on October 23, 2014
While I enjoyed reading this book, it abruptly stops in 1984 and leaves you wanting more.
Although I'm a decade younger than Richard Hell, I lived in New York and hung out in the East Village during the 1980's. I went to these clubs, did these drugs and had similar experiences.
His descriptions of the neighborhood and drug scene took me back to a time when the city was exciting and had that artsy, bohemian yet combat zone feel.
Now as I look down Second Avenue, all i see are Banks, Starbucks and other corporate chains;
I wonder how Richard feels as he continues to live in the same neighborhood.
More than anything, this book made me grieve for the New York I knew and loved.
on March 16, 2013
As someone who has read and appreciated Richard Hell's previous works, TRAMP is a most rewarding read for the primary reason that this is as intimate and unabashed as I've ever seen him on the page. He sustains it and as a result we get to see different shades of him, even the unflattering ones. What is unmistakeable is that he seeks truth (being an avid journaler, for one, and because he is a disciplined researcher and collector of minutiae) - most especially, emotional truth. He can only speak for himself, and that's what he accomplishes in his deft, unapologetic, wonderfully wry way.
He wants to be known and the thrill of this book and truly, the tenor of all his work, is that in reliving defining moments of his life, he riffs on himself in a way that is fresh and iconoclastic. It's alchemy - this is a literary book, and its values speak to and argue with the whole historical genre of autobiography. He's saying his piece, not to win a pissing match, but because he's acutely aware that the printed page is his best - and perhaps now, the only - chance for him to come fully alive.
Specific high points:
- His portraits of the people in his circle. Even his most damning critiques are so intriguing that one can't help but think that scorn and affection are but two sides of the same coin for him. Anyone not worth his interest is simply not mentioned.
- His cultural references. If all you do is go through the book and highlight any reference to an historical site (say, a bygone NYC bookstore), or a piece of music, or a poet, or a movie, or whatever -- and then spend all day on Wikipedia looking everything up - that alone is worth the price of admission.
- His explanation of his creative achievements. This is the most definitive account of where his real roots are, e.g. poetry, cinema, the NY art world, and post-war suburbia and pop culture -- and what he considers his best contributions. He generously shares his thought process and motivations, even when it doesn't make him look particularly original or daring (though those moments are few). And because his values are essentially democratic -- perhaps any of us could've calculated and premeditated what he did, in that place at that time -- he's encouraging. But we didn't did we? His irreverent charm, more than anything, gives him the leeway to revel in his biggest victories, and as he tallies them with the losses, his sense of humor about it all is all the more impressive and endearing.
- His observation of others' creative beginnings. Bob Quine and Tom Verlaine in particular are given fascinating and astute treatments for their artistic impetuses, perhaps because he spent so much time with them. But even some of the women he mentions, even if their primary functions were as enablers or sex goddesses, are treated as creative progenitors in their own right. He brilliantly explores ways he and others contrived or improvised their personalities - in a way that's fascinating and worth noting, worth being immortalized! He romantically does that for himself but he also shares the spotlight with others. People who would otherwise be given only the most minimal or didactic treatment in the press are here, on his pages, otherworldly creatures full of youth and dark-edged beauty.
- And finally, the guy tried to cut off his own hemorrhoid! And admits it! It doesn't get any more punk than that.
I confess up front to being very excited to get ahold of this book. Richard Hell was an important part of an important era of music at a time when I was most actively involved in music myself and the NY underground scene was pivital in my own musical development. The Ramones, Patti Smith, and most significantly, Televsion created music that profoundly influenced me as both listener and practitioner. That Hell is an intelligent, thoughtful commmentator and writer only upped the ante.
I now confess disappointment. That Hell decided to end his book at the point he jettisoned active music making and drug addiction (in the mid-1980's) is fair and the reasons he gives for that are fair enough as well. However, this cursory treatment of what he does write about as frustratingly scattershot and mostly shallow.
The book, more memoir than "autobiography", begins with some charming and interesting material covering his childhood, his father's death when Hell was only 7 years old, and his initial relationships with his sister and mother. Unfortunately, both of them completely disappear the moment he leaves home. Are either still alive? What, if any, relationship does he have with either past the age of 16? He doesn't tell. He does give an enjoyable, if still rather shallow picture of his life as a young man in NYC, writing and editing poetry, working odd jobs and developing the friendship with Tom Verlaine that would eventually lead to the Neon Boys, and through them, to Televsion.
At this time, too, however, the book becomes a loose chronology of women he slept with and drugs he took, with an ocassional asisde into a song or two he wrote. This, in and of itself, is not a problem, per se, but what is a problem for me is that while going to great lengths to name these woman, the only real description of them we get is some physical detail (this one had large breasts and wide-set eyes; that one had small breasts and wild hair; another one was slim-hipped, but had a nice, round behind; so on and so forth). At no point do any of these women emerge as real people. Instead we get the physical description and a character trait or two, and usually he praises them for being nice to him - that is, they gave him money and sex. He describes an intimate, almost psychic connection to "Lizzy" and says their relationship was just short of an eternal bond, but gives us no real idea why he felt or thought that. He does include a naked photo of her, though. And so on and so forth.
But perhaps more frustrating is that Hell himself remains mostly two-dimensional throughout. He reflects, but ultimately rather blandly. While he does include some very insightful thoughts about the nature of drug addiction and how it colored his world, when he stops, he just, um, stops. There are hints of something more, but more is never provided.
Hell is a good writer and the book, such that it is, is quite readable as far as it goes. But it is unclear exactly what prompted him to write this at this point. There is certainly a market for books by and about seminal and interesting figures in the late 70's and early 80's NY music scene, and Hell has not had a serious single volume devoted to him and his obvious influence on that scene and early "punk / new wave" in general. Perhaps this is his preempting someone else from having a go at it. And while his influence is large, he never enjoyed much of a payday from it and perhaps this is a way to see some money. If so, I certainly don't begrudge him that. But for someone who WAS a major influence, and someone who IS clearly a talented writer, this is more perfunctory than satisfactory. Perhaps there will be a Vol. 2 someday, that will take him closer to the present and allow us to get to know him better. Otherwise, why bother?
"I wanted to have a life of adventure. I didn't want anybody telling me what to do. I knew this was the most important thing and that all would be lost if I pretended otherwise like grown-ups did. "
(Richard Hell reflecting on his childhood)
If you lived in that restricted universe that was the New York rock scene from 1969-1980, you'd know the name Richard Hell. With prep school friend TomVerlaine he formed the Neon Boys in 1969. (Both of their last names were made up. Hell was born Richard Meyers and Verlaine was Tom Miller but, but how can you become a rockstar with names like those?) In 1974, Neon Boys transmuted to Television. Then Hell left the group -there was a terminal disagreement with his old buddy Verlaine--and joined up with New York Dolls players Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders to form the Heartbreakers. And then, a year later, in 1976, Hell came into his own with the group that for a short while blazed across the avant garde Rock scene in New York like a flaming meteor, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. The band released two albums and played in an auteur-like but pretty rotten movie named after one of the group's most famous songs, Blank Generation. (Another of his songs was entitled "Love Comes in Spurts.") The group fell apart as Hell became increasingly addicted to hard drugs.
Hell eventually got off the drugs -partly by leaving music. He came out of retirement briefly in the 1990s in a group called Dim Stars, which featured Voidoids' guitar player Robert Quine, two refugees from Sonic Youth and one from a group called Gumball. But mostly now he writes.
He doesn't sugarcoat his past life in this intriguing book and he doesn't pretend to be a genius musician when he wasn't. Rock and roll, he says, is an attitude, one particularly well suited to disaffected sixteen-year-olds or older if they're emotionally arrested like he felt he was. "What excited me in music [was] being fast, aggressive, and scornful, but complicated and full of feelings." That's a good description of Hell himself. (About the Neon Boys, he writes: "We wanted to be stark and torn up, the way the world was.")
The most lyrical passages in this book are about the thrill of producing music and playing it for an audience. (".. the hilarious, incomparable intoxication of materializing into being these previously nonexistent patterns of sound and meaning and physical motion.")
Rock and roll is the only art form at which teenagers are not only capable of excelling but that actually requires
that one be a teenager, more or less, to practice it at all. ... Punk ... explicitly asserts and demonstrates that
the music is not about virtuosity. Rock and roll is about natural grace, about style and instinct. ... You don't
have to play guitar well or, by any conventional standard, sing well to make great rock and roll; you just have
to have it, have to be able to recognize it, have to get it.... It's all essence, and it's available to those who, to
all appearances, have nothing.
Hell overwrites at times, and he obviously wasn't a nice guy much of the time back then, but so what? He's the Real Thing and his life story should be appreciated for what it is.
on August 31, 2013
Most of this has been pointed out already, but I'll throw in my two cents.
Hell is a gifted writer. He's also notoriously lazy. This book pretty much reflects that. His prose is strong, but most of his stories are half-formed and, beyond a revealing and interesting reflection on his childhood and some observations from his early days trying to become a writer, fairly superficial. Yes, the obsession with his sexual conquests and drug use is tedious. It's not that I'm offended by such things; it's that I don't care. I understand that those things need to be included in any story about Richard Hell; it's a matter of proportions. It became a distraction after a while.
I also got the vibe of an old dude who couldn't let go of his glory days, and was bitter about the successes of his peers. I shouldn't be surprised that he has few kind words for Verlaine. But he also unfairly maligns Lloyd, who was probably the best musician mentioned in this book and ultimately a much bigger contributor to Television's sound than Hell ever was. Here he's presented as a spineless sycophant who did whatever Verlaine wanted.
In the end he comes off as arrogant and bitter. To him, he probably embraces his own "honesty," but to me he just sounds like a jerk.
I belong to the blank generation.
Well, not really. I'm a bit too old, but I loved the punk era and was lucky enough to see Richard Hell & The Voidoids at the Village Gate in New York. It was summer of 1977 if I'm not mistaken. (Helen Wheels opened.)
I don't remember much except the intensity and the big anthem, "Blank Generation," as catchy a punk song as there ever was. (Catchy punk sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it?)
I liked The Voidoids' first album, particularly "Blank Generation," "Betrayal Takes Two," "Love Comes in Spurts" and the overlooked "The Plan." Hell's not a great singer but that wasn't the point. "Blank Generation" was all about attitude.
A few years later, he released "Destiny Street" and I liked that album okay, especially "Time." A mellower, more reflective Hell. Later, an album called "Dim Stars" that went nowhere (from what I can tell) but that's about it.
But Richard Hell is iconic because he was there at the start, helped define the look and feel and vibe and energy of the punk wave. It was Malcolm McLaren, Hell asserts, who stole or least heavily borrowed his ripped-jeans look for The Sex Pistols. At least, that's the ground he stakes out in his emphatic memoir, "I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp."
I can't argue--and most music insiders agree. Hell deserves some credit.
I enjoyed the first half of "Clean Tramp," following the evolution of high school dropout to arty street kid in New York City. Richard Meyers' developing taste and point of view is interesting enough and early on he seemed to be unimpressed with Big Time Corporate Rock and Roll. "Half of the beauty of rock and roll is that `anyone can do it' in the sense that's not about being a virtuoso but about just being plugged in in a certain way, just having an innocent instinct and a lot of luck. That's why it's the art of teenagers," he writes.
He discovered William Carlos Williams, Dylan Thomas and others. He worked in bookstores and, essentially, schooled himself. He published poetry magazines and immersed himself in the poetry world.
If you enjoyed Patti Smith's "Just Kids" and if you have any interest in this period of rock and roll history, you'll likely enjoy seeing New York from Hell's perspective as bands around him form and take off--including Smith, The Ramones, The Modern Lovers, and the New York Dolls. "Their gigs were unlike any I'd ever experienced," says Hell of The Dolls. "They were parties, they were physical orgies, without much distinction between the crowd and the band: the band felt like an expression of the dressed-up avant-garde teenagers, and all the downtown hipster cognoscenti who'd materialized from the gutter-glitter of the whole sexy area and history itself. It was like some kind of funny dirty religious revel."
Hell formed the early incarnation of the seminal punk band Television with his childhood pal Tom Miller, who later changed his name to Tom Verlaine, but the early line-up didn't last and later Hell hooks up with Johnny Thunders, fresh from The Dolls, for a band called The Heartbreakers and then later came The Voidoids.
Hell isn't very forgiving toward Verlaine about having Television hijacked away and that's where "Clean Tramp" grows boring and repetitive as Hell recalls his descent into drugs, tosses out observations on a variety of big names. In making his case that there aren't that many interesting guitar soloists in rock and roll (??), Hell asserts that Keith Richards and Pete Townshend were just "rhythm players." In the second half of the book, we are also treated to the physical details of every girl he took to bed.
Hell said as a leader of The Voidoids he was "a leader of the new sensibility. Patti (Smith) as the only other writer/performer/conceptualist/bandleader who rivaled me in that way." He trashes Smith as a "pandering diva" and her band as "generic and mediocre."
In "Clean Tramp," Hell tries to stake his claim to his turf in the history of rock and roll. Okay, fine. He was part of it and contributed a few terrific songs. But buffing your own reputation by stomping on others, well, ain't pretty. Particularly when you've produced so precious little music since "Blank Generation," nearly 40 years ago.
I enjoyed the first half of "Clean Tramp." The rest left me feeling, well, blank.
on March 17, 2013
Forget the naysayers. Hell's book more than met my expectations. This is hardly his first book, he knows how to put together words and how to build up a rhythm, how to keep a person reading. Going in, I basically wanted to read about the following things:
* Early Television era, with emphasis on himself and Verlaine, their initial partnership and splintering.
* I like The Heartbreakers, so I wanted something on that.
* Impressions of the overall CBGB's scene.
* Solo work with the Voldoids, Robert Quine, touring, etc.
And that's all here, and committed well to words. He does go into detail about drugs and women, though usually in interesting and revealing ways. The book in general is revealing, but a little elusive. I greatly enjoyed it.
"I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp" (293 pages) is an autobiography from Richard Hell, briefly one of the founding members of the band Television before moving on to other projects (including the Voidoids). As the book opens, we find ourselves in Lexington, KY where Richard grew up, a seemingly happy youth. Richard did several detours towards the end of high school (which he didn't finish), which is when he became (best) friends with Tom (Verlaine, one of the other cofounders of Television). Richard ends up in New York in the late 60s, trying to keep various jobs while also exploring his interest in poetry (and eventually music), women, and drugs. The best bits in the book for me are Richard's amazingly detailed memories about what life in lower Manhattan (Bowery area near CBGB) was like in those days. In that sense the book is a great companion to Patti Smith's "Kids" of a few years ago (Patti is mentioned quite a few times in the book).
The second part of the book is focused primarily on how Television came about, and the rising tensions between Richard and Tom, leading to Richard's departure from the band before they even had recorded anything. One can't help but get the feeling that Richard is desperate in wanting to set the record straight as to what his exact contributions were in Television's early days. I'm sure it is hugely important to Richard but for the casual reader it comes across a bit petty and unnecessary. Talking about an early rehearsal in 1974: "I'd been playing the bass for 6 months, whereas Tom had been playing guitar for nine years. I'm managing well, I sound good. But Tom is treating me as if I were a moron, barely suppressing his disgust".
Richard meets a lot of characters over the years, and he has a view on all of them. On Johnny Rotten, for example: "Rotten was more compelling. I was an off-putting navel-gazer by comparison. He galvanized the kids. I was the opposite, a sullen forlorn junkie outcast who just wanted to be left alone, except by admiring girls". The book ends rather abruptly in 1984, when Richard quits the music business (and drugs). Bottom line: the book is very well written, with an eye for details. I read this over the course of a couple of evenings and couldn't put it down. Furthermore, if you are into the mid/late 70s New York music scene, this is a must-read.
on July 1, 2013
Solid book if you care about the times, music or Hell, but he comes off as absurd for not understanding why some of us care so much more for brilliant guitarist, songwriter Verlaine than Hell, who often admits his strength is choosing the best scarf to wear with his baggy suit. I'll take Verlaine's lightning fret work any day. Still, very well written (didn't fully know Hell's intellectual cred) and there is a sort of Hell-Verlaine makeup at the end.
on September 2, 2014
This is a somewhat odd book, but I really liked it. I wasn't a huge fan of punk but I have heard of most of the more popular punk bands. Richard Hell and The Voidoids seemed to be more at the fringes. Before buying this book, I did a little research and decided to buy this. If you remember the time when punk emerged and you are interested in learning more, this is a good place to either start or continue. I read this after reading Patti Smith's Just Kids which also covers that period.
Many of the bands from that movement came across as obnoxious idiots--for example, the Sex Pistols. It was interesting to learn that Hell started as a poet and a fan of literature and poetry, who expanded into music. He was truly a pioneer, and yet, he too was simply morphing music and style from other artists like the New York Dolls.
There are gaps in the story. Yes, he does begin with his life with his family. His father dies when he is a child and we know so little of how or why. Once he leaves home, it is as if his family ceases to exist.
But, Hell gives us a clear view into his life of Rock and Roll. We see how the industry exploits artists, how dull and demeaning touring can be and how tedious it is to be addicted to drugs. Punk mocks the glamour of the idols that came before and Hell helps to answer the question: if being a Rock star is so great, why do so many die so young?
While Hell does provide some lurid details about his many couplings, he never does let us in to the most intimate details of those relationships. The same can also be said of what Hell chooses to share about himself. He holds back enough so that we never really know who he is. He remains a bit cool and detached. We miss the highs and lows that come with intense passion.
For all his faults, I admire him for walking away from music and for surviving when so many others could not. He's an interesting guy with an even more interesting story.