Monday, April 12, 2010

"Time Can Write a Song": Richard Hell's Destiny Street Repaired

I've sometimes wondered why I am so often attracted to the most flawed works from great artists. I typically find myself gravitating towards works in an artist’s canon that show off their imperfections, and vulnerabilities, more than their obvious masterpieces do. So I will always rather watch The Magnificent Ambersons over Citizen Kane, read Forced Entries instead of The Basketball Diaries and listen to Street Legal more than Blood on the Tracks. As long as I can remember I have been drawn to fractured little classics that most overlook, or hold in disdain, and as I get older I find myself gravitating to these artistic fringes more and more.

Richard Hell was already one of my favorite songwriters when I first heard his damaged second album Destiny Street in the early nineties in Richard's hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. I had cut my teeth on Richard's first LP, the masterful Blank Generation, through high school but Destiny Street had been a bit trickier to find. It only took a few listens for me to hear that Destiny Street was indeed that flawed bastard young son of Blank Generation and it really didn't have the savage grace and finesse of that historic first platter.

Despite its flaws, I couldn't get certain songs like the epic title track, 'Staring in her Eyes" and "Ignore that Door" out of my head and within a few months of buying the album I was playing it much more than its more powerful predecessor. Destiny Street haunted me and I could ultimately relate to it more than Blank Generation. It felt like a very powerful glimpse into the soul of an artist clearly in trouble and, as a young artist myself also in the midst of a crisis, I just couldn't shake the effect it had on me.

For the better part of a year I played Destiny Street rather obsessively and I can't think about my time in Lexington, specifically walking downtown staring at the abandoned buildings that housed once promising businesses, without thinking of the album. It didn't matter that there was indeed something wrong with the production, that the songs had been too messed with and that it was finally a very inconsistent album because, it did what all of the greatest art should do in that it spoke directly to me. It understood my splintered state and it helped remind me that even the darkest chapters of a person’s life can have traces of the brilliance and transcendence that the best periods have in spades.

I introduced the album to anyone who would listen for the better part of the nineties. Friends, who would one day become enemies, heard it through me and lovers, who would slip out of my life, had songs from it put on mix-tapes designed to express emotions that I couldn't get across otherwise. I came to love its flaws, its savage intensity and how Hell's audacious and brilliant lyrics succeeded even when the production failed him.

When I first heard last year that Hell was planning on revisiting Destiny Street I was a bit skeptical. Not because I didn't trust Richard, but because I didn't trust myself to hear a different version of this album that had come to mean so much to me. Imagine my surprise and shock when I first heard Destiny Street Repaired, as it is not only the equal of the original but is finally the masterpiece I always felt it could have been.
Destiny Street Repaired isn't a nostalgic trip; it is a full-blown revitalization of one of the most important and often overlooked careers in modern music. A ferocious reminder to the genius of Richard Hell, Destiny Street Repaired is one of the freshest and most vital releases of the past several years. A near complete re-working of the flawed original with all new vocal tracks by Richard and added on guitar work by Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and the Ivan Julian, all admirably filling in for much missed Robert Quine, Destiny Street Repaired is a jaw-dropping and emotionally wrenching listen that re-solidifies Hell's place as one of the most vital performers of the rock era. Finally, we have performances and production on Destiny Street Repaired to match Hell's lyrics, with the muddy and compressed sound of the original transformed into one of the most vivid and explosive aural experiences I have had in a long time. Listening to Destiny Street Repaired is like seeing Apocalypse Now on the big screen for the first time after years of only seeing it on home video.

Opening with the reworked version of the still thrilling first single off the album, “The Kid With The Replaceable Head”, Destiny Street Repaired immediately establishes its presence as a full-throttle rock powerhouse and never lets up through the nine tracks that follow. Two covers, “I Gotta Move” and Hell’s extraordinary take on Bob Dylan’s “Going Going Gone”, a moving track now made all the more wrenching by some really exquisite new guitar fills by Frisell, follow before the album really arrives at arguably its first masterpiece.
Time has done nothing to lessen the effect of one of the original album’s most bracing moments and “Lowest Common Dominator” is still a bracing experience. Hell’s new vocal is a bit more laid back than the original and the background vocals of Ruby Meyers and Sheelagh Bevan give the already menacing track a seductively sinister new layer.

The legendary “Downtown at Dawn” is up next and it is here that the two real stars of the new album began to come forward, with Hell’s unbelievably emotive vocals and Ribot’s new guitar work taking center stage. Ribot is in simply stunning form, delivering the kind of do-or-die guitar work you just don’t hear on Rock n' Roll records anymore, and Richard delivers some of his most moving lyrics with the added wisdom that only age can bring, and the kind of emotional honesty that only a true poet can be capable of.

A splendid version of one of Hell’s most famous songs, “Time” is up next along with another cover, “I Can Only Give You Everything”, before the album goes into its astonishing trio of concluding songs, three tracks that represent the finest of Richard Hell as a songwriter and performer.
The pounding “Ignore That Door” tops the screaming original with a subtler, but still wonderfully corrosive, vocal by Hell and some astonishing new guitar work from legendary Voidoid Ivan Julian. “Staring In Her Eyes”, one of the most simultaneous sweet and sinister songs Hell ever delivered, is still a highlight to the album and the new version is given a wonderfully off-kilter treatment with Bevan again on background vocals and both Frisell and Ribot contributing excellent additional guitar work.
Destiny Street Repaired closes with a surprisingly extended take of the original’s already epic title track, and Hell’s time defying tale of stepping “off a curb into ten years ago” to run into himself as a younger man is still one of rock music’s most resonate conclusions. Wonderfully poetic, haunting, funny and profound, “Destiny Street” is such a unique and compelling track that it is an absolute tragedy that it isn’t more recognized among rock and punk fans.

The CD version of Destiny Street Repaired (which is free with a purchase of the vinyl version of the album) has an additional two bonus tracks that are both wonderful to hear. A terrific never before heard song “Smitten” is followed by a tremendous studio demo (with Quine) of the amazing “Funhunt”, a song previously only available in muddy live recordings.

Destiny Street Repaired is available to order from Richard Hell’s website and it is an absolute essential purchase that I couldn’t give a higher recommendation to. While Hell has proven himself as one of America’s great literary treasures of the past thirty years, Destiny Street Repaired stands as a bracing and brilliant reminder that Hell is also one of Rock Music’s great figures. Destiny Street Repaired is a triumph and it erases the flawed aspect of what was already one of my all-time favorite albums. Thanks to Richard Hell for having the guts to revisit one of the most discussed and controversial chapters of a career that has simply been like no other.


Will Errickson said...

Holy shit, Jeremy, what a post! I actually do remember listening to Destiny Street years back, quite inebriated, many times at the apartment of the bass player in my old band. On vinyl. Very late at night. But I have to say, I can only recall "Boy with the Replaceable Head" and now I wish I'd listened more closely! Also, Richard Hell, even though he didn't want it, could've been a *huge* star. Besides Paul Simonon, he was probably the best-looking dude in '70s punk. I'm still jealous of his hair.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Will!
I hope you will give the new version a shot. The release from Richard's website is a real winner. Thanks again!