Late last night I finished reading the Richard Hell autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, which the machinery family gifted me for my 50th birthday. I loved it. Thank you, machinerys!
Considering I once suggested that Hell was a member of the multi-untalented ranks, led by showbiz’s supreme multi-untalent, Ben Vereen, I was leery about cracking open this gift. I did, however, cut my teenage punk rock teeth on “Blank Generation,” never failing to edge up in my seat in anticipation of the song’s short, twisted guitar solos that endeared me to the Voidoids’ unlikely bald, bearded, professorial guitarist Robert Quine. The entire Blank Generation album, in fact, was special and energetic, if a bit clumsy compared to Television’s Marquee Moon, led by Hell’s original partner-in-crime, Tom Verlaine.
Ah, hell, I’m a control freak! I’ve always been Verlaine guy deep down. I figured I’d learn some stuff about him, Quine, Friend of the Hall Richard Lloyd, and other mythical figures from my teenage years, a group of punks just a generation or so older than me who were laying down their legacy 90 miles up the turnpike.
The first thing I noticed, as I read Hell’s tales of his childhood is that the guy could write. It’s rare to find an artist autobiography that not only has a voice, not only has the voice of the artist, but has something more, something not always evident in the artist’s work. I knew Hell had intellectual pursuits and was a poet and writer and all that jazz, but based on the Hell I grew up “knowing” through his music and original persona, I had no idea he could be so thoughtful and succinct. What did I know? This book was heading up to be an exercise in exposing my own ignorance and prejudices. When it comes to this form of exercise, I’m Charles Atlas.
Rather than try to pose as a book reviewer and come off even more idiotic than usual, I’ll simply list my 10 reasons for loving Richard Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. I highly recommend you picking up this book—well, most of you.
SPOILER ALERT: My 10 reasons will give away some key autobiographical details that are rolled out in the course of the book. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know in advance that Hell, for instance—oh, never mind!
- Hell can write. I’m not a poetry guy, so I can rarely judge the quality of anyone’s poetry. In past years I made fun of his standing as a poet, because I’m a complete idiot when it comes to poetry and tend to make fun of any poet other than William Blake, William Shakespeare, and our old friend Townsman mwall. As I said, I didn’t know he also wrote prose, which I’m capable of assessing. When I made my initial “multi-untalented” charge, mwall did point out that the guy could write both poetry and prose; mwall should know. And know he did. Hell’s prose is direct, well paced, and balanced. He’s self-aware, but willing to share stories of the beast within.
- Hell is totally full of himself, even as he acknowledges throughout the book that he’s full of himself. He confirms some of the obvious worst assumptions about his punk-era character, makes up for his youthful behavior by displaying poignant self-awareness, and then steps in it all over again by too readily expressing the shear delight he takes in being the wiser, gentler man he is today. I LOVE IT! That’s a profound cycle of human behavior that I can identify with and find stimulating in autobiographical works.
- Hell delivers many personal stories of his friendship and creative partnership with Tom Verlaine. The stories paint a vivid picture of an awkward friendship between young artists, kids trying to reinvent themselves, or maybe simply invent themselves. Hell’s frustrations with Verlaine ring true to the frustrations that Richard Lloyd shared with us, although Hell has had the benefit of many more years to work through his issues.
- Hell mostly sidesteps discussion of Richard Lloyd. He doesn’t express the slightest bit of fondness for him from his entry in Television other than to say that he was a good guitarist who was great at playing the parts Verlaine wrote for him. Hell makes Lloyd out to be a bit of a toady, from his introduction to the scene as a boy-toy to so-called manager Terry Ork to his role supporting Verlaine, as Tom took full control of the band. If there’s any truth in Hell’s depiction of Lloyd in relation to Verlaine, no wonder the guitarist was so full of bile when we talked to him shortly after leaving the reformed Television. Lloyd still kicks ass as a guitarist, no matter how much of a wacko he was in the Halls of Rock. Oh, and I took great delight in a story Hell told in which Lloyd broke into tears. The guy made fun of me for saying he played solos that drove me to tears. Tough guy!
- Hell provides about the only detailed Robert Quine stories I’ve ever read. I’ve known guys like Quine, and if I haven’t really known them I feel like I have: talented, obsessive, collector types with a really sour disposition. Guys possessing brains and talents that would inspire me to proudly walk around with my cock hanging out if I had half as much of either quality, but instead they coil up in their lonely room and rot away. I used to be friends with a deep-down miserable guy who had the most incongruous surname, considering his bleak outlook on life. Despite hating himself and his life, he brought light to those of us who knew him well, who spent time with him in the stockroom where we worked, who went to shows and movies with him after work. I wanted to shake that guy and set him straight about his ability to make the world a better place. I haven’t seen this guy for years. I hope he’s in better shape than Quine.
- Hell tells good drug stories, not overdoing or glamorizing them. He makes some good observations about the effects the drugs had on him. He makes one really good observation about realizing that he was already living in an opioid state before ever doing drugs, that the drugs fit who he already was rather than changing him into someone he wasn’t. Sorry if I’m spoiling anyone’s fantasies of their hedonistic, nihilistic punk hero, but the book ends with Hell learning how to get clean and sober and retiring from music. He tells this part of his story in a straightforward tone that is loaded with quiet pride and good sense. He even addresses how forgettable his multi-untalented legacy would have been compared with, say, Sid Vicious had he OD’d in his punk rock prime.
- Hell admits his limitations and admires those around him who exceeded his aspirations. He’s got a clear-headed view of The Ramones, Blondie, and many others. One of the most fascinating parts of this book arrives at the moment when Hell first sees and meets The Sex Pistols. He’s already spent about 200 pages (usually subtly) making his case for being a Godfather of New York Punk Cool (despite constant protestations that he’s not actually cool). Then he meets Johnny Rotten and gushes over how Rotten and his band epitomized all that he could only dream of representing through his self-created image. Hell’s sincerity and admiration for the Pistols’ shtick are touching. He gives props, as he sees fit, to plenty of other musicians, journalists, and music-scene people who had it coming to them. He’s also pretty honest, at the end of the book, about his limitations as a recording artist and songwriter. The gap between aspirations and achievements is a running theme that he explores without reservation.
- Hell takes the blame for being miserable on tour with The Clash, gives credit to the band for being good eggs, and explains his discomfort being surrounded by a band with a completely different outlook on the world as he had. I forget the terms he uses to characterize them, but he makes The Clash out to be a well-intentioned, good-hearted, giddy, sexless, boys club—a happy, hippie-like, spirited bunch wholly unlike his dark-hearted bandmates. As a teenage fan of The Clash who felt connected to their “band of brothers” presentation, it was comforting to read confirmation of this. Hell also provides more stories about Jake Riviera, who attempted to get him to do a record with Nick Lowe, and Elvis Costello than I could have anticipated.
- Hell loves women and shares semi-sweet, semi-pathetic tales of a series of arts-scene women who comforted him and, often, supported him. These women are an important part of a young rocker’s life. It’s a story he tells while just barely avoiding the saccharine bullshit of that Kate Hudson character in my least-favorite rock movie of all time, Almost Famous.
- Hell expresses all these vivid music-insider details and observations while having a modicum of musical taste. Growing up the guy seems to know about 5 records. He listens to another 10 records during his New York punk rock scene years. Seriously, it’s kind of refreshing to read a book like this and not get bogged down in nerdy collector recollections of obscuro records that made the artist cooler than all his friends. His lack of obsessiveness over other people’s records is probably part of the reason I, more of a nerdy, obscuro-records-justify-my-existence type, only find all but a half dozen Hell song worth loading on my iPod, but it made his story more direct, more human. I didn’t get distracted, as I so often do in even the best rock memoirs, by the author rhapsodizing about some album I feel is crap, the way the character in Nick Hornby‘s mostly solid work of semi-autobiographical fiction, High Fidelity, does whenever he starts making lists including Beaver Brown records and shit early ’80s Stevie Wonder songs, or whatever worn-out American soul music English people buzz around like flies on sherbet. Lost in Music, by Giles Smith, who was a member of Friend of the Hall Martin Newell‘s Cleaners From Venus, is the most egregious of otherwise excellent musician memoirs that get sidetracked by the author’s rhapsodic passages over records not worth the time of day. I mean, imagine some otherwise cool, insightful dude suddenly going on and on about the power & glory of Roy Wood‘s Boulders.
There you have it. Buy this book! Join me in giving Richard Hell a major high five.