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An Ex-Punker With a Story to Tell

Books: Richard Hell turns novelist with 'Go Now,' a tale featuring a junkie musician.

September 23, 1996|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Hell is stumped. Outside the window lies a sliver of Los Angeles, just enough to perplex him.

"On one hand it's really seductive and I'm susceptible to the appeal. On the other hand, I feel completely alienated by it," he says. "But I'm basically a professional alien, so it should come natural to me to feel alien."

Of course, Hell made his name as a professional alien in the related field of punk rock when he fronted the bands Television and the Voidoids 20 years ago. Now, as prominent punks Patti Smith and the Sex Pistols return for encore tours, Hell is making his debut as a novelist with "Go Now" (Scribner), a dark, psychically brutal trip with a junkie musician.

"Things tend to go in these 20-year cycles," muses Hell, 47. "The middle-aged have come into power in the culture and so their youth suddenly becomes of interest."

"Go Now" follows Billy Mud's road trek with a French photographer to write a book about America. The Mud's-eye view of the country is well sheltered--the character rarely leaves his motel rooms to do research, and Hell is seeming particularly Mud-like as he riffs on L.A. from the sanctity of his room at the Beverly Laurel Motor Hotel.

"Me, I'm all inside my head," says the onetime cult figure.

Not surprisingly, "Go Now" approximates a chapter from Hell's youth. The hapless Mud bears a resemblance to the old Hell, who did in fact embark on such a trip and book in the early '80s. For Mud the musician, actually playing music plays second fiddle to scoring junk and girls.

Mud's ambitions sink in a mire of drug abuse, lust and weakness, and while the author acknowledges that Mud incorporates elements of Hell, he balks at being too specific.

"The situation is the same," he says, very much in ex-musician drag with indoor sunglasses and cigarette at the ready. "There was an old friend who went with me on the road who's a female photographer, but the one in the book has nothing in common with the person who actually took the trip. The one in the book is based on somebody else.

"Another similarity it has to 'Go Now' is that it fell apart along the way. I just was not in a condition to pull it off. Same reasons. I was just strung out and incompetent."

Hell doesn't want to talk about his reported experience with heroin, although he told the Boston Globe that his junkie character's "condition is one I know firsthand and intimately." "It's really a delicate thing to convey very clearly," he says, choosing his words carefully. "It takes art and I can't do that in a conversation."

"Go Now" hits the heroin nerve that's rocking the culture, although Hell distinguishes his reminiscence from the aerie of middle age from the drug alert that has been taking down such young actors and musicians as Robert Downey Jr. and Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland.

"We have survived," he says of his generation. "The heroin culture thing is more about the kids."

Still, some critics have compared "Go Now" to the raw sensibility of "Trainspotting," the recent film about junk-obsessed Scottish youth based on the book by Irvine Welsh. "One thing we have in common is that we don't glamorize or romanticize drug use," Hell says. "But neither do we judge users."

It's not for the squeamish, however. The Hartford Courant admired Hell's "lyric descriptions" but winced at the "tawdry subject matter."

None of it is very pretty, and Hell's mother, a former English professor, blanched when she read the manuscript. At the time, Hell was considering returning to his family name--Meyers--for the book jacket and his new phase of life.

"She didn't find any problems with any of the grammar, but she did say to me, 'Richard, if you were at all thinking of going back to your name for my sake, don't bother,' " he says with a howl.

"She'd just as soon I didn't sully the family name. I realized also that it's consistent with the stuff that I've done before under that name, so I'll just stick with it."

Hell dropped out of the full-time music life in the mid-'80s, after a decade of tedious touring and meaningless sex. He returned to what he considers his main creative identity--writing--which he'd been doing ever since he was a teenage dropout poet from Kentucky, in love with New York and French surrealist writers. He briefly edited a literary magazine, Cuz, and published poetry.

In 1992, Hell picked up the few chapters he had written a decade earlier about his real-life tour of America. By then, he had the stamina to reshape the material into a book.

"It was really a revelation, just what pleasure I got out of working on it even though it was such gruesome material. I would look forward to getting up in the morning and seeing where it was going to go."

These days, Hell still sees the world from the Lower East Side apartment he's been living in for 20 years, although one thing has changed: He's a father, spending three days a week with Ruby, the 10-year-old daughter he shares with ex-wife Patty Smyth, formerly of Scandal. Hell recently recorded with the Heads and has written a couple of songs for small films, but his main gig is fiction, and he's planning to start a second book this fall, topic unknown.

He may swing from rocker to novelist, but the former punk doesn't like to be pinned down when it comes to his writing identity. Says Hell: "I like to keep it open. I like to keep moving."

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