Richard Hell’s DIY Subjects, or the Gamble of Getting a Face

Leif Sorensen (bio)

Colorado State University




Drawing on extensive research in the Richard Hell Papers, this essay argues that the materials in Hell’s archive force a reconsideration of punk and DIY cultural production as alternative modes of subject formation. Exploring the multiple poetic personae that Richard Meyers developed before turning from poetry to punk and reinventing himself as Richard Hell, the essay shows that although the persona Richard Hell has eclipsed these earlier personae, the punk persona does not offer an escape from normative modes of subject formation. Instead the focus on embodied authenticity in punk curtails Meyers/Hell’s textual experiments with identity.


For one week in the summer of 2007 a visitor to the reading room of the Fales Library at New York University would have witnessed the following scene: at adjacent tables two patrons consulted materials from the then recently opened Richard Hell Papers. The opening of the Hell Papers to researchers marked a significant benchmark for the study of punk music and culture, as such materials had not previously been deemed worthy of inclusion in a special collections library. This scene is striking, however, not only because it signals the coming of age of a subfield of cultural studies, but also because the two patrons were the author of this article and Richard Hell himself. At the same time that I was beginning the research that would turn into this article, Hell was using his archive to work on his autobiography, 2013’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.
This Borgesian tableau is worthy of theorization. What does it mean for the creator of an archive to comb through the documents he had produced in his past in order to convert them into a new narrative of that past, at the same time that another party engaged in a similar project directs his own attention to other documents while ignoring the creator’s presence in the room? This question brings together this essay’s concern with embodiment, archives, and the production of knowledge in the field of punk studies. To begin with, the scene in the reading room is a reminder of the complexity of archives as spaces for the production of knowledge. When thinking of archives as spaces that preserve the past, we often assume that they benefit a loosely defined posterity, not those who participated in the events that they document. Hell’s use of his archive is a reminder that archives also serve their creators. The figure of a first-wave punk innovator in the archive, consulting his journals, handwritten songs, and correspondence after they have been painstakingly organized according to the best practices of archival preservation, is especially striking. Punk is often defined in terms derived from the visceral, embodied experience of those who were there. Hell’s use of his archive in the production of his autobiography reminds us both of the crucial importance of collecting and preserving materials that otherwise would have escaped institutional attention when they were produced, and of the fact that firsthand accounts, be they oral histories, interviews, or memoirs, exist in a dynamic tension with the archive.
Hell’s archive is especially compelling because it contains not only materials and ideas that have not been included in punk historiography, but also alternative artistic personae that have been overshadowed by his iconic punk persona. Before becoming Richard Hell, he published poetry under his given name, Richard Meyers, and under the pseudonyms Ernest (Ernie) Stomach and Theresa Stern. In the archive I find traces of these alternative personae and evidence of the processes of DIY cultural production through which they came into being. These archival traces lead me to approach Hell as an artist whose medium is the persona as much as it is poetry, music, fiction, or film. In exploring Hell’s persona art, this essay draws on and contests heroic accounts of Hell as a pioneer in punk DIY subject formation by testing these accounts against what the archive reveals. I make recourse to the archive not out of a naïve empirical faith that the documents it holds contain the unvarnished truth but as part of a larger sense that for the academic study of punk to be worthwhile, it must question punk’s most cherished origin stories and concepts. The private and lesser-known public writings from Hell’s archive provide alternatives to the standard narrative of punk’s emergence. These documents offer insight into the potential and limitations of subject formation in Hell’s DIY efforts to produce multiple personae. Most importantly, Hell’s archive suggests that the emphasis on embodiment and authenticity in punk performance can be limiting for some performers and that the disembodied world of print culture offers its own kind of freedom.
In a scholarly moment in which the contributions of punks of color, female and queer punks, and punk scenes outside the US and UK are finally gaining critical and popular attention, it might seem wrongheaded to direct attention to a straight white male pioneering figure in the New York City punk scene.[1] Nevertheless, there is a need for stories about these early years that complicate and alter the mythologies that have been built up around them.[2] Hell is an especially rich subject for such an endeavor because the complicated practice of DIY subject formation documented in the private materials in his archive challenges the myths that have sprung up around both Hell and the practice of DIY subject formation. This essay begins with a theorization of DIY subject formation and then proceeds to situate Hell’s career within accounts of the development of DIY punk. Each of the ensuing three sections focuses on the development of a different poetic persona. Considering these personae in detail exposes the process of trial and error that Hell employed in inventing a series of different selves before constructing himself as Richard Hell. In these sections my emphasis is less on the poetry that Hell produced and printed under the name of each persona, and more on developing an account of Hell’s career as a multimedia virtuoso of persona creation. The final section shows that it would be a mistake to treat these personae as easily discarded false starts that Hell could leave behind once he had discovered his true punk self. Instead DIY subject formation emerges as a fallible and incomplete project, yielding a subject in process. Because DIY subject formation has not been fully theorized, attempting such a theorization is the first task of this essay.

DIY Subject Formation

Hell’s archive is a DIY production that contains within it the traces of multiple personae Hell created through his DIY artistic practice. Viewed in this way, the archive becomes a kind of punk scene, in which invented personae come into contact with one another. Punk archives like the Hell Papers, the Riot Grrrl Collection, and the Go Nightclubbing Collection, all housed at Fales, offer particularly complex resources for understanding the punk past and theorizing how punk practices of DIY archiving and knowledge production fit into existing academic institutions. The existence of these archives is clear evidence of the tendency among punks to collect and curate punk history on their own terms, but their acquisition by New York University, a private institution of knowledge production with a vast transnational reach, raises some complicated questions about what forces will shape and determine the afterlives of punk.[3] These same questions animate the tension that occasionally erupts between academics engaged in punk studies and punks. As Golnar Nikpour puts it in an interview with Osa Atoe, “[t]he academic notion of expertise (hierarchical, institution-centered) is utterly antithetical to the punk notion of expertise (democratic, DIY, auto-didactic)” (Atoe 7).[4]
Viewed from the perspective of these debates, the scene in the Fales reading room dramatizes the tensions between punk and academic constructions of knowledge. After all, if Richard Hell is in the archive, doing research on himself to produce a DIY history of the punk scene he helped bring into being, then what possible need is there for an account like this one, produced by a scholar who was born too late for the New York scene and whose claims to knowledge are based in the hierarchal institutions of higher education that punk opposes? To avoid the pitfalls of punk studies, I treat punk not as inert material that can be studied and incorporated into unchanged academic practices but instead as a dynamic set of strategies and resources that act on and transform existing structures. Here, I follow the editors of the recent special issue of Social Text, “Punk and its Afterlives,” who propose punk study as a model of intellectual practice that involves “the ‘rigorous production of knowledge’ of an ‘auto-archiving, self-aware’ scene or scenes, a conversation that is already going on before the self-styled intellectual enters, and one that continues after they leave” (Brown, et. al. 9).
To return for one last time to the Fales reading room, that scene captures Hell in a latter-day moment of DIY subject formation, as he mines the archive left behind by his earlier self to remediate Richard Hell the punk rocker, a figure most associated with embodied performance and sound recording, into a textual form.[5] In punk mythology the real Richard Hell is the embodied figure who produced the performances and sounds that captivated downtown audiences in the mid to late seventies. Thinking about this figure as a persona allows for a more complex account of the way that DIY modes of production produce punk subjectivities. The standard origin myths that get retold in oral histories and popular writing about punk tend to gesture to Hell’s poetic career only to suggest that poetry lacks the visceral charge of punk performance and that this lack leads Hell to abandon the printed page for the ramshackle stages of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. The image of an older Richard Hell returning to his punk archive in order to recapture this persona on the page suggests that the standard narrative is overly simplistic. Moreover, Hell’s return to print has larger ramifications that transform the way we conceptualize DIY subject formation.
One of the most commonly narrated and celebrated experiences in punk is the reinvention of the self. Participants in punk scenes often take on new identities signified by punk names, a sense of belonging to an alternative community, and a new style. In one interview, Hell presents the following account of the process of DIY subject formation through which he transformed himself from Richard Meyers into Richard Hell:

One thing I wanted to bring back to rock & roll was the knowledge that you invent yourself. That’s why I changed my name, why I did all the clothing style things, haircut, everything. So naturally, if you invent yourself, you love yourself. … You can be your own hero, and once everybody is their own hero, then everybody is gonna be able to communicate with each other on a real basis rather than a hand-me-down set of societal standards. (qtd. in Heylin 117-118)


According to Hell, punk style allows the individual to engage in a process of self-creation that seems to be free of the constraints of mainstream society. A less hopeful account of the power of punk style emerges from Dick Hebdige’s 1979 work on subcultures. For Hebdige, subcultural efforts to escape the disciplinary procedures that govern subject formation are doomed to failure because the dominant society can always incorporate them back into it.[6] The accuracy of Hebdige’s account is borne out by the co-optation of punk style by a broad range of marketing programs. Nevertheless, I maintain that focusing on the modes of containment that have neutralized punk forces us to neglect the utopian side of the punk project.[7] In particular, Hell’s archive, which is replete with drafts and revisions of alternative selves, allows us to consider punk as a Foucauldian technology of the self. According to Foucault, technologies of the self exist in tension with technologies of domination but are not wholly subject to them, because “technologies of the self … permit individuals to effect by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (225). In exploring the range of selves that Hell produced through DIY print culture and punk performance, I will chart the potentialities created by these technologies of the self and attend to the moments in which Hell’s project of self-transformation runs afoul of the technologies of domination that police acceptable modes of selfhood.
Retrospective and contemporary accounts of punk DIY subject formation typically emphasize its potential to liberate the self through individual performativity, the social production of an alternative cultural space, and the shock of countercultural aesthetics. Alice Bag, the lead singer of the Los Angeles band the Bags, compellingly describes the experience of inhabiting a DIY persona on stage: “[o]nce the Bags hit the stage and the music started, ego checked out and id took over, channeling my libido, my inner rage, whatever … . I was free to be myself with no holds barred. It was the ultimate freedom” (221). This “ultimate freedom” results from performing a persona (Alice Bag not Alicia Armendariz), from occupying the stage in a punk venue, and from the surge of affect unleashed by the music. Although the performance venue is a privileged place for the production of such punk selves, Bag makes it clear that the effect of this DIY act of subject formation was not limited to the stage:

Each show brought with it an opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to push our creativity a little further, until slowly the outfits, the music, the aesthetic was so much a part of who we were that we weren’t just dressing up for shows. The clothes had turned into a second skin, and the music had become a heartbeat. Punk was changing us from the outside in. (194)


The transformation that Bag and Hell both narrate involves the formation of a mode of being that resists the norms of mainstream society and offers a new set of aesthetic and social values.
On the surface, Hell’s and Bag’s narratives suggest that DIY punk offers, in Tavia Nyong’o’s terms, “an antiauthoritarian process of subject formation” (“Punk’d Theory” 19). The repetitive work of DIY cultural production, which Alastair Gordon has called a “practice of everyday toil” (107), complicates the utopian account of DIY subject formation. As Gordon points out, DIY has been subject to the same kind of mythmaking as iconic figures like Hell have been, especially in “romantic descriptions of DIY as ‘effortless’ and ‘immediate’” (107). Calling attention to the labor that goes into DIY practices requires a reevaluation of celebrated punk exclamations like the Desperate Bicycles’ refrain “It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it.”
Furthermore, considering DIY as a labor-intensive practice that involves the acquisition of skills has ramifications for considerations of DIY subjectivity. In Louis Althusser’s influential account of the subjection of individuals to dominant ideology, the acquisition of skills in schools goes hand in hand with submission to the rules of the dominant order.[8] As Judith Butler puts it, “[t]he more a practice is mastered, the more fully subjection is achieved” (116). If a similar dynamic is at work in the acquisition of DIY skills, then the utopian idea of DIY subject formation as a mode of resistance is dead on arrival. Although sites of DIY education are not institutionally sanctioned and rarely have a fixed instructor or authority figure, viewed from the perspective of our neo-liberal moment, in which state support for education is diminishing and workers are encouraged to develop skills on their own time, this movement away from state-sanctioned venues seems less like anti-authoritarian resistance and more like a harbinger of the new order of things. Consequently, popular accounts of DIY punk often erase the labor through which practitioners acquire skills as a defense mechanism. Acknowledging this labor might erase the distinction between the punk and the productive worker. The modes of selfhood that Hell experiments with in his persona art seem to reflect a larger anxiety regarding the possibility of producing any kind of coherent self from the materials available to him. His personae slide between extremes, at times functioning as parodies of the notion of a coherent, unified identity altogether and at others promising access to a more authentic and visceral mode of being than those offered by mainstream versions of selfhood. In what follows I trace the processes through which Hell produced these personae, some of which were clearly disposable guises and others that seem to offer something closer to the kind of freedom that Alice Bag found on stage. In order to conceptualize Hell’s work as such a practice, however, we must first establish his relationship to DIY punk.


DIY in the New York Scene

The relationship of the first generation of punks to DIY is complex. Daniel Kane asserts that “[t]he forms of distribution for New York’s proto-punk scene evoked those of the DIY poetry community,” marshaling as evidence the initial recordings of the Patti Smith Group (their first single, “Hey Joe / Piss Factory,” was released on Mer Records in 1974) and Richard Hell and the Voidoids (a limited-edition 1976 pressing from Ork Records featuring “Another World” on the A side with “Blank Generation” and “You Gotta Lose” sharing the B side) (Kane 332). Although these recordings are examples of early punks adopting DIY strategies (Mer Records was the creation of Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe and Ork Records was founded by Terry Ork, the original manager of Hell’s earlier band, Television), both bands would abandon such practices for their first full-lengths.[9]
Hell makes it clear in his memoir that his foray into DIY recording was instrumental. The songs that appeared on the Ork release were demo recordings; their release was a useful byproduct of the process of seeking a contract from an established label. As Hell recalls, “Ork Records was the independent outlet for 45s that Terry had started in order to get more circulation for the bands he cared about” (Tramp 195).[10] Here DIY is a means of attempting to attract the interest of larger labels, not an end in itself. This lack of a commitment to DIY as an ethos among the early punk bands is evident when we consider that many of Hell’s and Smith’s contemporaries in the New York scene skipped this initial stage of DIY production. The Ramones and The Talking Heads signed with Sire without releasing DIY pressings and Blondie released their first album in 1976 with the short-lived Private Stock label.[11] As relatively new labels, Arista, Sire, and Private Stock were willing to take chances on the strange new bands emerging from the punk scene.[12] Nevertheless, these labels did not offer the degree of artistic and economic control associated with DIY punk practices.[13]
The tendency among prominent early U.S. punk bands to treat DIY recording as a necessary evil has led punks and academics who champion DIY to see these bands as problematic ancestors. At best their brief engagements in DIY recording are incomplete early gestures toward an ethos that would only emerge fully in the eighties. Craig O’Hara offers such a narrative: “Many of the original Punk bands of the mid-70’s were later signed and exploited by major labels. It took the first wave of British anarchists and California Punks to realize that they could do records on their own. This way they could set their own prices, write their own lyrics and play the music that they felt was important with no threat of compromise” (156-57). Although it is true that the ethos of DIY was not necessarily shared by all the bands of this era, Alan O’Connor offers a useful reminder that the first-generation punk bands that landed record contracts with established labels were a distinct minority: “most of the early punks existed on the margins of the record industry. … For them, doing it yourself was not a choice but a necessity” (Punk Record Labels 2). Nevertheless, it is only with the rise of the independent punk labels that O’Connor has studied in depth and the emergence of a punk scene that includes not only bands but labels, performance venues, alternative modes of distribution and publicity, and networks of communication between fans within and across different scenes, that DIY becomes a full-fledged economic and social mode of organization.[14] Kane works against the grain of such narratives of punk DIY practices, which tend to focus primarily on the formation of independent record labels, by connecting the New York punks to a history of literary DIY techniques that emerged from the poetry scene. Viewed from this perspective, early bands are not incomplete practitioners of DIY; they are instead involved in adapting strategies that had focused on print technologies to a new medium.
The difference between Kane’s and O’Connor’s accounts of the New York scene arises from their different historiographic orientations. If, as O’Connor and others argue, the full power of DIY punk is only realized after the initial heyday of punk in the seventies, then these early moments are signs of the potentiality of punk to lead to alternatives that could only take form after a new field of culture came into being, which, paradoxically, required that punk be declared dead as an object of interest to major labels and mainstream media. On the other hand, if, as Kane argues, early punks were tapping into an existing store of DIY strategies developed in the poetry scene that rose up around the New York School of poets, then a history of punk’s DIY techniques cannot remain focused on music scenes.[15] Hell’s account of his move from poetry to music supports Kane’s position. In Hell’s autobiography, he maintains that his aesthetic concerns as a poet and as a punk rocker were consistent. He changed media in the hope of reaching a broader audience via a less solitary form of artistic practice: “[In rock] I could deal with the same matters that I’d be sweating over alone in my room, to put out little mimeograph magazines that five people would ever see” (Tramp 163). Therefore, focusing exclusively on music as the source of Hell’s DIY artistic practice is limiting.
Understanding Hell’s version of DIY practice requires that we explore the economic practices and institutional fields of force that he negotiated as a recording artist, a live performer, and a writer. This approach shows that the extant narrative of Hell’s career in the seventies, in which he abandons poetry for punk, is an oversimplification. Instead, his activities as a punk and as a poet are both attempts to engage in a DIY aesthetic in which the artistic production is not a song, poem, album, magazine, or performance but an aestheticized persona that seeks to break from the disciplinary structures that produce officially recognized liberal subjects. For the rest of this essay I focus on the emergence of four separate personae in the Hell papers. In addition to Richard Hell, we also meet Richard Meyers, an aspiring poet, editor, and publisher; Ernest Stomach, an absurdist poet and essayist; and Theresa Stern, an outlaw poet from Hoboken’s slums. Each persona is an experiment with identity, ranging from absurdist parody with Stomach to explorations of authenticity and embodiment with Theresa Stern and Richard Hell.


Richard Meyers: “‘I’ Is a Loaded Gun”

Before he became Richard Hell, Richard Meyers was a poet who published in a range of venues. Most prominently, he had eight poems in the 1970 New Directions Annual. He also edited the little magazine Genesis : Grasp with David Giannini from 1968 to 1971, printing the final issues on a letterpress that he bought and stored in his apartment.[16] Hell retrospectively presents this period as a kind of apprenticeship during which he learned DIY techniques from the second generation of New York School poets whom he describes as

wild, brainy, drug-fueled kids who took back the means of production from the universities and the big commercial publishers and made the typewriter-typed, mimeoed, staple-bound pamphlet into far greater art in every respect – in choice of graphics and quality of design, as well as the poetry itself – than what was being offered through the conventional channels. (The Downtown Book 137)[17]


Hell followed the example of these insurgent poets when he treated his bands like they treated their pamphlets, as vehicles for DIY expressive art. Hell explains: “I was also interested in treating everything about my band(s) and me – the clothes we wore, our haircuts, our interviews, our posters, even our names – as important vehicles of information, as conveying messages” (The Downtown Book 137). To understand exactly how Hell arrived at this realization requires more attention to the personae with which he experimented publicly in the pages of Genesis : Grasp and privately in his journals and notebooks. In both his private and public writing, Meyers is an unstable persona; he experiments with multiple styles and voices in ways that seem to confuse even himself. In fact, Meyers emerges less as a consistent persona than as a producer of other personae and a creator of venues in which these personae can come into being. Although the tendency has been to see Richard Meyers as a discarded identity that is replaced by the emergence of Richard Hell, attending to these early writings allows for an understanding of Hell as yet another figure in Meyers’s menagerie of aesthetically produced personae.
Richard Meyers’s journals from 1969 to 1973 demonstrate his concern with the question of the subject in writing and interest in the potential of print as a medium for inventing selves. One of the earliest ideas recorded in the journals is for a “[w]ork whose only words are: copyright © 1969 by Richard Meyers” (“Journal 2 October”). This is quickly followed on the ensuing page by the author’s plan to “Have simultaneous carreers [sic] as Ernest Mordor and Richard Meyers!” (“Journal 2 October”). These concerns only became more pressing as time passed. In an entry from early 1971, written during the time he was at work editing, typesetting, and printing the final double issue of Genesis : Grasp’s run, the young frustrated poet wrestles with his sense that each of his poems feels as if it were the work of a different author: “I obviously am somebody I better be careful with, not knowing what the fuck I’m doing half the time, as if again I should have a new name with each poem” (“Notes 2 October 1970”).[18] Later in the same entry, this frustration seems to be mitigated as he begins to toy with the kind of aphoristic and enigmatic phrase that would be at home in a Richard Hell song. The phrase begins as a simile, “‘I’ am like waving a loaded gun,” that turns on the notion that the act of uttering the first-person pronoun is laden with significance (“Notes 2 October 1970”). A little lower on the page, the phrase morphs into a playful couplet—“‘I’ is a loaded gun / ‘we’ are having fun”—in which the rhyme of gun with fun undoes the melodramatic seriousness of the original simile (“Notes 2 October 1970”). The transition from first-person singular to first-person plural enables this turn from the menace of the loaded gun to pleasurable play.
This moment of private musing on the problems of finding voice takes on additional significance when viewed from the perspective of Hell’s career-long interest in producing aesthetic identities. Instead of seeking a single consistent poetic voice, Meyers comes to embrace the possibilities opened up by cultivating multiple personae and curating textual spaces in which these voices can interact with one another. Reflecting on this time in his career, Hell writes: “I had the vague intention of spending the rest of my life writing under four or five completely separate identities” (Tramp 90). As we will see, Meyers uses his little magazine as a textual medium that opens up a possibility for a broad range of personae to coexist. The idea that these fictional identities could be “completely separate,” however, is belied by the fact that Meyers himself creates intertextual links between his various personae. All of these literary personae are casualties of the emergence of the Richard Hell persona. This suggests that, despite the tendency to see punk DIY subject formation as an emancipatory mode of self-production, the premium that punk places on embodiment and authentic selfhood makes it less hospitable to the kind of instability to which Meyers is drawn.
Where the privileged space of punk performance is the stage, textual media offer a different kind of public space in which an artist can craft a self. In a note that prefaces the notes on contributors in the third (1969) issue of Genesis : Grasp, the first to offer information about its contributors, Richard Meyers provides the following account of this role of the little magazine:

Whereas most people are introduced to whichever world they plan to populate (and/or enlighten and/or dominate) at a college or a coalmine or a coming-out ball, the small magazines serve as the young writers’ chief balls. And they offer him the opportunity to publicly design a personal city of a world, particularly if he edits one of his own (like this little village, generously wrinkled with nudes). (“Note to Notes on Contributors” 49)


This note provides a clear sense of the performative aspect of publication that makes it possible to construct multiple versions of the self simply by signing different names to different pieces and giving each a different contributors’ note. The metaphor of the magazine as a ball reminds us that little magazines are social spaces in which writers not only present their work but also define themselves in relationship to their fellow contributors. The role of Meyers the editor becomes crucial here as he emerges as the most powerful creator of this “personal city” that writers may populate but do not define. I propose reading Richard Hell as a similar figure, whose primary artistic endeavor is not media specific, but instead involves the use of a broad range of aesthetic media to bring spaces into being that he can then people with his personae.
Genesis : Grasp was a space in which Meyers’s personae could interact with other writers who shared his aesthetic commitments. In a 1971 letter to Bruce Andrews, Meyers passes on the DIY ethos that he had learned from the second-generation New York School poets:

That brings up the only thing I can say to you about the difficulty in finding interested publishers, really—start your own magazine or press.  You can do it according to the amount of money you can raise—you can make exactly the kind of atmosphere you wished to see in other magazines, it can really be exciting, and put you in touch with writers who interest you and turn up new ones—I mean if that’s what you’re interested in. (“Letter to Bruce Andrews”)[19]


The excitement of creating a new atmosphere and community that Meyers associates with the editing of a magazine resonates with accounts of the alternative modes of sociality and community that arise in DIY punk scenes. This also indicates the serious attention that Meyers paid to all facets of the publication of Genesis : Grasp and the extent to which he sees little magazines less as vehicles for the dissemination of individual poems and more as venues in which individual poets can act out various performances. This view of little magazines is confirmed in a letter to Simon Schuchat, a contributor to Genesis : Grasp who started the little magazine Buffalo Stamps in 1971, in which Meyers explains that when looking at Schuchat’s publication “I end up really reading the people more than the poems” (“Letter to Simon Schuchat, 9 July”).[20] In the pages of Genesis : Grasp, as early as 1969 Meyers had already begun toying with the possibilities that the DIY print production opened up for the creation of invented characters. In that year’s issue of Genesis : Grasp, Ernie Stomach makes his first appearance. With Stomach, Meyers parodies authenticity and identity by producing a print persona with a biography that changes and contradicts itself.


An Absurd Identity: Ernie Stomach

Ernie Stomach first appeared in Genesis : Grasp #3, the number for which Meyers wrote the above comment on the role of little magazines in introducing young writers to the public. The contributor’s note for Meyers is relatively straightforward; it presents him as a participant in the poetry scene: “Richard Meyers: to have poems in Works, Don Quixote, and next spring’s New Directions ANNUAL” (50). Stomach’s note offers more detail without openly calling attention to the persona’s fictional status: “Ernie Stomach: young N. Y. writer currently working on a series called ‘The Classics Revised’ in which he ‘turns the screw on Henry James’ among others” (50). In his first appearance Stomach is linked to Meyers only by virtue of appearing alongside him in a magazine that Meyers also edited. In later contributions the Stomach persona both becomes more absurd and more directly linked to Meyers.
These personae become legible as members of the same coterie in the Genesis : Grasp publications from 1970 and 1971.[21] The intertextual links between Stomach and Meyers produce a kind of reality effect as the fictional persona, Stomach, comments on and inspires the work of the actual poet and editor Meyers. In Genesis : Grasp’s fourth number, Stomach and Meyers are linked for the first time by editorial comments and paratextual gestures. Stomach’s “Manifesto” is a reprint of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in which the famous closing lines “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” are altered to read “‘Fun is truth, truth beauty,’–that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (2). The contributor’s note for Meyers mentions the publication of Fun, Meyers’s folder of four poems, and informs the reader: “The title of FUN was supplied by Ernie Stomach’s manifesto in this issue” (40). Similarly, Richard Meyers’s poem “IT” in the same number bears the epigraph “Nice tle – Ernie Stomach” (15). In these moments the playful absurdist Stomach offers an alternative relationship to language and poetry for the slightly more earnest Meyers persona. In an undated journal entry, Meyers offers the following outline for Stomach’s character:

his character the repressed dadaistic etc. Stomachian portion of me
means of existence: letterhead stationary (This is Another Anonymous Letter From Ernie Stomach)—get P.O. box!—and publication. (“Journal 2 October”)


As Kane suggests, at this point in his career Meyers is “[m]oving firmly away from a model of writing as emanating out of a stable, specific subject-position” (351). Print technology, publication, stationary, and the mail system make this movement possible as this “repressed” persona gains a public existence alongside the real Richard Meyers. It seems logical to conclude that Richard Hell emerges from a similar process, but it is also important to note that this persona does not coexist easily with others. Thus the flexibility that Meyers revels in as he jumps between personae is actually lost once he creates an embodied punk persona.
The flexibility of the Stomach persona becomes most clear in the final number of Genesis : Grasp and its supplement. The contributor’s note for Stomach in Genesis : Grasp’s last issue is nothing special; it simply identifies him as “Ernie Stomach: hot young scribe, author of uh from G : G Press” (70). The author’s note for uh, however, transforms the “hot young scribe” into an absurdist figure who “was born in 1949, but has been 11 years old since 1968.” Uh is Ernie Stomach’s final appearance in print, and this book takes Stomach’s language games even further. Subtitled “flip-movie dance alphabet peepshow toy enigma boring book,” the pages of uh offer the reader an alphabet made up of letters so rounded that they all look the same. While the author’s note constructs a paradoxical identity for Stomach, the absurd alphabet credited to him points toward the possibility of a language in which the differences that enable signification break down. In the alphabet of uh, print personae are almost inconceivable because any name printed in it would look like any other name composed of the same number of characters. In the uh alphabet, the difference between Richard Meyers and Ernie Stomach can be reduced to the difference between thirteen characters arranged into seven- and six-character units and twelve characters arranged into groups of five and seven.
Ernie Stomach is the farthest that Meyers would go in exploring the absurdities of identity discourses. Where Stomach allows Meyers to construct a language in which personality and identity are lost completely, Theresa Stern, the other persona that appears in the final issue of Genesis : Grasp, seems to mark a recommitment to identity and personality, albeit as fictions. Meyers carefully grounds the Theresa persona in social reality, providing her with a consistent backstory and with markers of embodied authenticity, including an author photo. Moreover, the Theresa persona allows Meyers to push his art of persona creation into new territory as he undertakes his first attempts at cross-gender and cross-ethnic persona construction. Consequently Theresa is both a step back from Stomach’s full-fledged parody of identity and an even deeper commitment to the project of constructing fictional identities.


Theresa Stern: “Like myself / my poetry is so alive / it stinks”

Theresa Stern came into existence as a collaborative project with Tom Miller, later to become Tom Verlaine. As Hell recalls, “when we were both twenty-one … Tom and I invented her” (Tramp 100). While Stomach and Meyers were his sole creations, the process of collaboration that produced the poems that would be ascribed to Theresa Stern opened up new possibilities: “[w]riting collaboratively freed me from inhibitions, and the poems were unlike what we wrote separately, while having a consistent style. I thought they would make a good book, and it would be fun to conceive it as the work of a separate third person” (Tramp 101). Viewed in retrospect, it is tempting to see the freedom that Hell recalls finding in these moments of collaborative creation as a sign of his desire for the interactive creativity that he would later find as a member of a series of rock bands (The Neon Boys, Television, The Heartbreakers, and, finally, Richard Hell and the Voidoids). Such a reading, however, would obscure recognition of the pivotal role that the Theresa persona, a product of print technology, plays in his career.
While Ernie Stomach functioned as a release for Meyers’s “dadaistic impulses,” Theresa helped confirm the young poet’s sense of artistic purpose. As Hell recollects, at this time he was confident about his artistic vision despite his frustration with his relative lack of accomplishment as a poet:

I was full of initiative and I was sure I could make happen what I wanted to make happen. I thought that my sensibility was subtle and complex, that it was interesting, and that what excited me in the things I loved existed inside me and that I could find ways to translate that into works that would be as beautiful and thrilling as I wanted. (Tramp 99-100)


The confirmation of this vision came not from the poems he had signed as Richard Meyers, the absurdist work of Ernie Stomach, or the milieu for poetry he had fostered in Genesis : Grasp. Instead “[i]t was Theresa Stern who first gave me what I regarded as indisputable evidence of this” (Tramp 100). After creating Theresa he wrote to Simon Schuchat: “your letter inspired me to begin two new books by Theresa (I’ve almost completely dropped the guise of Richard Meyers in writing)” (“Letter to Simon Schuchat, 4 July”). The Theresa persona displaces Richard Meyers, making this identity a disposable guise to be set aside when a more exciting possibility comes along.
Theresa Stern was a much more carefully detailed persona than either Ernie Stomach or Richard Meyers. Stomach’s biographical notes become convoluted and contradictory, and Meyers’s focus exclusively on his publications. Theresa Stern, on the other hand, has a fleshed out biography and an image (a composite print of separate photographs of the newly rechristened Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, each wearing an identical wig and makeup). Given the importance of embodied performance to punk, the photograph is worth considering in depth. This is one of the first moments in which Hell uses his own body in the production of a persona, but his body is doubly masked in the photograph. The layers of makeup and drag obscure the physicality that would become a key component of Hell’s stage persona, and his facial features, which later would gaze out at his audience from posters, record covers, and t-shirts as well as the stage, are blurred together with Verlaine’s. Although the photo links Hell’s body to the Theresa persona, the drag and the double exposure ensure that this image remains aestheticized and separate from Hell’s embodied existence in a way that his punk persona never could. Furthermore, the image and the backstory cultivate an aura of mystery around Theresa. Most strikingly, the picture of Theresa appears before any of the poems ascribed to her was available in print.
Theresa Stern neither contributed to Genesis : Grasp nor received mention in its pages. Nevertheless, her face appears in the lower left corner of the final double issue’s cover, directly below Rimbaud’s and diagonally adjacent to Artaud’s. Hell offers no insight into his decision to have Theresa debut as an image, not as a writer, but one can surmise that placing her face alongside two iconic rebellious outsider artists would at the very least foster curiosity about this otherwise unknown figure among the small pool of readers of Genesis : Grasp. The photograph confers authenticity on this persona. Juxtaposing the image of Theresa with pictures of Rimbaud and Artaud imbues Theresa with cultural capital, paving the way for Hell’s efforts to market her as an outlaw artist from the New Jersey streets.
Although she first appeared as a mysterious image, Theresa Stern also possessed a consistent, detailed biography. Theresa’s backstory first appears in public in the author’s note to Wanna Go Out? a collection of poems published under her name in 1973 by Dot Books. The note, which appears on the copyright page of the collection, reads as follows:

Theresa Stern was born on October 27, 1949, of a German Jewish father and a Puerto Rican mother in Hoboken, N.J., directly across the Hudson from New York City.  She still lives there, alone, where all the poems in this book were written over a four month period in the summer and fall of 1971.  She has since devoted that of her time not spent flipping coins to composing a love story, THIN SKIN.  It describes the murder, in ten chapters fired by Theresa, of her closest friend. (Wanna Go Out? iv) [22]


In addition to positioning Theresa as a member of the same generation as Richard Meyers and Ernie Stomach – all have birthdates in late 1949 – the author’s note grounds Theresa firmly in place and provides her with a hybrid ethnic background. This attention to detail provides contextual clues for reading the photograph of Theresa, which reappears on the cover of Wanna Go Out? The note encourages the reader to parse the face for signs of ethnicity and to situate it in an imagined version of Hoboken. In short, these paratextual markers of Theresa’s identity construct her as a figure that exists corporeally, outside the world of print culture. Close attention to the copyright page, however, raises some questions about Theresa’s status as an autonomous entity. Most significantly, Richard Meyers is identified as the copyright holder and Dot Books is identified on the same page as “a Meyers Company.”[23] Although these legal and economic markers of Richard Meyers’s ownership of the work contain the Theresa persona, he sought to explain this away by presenting himself as a literary intermediary for a figure so far outside literary culture that she has no interest in its conventions (“Cover Letters to Publishers”).
Meyers vacillated between openly acknowledging Theresa’s status as a pseudonym to some of his correspondents in the poetry world and seeking to convince others of her reality. He was especially insistent about her reality in a 1972 exchange with his Genesis : Grasp coeditor David Giannini. Meyers first presented Theresa to Giannini as “T. Stern: queen of the Hoboken slums” (“Letter to David Giannini, 8 April”). This version of the Theresa backstory is more sensational and detailed in explaining why he has become Theresa’s literary agent: “She’s a vicious urban hermit who wrote a book entrusted to me. She won’t bother attempting to publish them because she’s proud or something and I have complete authority to do whatever I want with them” (“Letter to David Giannini, 8 April”). Giannini, however, was skeptical, leading Meyers to complement the above detail with an invocation of the unknowability of his alter ego: “Theresa is Theresa and I hardly know her at all” (“Letter to David Giannini, 14 May”). Giannini remained unconvinced; in his reply he protested:

Richard!  No matter what, I can’t believe that Theresa is Theresa.  Nearly every poem of “hers” reads like a collaboration, IS one!  I guess you (and Simon?) are perpetrating a perfect hoax (trying to anyway), and I understand excluding me from sure knowledge of it. (Giannini)


Even in the face of this perceptive reading, which not only identified Theresa as a pseudonym but also recognized the traces of the collaborative process through which her work was produced, Meyers was unwilling to admit to Theresa’s fictive status. In a later comment on his long-lived investment in this persona, Hell offers a perspective that might explain his reluctance to confirm Giannini’s characterization of Theresa as a “perfect hoax”: “Theresa wasn’t a ‘hoax’ to me though: she was a person I liked and was interested in” (“Meet Theresa Stern” 1).[24] One way of encouraging others to approach Theresa in the same way, as a person not as a literary artifice, was to ensure that she would appear in publications that could not be traced back to Richard Meyers.
In his first effort to present Theresa to the world as an autonomous being, Meyers sent letters of inquiry to a broad range of established publishers, hoping to secure a contract for Wanna Go Out?[25] In his cover letter to the editors of these presses, Richard Meyers is only an intermediary with access to Theresa and her manuscripts. One version of the cover letter offers the following explanation for Meyers’s role as intermediary for Stern: “I hope you don’t object to communicating with me instead of the author of the poems. She’s a total alien being and has agreed only to let me do with the poems whatever I want – otherwise they almost certainly wouldn’t be printed at all” (“Cover Letters to Publishers”). Here we can also find a precedent for Richard Hell’s instrumental attitude toward DIY record production. Although Meyers had celebrated the power of the self-published little magazine as a venue for performing print identities in Genesis : Grasp, more established publishing houses are attractive because they confer authority, reality, and cultural capital on the authors they endorse. Furthermore, Hell’s preference for established presses offers insight into one limitation of DIY production as a mode of self-invention. Although one can create any self that one wants in a work over which one has total control, the mode of DIY production does not automatically confer authenticity on those selves. This runs contrary to punk conventional wisdom, in which the authentic is associated with DIY techniques and the inauthentic with mass-produced corporate culture. Hell’s desire to enhance Theresa’s authenticity by securing a book deal from an established publisher is an indication that, despite his enthusiasm for DIY publishing, he also understood the power of official culture.
This understanding helps to explain why Hell also sought out ways to market and promote Theresa Stern in print media that were not part of the DIY poetry scene. After failing to place Wanna Go Out? with an established literary publisher, Meyers did not abandon his dream of making Theresa a literary sensation. His most outlandish idea for promoting Theresa comes in a letter to Simon Schuchat, who was attending the University of Chicago and working on the student newspaper:

Can you get a story into the Chi student newspaper?  Is it too late in the year now?  Tom & me were thinking it would be groovy to have a story printed about Theresa—maybe with a picture—headline something like POET CONTINUES READING DESPITE MISCARRIAGE….  We thought it would be terrific to have any sort of news story about her and the weirder the angle the better. (“Letter to Simon Schuchat 30 May”)


Once again Meyers is seeking to manipulate print media to enhance the reality of a fictive persona, but in this case he has branched out from literary spaces to attempt to turn news into another performative arena in which Theresa’s self can be established. It seems that nothing came of this idea, and soon after publishing Wanna Go Out? the career of Richard Hell begins to take off, which is where the story of his self-production usually begins. Instead of picking up the story of the emergence of Richard Hell, I want to explore the significance of the fact that Theresa Stern does not vanish when Richard Hell is born.


Theresa Is a Punk Rocker

While Meyers’s efforts to produce a national print identity for Theresa Stern were unsuccessful, the milieu of downtown was more welcoming. Combing through downtown publications in the punk scene, it becomes clear that even after becoming Richard Hell, he still devoted time and energy to promoting the Theresa persona. This flies in the face of most accounts of Hell’s emergence as a punk icon. In the established narrative, poetry is presented as something that he must abandon in order to emerge as Richard Hell, punk rocker. For example, Clinton Heylin offers the following account of the transition from poetry to punk, from Meyers to Hell:

Wanna Go Out? was the culmination of Meyer’s (sic) early pretensions as a poet – the final proof that Theresa Stern, and therefore poetry, would not make Miller and Meyers legends in their own lunchtimes. Adopting a new persona also made Meyers muse upon whether the process of redefinition could achieve that all-important balance between instinct and self-conceit. (97-98)


In this account, poetry and the poetic personae of Richard Meyers and Theresa Stern function as detours that threatened to delay or thwart the discovery of a punk persona in Richard Hell. The Hell persona is triumphant in Heylin’s narrative because it succeeds on the market in a way that neither Meyers nor Stern did and because it offers an aesthetic balance in place of the rampant instability that Meyers confronted in his poems.
Although Richard Hell and the Voidoids would go on to abandon DIY recording, Hell made ample use of the DIY skills that he had employed as a poet and editor in producing promotional materials for his bands. Since he already owned and knew how to operate a printing press, he could produce posters and flyers that established an aesthetic for the band with relative ease. Here it is important to note that an artist’s decision to engage in DIY practices cannot be reduced to the question of whether or not the figure in question possesses a nebulously defined DIY ethos. Skills, material resources, and access to equipment are indispensible. While a member of Television, Hell continued using text to produce identities for the band. He and Tom Verlaine collaboratively wrote band biographies and Hell went so far as to write a review of an early Television performance in the voice of an audience member who had stumbled into CBGB on a Sunday night in the spring of 1974.[26] Commenting on the review, which was not published at the time, Hell remarks: “If it had been published I, as writer, of course, would have used another assumed name; I wanted to enjoy setting a precedent for how the group should be viewed” (Tramp 145). Here Hell is conceptualizing the print culture of the downtown scene in the same way that he had thought of the notes to contributors in Genesis : Grasp, as a textual venue for the production of a persona.
Two years later, after leaving Television, abandoning his partnership with Tom Verlaine, and forming The Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders, Hell would follow through on publishing a review of his own performance. The pseudonym he chose for this account of a Heartbreakers show, which ran in Alan Betrock’s newly launched The New York Rocker in February 1976, was Theresa Stern.[27] This choice is significant both because it indicates that Hell had not abandoned his investment in the Theresa persona and that he seems to be laying claim to Theresa as his own intellectual creation despite the fact that she was originally a collaborative production with his former bandmate. It is tempting to read this byline as a response to the way in which Verlaine, at least in Hell’s accounts, pushed him out of Television, as if Hell is telling Verlaine, you might have gotten the band but Theresa is mine.[28] The narrative that Heylin offers above must be revised to account for the fact that Theresa Stern and Richard Hell actually coexist on the pages of the same downtown publications.
After reading the review it becomes clear that Hell did not use Theresa’s name as a matter of convenience. The review is a strangely doubled version of self-promotion. As one would expect, Theresa’s review devotes as much space to Richard Hell, “master rock conceptualist,” as it does to the other Heartbreakers, Walter Lure, Jerry Nolan, and Johnny Thunders, combined (“The Heartbreakers” 37). Here the review seems to function as a straightforward exercise intended to ensure that Thunders and Nolan, former members of the notorious New York Dolls, would not overshadow Hell’s contributions. However, Hell is not the only persona being promoted here. In fact, Theresa Stern has much more to gain from this transaction than Richard Hell or the Heartbreakers. After all, Theresa Stern would only be known to a few subscribers to Genesis : Grasp and those who happened to buy copies of Wanna Go Out? In the closing paragraph Theresa mentions her writing career, continuing to foster the hardened persona established in the paratexts of Wanna Go Out?: “Though writing is the only thing that gives me any semblance of satisfaction, I write very little because I’m hard as a rock and can only write when I’ve been hit pretty bad. The Heartbreakers have only existed for seven months and they hit harder every week” (37). The review excited the curiosity of at least one reader, who wrote to Meyers to order a copy of Wanna Go Out? (Orders). Making Theresa into a punk rock poet who is a part of the scene is both a significant alteration of her persona, which had been alienated and antisocial up to this point, and an effort to market her to a new audience.
It becomes even clearer that Hell is leveraging his own access to the emerging world of DIY punk zines when Theresa appears in the June and August 1976 issues of Punk. It must be noted that these efforts to market Theresa date from a period in which Hell was putting together the first band that he could call his own, the Voidoids, after leaving the Heartbreakers in April.[29] Consequently, Hell’s interest in promoting Theresa is not the product of a break in his musical career. It is also significant that Theresa Stern and Richard Hell are not explicitly connected in either of her appearances in Punk. Instead, Richard Meyers reappears as the intermediary who connects Punk’s interviewer, Mary Harron, to Stern and from whom interested readers can order copies of Wanna Go Out? As far as I have been able to tell, these are the only moments in which Richard Meyers leaves a trace in the print culture of punk, illustrating the extent to which this persona had been demoted in comparison with either Theresa or Hell.
Theresa’s autonomy from Hell in Punk suggests that he did not want Theresa’s poetic persona to prosper only by association with the Hell persona. Although the New York Rocker review employs pseudonymous sleight of hand to covertly promote Theresa Stern while overtly focusing on Richard Hell and the Heartbreakers, Theresa is the primary focus in both of her appearances in Punk, first as the subject of an interview with Harron in the magazine’s fourth issue and then as the author of two poems printed in the fifth.[30] The interview offers the most elaborate version of Theresa’s backstory to date, confirming the portrait of her as an alienated withdrawn artist, while additionally revealing the identity of her favorite author, André Breton. Both appearances inform readers that they can order copies of Wanna Go Out? from Richard Meyers for a cover price of five dollars, a substantial markup from the original cover price of ninety-five cents.
In the interview, Harron contributes to Meyers’s earlier efforts to build an aura of mystery around Theresa. Harron introduces Punk’s readers to Theresa as “the only person I have interviewed who didn’t welcome the publicity” (15). She explains that she sought the poet out because “she seemed to be the most alienated woman in America” (15). Presenting Theresa as an alienated recluse with no interest in promotion, even in an underground venue like Punk, is in keeping with Meyers’s failed attempts to interest established publishers in this “total alien being.” Theresa’s scorn for the mechanics of publicity marks her both as a figure who shares the ethos of Punk and its audience and as a potential bearer of subcultural capital. Furthermore, Theresa’s disinterest in publicity and the outlook of her poetry, which Harron calls “at once disgusted and impersonal,” opens up a possible link with the Hell persona (15). Although Hell and Theresa were never explicitly connected in Punk, they both shared this negative affect, which Hell had just performed in the previous issue of Punk.[31] The primary difference between this version of Theresa and the one that Meyers promoted to prospective publishers is that Harron uses the existence of Wanna Go Out? as a sign that Theresa had already acquired an audience. Although such an audience seems to have been largely imaginary, Harron references rumors that “held her to be a Puerto Rican hooker now living off welfare in a Hoboken tenement” and alludes to her “small cult following” (15). These references construct Theresa as an object of the same kind of devotion that Punk’s audience directed toward downtown rock stars like Hell. Here it becomes clear that Hell is fusing the strategies that brought Theresa into being with the techniques that converted him from a relatively anonymous poet into “the king of the Lower East Side” (Tramp 203).
Theresa’s appearance in the following issue of Punk seems to be an attempt to capitalize on any interest generated by the interview. Instead of presenting Theresa through an intermediary, this time Punk gave its readers firsthand access to Theresa’s poetry: a reprinted piece from Wanna Go Out? and a new untitled work. The new poem is a meditation on the relationship between the writer, the reader, and the poem, and as such it seems to prefigure Richard Hell’s interest in similar dynamics connecting the rock star, the song, and the listener or audience, most famously signaled in the original cover art for Blank Generation, which featured Hell posed with his shirt open and the words “You make me ______” inscribed on his chest.[32] The new poem reads as follows:

Finally I was born, the first poet not removed from
human life by even the slightest trace of a
personality.  The sensation of being read by one
of my poems has now completely supplanted
the banal nostalgia produced in the reader
by the best poetry created before me. (“Untitled poem” 42)


This poem is an act of mythmaking, presenting the blank speaker as the herald of the generation that Hell also sang into being on the stages of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. Although the speaker makes grand claims for the effects of Theresa’s lines, they do not seem to have struck a chord with Punk’s readers. This was Theresa’s final appearance in print in the downtown scene, and Hell only returned to Theresa in public after quitting rock and roll in 1984. Given these facts, it would be easy to conclude this narrative by presenting Theresa as a failed persona that Hell discarded during his halcyon days of downtown stardom. If we return to Hell’s private journals, however, a different account of the relationship between these personae emerges.
Theresa crops up frequently in Hell’s journals and notebooks between 1976 and 1984. While planning the packaging of Blank Generation, Hell reminded himself: “Somewhere on album sleeve I must print the quote ‘I am not heir to that curse of vestigial sincerity’—Theresa Stern,” indicating that he still was thinking of ways to position Theresa within the world of punk fandom (Voidoid I Lyrics). Although the quotation is nowhere to be found on the final version of the album, Theresa’s face is present in the collage of images printed on the inner sleeve. Her name also appears in a discarded song title, “Talking to Theresa,” among his notes for the Voidoids second album, released in 1981 (“Record Notebook”).
The most telling of Hell’s private reflections on Theresa is a long journal entry from the night of 18 November and early morning of 19 November 1976, after the Voidoids’ debut appearance at CBGB. The entry begins as a reflection on Hell’s dissatisfaction with his performance, which diverges strikingly from the more standard narrative of punk performance as a technology that liberates the self. Hell complains:

I’m not loose enough. I try to loosen up between numbers and tell jokes about the songs etc but I’m still acting in an extremely limited range and then when I’m singing I’m actually limited to about three or four face/body “expressions”– violent rage/disdain, extreme yearning, near unconsciousness, slight preoccupied amusement and maybe something like surprise/shock or appearing to be concentrating my attention. … In order to really reach people they’ve gotta identify with you and I prevent them from doing that with my delivery. (“Journal from Patti”)


It is important to contextualize this entry as Hell’s reaction to his first gig as the undisputed leader of a new band. Nevertheless, it is significant that this account of punk performance yields further alienation and insecurity, not a cathartic release.
His concern quickly slides from the specifics of his stage performance to the problems of subjectivity that had plagued him as a poet and ultimately led him to drop the “guise” of Richard Meyers altogether. It is clear that he had hoped to escape this problem in rock and roll and that he is troubled that some of the old doubts remain:

I hope this doesn’t really apply, but it makes me think of the problem I used to have with poetry—how I was always censoring my “expression” because of a wrong-headed conception of poetry, poets and me that was finally overcome only by the extreme method of conceiving Theresa. I don’t know what would be the equivalent of that for me as a stage performer. … of course Hell is a “created” “identity” too but it doesn’t enable me to act with freedom on stage. (“Journal from Patti” ellipsis in original)


It is surprising to find that the seemingly discarded print-based poetic persona offers a kind of freedom that the Hell persona cannot. This suggests that we cannot always read the punk stage as the kind of space of individual liberation that Alice Bag describes finding in the L.A. scene. Furthermore, it indicates that the stock narrative of punk liberation through self-invention has its own limitations and that these limitations were present at the beginning of the movement rather than arising later as a result of the incorporation of punk into dominant culture. Hell continues by connecting his lack of freedom with his own desire to enchant his audience:

The problem probably lies in my desire to be “glamorous” and attractive—I remember wishing they’d write how sexy I was when they were saying those things about Tom in Television—of course I wanted Theresa to appear glamorous and attractive too but I felt like I did it without sacrificing any honesty—I guess that was the breakthrough, but with Theresa (words) it was entirely intellectual and now I must do it physically.  I should read Artaud and Stanislavsky and go see Brando and James Dean movies (I know they did very vulgar and vulnerable things with their voices and bodies and their physical appeal just increased).  I know of course that I can’t even begin really, to learn it by reading books or observing the pros.  What can I do?  I feel that I’ve created my own body in many ways, which probably helps.  Of course there’s my odd hair-do but I also created my chest isometrically as a fantasizing teenager, my jaw-sides by teeth-clenching, my legs by walking and climbing stairs very fast and my weird but sort of cool looking quasi-bowlegged walk by trying to repair my hereditary slew-foot walk. (“Journal from Patti”)


The problem boils down to embodiment. As a creature of print culture, Theresa’s existence was the result of words and images printed on a page by a press that Richard Meyers owned and operated. Hell, on the other hand, both shapes and is his medium. His desire to learn from Dean and Brando, as well as the originators of method acting and the Theater of Cruelty, indicates a heightened awareness that punk rock, at least in Hell’s sense of it, is a kind of performance art. He closes this thought, before preparing another shot of cocaine, with this lament: “Always vain and self conscious. It’s really frustrating. That kind of self-consciousness + vanity is poison to a performer if he wants to really be with the best” (“Journal from Patti”).
In this passage, strangely enough, the relatively unknown Theresa Stern emerges as the successful persona, while Richard Hell fares poorly. Hell’s apparent nostalgia for the mediated nature of print personae is troubling because it departs completely from celebratory accounts of punk performance in which the immediate connection between performer and audience is one of the rewards of DIY cultural production. This reversal of expectations is a cautionary reminder that the narratives that have grown up around punk have not always been tested against what is present in the archive, in part because the private materials in punk archives like Hell’s papers are only recently accessible. Private papers like Hell’s diary complicate the public story of punk because they undermine the authority of the public embodied performances that have constituted the primary archive of punk studies. In reference to the topic of DIY subject formation, Hell’s meditation on the limits that embodiment imposes on a performer is a powerful reminder that the body is a site where power and resistance converge. Consequently the punk body in performance is always bound in and by the structures from which it seeks to escape. The turn to a textual archive is then a turn away from the body in performance and the embodied punk performance.
Hell is hardly alone in noticing the limitations of an embodied punk persona, although this topic has not been a popular one as of yet in scholarship on punk. Alice Bag herself comments after performing with the Bags for two years: “I felt stuck as Alice Bag. I’d been swallowed by one aspect of my personality and it was overshadowing the rest of me … . I was trapped in the persona I’d created” (323). The drive that animates DIY subject formation might be summed up in the opening line of Hell’s anthem, “I was sayin let me out of here before I was / even born. It’s such a gamble when you get a face” (“Blank Generation”). Getting a face implies that the individual has also acquired a social identity, has become capable of the face-to-face interaction that situates the self in relation to the other. DIY subject formation seeks to rewrite the scripts that govern what a face means and how it signifies, but the possibility that the remade persona may become a trap of its own is ever present.
On one hand, it is tempting to say that Hell escaped this trap by abandoning his rock and roll career in 1984 and re-embarking on a literary career as a novelist, poet, actor, editor, and, most recently, memoirist. On the other hand, the Hell persona looms over his literary career. Although Hell never legally changed his name—his contracts identify him as the “person known as Richard Hell”—all of his writing since he left the punk rock scene has appeared under the name of Hell. Furthermore, Hell’s correspondence with prospective publishers makes it clear that the publisher’s sense of the commercial viability of his writing is closely linked to the enduring interest in the punk persona that he created in the seventies. This suggests that Richard Hell now functions less as an anti-authoritarian artistic persona than as a kind of brand. Because the public afterlife of a figure like Hell is largely determined by the very forces that he sought to escape from in his early career, the archive becomes even more important. It holds the traces of false starts, abandoned projects, and modes of being that are easily forgotten because they did not gain popular attention. As efforts to historicize, theorize, and otherwise study punk develop, it will be increasingly important to turn to the lesser known documents and figures that populate punk archives. These figures are not the true arbiters of punk authenticity; they do, however, usefully remind us of how much remains unknown as long as we remain fixated on the most popular narratives about punk. Faced with the multiplicity of punk, Nikpour and Nguyen conclude their discussion of punk with the acknowledgement that “attempts to describe punk are always partial because punk is —-” (27). Similarly this essay suggests that we view DIY subject formation less as a process with a telos of a certain kind of punk subjectivity and more as a line of flight that aims for a horizon of possibility that it may never reach.


Leif Sorensen
Leif Sorensen teaches twentieth and twenty-first century American literature at Colorado State University. His published and forthcoming work includes essays on ethnic writers of the modernist era, pulp fiction, early Tejano radio, Colson Whitehead, and Nalo Hopkinson in American Literature, Contemporary Literature, Modernism/Modernity, African American Review, MELUS, and Genre. He is completing a book on the recovery of multiethnic modernism and the development of literary multiculturalism in the U.S.


[1] For examples of the growing popular visibility of these scenes, see the documentaries Punk in Africa (2012), A Band Called Death (2012), and The Punk Singer: A Film about Kathleen Hanna (2013). The development of the Riot Grrrl Collection at Fales, and the publication of the Riot Grrrl Collection book by the Feminist Press are two signs of the growing scholarly interest in women in punk. For recent scholarly work on punks of color, see Mahmoud, Ngyuen’s “Riot Grrrl, Race, and Revival,” and Vargas. For queer readings of the punk scene, see Daniel, Muñoz, and Nyong’o’s “Do You Want Queer Theory or Do You Want the Truth?” For discussions of international punk scenes outside the US and the UK, see O’Connor’s “Punk and Globalization” and Wallach.
[2] My sense of the need to complicate punk origin myths is informed by José Muñoz’s claim, in his consideration of the doomed figure of Darby Crash, that “punk itself is often fragmentary, refusing the origin myths that have been ascribed to it, insisting on a fragmentariness that feels no responsibility to adhere to any idea of an a priori whole. Punk is about inelegantly cutting and stitching a sense of the world together; it is about imagining a commons that is held together by nothing more than a safety pin” (105). In a similar vein, Mimi Thi Nguyen acknowledges the importance of exploring “what punk stories become canonized … because it does matter what we know and value about punk parameters” (Nguyen and Nikpour 12).
[3] For samplings of recent academic approaches to punk, see the journal issues and essay collections edited by Brown et al., Duncombe and Tremblay, Ngô and Stinson, and Furness. For a thoughtful reflection on what it means to contribute to such an archive, see Nguyen’s “My Fales Library Donation Statement.”
[4] Also see Nikpour’s review of Duncan and Tremblay’s White Riot for a despairing account of academic punk studies.
[5] The autobiography is not Hell’s first attempt at such a remediation; his 1996 novel Go Now is a fictionalized account of a 1980 road trip he took with photographer Roberta Bayley in a 1959 Cadillac.
[6] For a discussion of the incorporation of punk, see Hebdige 92-9.
[7] In calling attention to punk’s utopian side, I am building on Muñoz’s account of the punk rock commons as a formation that is “simultaneously utopian and marked by negation” (98).
[8] For Althusser’s full discussion of the function of the school, see 104-106.
[9] The Patti Smith Group’s 1975 debut Horses came out on Arista Records and Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ 1977 Blank Generation was released by Sire Records.
[10] Hell’s was the second release from Ork, the first being Television’s 1975 single, “Little Johnny Jewel,” which was released in advance of the band’s 1977 debut album, Marquee Moon, on Elektra records.
[11] Private Stock’s mainstream ambitions are evident in another 1976 release, the hit single “Don’t Give Up on Us” by David Soul, who played Hutch on Starsky and Hutch.
[12] Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer cofounded Sire in 1966; Arista was founded by Columbia Pictures International in 1974, the same year that Larry Uttal, the former head of Columbia’s Bell Records, founded Private Stock.
[13] For a detailed account of Hell’s experiences with Sire, see Tramp 189-195.
[14] See O’Connor, Punk Record Labels 3-9 for a theorization of punk scenes as autonomous fields of cultural production. For a detailed account of DIY as an ethical practice, see Gordon.
[15] For an attempt to write such a comprehensive history, see Spencer, especially her discussion of the rise of punk zines (185-199).
[16] For Hell’s account of these years, see Tramp 54-56 and 86-91.
[17] For a detailed account of Hell’s relationship to the New York School, see Kane 341-48.
[18] This entry is misdated January 26, 1970; its context in the journal clearly indicates that it was composed in 1971.
[19] See Kane 355-58 for a consideration of Andrews’s appearance in Genesis : Grasp.
[20] For production information on Buffalo Stamps, see Clay and Phillips 267. For information about Schuchat, see Tramp 90-91.
[21] In addition to the final numbers of the magazine (#4 appeared in 1970 and the final double issue #5/6 in 1971), Genesis : Grasp also published three book-length supplements (Yuki Hartman’s One of Me accompanied #4 and #5/6 had two supplements, Simon Schuchat’s Svelte and Ernie Stomach’s uh) and folders of poems by each editor (Richard Meyers’s Fun: A Folder of Four Poems in 1970 and David Giannini’s Opens: A Folder of 6 Broadsides in 1971).
[22] Dot Books, Richard Meyers’s last gasp in publishing, produced only one other book in addition to Wanna Go Out? Andrew Wylie’s Yellow Flowers, although Meyers had planned to release Tom Verlaine’s 28th Century and Patti Smith’s Merde.
[23] Hell’s correspondence with Anthony P. Harrison, the acting head of the book section of the copyright office, indicates that he had first sought to identify Theresa as the author and only acknowledged her status as a pseudonym after receiving an official inquiry (11 July 1975).
[24] Since leaving music in the mid-eighties, Hell has returned to the Theresa persona. He gave a reading of her work at the festival Balthazar in Paris in 2002. For this reading he also produced a booklet of Theresa’s poetry illustrated with images of him in the Theresa wig and makeup, and screened a short film, Meet Theresa Stern. The film is an eighteen-minute excerpt of a longer work, The Theresa Stern Story, written by Hell for which he worked to secure funding periodically between the eighties and the early 2000s.
[25] Random House, Doubleday, Pantheon, Grove, New Directions, City Lights, Scribners, Knopf, and MacMillan were among the publishers that rejected Theresa’s book.
[26] Hell provides an account of the thought process behind these materials in Tramp (138-145). The Television review is reprinted as “My First Television Set” in Hot and Cold (39-40).
[27] “The Heartbreakers” is reprinted in Hot and Cold, from which all subsequent quotations are drawn.
[28] For Hell’s most recent account, see Tramp 155. For an account that includes Hell’s, Verlaine’s, and Richard Lloyd’s perspectives on Hell’s exit, see Heylin 133-39.
[29] According to Hell, the Voidoids began rehearsing in June 1976 and recorded the demo that would become their Ork EP by the end of the month.
[30] Theresa’s appearances in Punk also might be a sign that Hell still had high hopes for this poetic persona since, as John Holmstrom recollects, Punk had national ambitions: “[w]e didn’t want PUNK to be ‘The CBGB/Max’s Fanzine,’ and compete with the New York Rocker…. We were hoping that PUNK’s style made us more than just our substance, and that the way that we covered CBGB bands could be expanded to the rest of the world” (Holmstrom and Hurd 107). The interview was a collaboration between Mary Harron, who wrote the questions and gave them to Hell, and Hell, who wrote the answers. Harron would go on to interview Eddie and the Hot Rods, Johnny Rotten, and Brian Eno. The Theresa Stern interview is reprinted with the original artwork in The Best of Punk (89-90). A longer, text-only version is reprinted in Hot and Cold (31-35). All quotations are drawn from the original.
[31] See McNeil. Hell reprints this interview with Legs McNeil in Tramp as evidence that he had “given deeply nihilistic interviews before the Sex Pistols” (199).
[32] This blank plays on the chorus of Hell’s “Blank Generation,” in which the opening words, “I belong to the blank generation,” are repeated in the third line with the variation “I belong to the ______ generation.” For Hell’s comments on this refrain, see Tramp 206-208. Meyers began using this phrase in correspondence with contributors to Genesis : Grasp, like Clark Coolidge, Bruce Andrews, and Simon Schuchat, to refer to what he envisioned as their collective poetic project.


Works Cited

  • Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus (Notes Towards an Investigation).” Trans. Ben Brewster. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review, 2001. 85-126. Print.
  • Atoe, Osa (Shotgun Seamstress). “An Interview with Golnar Nikpour.” Fix My Head #4: More Punks of Colour. Berlin: Anna Vo, 2013. 5-8. Print.
  • Bag, Alice. Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story. Port Townsend: Feral House, 2011. Print.
  • A Band Called Death. Dir. Jeff Howlett, Mark Covino. Perf. Bobby Hackney, David Hackney, and Dannis Hackney. Drafthouse Films. 2012. Film.
  • Brown, Jayna, Patrick Deer and Tavia Nyong’o. “Punk and Its Afterlives: Introduction.” Social Text 31.3 (2013): 1-11. Print.
  • Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997. Print.
  • Clay, Steven and Rodney Phillips. A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980. New York: Granary Books, 1998. Print.
  • Daniel, Drew. “‘Why Be Something That You’re Not?’ Punk Performance and the Epistemology of Queer Minstrelsy.” Social Text 31.3 (2013): 13-34. Print.
  • Desperate Bicycles. “The Medium Was Tedium.” The Medium Was Tedium. London: Refill Records, 1977. Sound Recording.
  • Duncombe, Stephen and Maxwell Tremblay, eds. White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race. New York: Verso, 2011. Print.
  • Foucault, Michel. “Technologies of the Self.” Trans. Robert Hurley, et. al. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: New Press, 1997. 223-251. Print.
  • Furness, Zach, ed. Punkademics: The Basement Show in the Ivory Tower. Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, 2012. Print.
  • Giannini, David. Letter to Richard Hell. 31 May 1972. The Richard Hell Papers, MSS 140, Box 5, Folder 264. Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.
  • Gordon, Alastair. “Building Recording Studios Whilst Bradford Burned: DIY Punk Ethics in a Field of Force.” Punkademics: The Basement Show in the Ivory Tower. Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, 2012. 105-24. Print.
  • Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge, 1979. Print.
  • Hell, Richard. “Cover Letters to Publishers 1972.” The Richard Hell Papers. Box 9, Folder 602. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, Libraries.
  • —. Hot and Cold. New York: powerHouse, 2001. Print.
  • —. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography. New York: Ecco, 2013. Print.
  • —. [Richard Meyers]. “IT.” Genesis: Grasp 1.4 (1970): 15. Print.
  • —. “Journal 2 October 1969 – 2 October 1970.” The Richard Hell Papers. Box 1, Folder 1. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • —. “Letter to Anthony P. Harrison.” 11 July 1975. The Richard Hell Papers. Box 9, Folder 613. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • —. “Letter to Bruce Andrews.” 17 February 1971. The Richard Hell Papers. Box 5, Folder 153. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • —. “Letter to David Giannini.” 8 April 1972. The Richard Hell Papers. Box 5, Folder 265. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • —. “Letter to David Giannini.” 14 May 1972. The Richard Hell Papers. Box 5, Folder 265. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • —. “Letter to Simon Schuchat.” 9 July 1971. The Richard Hell Papers. Box 7, Folder 468. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • —. “Letter to Simon Schuchat.” 30 May 1972. The Richard Hell Papers. Box 7, Folder 472. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • —. “Letter to Simon Schuchat.” 4 July [no year]. The Richard Hell Papers. Box 7, Folder 473. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • —. “Meet Theresa Stern.” Richard Hell Theresa Stern. Paris: Festival Balthazar, 2002. Print.
  • —. “Notes 2 October 1970 – March 1971.” The Richard Hell Papers. Box 1, Folder 2. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • —. [Richard Meyers]. “Notes on Contributors,” Genesis: Grasp 1.3 (1969): 50. Print.
  • —. [Richard Meyers]. “Notes on Contributors,” Genesis: Grasp 1.4 (1970): 40. Print.
  • —. [Richard Meyers]. “Notes on Contributors,” Genesis: Grasp 2.1-2 (1971): 70. Print.
  • —. [Richard Meyers]. “Note to Notes on Contributors,” Genesis: Grasp 1.3 (1969): 49. Print.
  • —. “Orders.” N.d. The Richard Hell Papers. Box 9, Folder 612. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • —. “Record Notebook (Destiny Street).” N.d. The Richard Hell Papers. Box 5, Folder 138. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • —. “Untitled.” The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984. Ed. Marvin Taylor. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006. 137. Print.
  • —. “Voidoid I Lyrics.” N.d. The Richard Hell Papers. Box 4, Folder 136. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • Hell, Richard [Richard Meyers] and David Giannini, eds. Genesis: Grasp 1.3 (1969). Print.
  • —. Genesis: Grasp 1.4 (1970). Print.
  • —. Genesis: Grasp 2.1-2 (1971). Print.
  • Hell, Richard and Patti Smith. “Journal from Patti, 1974-79.” The Richard Hell Papers. Box 1, Folder 3. Fales Library and Special Collections: NYU Libraries, New York.
  • Heylin, Clinton. From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock. Chicago: Chicago Review, 2005. Print.
  • Holmstrom, John and Bridget Hurd, eds. The Best of Punk Magazine. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.
  • Kane, Daniel. “Richard Hell, Genesis: Grasp, and the Blank Generation: From Poetry to Punk in New York’s Lower East Side.” Contemporary Literature 52.2 (2011): 330-369. Print.
  • Mahmoud, Jasmine. “Black Love? Black Love!: All Aboard the Presence of Punk in Seattle’s NighTraiN.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 22.2-3 (2012): 315-323. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
  • McNeil, Legs. “Interview with Richard Hell.” Punk 1.3 (1976): 26-29. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
  • Muñoz, José Esteban. “‘Gimme Gimme This … Gimme Gimme That’: Annihilation and Innovation in the Punk Rock Commons.” Social Text 31.3 (2013): 95-110. Print.
  • Nguyen, Mimi Thi. “My Fales Library Donation Statement.” Thread & Circuits. 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
  • —. “Riot Grrrl, Race, and Revival.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 22.2-3 (2012): 173-196. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
  • Nguyen, Mimi Thi and Golnar Nikpour. Guillotine Series #4: Punk. Brooklyn: Sarah McCarry, 2013. Print.
  • Nikpour, Golnar. “White Riot: Another Failure.” Maximum Rocknroll. 17 Jan. 2012. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
  • Nyong’o, Tavia. “Do You Want Queer Theory or Do You Want the Truth? The Intersections of Punk and Queer in the 1970s.” Radical History Review 100 (2008): 102-119. Print.
  • —. “Punk’d Theory.” Social Text 23.3-4 (2005): 19-34. Print.
  • O’Connor, Alan. “Punk and Globalization: Mexico City and Toronto.” White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race. Eds. Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay. New York: Verso, 2011. 299-306. Print.
  • —. Punk Record Labels and the Struggle for Autonomy: The Emergence of DIY. Lanham: Lexington, 2008. Print.
  • O’Hara, Craig. Philosophy of Punk: More than Noise. London: AK Press, 1999. Print.
  • Punk in Africa. Dir. Keith Jones and Deon Maas. Perf. Paulo Chibanga, Michael Fleck, Ivan Kadey. Meerkat Media. 2012. Film.
  • The Punk Singer: A Film about Kathleen Hanna. Dir. Sini Anderson. Perf. Kathleen Hanna, Johanna Fateman, and JD Samson. Opening Band Films. 2013. Film.
  • Richard Hell and the Voidoids. “Blank Generation.” Blank Generation. New York: Sire Records, 1977. Sound Recording.
  • Spencer, Amy. DIY: The Rise of Lo-fi Culture. London: Marion Boyers, 2005. Print.
  • Stern, Theresa [Richard Hell]. Interviewed by by Mary Harron. Punk 1.4 (1976): 15-16. Print.
  • —. “Untitled poem.” Punk 1.5 (1976): 42. Print.
  • —. “The Heartbreakers.” Hot and Cold. 36-7. Print.
  • Stern, Theresa [Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine]. Wanna Go Out? New York: Dot Books, 1973. Print.
  • Stomach, Ernie [Richard Hell]. “Manifesto.” Genesis: Grasp 1.4 (1970): 1-2. Print.
  • —. UH: flip-movie dance alphabet peepshow toy enigma boring book. New York: Genesis Grasp Press, 1971. Print.
  • Vargas, Deborah R. “Punk’s Afterlife in Cantina Time.” Social Text 31.3 (2013): 57-73. Print.
  • Wallach, Jeremy. “Living the Punk Lifestyle in Jakarta.” White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race. Eds. Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay. New York: Verso, 2011. 317-332. Print.

The archival research for this essay was supported by the Coleman Dowell Fellowship for Study on Experimental Works from Fales Library at New York University. I want to thank Marvin Taylor and Brent Phillips at Fales for their help with this research. Ann Butler and Mike Kelly helped me learn how to work with archival materials. My fellow panelists and the audience at the 2008 Cultural Studies Association Conference heard an early version of this work. Lee Konstantinou and Lynn Shutters read drafts and provided invaluable suggestions.