Richard Hell’s “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp”
Like many of rock’n’roll’s greatest vocalists, Richard Hell doesn’t have a very good voice. As one of the greatest punk rock musicians, he couldn’t play his instrument very well. For a guy who left Television before it made arguably the best album of the 1970s; left the Heartbreakers before L.A.M.F.; and whose output — not including the almost unlistenable Dim Stars record (bad sound quality) — is only the two records he put out with his band, The Voidoids, he sure does cut an outsized figure. Even if all we had to go on was his song “Time,” from the Destiny Street album, or maybe his version of Dylan’s “Going Going Gone,” or (the lyrically reprehensible, since it would seem to promote incest) “The Plan” from Blank Generation, Richard Myers (Hell) would hulk in the corner of our rock Pantheon, casting a very large shadow. And with the release of I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, he’s now produced one of the most honest, funniest, best written and compelling autobiographies of any rock star ever — a book that holds its own with Keith Richards’ Life and Dean Wareham’s Black Postcards.
We enjoyed his novel Go Now, which came out in ’97, so we were prepared for a well-told story. And what a story! Whatever you think of him — talentless jester who was all style over substance, or seminal figure who helped launch the CBGB wave — credit him with balls. Running away from boarding school with his pal Tom Miller, whom the world now knows as Tom Verlaine; moving to NY as a teenager without a high school diploma, and somehow surviving junk and basically three decades without a new record; Richard Myers reinvented himself as Richard Hell and helped create not just punk’s style — the torn shirts and safety pins that would be shamelessly ripped off by his admirer, Malcolm McLaren, when he was inventing the Sex Pistols — but some fair measure of it ethos: true heart and burning energy trumping anything so bourgeois as actual musical chops.
From what’s available through bootlegs and other artifacts, Television circa 1974 was a tug of war between Verlaine’s genius on a Fender guitar and Hell’s propulsive antics. Neither really could sing, and both were pretty pretentious. But Verlaine was a guitar god, and Hell was something else. You read his account of leaving Television, and joining up with Johnny Thunders in the Heartbreakers (not to be confused, as it was, with Tom Petty’s band), only to leave to form the Voidoids with two of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, Bob Quine and Ivan Julian, and you keep waiting for the story to become a triumph. Keep waiting to hear how he got it together and achieved his dreams, fulfilled his promise. And of course it didn’t happen. By the time we got to New York in the late ’70s, Hell had already failed to sustain the momentum created with the amazing first Voidoid’s album, Blank Generation. We only got to see him twice — once fronting the Raybeats at the NY Rocker 1979 holiday party (and that was a scream; Hell singing while the space-cowboy uniformed, No Wave surf instrumentalists backed him up), and then at the Peppermint Lounge around the time Destiny Street provided the Hell/Quine combo its swan song — and by ’84 it was all over. He blames other factors in addition to junk, but heroin addiction trumps all other factors in stories like this. Heroin addiction may start as a manifestation, not a cause, of one’s problems, but by now we all know how quickly it piggybacks into rendering things the other way around.
The book is a great read. His take down of his former high school chum Verlaine is vengeance served cold — with the meanest twist of the knife being not his remembrance of things past, but the book’s end, when he runs into his old friend, by now middle-aged, buying books from a dollar bin on the streets of Lower Manhattan. While his Zelig-as-Casanova rounds of all the eligible women in ’70s New York gets old, he’s honest to admit relationships with two of rock’n’roll’s most horrific people, Nancy Spungeon and Anya Phillips, neither of whom met good ends. In fact, the soundtrack for the book is less anything Hell recorded so much as it’s Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” as so many of the players succumbed to both drugs and natural causes… Lester Bangs and Peter Laughner and Lizzy Mercier Descloux and Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone and Bob Quine and on and on.
But not Hell. Hell’s a survivor. And a great storyteller. And a man who understands that his greatest asset, circa 2013, is what he witnessed nearly 40 years ago, when Lower Manhattan, not Brooklyn, was the center of the universe, and things were grungy and sexy and fun. You could think of Richard Hell as a man who with a modicum of talent played with a line up of the best guitarists of his generation, and created a small body of work that both will live for the ages and provide a clue about that brief moment when a handful of New York bands changed the world. Or you could think of him as a very clean tramp, who has written a book we will enjoy as much as any of his collaborations with Bob Quine.