On “Destiny Street Complete” Richard Hell Gets It All Together

For almost forty years, Richard Hell has been in search of lost time, or at least the lost masters to Destiny Street. For it is on the brilliant second and final album by Richard Hell and the Voidoids that, along with nine others, “Time,” his greatest song, lay in what to him was an imperfect state. “We had about three weeks to record and mix the album,” he says in his memoir, “and I was too fragile to come into the studio for one of those weeks.” In the years after Destiny Street’s 1982 release, he was convinced he’d botched it and, ever since, compelled to fix it. He finally has.

Some of us think the original Destiny Street was great as is, and Hell’s compulsion has seemed less than absolutely necessary, even as we understand an artist’s desire to realize the animating vision that produced the work in the first place.

Which makes next week’s release of Destiny Street Complete all the more joyous. In the liner notes Hell writes, “I have to smile and roll my eyes when I think of this, this package, but I was determined to do it. Nobody made me, or even asked me. I take full responsibility for it. Three plus versions of the same album. It’s ridiculous, but I’m glad.”

Destiny Street Complete, released on January 22nd, contains remastered versions of the 1982 original and Destiny Street Repaired – the 2010 reconfiguration that grafted new vocals and guitars atop the primary rhythm tracks – plus the brand new Destiny Street Remixed, containing seven songs from the original plus three from Repaired.  At long last, Remixed satisfies Hell’s ears, and was made possible by kismet: the 2019 rediscovery of seven original 24-track masters in an Upstate New York storage facility. Eleven demo tracks recorded with Voidoids v.1.0 stalwarts Ivan Julian and Bob Quine on guitar are served as a lagniappe, and along with one poignant track from Quine’s 2004 memorial service, you’ve got, yeah, Destiny Street Complete. 

In 2021, Richard Hell (née Richard Lester Meyers) is a novelist, memoirist, poet and critic. For a time in the 1970s and early ‘80s he was a white tern flying out from land signaling to sailors their arrival on new shores, perennially one beat of the wings ahead of where real rock’n’roll was going. 

A founding member of Television, along with his fellow boarding school runaway Tom Verlaine, he went on to play in The Heartbreakers with New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan. It was Hell’s style – badly chopped haircut askew, torn jeans and safety pins – that Malcolm McLaren glommed for the Sex Pistols, and thus was born Punk with a capital P. Hell was, on one level, the archetypal punk primitive who could not really play his instrument yet could still make amazing music, in so doing reviving rock from the plodding and the rococo. On another level, he was a New York street poet as deeply in love with words as Verlaine and his sometime squeeze Patti Smith. Fronting the two versions of his band the Voidoids, Hell was something else again.

The Voidoids weren’t the least bit “punk” if your frame of reference is three-chord wonders from Generation X to the Germs to Green Day. What the Voidoids played in their original lineup on 1977’s Blank Generation and, slightly reconfigured, five years later on Destiny Street, was urgent, desperate music, a skilled combo always flirting with disaster, a revved-up high wire act that did the impossible. Hell was a bad singer like the young Dylan was a bad singer, which is to say he was exuberant and thrilling if not always perfectly on key. With a rhythm section that, so long as Hell was bassist, could only be considered adequate, even as the decent Mark Bell (aka Marky Ramone) gave way to the brilliant Fred Maher on drums, the twin guitars of the propulsive Ivan Julian and the subversive Robert Quine (and later, on Destiny Street, Quine + Naux) made the whole thing swing

Not since Brian Jones and Keith Richards traded leads had a rock band played so fluidly, the dials turned to 11, guitars ping-ponging back and forth so intriguingly the listener puzzled over who played what. While it’s Verlaine and Richard Lloyd that rock critters value most when trading Guitar God player cards, it was Quine and Julian who, behind Hell’s voice and on his songs, sparked absolute revved-up magic. Based on the way they so heedlessly took it to the limit, based on the virtuosic talents of their tandem, the Voidoids had more in common with bands fronted by Little Walter or, say, Charlie Parker than with the Ramones.

Blank Generation came out on Sire in 1977, graduating in the same class as Talking Heads 77, Television’s Marquis Moon and The Clash. Weirdly, it got a lot less attention than its classmates. Label head Seymour Stein soon sent Hell on a tour backing the Clash across 19 dates in the U.K. In his memoir I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp Richard makes the tour sound, well, hellish; in the liner notes here he summarizes the misery as “the record company … didn’t get the album into U.K. stores in time for the tour and ordained the daily torture of multi-hour travel in a mini-car (not mini-van) crammed with five people (four band members and a road manager.)”

Experiences like that, plus Hell’s resistance to fully, you know, master his instrument, led to his resistance to touring, that is, getting his music exposed outside Manhattan. Big in New York and London; in Peoria they absorbed the fake news that the Knack was punk.

One thing about Blank Generation that’s relevant here was that Hell was such a perfectionist, he literally made the record twice. He recounts in his memoir how, dissatisfied with the tracks recorded on an initial foray into the studio, even with an album his record company deemed finished, he moved to a new studio and started all over again.

Such a mindset explains why, after Destiny Street was made with him so untogether he couldn’t even show up for the overdubs, Hell would want to perfect it. Three years after the record was released, having kicked drugs and regained his strength, he set out on the nearly four-decade path that brings us to Destiny Street Complete.

*

Around the time that a sober Hell was beginning to regret what he thought was a mess of a second record, a German scholar named Hans Walter Gabler persuaded the James Joyce Estate that he could “fix” what he claimed were 5,000 errors in the text of Ulysses. As if… Not surprisingly, given that a new edition would re-up their copyright, they went for it. Henceforth, or so was the plan, editions of Ulysses would consist of the amended version – until an unheralded American named John Kidd blew the whole thing up by showing that the original was better than the “perfected” version. 

Imagine that: a work of brilliance that couldn’t be improved upon. Or at least that was better than the subsequent effort to improve it.

When Hell released, in 2010, Destiny Street Repaired, I didn’t like it, and said so. To me, the concept was off. Thirty years after producing the demos, the mature, resourceful Hell had gone back into the studio with New York guitar stalwarts Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell and, atop the basic tracks recorded in ’81-’82, reworked the songs, including, here and there, new vocals. The problem was, to a fan like me, it really didn’t work. I couldn’t hear it as an improvement over its wild, exhilarating 1982 release.

Part of the magic of Destiny Street, like the best elements of Blank Generation, was that the Voidoids sounded like a runaway train. What Richard came back with seemed tamed, not repaired – a 50-year-old man correcting the mistakes of his 30-year-old self. The impulse was understandable — who among us wouldn’t take such a mulligan, such a chance to redirect our 30-year old self to do what we did then better? My first novel was published when I was 31, and sure, I’d like to edit some passages from it — but I’d never be able to match the energy, the anger, the impulses that created it. Rock’n’roll is a young man’s game and, it seemed to me, the results were about what you might expect. I said so then, and definitely hurt Richard’s feelings. I don’t know what the critical reaction was beyond what Tulip Frenzy declared to its vast global readership, but it seemed then that to adore Destiny Street, as some of us really did, was to love the original, warts, warbling, screeching guitar and all. With respect and empathy for the artist, we went back to playing the record we cherished.

*

On Destiny Street Complete, you can hear the original version, remastered and gorgeous. You can hear a remastered version of Destiny Street Repaired, which you should, if only to compare it to its wilder early self. (And who knows, maybe you’ll love it! In this version, I find it far stronger than I remembered.) Both versions are on Disc 1.

What makes Destiny Street Complete complete is Richard’s newest incarnation of the album, which he calls Destiny Street Remixed, as well as his oldest version — the incredible demos made between ’79 and ’81.

Remixed takes the original 24-track masters of seven of the 10 songs and brings them to new life. Because the masters of three of the original 10 songs are still missing, the versions of “Lowest Common Dominator,” “Downtown at Dawn,” and “Staring In Her Eyes” on Remixed are products of the Repaired sessions. Overall, the mix is really good — more expansive, not nearly so compressed as the early CD version of the original sounded. Remixed becomes the definitive version, though not uniformly, as we shall see.

The album opener, The Kid With The Replaceable Head was written by Hell with hit single ambitions. It just might have become one, in a more perfect world. Here, it hits with brute force and humor. Naux (the late Juan Maciel, who replaced Ivan Julian in this incarnation of the Voidoids) takes the first lead, Quine the second, and in so doing he yanks everything into the Strato-sphere. The upgrade to Fred Maher on drums is immediately noticeable. Now it’s not just the guitars that swing. On as catchy a pop song as he could write, Hell sings with swagger and it is pure delight.

Next up: Ray Davies’ I Gotta Move, one of three cover songs on the album. This is a showcase for Naux, and Maher’s drumming is front and center. By taking the Kinks’ ‘60s British Invasion album track and repurposing it as punk, Hell makes his point about links between late ’70s rock’n’roll (or as he would spell it, “rock and roll”) and the music all these bands grew up on. It’s a fun cover, but on all three versions this isn’t one of Destiny Street‘s strongest songs.

In contrast, the sublime cover of Dylan’s Going Going Gone is one of the Hell’s best vocal performances, and as Bob Quine owns the last 30 seconds, the Remixed version is stunning. Richard doing “Going Going Gone” is analogous to Jimi Hendrix’s Monterey Festival performance of “Like A Rolling Stone” – the definitive work, ownership forever stolen from the author… you can see Dylan sitting at his desk signing over the rights as if by treaty. In Robbie Robertson’s Testimony, he writes how he got his amazing solo on “Going Going Gone” to sound as it does, using newly acquired strings on his Telecaster that were made of, I seem to recall, unicorn pubes. Here Quine – a guitarist who could combine the lyricism of Mick Taylor and the pyrotechnics of Jeff Beck — bottles lightning in possibly the best consecutive half-minute of his (or anyone’s) career.

Lowest Common Dominator is the Repaired version. Pretty good! In this context hearing Hell’s vocals recorded in 2009 is a little bit like listening to Jagger on “Plundered My Soul” and those other Exile songs that also came out in 2010 – noticeably different from his younger ‘70s voice, lower and flatter but still effective. I may still like the original version more — especially as remastered on Disc 1 — but your mileage may vary: this sounds great.

Downtown At Dawn also uses the track from Repaired, and here we yearn a bit more for the original. One of Hell’s strongest songs, on a theme repeated across his career: what it’s like to be out in Fun City at rock’n’roll clubs in the wee hours. It carries with it the solipsism of partying at the very center of the universe, as if Iggy Pop’s milieu in “Nightclubbing” – “we’re what’s happening” is the boast — has been transferred to New York. Where else — when you’re up late and and stoned — could it possibly be cooler than Lower Manhattan circa 1979, a city as dirty and romantic in the late ‘70s as Berlin. It captures the same mood as Blank Generation‘s “Down At The Rock and Roll Club.” Later, in the demos, “Crack of Dawn” nails it, “Funhunt” too, but “Downtown At Dawn” is the best of the variants. One minute shorter than the original, and muting Hell’s best performance ever on bass, the Repaired version used here misses the crude, ecstatic sparkle of the original, but again. you can decided what you like best.

Time is, by the estimation of Richard Hell and all sentient beings, the best song he ever wrote, a classic, as perfect in its way as “September Gurls”, if what twangs your woogy is chiming American guitar rock. Whether the version served up on Remixed is better than the original is complicated. The mix unearths a Quine filigree in the opening measures that is startling to those whose neural pathways are so well grooved from listening to the original over and over again. From that point on, this mix is pure magic – its sound has expanded like the universe does every second of every day. Peter Schjeldahl wrote that Velázquez “was as good at oil painting as anyone has been at anything,” but I don’t think he’d ever heard Quine play with Hell. A great song that has never sounded better. (Later, the version that Hell and Ivan Julian perform at Quine’s funeral, included with the demos, brings a lump to the throat.)

I Can Only Give You Everything is a rarity – a Richard Hell and the Voidoids cover (of the young Van Morrison’s Them) – that isn’t quite as good as the original. Why? Well — (motions with his hands to emulate a scale) there’s Hell singing and then there is Van Morrison… But still! This is another attempt at rendering a ‘60s “punk” song into an ‘70s/’80s punk song. It could have used a Farfisa to make it a little garage-ier. It’s not the record’s high point.

On Ignore That Door you have the paradigm of a Richard Hell and the Voidoids song and performance. Naux and Quine trade solos – sounds great here! – and Hell’s singing of every phrase is as filled with skronk as the guitars are. The “whoooos” are a ’70s New York rock’n’roll emollient, as pretty as anything Sylvain Sylvain (R.I.P.) might add behind David Johansen on the Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon. Love this. 

The Repaired version of Staring In Her Eyes isn’t the one we’ll play, if only because the original is so strong, and when you’ve downloaded all of Complete on your phone it takes nanoseconds to find it. Fred Maher is a monster, and his drumming steals the show. But the singing here just doesn’t measure up to what was done the first time. I suspect he doesn’t like his singing on the original, but he should!

Okay, we’ve come to the last song from the original, Destiny Street itself, and we need to digress for a moment. The urban funk the Voidoids play so naturally here is a reminder how so much of the early punk rock was a mix of White and Black musical idioms. From the Clash to the Talking Heads, the music was the product of miscegenation. Both incarnations of Voidoids had soul. Ivan Julian, of course, is Black and Hell was perfectly comfortable working in a Black musical artform. This is a strong conclusion to the album, and on Remixed, it sounds wonderful.

If not every one of the Remixed tracks beats the original, it’s okay — Destiny Street Complete has *all* of the tracks from the first two versions, plus a third, plus the demos. I can only give you everything, says Hell, and he has, in a Director’s Cut with extras.

When Dylan HQ released the complete set of every concert from the ’65 tour of Britain, it offered the possibility of going through and finding the versions that the most discerning dumpster-diving fan might like the most. These are the kinds of possibilities open to us here; who cares which song from which version I approve of? They’re all here for your musical delight.

By having Destiny Street complete we can mix and match. My version will be different from yours. I’ll listen to the new cut of “Going Going Gone” ‘til my hard drive wears out. I’ll always return to the first take of Downtown At Dawn.” Always.

*

In the liner notes, Hell reports that “in both the Repaired and Remixed sessions I was going for the same thing, the sound of a little combo playing real gone rock and roll, something like what I grew up on. This despite the fact that the playing and attitude isn’t much like that. It’s in fact redolent of the early ‘80s: a still deeply dilapidated New York in which cocaine and its type of desperation abounded, along with new warehouse-sized dance clubs; the guitars on the tracks often sound almost like synthesizers. Inevitably it’s an artifact of a specific time and place.”

Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Semyne

By the time Hell was back in the studio with the Voidoids to make this record, CBGB, TR3, the Mudd Club and Hurrah had given way to the Peppermint Lounge and Danceteria. (There was still Maxwell’s, a rumpus room comfortably established across the Hudson in New Jersey, but I can’t really imagine the Voidoids playing there.) For me, then as now, Destiny Street was the ultimate fin de siècle record. Daido Moriyama refers to photographs as “fossils of light and time,” and in this way, Destiny Street is a snapshot of a moment not just in Richard Hell’s life, but in mine – which may account for why I have been protective of it, not wanting even its creator to change it. For it wasn’t just the end of a New York era, it was the end of my era in New York, my personal exit from the louche world of a rock critic staying out late at night, just as I’d worked my way up the food chain from New York Rocker to Rolling Stone. As this album came out, I had already stopped resisting being pulled into, of all things, politics, ultimately leading to a new career in a new town. It’s like this was the album that was playing when the music stopped.

I salute Richard for his monomania, his ethic, his recovery and perseverance in making things right. He recorded Blank Generation twice, to get the sound he wanted. He has now produced, over four decades, three + versions of Destiny Street, all built off of those three weeks in which 10 songs were laid down on analog tape. During one of those weeks, he was too “fragile” to leave his pad. And yet the record got done. And now twice more over. And finally to his liking — though he, and his record label, are generous enough to let us have it all, to let us choose what we want.

This is and always has been a great album.  Destiny Street Complete is a sprawling compendium, and Richard Hell has finally gotten it all together. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: