I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is exactly the succulently-written, shit-talking, salty dog memoir you’d want from the man who dreamed and ignited punk. Richard Hell was a fun-loving little Kentucky cowboy as a kid, loving TV, growing up with peak period 60s Stones and Dylan LPs, dreaming of taking off from his family, then happily habitually joyriding as a teen. He eventually did a few circles in a stolen car, smashed it up, and broke free from the cycle by taking to the road with school friend Tom Miller, a mate secretly in love with UFOs and conspiracy theories. They found bliss and adventure escaping to the South, and though returned home, would later on merge identities into junkie hooker poet “Theresa Stern” (“mess with my face and see it split”), as boys who start bands often androgynously weave a creative vocabulary in their parents’ dirty basements and garages, as the words of Dylan Thomas and William Carlos Williams flooded into Hell’s scheme to escape, and then both hit Gotham together, Hell losing his original last name Meyers, Tom becoming Verlaine, both becoming Television, and then not. Theresa Stern was fabrication, and like all good things punk, began as hoax: But she was the androgyne, violent, literate Empress of the world beckoning to the boys, a flake of God Hell would crave in each woman he met, the women he adored, idolized, enjoyed, many of whom are brilliantly given tribute through this remarkable autobiography, a perfect book-end to Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and though more about the music, just as relationally-devoted to loves and losses.
But 1971 NYC: that period post-Kentucky in which Hell’s rustling-lust to fuck the world with writing, to whistle-polish words like Victor Noir polished knobs, dreaming of being at New Directions with other lit heroes, but self-publishing a near-half dozen of a jittery chapbook titled Genesis : Grasp, would lead him eventually to writing works like The Voidoid over burgers and mushroom barley soup (“we called each other ‘this’ and ‘that-oid’); that was the year Patti Smith sang songs whilst Lenny Kaye played guitar and as Lou Reed read poetry at St. Mark’s. For those who know, 1971 was punk year zero: Anything before was harbinger, everything after faux dopplegangers. Hell says his poetry in this the period was “at his peak,” and that springtime lasted through 1973, as he picked up a bass to play in a rock band with Verlaine, and then soon a weird endless time loop happened a la Samara or Waiting For Godot when someone(s) passed by Hilly Kristal putting up the CBGB OMFUG (“Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers”) and hustled him into letting Television play Sunday afternoons, or Hilly hustled them into playing for who they could bring in to drink, etc., etc. It might have been Richard, smelling the piss of hobos up above, who thought that scent would be perfect for the chopped, God’s-voice-as-amp buzz sound he was kicking out with Television; or it was Tom and Richard Lloyd of Television; or even Richard and Patti passing by to pitch the offer as Patti was on her way to William Burroughs’ apartment, and neither Hilly nor anyone else adds any clarity to this story, it could be any or all of these, but at least should be a four hour play about the origin of the punk club CBGBs, with all accounts acted out.
Hell has his own version in I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, and it’s as trustable as any, maybe even more-so. But it’s not the important part of the book — all that comes before and after. For Hell, born in 1950, Vietnam had invaded his veins, opening them up for addiction after the adventure of childhood. From there, Hell and his band took over the club once let in by Hilly, then their buzz took over New York, and then Verlaine told him to run away from the band, and then Hell joined up with Johnny Thunders in the Heartbreakers, and then Hell started the Voidoids, perfecting the voice of punk in two official and required releases, Blank Generation and Destiny Street — before drugs got to be a drag and Hell fixed his mind on new kicks, which were old kicks, his love of words and putting them together to pick a fight with the world and stroke the hips of a girl. Since 1984, that’s what he’s done with books like his killer autobiographical novels (Go Now, Godlike), and this superb, scabrous, scintillating memoir. Most small dropped details are delightful (did Patti Smith invent band-appreciation gobbing in the UK at shows by spitting on the stage whilst performing her first tour there?), and whole worlds are created and destroyed (his short bios on everyone from Lester Bangs to Peter Laughner to Stiff Records’ Jake Riviera make this irresistible music biz history).
I will be interviewing Richard Hell on Thursday, March 21st at the Rendezvous in downtown Seattle, starting at 7 PM. Please come out and hear how a kid from Kentucky wore his clothes wrong enough to inspire the manager of the Sex Pistols to force his charges to do the same, and how to survive when love comes in spurts and sometimes it hurts.