The Virgins' Donald Cumming Vs Richard Hell

Full 'Personality Clash' Transcript
per-clash.gif
In issue 38 of Clash magazine, we teamed up The Virgins' Donald Cumming with Television and Voidoids legend Richard Hell for Personality Clash.

Donald Cumming formed The Virgins in New York in 2005. The trio, which also consists of Wade Oates (guitar) and Nick Zarin-Ackerman (bass), peddle glorious dirty art-rock that could be borne from no other city. When asked by Clash for suggestions of possible interviewees, at the top of Donald’s list sat the forefather of Big Apple punk...

Richard Hell was a founding member of Television, whose pioneering proto-punk spirit helped build CBGB’s legendary status (literally - Hell’s DIY talents produced the stage). Upon leaving the group, his own Voidoids released ‘Blank Generation’, a stunning portrait of the late ’70s scene. Hell is now a celebrated author.

Enjoy the full transcript of their chat below.

Richard: Listen, first of all I want to tell you that I think it’s quite admirable of you young men to decide to remain virgins.
Donald: Oh, thank you. (Laughs)
Richard: But then when I look at your videos I realise it possibly wasn’t entirely by choice.
Donald: No, you can see that we’re pretty much a bunch of rejects.
Richard: Yeah, the girls might have had some say in it. (Laughs)
Donald: Yeah, they’re not so interested. I accepted that early and I think it made my life a little bit easier.
Richard: And, you know, God will love you more.
Donald: You think so?

Donald: I wanted the name to be easy to remember and fun to say. But I wanted to thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me, man. It’s so, so cool and I’m thrilled.
Richard: Before I agreed to do this, I Googled you. I looked at your site and at the MySpace page. I was really impressed by you guys’ skill and talent, and it made me wonder how you could be interested, or you could feel some kind of connection to somebody as amateur and demented as me and my music.
Donald: Um, you’re the living legend hero of my youth and one of the coolest people to ever make a contribution to the arts, so really, there’s no greater for me. I’m just a huge fan, and I hope that I can keep myself in check and we can actually talk relatively intelligently without me just spilling praise on you, because I’m sure that that isn’t fun for you.
Richard: Well, it was funny hearing that music and seeing those tapes, because, you know, as I’m sure a million people have said to you, it immediately called to mind ‘Goats Head Soup’/‘Black And Blue’-era Rolling Stones. And ‘Goats Head Soup’ is probably my favourite Stones record.
Donald: Get out of here! Really?
Richard: Yeah, definitely.
Donald: Oh dude, ‘100 Years Ago’ is like my shit; that’s like my favourite song.
Richard: Well, you can hear it. But then I saw in one of the videos you were playing bass. You don’t normally play bass, do you?
Donald: I only played bass on that song. I wrote that song on the bass so I thought it would be cool to switch it up and actually play the bass in the video.
Richard: It’s amazing bass playing on those records.
Donald: Nick [Zarin-Ackerman] is our bassist and he’s much better than me.
Richard: Man, I was so envious. But the sound too, it really is reminiscent of that period of the Stones. I just don’t see how you guys got all that together so quickly. I mean, if I hadn’t known otherwise, maybe you guys are scamming everybody...
Donald: Well, I hope to some extent we are...


Richard: But what I’m getting at is like you actually are kids who just knew each other and started a band. You guys are so professional, I would have thought that you had answered for auditions put together by a record label...
Donald: Unfortunately, I’m the svengali of our little unit, so the buck stops here. If you wanna know who’s doing all the scheming and plotting and deceiving...
Richard: So you’re responsible for the bike shorts [in the ‘Private Affair’ video]? (Laughs)
Donald: Yeah. I actually led with the bike shorts - that was my selling point of this. I was like, ‘If you guys give us money for a video, there will be bike shorts, and I will be the one wearing them’. And the ladies, they just started swooning in the office, and the powers-that-be saw the potential there. It was a cheap video - it was only about six or seven grand, I think. But it was fun. The worst thing about that video - because I’m actually very proud of what we did get to do - but it wasn’t what we had hoped to do. What we wanted was to appear on the [local NYC channel] Robyn Bird Show as a band, just do it as guests, but then we found out she doesn’t do that anymore. Then we said, ‘Well, what if she let us use the set and just hosted it and we did it like a video?’ And then we found out that she doesn’t do it on camera anymore, so we had to make an approximation of our show. We got our friend Jack Walsh to be the host...
Richard: I know Jack! I was wondering what that was about, because I’ve lost touch with him a little bit, I haven’t seen him in a couple of years, and I couldn’t tell whether that was actually some pre-existing segment on some cable channel or something.
Donald: No, we asked Jack. We begged him to do it and he was gracious enough to say yes, and he fuckin’ killed it. His performance overshadows everything in the video. The thing that really bummed me out was that we had gotten this guy, Alexander The Great, who’s the male stripper in the video, and we were hoping for like a really X-rated video, but he wouldn’t show his dick.
Richard: Well, that’s probably because your budget was six thousand dollars.
Donald: Nah, nah, nah; he couldn’t be persuaded, man. The girls went crazy and basically gave some of the most explicit performances I’ve seen personally in my life - I’m sure you’ve seen some shit yourself - but they went nuts, and basically I was hoping he would do the same so that we would have a really raunchy and explicit video to cut together that the label could reject...and he didn’t want to. He just wouldn’t show it. So then I didn’t feel like it was appropriate to put any nude women in the video because then there was no balance, and so it kind of all evened out and it is what it is, but there is no alternate version, which is what I was hoping for. I was reading that New York University bought your archives?
Richard: Yeah, that was a few years ago.


Donald: What’s that all about?
Richard: Well, it’s a little bit dicey. They’ve got all these papers of mine, and I know that there have been a few cases of divorces resulting from archive becoming public, because these people can go and do some serious research into your most personal history. They actually even have my email...
Donald: Yeah, I read that they have all of your correspondence including your email. I was like, ‘What?!’
Richard: We’re keeping that off-limits until I have the time to go over there and trash some of it. I actually burned a few things before they came for delivery. I’m kind of a compulsive collector. I don’t throw things away. I had boxes and boxes of material from over the years, and it was a great arrangement because they take all the stuff and keep it off my hands...
Donald: Do you have access to it?
Richard: Of course. I have complete access. It’s like three block away; I can go over there and get copies of anything I realise I need any time I want, and of course I keep the copyright to everything - nobody’s allowed to publish anything from in there without my permission. So it’s kinda win/win/win.
Donald: Of course. I would definitely put you on the list of a guy who should have somebody looking after their archives and keeping them safe. My question is how do you feel about NYU? I don’t know much about them. What are they like to deal with? What do you think of them as an entity in New York City?
Richard: (Laughs) Well, you know, they’re kind of villains in my neighbourhood...
Donald: Yeah, right? I mean, I don’t know how you feel about it, but what’s your take on what’s happened downtown in the last three or four years?
Richard: Well, I’m kinda insulated from it because I never leave my apartment. (Laughs) The timing was okay, as far as I’m concerned, because when I was going out all the time, things were pretty interesting, and they started to degrade - coincidentally - as I became more and more reclusive. I really make a point to never leave the house or eat out on the weekends. But, yeah, it’s like offensive...
Donald: It’s really offensive. Basically, I don’t feel informed enough to have like a definitive opinion - like, I wanna be like, ‘The future is for change. Things have to evolve. Nothing can be what it was.’ Even when I grew up in the city, it was certainly not the city that you grew up in. But at the same time, I’m walking around and seeing all these new buildings and half of me wants to be like, ‘Mirrored glass! Let’s go for it!’
Richard: Well, luckily they’re not gonna be able to complete those half-built buildings.
Donald: Is that right?
Richard: You didn’t notice? Everybody else in America is broke now. (Laughs) Possibly, the Lower East Side will return to its former depravity.


Donald: That will be interesting. I’m not necessarily championing an unsafe environment, it’s just it’s sad to see landmarks and things that you grew up with and that’s a part of you...
Richard: Yeah, but the unsafe environment comes with the possibility of freedom. At the moment, I’m actually writing a... I don’t know how to describe it because I hate all the words for it, but I’m writing down all the things I can remember, kinda like my life story. And I was describing the Seventies in New York and it’s true, you had to be prepared to be burglarised once every couple of years, and there would be a rape or a mugging on your block every eighteen months or something...
Donald: The problem with those kind of images as a romantic period is it gives as much ammunition to the people trying to claim it all in the name of commerce and make it a mall. They’re like, ‘What do you want, rapes and murders? We’ve got right here for you a beautiful place to eat, you can walk through steps and buy all the shit you need...’ Like, you know, I’m sure that they’re taking that same argument and turning it on its ear.
Richard: I dunno. I would rather live in a shitty neighbourhood.
Donald: Me too. New York...it’s a shame; it makes me sad. Just to see the physical environment changing so dramatically. It’s weird to walk down a street that doesn’t look like how you remember it. It’s fucking with your memories and shit. Very strange.
Richard: But you’re right. I’m surprised at your short level of opportunity to see things change...
Donald: But that’s the thing - it’s happening so radically that even I can notice it. I grew up on Canal and Greenwich and I was born in ’81, so I guess my first platform was, ‘Why are they doing this to TriBeCa?’ And now I’m just like, ‘Why are they doing this to everywhere below 14th Street? What the fuck?’ It’s very strange. I guess that’s pretty sombre. Maybe we should talk about something more happy? I read that you are making a movie?
Richard: Um, yeah, well I was sorta casually messing around, because this guy put himself at my disposal with a high definition digital camera. But it’s kinda latent. I shot a certain amount of footage and edited ten of fifteen minutes, and I had a good idea of where I wanted to go with it, but it just takes so much focus and perseverance to carry something like that off, that finally I realised that my time is better spent doing something else. As tempting as it is, though. I mean, I can’t quite fully relinquish this fantasy of making a movie - I’ve wanted to my whole life.


Donald: I don’t think you should.
Richard: But it’s just such a major undertaking. It means you’ve got to fit everything in around it...
Donald: I was so psyched to read that you were doing that. I saw you introduce Texas Chainsaw Massacre at Two Boots once.
Richard: (Laughs) Oh yeah? That little series I was curating out there?
Donald: Yeah, man. It was very cool. Wade, the guitarist in my band, actually claims that he was there too, although I didn’t see him there so I don’t know if that’s really true, but he tells me that he was there.
Richard: I’m way into movies. I saw that you had been DP [director of photography] on [Jennifer Vendetti’s indie documentary] Billy The Kid?
Donald: Yeah, that was the closest I’ve come to any professional film-making. But it was very amateur when we were making it; it grew through Jen Vendetti and the way she cut and edited it, and she was able to make it into a really good film.
Richard: Were you studying film-making?
Donald: I was, yeah. That’s what I wanted to do when I was young, and I still want to. I’ve tried my hand at it and got my ass kicked a few times; I’m still looking for the angle to figure out how it’s gonna be a reality for me. It’s really, really important for me.
Richard: The thing about it is that there’s no fuckin’ disputing that it is the art form of the century, though I guess maybe the new century might go somewhere else. Maybe it will become more interactive stuff, or whatever, but it definitely was the art form from my life in the twentieth century. You’d feel a little regret not to have done something in that line.
Donald: I was really psyched on both of your acting appearances, at least the ones that I’ve seen; Smithereens...
Richard: (Laughs) Oh shit... I don’t stake anything on my acting. It’s nice of you to say that.


Donald: But you killed it anyway - whether it was by intention or default, I think you were great, man. It’s just really cool that those things exist. I was reading this thing recently, and I don’t know if I understood it completely - I was reading this Joan Didion book, The White Album, and she says something about just by the nature of the way that films are made that it rejects critical analysis; you can’t make a really strong argument one way or another about any opinion that you might have about a movie just because of all the different things and people and decisions and money and time and loss and missed opportunities - all the shit that is accumulated before a movie is technically finished. But then I also saw that you did film criticism for [New York culture magazine] BlackBook?
Richard: Yeah, I did. I know what she’s talking about, but still, if I understand how you’re describing what she’s saying, that you can see how somebody who’s involved in movies would have that kind of defensive statement about it, but that’s true as much in - well, not as much - but of any partly collaborative undertaking in a medium. It’s true of record making. But it’s bullshit to say that, because it might be that you can’t pin the responsibility for how the work came out - the movie or the record or whatever - on any single person. That’s true. But you can sure assess whether it’s interesting or not and what’s interesting about it, for sure.
Donald: So, when you were doing your criticism, were you selecting movies from your own personal collection of favourites?
Richard: No, it was whatever was coming out. But it usually independent films, because they had a real long lead time; I had to have the review in a month before it came out - Hollywood films would only have screenings a week or two before, but the independent movies you could see a month in advance. Yeah, all those pieces are up on my website, and also I think they’ve got them on the BlackBook site. It was fun. Movies mean a lot to me and I think about them a lot.
Donald: What did you like this year?
Richard: Um...what did I like this year? Gee.. I’d have to look at a list.
Donald: Did you see Soul Men? It’s Bernie Mac’s final film.
Richard: Oh no, uh-huh.
Donald: Oh dude, it’s so good. He’s doing like this WC Fields’ classic ‘I hate kids, I drink too much, but I’m so warm-hearted it’s hilarious’. He just kills it, dude. I’ve watched it like four or five times, but it’s so good.
Richard: I’ll definitely fuckin’ rent that. I’m drawing a blank though...


Donald: No, that’s cool, I don’t wanna put you on the spot. What are you reading right now?
Richard: What am I reading? Um... You know what I strangely just read? The scroll edition of On The Road. I was curious, because I hadn’t read that book in a long time, and I wanted to see if my reaction to it had changed since I read it twenty years ago or whatever. I was never a big fan of it, frankly. I’m not a big Kerouac head.
Donald: I like the book on tape as read by Matt Dillon much better than the one read by David Carradine, I can say that much.
Richard: Oh yeah, my friend read one audio version of it; Will Patton.
Donald: Oh, I met him once; he’s realul sweet.
Richard: Yeah, he’s a great guy. Where did you meet him?
Donald: He’s friends with a friend of mine’s dad. My friend Dash, he’s friends with his father.
Richard: Who’s his father? Maybe I know him.
Donald: His last name is Snow.
Richard: That doesn’t ring a bell. Will is one of my best friends. He does a lot of audio books.
Donald: My friend’s name is Dash, so ask him about Dash Snow’s dad.
Richard: Okay. But On The Road, yeah, it’s just about enthusiasm, you know? You can see how people get enthusiastic about enthusiasm, but it doesn’t work on me.


Donald: It’s a silly kind of thing. For me, I read it in sixth grade and then I had the audio books, and it was really inspiring to me when I was young. It was really exciting and I thought Dean was the coolest and everything was the coolest, but then, you know, I guess it might be dated, or maybe it’s just been so absorbed into popular culture that it just doesn’t feel fresh at all? I dunno.
Richard: But, for me, it always left me cold. I mean, there might be a moment or two where something that he was talking about would give me some kind of buzz, but basically it just feels like here’s a person who’s excited, and that’s just not enough for me. It’s just this ongoing rush of, ‘And the sun came up and it was the most glorious sunrise I ever saw, and all across America I could hear the wheat blowing and the goldenness...’
Donald: Yeah, totally. I would imagine that the scroll is worse then?
Richard: Well, you know, it’s been that long since I read the first one. It seemed different to me. I mean, it really did feel like there was a lot more material. But I’m not sure, because I didn’t really check. It went on and on and on. (Laughs) I forced myself to read it to the end!
Donald: How long did it take you to write your first book?
Richard: (Laughs) That’s funny, because... It took me about two years to write my first novel, but the funny thing is, when I finished that and it would come up in conversations that I had a novel published, the question I’d always be asked was, ‘How long is it?’ (Laughs) As if that was what mattered about a book! And it was really surprising - there’s no way I could ever have guessed that that’s what people would be interested in.
Donald: Did you make a writing routine? Did you change anything about your life while you were working on it?
Richard: Yeah, well, you know, it’s been sometime now that I’ve been a professional writer...
Donald: Yeah, you”ve published many more books, I know.
Richard: Not that it’s so many more books, it’s just what my focus has been. Whether it’s been doing journalism - essays about whatever - or fiction, so I have my method down pretty well, whatever I’m working on. I get up in the morning, I drink a cup of coffee and I start writing. Just for a few hours. I burn out after that. It takes so much fuckin’ concentration, man. That’s the maximum, two or three hours, then I go sit in a yoga position and meditate.
Donald: Oh yeah?
Richard: No, I’m kidding. (Laughs) I don’t do that.


Donald: My mom would be very happy to hear that. She’s really doggedly trying to get me to do yoga - and I do it, and I enjoy it, but doing it consistently is a whole other story.
Richard: I do go running, which is really good for my disposition. I mean, really. If I didn’t do that everyday, I think I might form some regrettable act of violence.
Donald: (Laughs) Well, that’s good to know that you still have a violent spirit. I like that. That gives me hope. What do you do now for kicks? Do you go to shows still? I know you said you were reclusive...
Richard: I never went to shows. I mean, I used to be at CBGB’s every night just cos that was like the clubhouse.
Donald: So ‘Down At The Rock And Roll Club’ was literally about CBGB’s?
Richard: Yeah, it was.
Donald: Oh, no shit?
Richard: Sure. It’s the only place I ever...I mean, I went to Max’s [Kansas City] too. Yeah, probably in my whole life, apart from CBGB’s and Max’s, I’ve probably seen ten concerts in my whole life.
Donald: Holy shit.
Richard: I’m not into it. I don’t like crowds. I’d rather listen to music on the record.
Donald: I never went to shows before we started this band, and I never go to show if it’s not a bill we’re on. It’s just because I don’t care to leave the house and I don’t care to be so much amongst a bunch of people. If it’s a band that I’m a huge fan of, then I’ll go, but I don’t really casually go to see music.
Richard: Yeah, same for me.
Donald: But that kinda leaves me sitting on my bed a lot. What do you do for kicks?
Richard: You know, my favourite thing to do is my own work. Other than that, I go to movies and museums and go driving around New York. That used to be my favourite recreation - in the Nineties I drove across the country about six times in this old muscle car I had. My wife and I would always do that whenever we had the impulse - just get in the car and go out on the back roads and look for a motel, and then get up in the morning and go do it again.


Donald: That happens in one of your novels.
Richard: (Laughs) Uh, well, yeah. My first novel, Go Now, is about driving, that’s true. So, actually I was able to write off all that driving in the Nineties for tax purposes. (Laughs)
Donald: When you were young and coming up as a kid... Myself and Wade are both drop-outs, and we have definitely got questionable work ethics. What would you say to aspiring creative people, because you’re obviously someone who works very hard and respects your craft and what you do. What advice do you give to kids that have that passion to be creative but lack the discipline to attend school and to follow direction and think they know everything when they’re twelve?
Richard: Well, I think it probably speaks well of them that they’re not interested in school, frankly. Though at the same time there’s a side of me who really likes learning, you know? For me, it’s like I couldn’t submit to the authority. But I used to have fantasies about going back to school and studying something really deeply, but then I would realise immediately that that wasn’t really feasible because I just hate the structure and everything. For an artist though, as a general aim, my only advice would be to always try - in whatever medium you’re working in - to work beyond what you already know how to do. If you’re not insecure because you’re doing more than you really know how, then it’s boring and it’s pointless. You can’t settle for what you can do well, you’ve got to go past that into what you can’t do well. (Laughs)
Donald: I think you’re absolutely right. That’s kinda been by default the way we’ve... Oh wait, Wade’s got something for me here... “Ask him what about old New York sucked. What wasn’t cool?”
Richard: You mean like in the Seventies?
Donald: From your generation, like all the people that have been revered that I’ve grown up with so much admiration for, who or what would you most like to call bullshit on?
Richard: How it’s been misrepresented? Well, you know, there’s a couple of things about those days at CBGB’s that seem to me aren’t usually understood very well... I mean, I did feel like in, say, ’74 to ’77 at CBGB’s it was definitely the most interesting music scene happening in the world, beyond any doubt, but at the same time, it was very small. The place was half empty most of the time, and it did not get any publicity. None of the publicity happened until everything took off in Britain. In America, there was no national publicity for what was going on at CBGB’s...


Donald: Were you anticipating it?
Richard: We did expect and intend and believe that we would be dominating music eventually. We were all ambitious. So, it was that small, and it was the most interesting thing going on, but the other thing that people aren’t aware of is that, yeah, there were five or six really strong bands - the ones that you associate with the place now...
Donald: Was there a bunch of shitty bands too?
Richard: Yeah, there was a whole lot of bands, just like the ones that you would see anywhere in America playing in clubs at that time. And people don’t picture that. Also, to my mind, I always liked The Ramones. I was one of the first people to support them. It was actually the first article I ever wrote, because they were my friends. Actually, my bands were more popular at CBGB’s than The Ramones at this time, but I wrote the first article about them in a national publication in, like, 1976, before their first album came out. But still, they were thought of as kind of like a joke - even by me, even though I really liked them. It was like a concept. It was like, ‘Let’s cross surf music with The Stooges and come out in the same costumes and shout out, ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ and have no time between numbers’. It was like a formula, and it was kind of mock-commercial, but at the same time, they were so pop and were actually talking about real life - even if there was a lot of humour in it. To me, that’s the thing that set apart CBGB’s and what we did and what I always wanted to do and what my whole mission was back in those days, which was to return music to being about real life - instead of just having it be stupid, sentimental love songs and big, overblown stadium rock narcissistic arias and shit. Get it back to being real life. The Ramones did write songs that were coming out of the gutter and talking about things like sniffing glue, which you wouldn’t see Elton John doing.
Donald: No, but certainly The Everly Brothers would have.
Richard: (Laughs) You think The Everly Brothers would have? I don’t know...
Donald: I mean, if that was chic at that time. They had like ‘Poor Jenny’ and shit; they’ve got all their songs about like parties getting busted up by cops and all that shit. It’s like what’s relevant to you. I mean, they probably weren’t up on glue at that time, but they were definitely drinking moonshine. But I hear that in you guys’ stuff; rock and roll that’s more intimate and accessible and not just...
Richard: Not just a pop formula.
Donald: Yeah, but the pop formula is, I think, valid as a medium just like anything else. Novels have formulas and structures, but it’s about what you put into it.
Richard: Sure, it’s a big part of good music, but for me personally, like I said when I was talking about my standards, it’s got to go beyond what comes easy. It can’t just be based on something that’s already been mastered. I’m not interested in something that’s just another decent example of something that already exists. You’ve gotta push yourself past that.

Have your say

Sign in or Register to leave comments
-