NYC punk great Richard Hell talks about the rocky road that led to the most complete version of his classic second Voidoids album
Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ 1977 debut album Blank Generation secured their status as punk legends.
Though their 1982 follow-up Destiny Street was well-received, Hell openly disparaged it, saying it hadn’t turned out the way he’d envisioned it. Nothing could be done, though, as the master tapes were lost. In 2009, Hell released a reworked Destiny Street, based on a cassette he’d found from the original recording sessions, but he still wasn’t entirely satisfied. So when most of the master tapes were finally found in 2019, Hell couldn’t resist reworking the album a third time. The results, Destiny Street Complete, came out on January 22 via Omnivore Recordings. It includes all versions of the album, plus extensive liner notes that Hell wrote himself.
Calling from his New York City apartment (where he’s lived since 1974), Hell is affable as he discusses the whole Destiny Street saga. “I mean, it was weird enough in 2009 when I made the first attempt to salvage that album,” he says, but adds that doing this latest revamp “really is satisfying to me. It’s really fulfilling. I actually have finally accomplished this quest!” He laughs and adds amiably, “People can make of it what they will. I’m fully prepared to absorb the blows.”
Hell says that he never considered taking the easier path of simply shrugging and leaving Destiny Street in its original form. “For one thing, I’m one of those people who can’t let something go. It would be a constant irritant to me,” he says. He applies this same perfectionism to his work as an author, which has been his main career both before and after his time with the Voidoids: “The books that I’ve written, five or six substantial volumes and a lot of smaller ones, they’re all full of [my] notes in the margins, if I have a chance to do another edition where I get to do revisions.”
Hell points out that other artists have been this way about their work, too: “People would warn collectors of [French Impressionist painter Edgar] Degas not to invite him to dinner because he would probably take the paintings that they had of his home, because he wanted to change them,” Hell says, amused.
Hell becomes more serious as he really digs into his reasons for re-working this album, though. “The thing about Destiny Street was that it was especially frustrating and galling to me because I only made two [Richard Hell & the Voidoids] albums,” he says. “To have the second one fall so far short of what I knew it could have been, it always gave me this sinking feeling when I thought of the record.
“My fantasy was to be able to remix it but I wasn’t able to because I had been told that the tapes were lost,” Hell continues, “so I couldn’t help myself when I discovered that cassette back in 2009 and it occurred to me, ‘Well, this isn’t exactly the chance to remix it but it it’s as close as I’m going to be able to get.’” Of that version, Hell says, “I felt like this is closer to what I had wanted to do than the original, and I was glad to have done it, and it made me happy.”
But when three out of the four original 24 track master tapes for Destiny Street were discovered in an upstate New York storage space, Hell knew he had to rework the album a third time. “I could not let that opportunity go by,” he says. “And so it is kind of ridiculous – but people do put out these outrageously comprehensive records that include all the outtakes and alternate versions and unreleased tracks and stuff. So this isn’t that far-fetched.”
Now, Hell says, he’s able to see positive things about all of the album versions – including the original one. “I think the material is good and I feel like each one has its own virtues and qualities,” he says. “And also, for me, just my own sensibility and the way my mind works, it’s interesting to hear these different treatments of the same song, all based on this same basic rhythm track.” Still, he adds, “I do feel like the new one is easily the most successful. If you had to pick only one, it would be the easy winner.”
As for why Hell hadn’t stopped the original Destiny Street from being released when he first realized it wasn’t turning out as planned, he is matter-of-fact: “I was incapacitated by my drug habit. I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t want to go out in public and play. The only thing that gave me any motivation, really, was to be able to survive and pay the rent. I was just extremely distracted, let’s put it that way. That’s probably the most accurate way to put it.”
Even though Hell has long been clean, he has no plans to resurrect his music career beyond this new Destiny Street release, saying he puts “whatever energy that I would have put into songs into writing now. I’ve always loved writing songs and recording them, but I don’t like the rest of the life of rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t particularly like playing live. I really don’t like touring. It’s unfortunate: I would have loved to have put out a record every two years for the past 40 years, but you can’t work that way. To survive, you’ve got to pay the band, rehearsal time and all this stuff that you have to earn money to be able to do. That means you have to tour. So yeah, I’m not going to be doing that.”
Hell dismisses the suggestion that the albums he did release are viewed as some of the most influential work in the punk rock canon. “In the larger scheme of things, they’re not that significant,” he says. “But I do know this about it: it did really mean something to me to try to put as much into all the releases that I could. The lyrics have always meant a whole lot to me and I know that’s a big factor. I try to make them as subtle and meaningful as I can. I really put a lot of care into it. I think people respond to that.”
VIDEO: Destiny Street Complete trailer
It makes sense that Hell is so focused on words because he actually was a published writer before he became a musician. “I had originally intended to be a poet when I was a teenager,” he says. “I dropped out of high school and came to New York to try to figure out how to do that. I was pretty active for three or four years. I had a little literary magazine and I was published pretty widely in some places that were pretty prestigious.
“But I always was chafing against how esoteric and obscure it was, poetry writing, as a vocation and livelihood,” Hell continues. “I wanted to have interaction with the whole world, the whole culture. I wanted to be a part of what was going on, not just be this sort of specialist interest thing. I wanted some action. Also, poetry isn’t physical, and rock and roll is very physical, and I liked the physical part.”
With the Voidoids, Hell became one of the most iconic artists in punk rock. With Destiny Street finally coming out in the form that Hell always wanted, it’s likely that his status will be elevated even more.