Full disclosure, I didn’t know much about Richard Hell before I began reading this book.  Sure I’d listened to Television and blasted his punk athem “Blank Generation” on occasion, but I didn’t really know much about him.  I’ve always enjoyed punk rock, if only for it’s visceral power, but I’ve often dismissed the reverence for its main players as mere hagiography.  “I Dreamed I Was A Clean Tramp” (Ecco Books, 2013) may well prove to be the reason I changed my mind.

Forgetting for a moment his musical accomplishments, which include founding early punk pioneers Television with Tom Verlaine, playing with Johnny Thunders in The Heartbreakers and going on to found his own groundbreaking group in Richard Hell and the Voidoids; Hell has written a book that is not only startlingly honest, but an analytical look at punk rock as an art form.

From the opening pages of “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp” it’s clear that Richard Meyers (he later changed his name to Hell)  exhibited an independent streak almost from the minute he was born, and his early years growing up in Kentucky were clearly effected by the death of his father, and an almost insatiable need to run away from his prosaic childhood.

He succeeded in 1966, when at the age of 17 he boarded a bus bound for New York City with dreams of becoming a poet.  Thus began a 10 year period as a struggling writer, complete with a procession of jobs working in book stores, living in horrible apartments, doing drugs, and eating very little.  What’s clear though is that while Hell doesn’t extol those early years, he does understand their importance.

In many ways, “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp” is a guided tour of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side of Manhattan from the end of the 60’s to the late 70’s.  Hell is almost Zelig-like in his proximity to everything from the late 60’s pop art movement to the early stirrings of the punk movement in bands like the New York Dolls, largely because of the myriad of girlfriends he had relationships with during this time.  Women clearly play a major role in Hell’s life and his ascension to punk rock stardom, and although he archives his sexual conquests in Wilt Chamberlain-esque detail, it’s clear he considers all of them to have played a part in making him who he is.

Hell’s writing in “I Dreamed…” is equal parts frustrating and illuminating.  His narrative structure is a bit haphazard, but it’s his analytical approach to the importance of punk and his place in it that is really interesting, because he doesn’t engage in personal myth-making but is instead brutally honest about his successes, failures, and their subsequent effect on his life as a musician and writer.  While clearly an irascible character, Hell’s street-smart intelligence shines through and makes his book more than just another sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll screed.  Sure he touches on all of those subjects, but a navel-gazing exercise this is not, instead it’s a thoughtful examination of how all of those things played a part in making him who he is.

What’s really illuminating however, is Hell’s writing about the music itself, about why punk’s lack of professionalism is both a blessing…

“I love a racket.  I love it when it seems like a group is slipping in and out of phase, when something lags and then slides into a pocket, like hitting the number on a roulette wheel, a clatter, like the sound of the Johnny Burnette trio, like galloping horses’ hooves.  It’s like a baby learning how to walk, or a little bird just barely avoiding a crash to the dirt, or two kids losing their virginity.  It’s awkward but it’s riveting, and uplifting and funny.  In a way it’s the aural representation of that feeling that makes the first time people feel the possibilities of rock and roll music in themselves the benchmark of hope and freedom and euphoria.”

“I knew nothing about singing except that it was about emotion, and I had some instincts about the way to convey emotion rhythmically and in tones.  For me, singing was like throwing something as hard as I could to stop a threat in it’s tracks, or stating something beyond a doubt to reassure someone whose confidence I needed, as if everything depended on it.  I was aware that position and timing mattered, but I relied on instinct and subconsciously absorbed experience  to achieve them.  And the power came not from volume, in decibels, but from emotion, in revelation.  I had to be accurate not in pitch, but in emotional import, of which pitch was a subcategory.  There was something mystical about it or at least irrational about the process.  I had to trust that I could do it even though it required so much release.  It was like being in an extended firefight, a fierce exchange in which life was threatened but that slowed time so it was possible to take care.  I depended on the band to keep me on my feet and to compensate for my weaknesses.”

and a curse,

“For nearly the entire time I was a professional musician, I chose ignorance.  I depended on instinct and attitude rather than technical knowledge.  I regarded myself as a force of nature and an entity worthy of sustained attention.  I wrote and sang the songs and projected them via my physical self, and played bass, and it was the band’s purpose to follow my lead in providing an appropriate setting and accompaniment.  They were there to help construct the space consistent with me, a musical atmosphere I could breathe, in which I could act and carry out my intention.  That action took place in the medium of music but it was actually something else, a kind of aliveness.  I could hear its incarnation in music, but it was the aliveness that was the purpose of the rock and roll.  I know more than this now and I know how the record suffered for that approach of mine, but at the same time, it couldn’t have been otherwise, so fuck it.  It made for some great moments.”

So while he played or partied with a who’s who of the NY and London punk scenes, Hell clearly loved the music and his insights on the role each of the major punk rock icons played in making it an artistic movement is revelatory.  Whether he’s speaking about Johnny Thunders charisma or Dee Dee Ramone’s “cute dizzy-dumb persona”, he tries to lock-in on what made them special, but without the mythology ever present in most discussions of the punk scene,

“In rock and roll, in show business, there’s not much value placed on integrity.  People say and do what serves their interests and what seems entertaining.  That’s just as well, if for no other reason than it’s inevitable.  Ultimately, what difference does it make what actually happened?  Things look different from different perspectives, and the conquerors write history; and what reality do the stories of the past have except as entertainment and mythology?  Obviously, “reality” is slippery anyway.  “Print the legend,” as advised in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Still to me it’s interesting to try to figure out what’s actually going on, what really happened.  I want to get the most accurate idea I can of the way things are.  To me, that’s a lot of what “art” is about.  Of course, I have my vested interests too:  even disregarding any pride involved, my earning power depends largely on my reputation and my role in past events, so I might try to straighten the record where I regard it as misrepresenting me.  But I try to be as faithful to what happened as I can, however what happened might reflect on me.  I want that to be part of my reputation too.”

For me, “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp” not only brought Richard Hell more into focus, it did the same for punk rock, and for that I’ll always be appreciative.

 

2 Responses to “Music Lit 101: “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp””

  1. theHoseman Says:

    I added this to my “to read” list after seeing you were reading it. I’m in the same boat. Familiar with Hell’s music/bands, but don’t know much about him. I am really looking forward to reading this, even more so after reading your review.
    A wonderfully insightful, well written review!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. humanblooper Says:

    Great article. Why you aren’t writing for Rolling Stone or other such music publication is beyond me. I guess it’s because you are kind of the PUNK auteur of the internet music biz, the Figment King. Fits you nicely, Eric. Well done.

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