Thursday, March 28, 2013

Richard Hell Is A Very Clean Tramp

Richard Hell
Richard Hell is probably best known for his contributions to the punk rock movement of the early to mid-70s. He was a singer, bass player, and songwriter in the bands Television, Heartbreakers and Voidoids.

His was a “deliberately calculated style,” which included ripped up clothes, strategically placed safety pins, and hacked up hair. It’s the same style adapted by the Sex Pistols and appropriated by a wave of disaffected teens and young adults who just wanted to be different.

But Hell was much more than an image. 

He was and still is a smart and literate writer capable of great depth and perception. I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is Hell’s autobiography, and it is at times depressing, amusing and sad. It’s less a coming of age story than a recounting of what was and what might have been.

Hell is a bit self-absorbed, does plenty of name dropping (Dee Dee Ramone, Allan Ginsberg, Sid Vicious, Patti Smith), and seems to relish in describing all of his many conquests, often in more detail than seems necessary. But perhaps that is part of his charm.

Hell entered the world as Richard Meyers, the son of academic parents who had met at Columbia University. Hell and his sister grew up in and around Lexington, Kentucky, the typical suburban America of the 1950s.

“My roots are shallow,” Hell writes. “I’m a little of jealous of people with strong ethnic and cultural roots. Lucky Martin Scorsese or Art Spiegelman or Dave Chappelle. I came from Hopalong Cassidy and Bugs Bunny and first grade at ordinary Maxwell Elementary.”

Although he grew up “ordinary,” Hell worked hard to be anything but. He frequently ran away from home and he recounts in great detail his youthful plans, exploits and ambitions. Surprisingly, he barely touches on the unexpected death of his father, Ernest Meyers, who died in 1957 when Hell was in elementary school. Meyers’ untimely death would eventually uproot the family.

A few years later, Hell met Tom Miller at a prep school in Delaware. The two became fast friends and eventually made their way to New York City in 1967. Both tall, gangly and extremely smart, the two shared an apartment, worked together and wrote together. After struggling with minimal success to make their way through poetry, the two turned to music and formed the band Television. Miller changed his name to Tom Verlaine.

As time went on and Television found some success, Hell and Verlaine fought constantly, and Verlaine became increasingly resentful and critical (and maybe jealous) of Hell, which tore their friendship apart. Hell left Television to join ex-New York Dolls Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers and, later, founded the Voidoids (which included Marc Bell, later to become Marky Ramone).

A thread woven throughout Hell’s story is substance abuse.

Richard Hell by David Shankbone
From drinking codeine-rich cough syrup to becoming a full-blown heroin addict, Hell’s addictions seemingly derailed any chance he may have had for the success he envisioned. He was, at times, a literate junkie and a man hitting rock bottom.

I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp chronicles Hell’s life up until 1984, when he retired from music. Now, he has been a writer for far more years than he was a musician. He has written the novels Go Now, Godlike and Hot and Cold, which is a collection of essays and lyrics, and his work has also appeared in Spin, GQ, Village Voice and the New York Times.

Having read and loved Go Now and Godlike, it seems that Hell’s strength is in writing novels and prose. That’s not to say that Clean Tramp isn’t good, because it is. But there is a depressing and defeated element throughout, and maybe a trace of bitterness and irony.

I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp — An Autobiography By Richard Hell Bangs 6.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Hell’s story is a must-read for fans and students of the punk movement and its earliest days. No matter how uncaring Hell can be at times, you can’t help but to like him.

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography by Richard Hell is available from Amazon. You can also order the book from Barnes & Noble. Recently, it was also released on iBooks. Harper Collins maintains his signings list. For everything else, visit his official site.
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