As its title suggest Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 – 2014 from Soft Skull Press is a collection of essays, critiques, and assorted other articles and remarks by Richard Hell. While Hell was initially known as the front man for such seminal New York City bands as Television, The Voidoids, and The Heartbreakers, he’s also a poet, novelist, and essayist.
Aside from his personal artistic achievements, Hell is also a keen and intelligent observer of the arts and has written and spoken about everything from pop culture to the avant-garde in film, poetry, and the visual arts. He’s also been closely associated with some of the foremost contributors to pop culture and art in and around New York City since the early 1970s. All of which gives him the awareness to put his observations in a historical and social context.
Reading Hell’s work is an object lesson in being a critic. He makes no secrets of his personal biases or opinions, but still strives to be as fair as possible to the work he’s talking about. His writings on film are a perfect example. He makes no bones of his preference for the work of people like Jean-Luc Goddard to more mainstream work, but he’s still able to critique a Hollywood movie fairly based on its own merits. He judges all art in this manner – by seeing how well it stands up to the standards set by works of a similar style and form.
What makes these articles even more interesting in Hell’s personal knowledge of many of the creators. His writings on authors like Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries and The Petting Zoo) are made that much more interesting by his personal recollections of the person behind the work. We gain not only a deeper understanding of the artist in question, but we also begin to see their work in a different, more personal, light.
Of course, not all of the articles are going to be of interest to everyone, in fact some might even find some the work discussed in the book disturbing. However, art is not always a comfortable blanket we wrap around ourselves – it should make us ask questions and provoke a response. The aesthetic appreciation of a piece art extends far beyond whether we “like” it.
While Hell never comes out and says this directly, the diversity and range of expression he writes about in Massive Pissed Love gradually bring this point home to us. Art is not created to please us, but meant to challenge us to look at the world from multiple perspectives. Remember, works we now consider acceptable, the paintings of Picasso for example, were once scorned and ridiculed.
While some of the articles in this book might be inaccessible to some, his writings on popular music are sure to appeal to most. One of my favourites is the piece comparing The Rolling Stones with the Velvet Underground – “The Velvet Underground vs. The Rolling Stones”. He examines the albums each group released during the same time frame – the time the Velvets existed – 1966 -1970. (The Velvets’ first public appearance was in ’65 and their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, wasn’t released until ’67 but was recorded in ’66 at the same time the Stones recorded Aftermath)
Not only is the article a in depth and careful analysis of both bands’ output giving you a deeper understanding of their musical significance and appreciation for their work, its also highly entertaining. Lacking the pretentious bullshit language these types of articles usually end up being couched in, it becomes an honest and candid examination of two bands who seem to be at completely opposite ends of the pop music spectrum.
Massive Pissed Love is not arranged chronologically, rather arranged as to how the articles fit into the three categories of the title. Some are long – “Massive” – some angry in tone – “Pissed” – and others full of adoration for their subject – “Love”. As Hell says in his introductory note “It was to dull just to divide it by subject matter”. One thing you can be sure of, this book is never dull. Contrary, intelligent, opinionated and perhaps to some people’s minds controversial, but always lively and stimulating. If you care at all about modern art and culture this is a must read.