With His ‘Night Out’ Series, Richard Hell Brings Weirdness to the Upper West Side


Richard Hell finds it “comforting” to deal with the artists he’s engaged in his role as curator of the five-event Night Out series. Why? Because, he says, they’re “all weird.” The revered punker-author-journalist laughs. “I know I’m weird, and I thought it was weird to be weird, but it’s not that weird to be weird.” And he’s both thrilled and surprised at how the creators he’s tapped — including singer-songwriter Lydia Loveless, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, and singer/guitarist Donald Cumming (ex-The Virgins) — have proved exceedingly accommodating. “That makes me feel a little weird, because I’m very demanding,” he admits. “If I’m working for somebody else, if I’m doing a gig, I want to know everything that’s happening and control it. But these guys have more or less let me do what I will.”

What he does is bring downtown culture and new-ish voices to light via interviews he conducts and performances. Essentially, he showcases what he digs, his punk patronage resulting in passionate presentation. Initially, part of the nonprofit Symphony Space’s motivation was to get kind of a new audience.

“The Upper West Side is about as far as you can get from the Lower East Side,” Hell says. And as a venerated member of Television, the Heartbreakers, and the Voidoids, Hell, 65, boasts bona fides few others can claim, and if anyone’s going to get the cool kids above 14th Street, it’s Hell.

Originally, Symphony Space wanted the onetime bassist/singer to bring in bands, but “I wasn’t that interested in doing that,” he says. “I don’t really keep up, and everything has become so diffuse in music, and the idea of trying to find five groups I’d choose as representative of what’s interesting now is too much to deal with. Plus, I’m interested in a lot of other things besides music,” he continues. “I was a film columnist, I’m really interested in art, and poetry and fiction, I’m super-conscious of it. I asked if they’d consider allowing me to have people from different mediums. They agreed. And it organically sprouted in my head.”

While the UWS traditionally has a more moneyed audience than you might find at a downtown shindig, Hell was adamant that ticket costs be as fair as possible, and was perturbed by the $32 admission price, bugging his benefactors enough to get the December 4 Reichardt screening of Meek’s Cutoff down to $15. He calls the 2010 western, shown on 35mm film, “mind-boggling: a movie that keeps you guessing, and makes you think, on every level….It really wakes you up to the range of possibilities of what a movie is and can be, in a really stimulating way.”

To add more value, at every event, each audience member gets a gift: From Loveless, it was a signed, limited artifact — a home recording she made at the age of 15, and a second song that had never been recorded for release in any form, Hell says. “We printed up CDs numbered from 1 to 200, all signed by Lydia.”

The final Night Out will be in early April, and it’s someone Hell’s never met, Jayson Musson. “He made waves around 2011 with a series of YouTube videos under the assumed name of Hennessy Youngman, a kind of hip-hop persona who goes into disquisitions about the art world,” explains Hell. “They’re unbelievably hilarious and really smart and incisive.” But Hell was even more impressed with Musson’s main calling as a visual artist, now represented by Salon 94. “I’d had a nagging regret that there was no way I could imagine to present a painter. I’m really into art, it really matters to me, and I think about it a lot. But what can you do for a performance?” he queries. “Are you going to stand up there and paint paintings? So it was magic when somebody told me about this guy.”

Hell takes a keen pride in his Night Out series, delving into everything from negotiations to extensive research prep for his interviews. “It really makes me happy, the level of quality and the mixture the series provides,” he acknowledges. “I wish they had a system in place where you’d get a great discount and come to every event; that’s how it feels to me; a whole series. Part of the pleasure of doing it for me is for my own satisfaction, seeing this little anthology, how it works.”

Of course, many would like to hear Hell’s own take on music and art. He laughingly demurs. “I get little feelers about music, but, no, I’m not going to be doing any performances.” Unless, of course, you count his readings, notably one from his novel-in-progress, his third, following 1997’s Go Now and 2005’s Godlike.

At a recent group reading at MOMA P.S.1, Hell says, his selection was “obnoxiously anti-PC. I read from my cold-ass genre novel, and it is very cold. A lot of people were really disgusted. Even my friends were disgusted,” he says, not sounding displeased. “It was sort of done in a confrontational spirit. I didn’t choose what I did in order to offend people: This is what I’m working on. I was aware in advance that I’d make some enemies.”

Why, though? He chooses his words carefully. “The story was very violent toward women. Yeah. There was a lot of sex in it too.” Hell’s not sure how the book will ultimately turn out. “Maybe I’ll lose my nerve. It’s a really bleak, vicious noir genre novel. I’ve always loved the most hopeless, nihilistic pulp writers,” he concludes, “so I wanted to try my hand at it.”

Night Out with Richard Hell: Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, at Symphony Space on December 4, 7:30 p.m., $15, (212) 864-5400.