Lexington native and punk-rock icon Richard Hell looks unflinchingly at his life

The New York Times NewsApril 4, 2013 

  • BOOK REVIEW

    'I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography'

    By Richard Hell

    293 pp. Ecco. $25.99.

The two men who founded the seminal proto-punk band Television in 1973 had almost everything young rockers need: ambition, attitude, brooding good looks and a modicum of talent. Here's what they lacked: names that evoked their malcontented essences.

Lexington native Richard Meyers and Tom Miller met at a Delaware prep school. They were tall, skinny, sardonic kids who dropped out and made their way to New York's East Village, where they worked in bookstores and wrote poetry together, passing a typewriter back and forth. Once they began playing music, they hit upon shrewd if pretentious noms de rock: Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine.

Television, in its original form, didn't last long. Hell and Verlaine fought as only best friends can. But the band made a name for itself at CBGB, alongside the Ramones, Patti Smith and Talking Heads, and Hell emerged from its wreckage as an underground luminary. During the second half of the 1970s, he hovered on the brink of real stardom.

His signature look (hacked-up hair, torn clothing) inspired the Sex Pistols. His later band the Voidoids had a defining hit with Hell's song Blank Generation. Time magazine, in 1977, described him as "the demon-eyed New Yorker who could become the Mick Jagger of punk." The Voidoids toured with the Clash and Elvis Costello.

This all fell apart because of Hell's heroin addiction. The slogan for a gig by one of his bands said it all: "Catch them while they're still alive." By the early '80s he was washed up, one of rock's many cautionary tales.

In his new autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, Hell, now 63, comes across as a rueful, battle-scarred, darkly witty observer of his own life and times. His book doesn't have the exacting and soulful quality of Smith's Just Kids or the foxy shuck and jive of James Wolcott's Lucking Out, to name just two recent memoirs about the East Village counterculture scene in the 1970s.

What's more, it can be a downer. Hell chronicles his own self-absorption and creepy behavior without flinching. "I took myself pretty seriously," he deadpans. But Hell is a real writer — he's published several respectable novels in recent years — and his book has traction from its first pages.

He grew up, bored and mischievous, in and around Lexington. His parents, who met as graduate students in psychology at Columbia, were academics. "We lived in the suburbs in America in the '50s," he says. "My roots are shallow. I'm a little 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" School in Lexington.

Hell made it to New York City late in 1966. He lived in grim apartments and was often on the verge of starving. Most of his early jobs were in bookstores. He helped start a tiny literary magazine; he had poems published in decent places. He founded a small press that issued a book of poems by Andrew Wylie, later to become a well-known literary agent.

Hell's intellectual progress consisted of defining himself as against, rather than for, things. He scorned the Beats and their "insistence on spontaneity." ("I'll be spontaneous when I feel like it," he says.) Hippies were too soft. Rock music peaked in the 1950s, he decides, "before the Beatles homogenized and corrupted everything."

His band with Verlaine was a reaction against the downtown music scene. "We wanted to strip everything down further, away from the showbiz theatricality of the glitter bands, and away from bluesiness and boogie," he declares. "We wanted to be stark and hard and torn up, the way the world was."

His worldview led to philosophical vexations. "If your message is that you don't care about things," he asks, "how can it be delivered?"

The split with Verlaine was ugly. We read about Verlaine's "coldness and egotism" and about what Hell calls his "globally sour" demeanor. One of the final straws, Hell reports, was when Verlaine "told me not to move around onstage while he sang."

There is a great deal of sex in this book, some of it dire, some of it quite funny. When Hell had a fling with Patty Oldenburg, then separated from pop artist Claes Oldenburg, their sex was so ferocious, Hell says, that painter Larry Rivers, living in the loft upstairs, drilled a hole through the ceiling to watch. His nickname for Hell was "Tarzan."

The good writing in I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (the title comes from a snippet of Hell's childhood prose) can jostle against the bad or merely inexplicable. About the first Central Park Be-In in 1967, he writes: "'Be-In' makes me think 'doughnut,' internal doughnut. The DNA of humankind as stale crullers.'"

Hell's descent into drug abuse is harrowing. It takes time to hit bottom. He steals drugs from a friend. He betrays a woman he'd planned to marry. He finally enters Narcotics Anonymous and gets clean. He goes after the record executives who cheated him out of his earnings.

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp ends in 1984, so it's hard to tell how the author is faring these days. After you've come through hard times with him, it would be good to know there's light at the end of the tunnel.


BOOK REVIEW

'I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography'

By Richard Hell

293 pp. Ecco. $25.99.

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