I just found this online at ereader. I didn’t know my publisher had authorized this excerpt, but figured since it was up there, I could re-post it here. Please enjoy…
“I’d noticed that hair mattered.”
He’s sitting across from me in the back of a cafÃ©. You wouldn’t think that hair mattered to look at him. His dark brown hair falls around his thick-rimmed glasses down to his jaw, casually framing his face. He has that relaxed, just-got-out-of-bed look. Not the on-purpose kind media types have, but as though he actually might have. It doesn’t look as though he’s given hair much thought at all, but the man I am talking with had one of the most important haircuts of the twentieth century.
This is Richard Meyers: writer, poet, artist, and former front man of bands the Neon Boys, Television, and the Voidoids. He is better known as Richard Hell, and the angular hairstyle and cut-up clothing he pioneered in the early 1970s would come to define a movement better known as punk.
Not far from where we’re sitting on New York’s Lower East Side was the club CBGB, where Hell’s early performances inspired punk’s first generation. A runaway from Kentucky, he arrived in the city an aspiring writer, affected by beat poets and writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but quickly realized he could make a more powerful statement with music. “Part of what I liked about music was all these other means for communication,” Hell told me. “In rock ‘n’ roll it’s always been important how you looked. How you looked said something. And it was usually something about rejecting convention and the nine-to-five, and any kind of control, but you could get really elaborate with how you used the way you looked to communicate stuff. You’re always being interviewed, your album covers, your live shows, it was so broad, the areas for getting your message across. I wanted to use all of them.”
And use them he did. Inspired in part by the rebellious French poets Rimbaud and Artaud, who had sported spiky hair in the early nineteenth century, Hell chopped his mane into a short, aggressive style as a way of rejecting the hippie movement and the big-hair glamour of stadium rock. He looked at the Beatles’ bowl haircuts and asked himself, what are they really saying? “Well,” he explains, “they really say five-year-old kid. So I thought, ‘What was my generation’s haircut like when we were five years old?’ Where I grew up, the most popular haircut was called the ‘Butch.’ Short all the way around, and you’d maybe wax up the front of it. But of course being kids, we wouldn’t get to the barber that often, and we wouldn’t keep it neat, it would just be kind of raggedyâ€¦. I wanted it to be do-it-yourself. I wanted it to not be something you’d go to the barber for.”
Richard fused the Beatles, the “Butch,” and two radical nineteenth-century French bohemians into his new do-it-yourself hairstyle, and hell literally broke loose. In 1974 Television took to the stage at CBGB on Sunday nights. Hell wore clothes slashed as aggressively as his hair, held together with safety pins and emblazoned with slogans such as PLEASE KILL ME. “It was a rejection of having who you are imposed on you by corporations who were gonna profit from making you feel insecure about how you look,” he says. “I’ve just always been really skeptical and suspicious and resentful of people who try to sell you stuff by intimidating you.”
Hell’s statements were a full-frontal assault on the senses, burning his ideas into the minds of his audience, who at the time happened to be some of the most influential people in New York City, and in pop culture period. After Television’s success, CBGB (which stood for “Country Blue-Grass Blues”) switched to a punk rockâ€“only format every night, becoming a creative hotbed for artists and bands such as the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and Debbie Harry, all of whom cut their teeth on its stage. Malcolm McLaren, then manager of another influential group, the New York Dolls, was so stimulated by Hell’s look he took it back to London and used it to create a new band: the Sex Pistols.
Thirty years after it first shook the world, punk is in a museum. A few miles uptown from where Hell and I are sitting, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is holding a punk exhibition sponsored by multinational luxury goods brand Burberry. Tourists are studying early British punk clothesâ€”made by now world-famous fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwoodâ€”and listening to a podcast commentary by the world-famous Sex Pistol Jonny Rotten.
Punk is dead.
But Hell survived. Instead of becoming a parody of his former self, he moved on. He remains on the Lower East Side, under the mainstream’s radar, but credible in many other circles, now the successful poet and published writer he always aspired to be. This new attitude, career, and his current, less threatening hairstyle are all part of a strategy. “The interesting thing is to not remain the same,” he muses. “To me that’s what’s boring; I don’t really care to see fifty-year-old people going around in punk leather jackets. The point is to stay unclassifiable. Then they don’t own you.”
When the hairstyle lost its meaning, Hell lost the hairstyle. But his statement and the do-it-yourself ideal he promoted affected the world. Today it is the driving force behind a new generation of D.I.Y. entrepreneurs who are raising hell once again. Disruptive new D.I.Y. technologies are causing unprecedented creative destruction. The history of punk offers us valuable insights into how this new world works. Punk was an angry outburst, a reaction to mass culture, but it offered new ideas about how mass culture could be replaced with a more personalized, less centralized worldview.
Punk has survived in many incarnations musicallyâ€”it became new wave, influenced hip-hop, and conceived grunge and the notion of indie bands. But more important, its independent spirit also spurred a do-it-yourself revolution. D.I.Y. encourages us to reject authority and hierarchy, advocating that we can and should produce as much as we consume. Since punk, this idea has been quietly changing the very fabric of our economic system, replacing outdated ideas with the twenty-first-century upgrades of Punk Capitalism.
Suddenly like at a punk gig, today everybody is getting smashed together in a much more turbulent, concentrated environment that is constantly changing. There are fewer conventional “jobs,” and increasingly complex relationships between those consuming and those producing. And changes in manufacturing mean soon all of us could have the means to create literally anything ourselves, from the comfort of our own homes.
As we shall now see, the possibilities of D.I.Y. are reaching new heights. Like a roomful of teenagers with green hair throwing bottles at one another, this new world can look frightening. But once you get it, it’s obvious it’s a better place to be. The end of top-down mass culture is creating opportunities and freedoms for us all.
Hell used the past to create a hairstyle that shaped the perspective of a generation. Generations since have grown up using ingenuity and creativity to do the things punk always promoted: tearing down hegemonies and hierarchies, starting over, and improving the way we operate as a society.
Hell is right. Hair mattered.
Long live punk.