentine said, “and I was basically leading a kind of decadent juvenile delinquent life in the East Village. I was hanging out at Club 82 prior to when I was playing in Blondie.” Burke played drums in a band called Sweet Revenge, which sometimes performed at Club 82, where they covered David Bowie and Mott the Hoople songs mixed with some originals. “One of our big songs was called ‘Fuck the World,’ ” Burke said, “which was kind of punk rock.” Paul Zone, who would join his brothers’ group the Fast in 1976, was also at that Dolls performance at Club 82. It was there that he met Harry and Stein, as well as Lance Loud and Kristian Hoffman—all of whom would go on to play a big role in his life. “We all met at that Dolls show,” Zone recalled. “That was one of my first times with Kristian, at a Dolls show.” Hoffman added, “Paul and his brothers knew who we were, like, ‘Oh, it’s An American Family!’ Something like that. So Paul just came up and just started talking to us. Paul wasn’t in the Fast yet. He was kind of like the designer-manager person for the band.” Also in attendance was Roberta Bayley, who later worked the door at CBGB and shot album cover photos for the Ramones and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Bayley had recently moved from London to New York and heard about the New York Dolls, but hadn’t yet seen them. “It just happened that the Dolls were playing directly downstairs from the loft where a friend of a friend lived on East Fourth Street,” she said. “That was Club 82.”
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“Television had been percolating around for awhile, and then they started playing at CBGB on Sunday nights,” recalled Roberta Bayley. “I was living with Richard Hell at that time and their manager Terry Ork said, ‘Do you want to sit at the door and take the money?’ So that gave me something to do. Then later I started to do it full-time at CBGB.” Hell invited Patti Smith to one of their shows during the band’s CBGB residency in spring 1974, and Lloyd invited Lenny Kaye. Before heading downtown that night, Smith and Kaye attended a glittery, star-studded premiere of the Rolling Stones’ live concert film Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones. (Hibiscus, his sisters, and other Angels of Light had been hired by the theater to add even more sparkle to the occasion, performing a short vignette before the film.) “The first time I went to CBGB was on Easter Sunday 1974,” Kaye said, “when we left—symbolically, amazingly—a Rolling Stones movie uptown at the Ziegfeld Theatre and took a cab down and went there for the first time.” Television’s raw, jagged music reminded Smith of the first time she heard Little Richard as a girl, or seeing the Rolling Stones when she was a teen. It was electric, and transformative. In the pages of Rock Scene magazine, she waxed poetic about Tom Verlaine’s guitar sound (like “a thousand bluebirds screaming”) and described the tall skinny musician as “a languid boy with the confused grace of a child in paradise. A guy worth losing your virginity to.”
Like Patti Smith, Richard Hell transitioned into rock after spending time in the underground poetry scene, where he learned a useful DIY skill set. “I had become completely acclimated to that culture of doing it yourself as a writer in the world of street poets,” he said, “so when I started doing music it felt familiar.” Hell was a bit nervous about having no previous musical experience, but Tom Verlaine assured him that the bass was an easy instrument to learn, and the two friends began rehearsing in Verlaine’s apartment. “At the same time I started working on lyrics and melodies to some guitar compositions he’d got going that he hadn’t worked up words for,” Hell recalled. “The idea was that he’d sing his lyrics and I’d sing mine, and eventually I’d write music, too. I had the name for the group: the Neon Boys.” Hell and Verlaine wanted to strip rock ’n’ roll down to its essential core, doing away with the showbiz theatricality of the glam bands and jettisoning the kind of excesses that dominated 1970s corporate rock. Looking to flesh out their lineup, they placed an ad in the Village Voice classifieds section: “Narcissistic rhythm guitarist wanted—minimal talent okay.” Blondie’s Chris Stein auditioned, but wasn’t a good fit, and Dee Dee Ramone also tried out even though he couldn’t play guitar. Hell and Verlaine never found the right musician for the Neon Boys, and in 1974 the fledgling group hooked up with guitarist Richard Lloyd, morphed into Television, and began playing regularly at CBGB.
Television’s first gig was at an art house cinema on 122 West Forty-Fourth Street. They rented the Townhouse Theater, charged two dollars admission, and advertised the show by posting flyers around Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side. Reflecting the multimedia experimentation that permeated downtown, the group’s first show mixed live video, broadcast television, and rock ’n’ roll. “My idea for ramping up our presentation was to place four or five televisions onstage,” Richard Hell recalled. “During our performance each was tuned to a different channel, while one of them was hooked up to the Portapak of the video guy who’d been taping our rehearsals. He roamed the theater shooting our act as we played, as well as the audience, and that stream was fed to one of the monitors onstage, too.” Hell also helped define Television’s early visual style, wearing ripped T‑shirts held together by safety pins and, in one case, a shirt with “Please Kill Me” handwritten on the front (a cheeky and somewhat brave thing to wear downtown in the crime-ridden 1970s). Soon after their Townhouse show, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd asked Hilly Kristal if they could play at CBGB, but the owner declined because he wasn’t interested in booking rock bands. They returned with their manager, Terry Ork, who suggested that Television play on the bar’s worst night—Sunday—and guaranteed that all their friends would make the bar’s cash registers ring. It was music to Hilly’s ears.
“The people that were at Club 82,” Clem Burke said, “Lenny Kaye, Joey Ramone, Tommy Ramone, myself, Gary Valentine, Debbie and Chris, Johnny Thunders—essentially, everybody took their platforms off, cut their hair, walked around the corner, and wound up at CBGB. That’s basically what happened, because everyone was living in the neighborhood. It literally was around the corner from CBGB.” Hilly Kristal didn’t change his Bowery bar’s name until late 1973, but it’s not as if he did any significant renovations when it became CBGB. “It was pretty much the same when it was called Hilly’s,” Suicide’s Alan Vega recalled. “The bathrooms were already horrific, even before it was renamed CBGB.” After Marion Cowings’s band Dance broke up following the Mercer Arts Center collapse, he was in a band named Squeeze that occasionally played at CBGB. He recalled that Hilly’s dogs used to run loose and defecate on the floor, so people had to watch where they stepped. “He was like a wild Bowery guy,” Cowings said, “just wild and dirty. At that time the Bowery was the Bowery. There were lots of bombed-out buildings and fleabag hotels, and lots of people sleeping on the street.”
With no major labels interested in signing an androgynous poet-singer, Patti Smith decided to do it herself. Lenny Kaye had produced an album by the Sidewinders for RCA Records and previously played on a single as a teenager, so he knew his way around the studio. “We recorded our single in June of 1974,” he said, “mostly just because I knew that you could make records easily from hanging out in these record stores.” Robert Mapplethorpe loaned them the money to press a seven-inch single, which was recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios on West Eighth Street. The Patti Smith Group performed the Hendrix staple “Hey Joe,” along with one of her original songs, “Piss Factory,” to which Tom Verlaine added guitar. The group began distributing the single via mail order, at local bookstores and record stores, and during Smith’s shows—where Jane Friedman sold them out of a large shopping bag. “The DIY way of working in the poetry world was completely assumed,” Richard Hell said, “so that idea leaked into the music world when Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye pressed their single.” Hell also pointed out that this independent route was a continuation of what Warhol had done when he produced the first Velvet Underground record. Instead of waiting to sign to a major label, he paid for the sessions himself so as to avoid being constrained by record company executives.
From Chapter 31 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Pat Loud took a job in publishing in 1974 and followed her son out to New York, where she opened her small Upper West Side apartment to Lance and his friends. “She’s the most marvelous mother,” Kristian Hoffman said. “I mean, I really think of her as my other mother. She takes care of us all the time, to this day. So when she met Lance’s colorful panoply of insane artsy friends, she would just invite them into her house for dinner without prejudice. They had a little kitchen about the size of a California closet, and she made all of this magic happen in that room.” Pat also used to drop by CBGB and other downtown venues to see her son’s band play. “The Mumps were on the bill when she went to see Television,” Roberta Bayley said, “when Richard Hell was in the band. I remember Richard dedicated a song to her from the stage, which was nice. I also remember Lance’s mother invited Richard and I to an Oscar party at her apartment. I think she was just culturally open to different things and seeing what was going on, and really supportive of her son and his friends.” Despite Pat Loud’s initial dislike of the Jackie Curtis play Vain Victory, the two eventually became very good friends; Pat even contributed to Curtis’s drag wardrobe after taking revenge on her cheating husband. “One of his mistresses owned a clothing shop in Montecito,” she said. “I went over to that clothing shop and I bought everything that fit me—which was a lot of stuff. I put it on a bill, and they let me walk out with all of these clothes.” Having no desire to keep them, Pat donated the expensive fashions to the Off-Off-Broadway star (“I gave Jackie lots of stuff,” she recalled). Lance Loud was also good friends with Hibiscus, who often came over to Pat’s place for dinner. “That’s why there’s pictures of me there having dinner with Jackie Curtis,” Hoffman said. “Holly Woodlawn was there. Hibiscus was there. You would think having all those crazy people there would be kind of like an art salon,” Hoffman said, “but it was more like Pat cooking a delicious meal for love birds that had wet wings and they were lost. It was a place to go to get warm and have a good meal with someone who is completely accepting and loving.”
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The mass media image of punk—think: safety pins holding together ripped clothes—was the result of a transatlantic conversation that developed between the New York and London scenes. Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren started out running a London clothing store in the early 1970s with designer Vivienne Westwood, and then dipped his toes in band management during the New York Dolls’ final days. This pairing happened after McLaren and Westwood began flying to New York for fashion trade shows, where they met Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain—who had his own boutique clothing company, Truth and Soul. McLaren lived in New York when he was managing the Dolls and often went to CBGB, where he kept his eyes wide open. One person he noticed was Richard Hell, who was then playing bass in Television. “Richard had very distinct way of dressing,” Roberta Bayley recalled. “He thought it through. He was very clear on how he came to the look, the haircut, and everything. … So Malcolm went back to England and incorporated some of those things into the things Vivienne designed. I don’t think Malcolm made any particular bones about copying Richard’s look. He was a conceptualist artist, and Malcolm just liked the idea that people looked like street urchins.” One day in 1976, Chris Stein was paging through a European rock magazine and said, “Hey Richard, you’ve got to see this. There are four guys who look exactly like you!” Hell looked and saw the name Malcolm McLaren by a photo of the Sex Pistols.
From Chapter 33 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore