I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography
2013, 304 pages
Ecco/Harper Collins Publishing
Writer and musician, Richard Hell, is most known for his punk rock anthem, “Blank Generation,” lyrics that suggest many things, but evade explanation. The title was partially inspired by words of the poet, Andrew Wylie, “I’m a tramp—a trap—I’m a trap.” The author tells a story of self-invention and becoming, not only a recollection of events, but a rich point of view from the other side of the decades that defined the late 20th Century.
The Baby Boomers are turning out shelves of memoirs these days, but this one marks an art movement that continues to have an impact. His favorite form of play as a child was “running away.” Many of us can identify with the fantasy of other places and ways of being. Those of us who began life in the uplifted time of America during the late 1940s and early 1950s share a set of experiences specific to that time. Living through 1960s rock and roll, social unrest, and the Viet Nam War marked us. We observed the rise and fall of the peace and love youth movement. Exposed to a growing awareness of political corruption and an increasing flow of drug use, we entered adulthood in a time of alienation and numbing that wore away all illusions. Pop culture named the youth of the 1970s “The Me Generation.” Yet, according to the author, remaking oneself and the world was the imperative of our time.
Richard Hell takes the reader on a journey through his early days in Kentucky as Richard Meyers, the son of academic parents, to the discovery of himself as a unique individual through a series of self-fashioning moves.The author explains, “We know that we are constructed of time, not of sequence. I didn’t want to write about a person through time, but about time through a person.” Does our time shape us—or do we shape it? There was a window of time between Woodstock and MTV when soft rock and disco dominated the airwaves—a time when an actual underground was still possible. Although there was plenty of media pointing the way, immediacy was still lacking. The alternative music scene of that era was announced through word-of-mouth and mimeographed posters pasted to walls. It was a time of original creativity outside the commercial art world.
The book is primarily a story of how Richard Hell became a defining creator of the 1970s punk rock music in New York. Malcolm McLaren credits him as the source of inspiration for his British punk band, The Sex Pistols. Richard Hell is also responsible for the rising notoriety of the Bowery nightclub, CBGB (Country, Blue Grass, and Blues), as he initiated the stage as the top venue for punk and new wave bands, such as The Ramones, Television, The Dead Kennedys, Patti Smith, The B-52s, Blondie, Talking Heads, and others.The memoir reviews the author’s early life with his family—then paints a picture of the time just before the East Village was gentrified, a time when a unique assembly of artistry erupted.
At age 17, he ran away from prep school with his good friend, Tom Miller. After a bus journey to Florida and a bit of trouble, the boys were home with their parents. Richard never returned to school, though. Later that year in 1966, he boarded a bus to New York City and rented a room on Irving Place and picked up a job at a bookstore in order to begin his career as a writer. After completing high school and trying out college, Tom joined Richard in New York three years later. They shared an apartment and went out to hear the music of the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, and Modern Lovers. Eventually, Richard and Tom began to form their own band, Neon Boys—changed their names to Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, chopped off their shaggy hair into short spikes, and dressed in clothing that was ripped, wrinkled, and pinned. The fashion trend that they haphazardly created continues to be mimicked 40 years later, a form of stylized rebellion. Neon Boys evolved into Television, and later on, The Heartbreakers. Eventually, Tom went his own way—Richard Hell and The Voidoids emerged. He reflects on that time with new awareness. “I look back at my behavior, my self-regard, and self-centeredness, as evidenced in interviews, and I am embarrassed. I took myself pretty seriously. I thought I was so smart. In my defense, I did try to be honest, and I questioned everything. But I was full of myself.”
The book has plenty of name-dropping and details about various musician-band relationships, friends, jobs and apartments—a dinner with Susan Sontag. During the late 1970s, he appeared in feature films, “Final Reward” and “Blank Generation.” A few years later, Susan Seidelman cast him in “Smithereens” and “Desperately Seeking Susan.” The story is spiced with a great number of girlfriends, including two years with Patty, an older and wiser woman, the ex-wife of pop artist Claes Oldenburg. He was married briefly to rocker Patty Smyth during 1985. They have daughter named Ruby.
His increasing dependence of drugs is the back story of this memoir, but the details of all that do not become tedious. He describes how by 1977 things stopped being about anticipation and potential. A fixed reality set in. His career was going well, but he was struggling with the addiction and reflects upon the reality: “Addiction does have an effect on an addict’s work. It reduces production and increases self-indulgence. A narcotics addict doesn’t demand as much of himself as he would if he were straight. If an interesting artist is very, very interesting, a reasonable amount of good work can be done, but it will be fragmentary and rambling and chances are there will be far more unrealized or abandoned projects than there would have been otherwise.”
He found his way to recovery when he began attending Narcotics Anonymous in 1984 and quit the music business. Richard Hell continues to write and live in the East Village of New York with Sheelagh Bevan, his wife of 12 years. He has published several books of essays and poetry, including two novels, “Go Now” (1996) and “Godlike” (2005). The book is thoughtful, well-written and engaging. Although the appeal may be limited to those with a special interest or connection to the downtown New York art and music scene of the 1970s to early 1980s, anyone who wishes to live vicariously through the pages of an artist’s experience will also enjoy taking a look.