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Customer Review

31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Sex pervades everything, it seems...", January 28, 2013
This review is from: I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography (Hardcover)
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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?
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 31, 2013 7:05:44 AM PDT
I agree with every word of this review. I also expected him to have outgrown the jabs at Verlaine and Lloyd. It's been almost 30 years, Richard. And while I absolutely love the Voidoids and Hell's songs, Television was a different thing, and it required better chops than he had (while the songwriting rift between Hell and Verlaine was a factor in Hell's departure, I also heard it was related to the fact that Hell kind of sucked at bass and wasn't making efforts to improve).

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 31, 2013 8:34:10 AM PDT
J. Hundley says:
Thanks. I confess I tried o let the Lloyd jabs, in particular, slide because I adore Lloyd's work, even while recognizing it's own limitations. I thought maybe I was just being overly sensitive.

Posted on Jan 6, 2014 12:25:06 PM PST
S Reed says:
I think this review is very well-written and well reasoned, but I disagree with a lot of it. I found that the earliest chapters were the most perfunctory and uninspired. It comes alive for me when Hell gets to NYC in the late 60s. I think he paints a vivid picture of how NYC was so different, a time when an artist could work part-time (jobs were plentiful) and still afford to pay their rent (apartments were cheap and abundant). I actually think Hell gives a very thorough and introspective account of his motivations as an artist - what moved him about rock-n-roll and why he would choose it as a creative outlet, even though he didn't have any previous experience with the bass. There's humility in how he writes about this, and he even cops to being a little full of himself, which is endearing. Also, as far as airing dirty laundry about bitter feelings between bandmates, isn't that just being honest? Keith Richards does this in his lauded autobiography. As far as the "kiss and tell" part of the book, well, again, we are learning who Richard Hell is. He's kind of up front about being motivated in large part by "getting" girls. He was part of a nascent punk community that was fairly small (given the population of NYC), and we get the sense that it was fairly incestuous and open as far as attitudes about sex went. That not every woman is given an exhaustive profile in the book doesn't make me think that Hell disrespects women. He is fairly frothy about his admiration for women like Patti Smith and Susan Sontag. As far as drugs, again we are being given a window onto an era in NYC, and a particular kind of lifestyle fairly typical of someone in his artistic and generational space. I grew up in NYC in the 80s and 90s, and I hung around the same neighborhoods Hell describes, and I did feel a tangible sense of chasing ghosts of a golden bygone era, that I had missed something important because I was 20 years younger than people like Richard Hell. I appreciate getting to learn about it - the good, the bad, and the ugly. His portrayal of life as a junkie is pretty balanced.

As you note, Hell is taking advantage of the current curiosity about 70s NYC. We seem to be in a "moment" when the stark differences between what it was then and what it is now have people have hungry for reminiscence. Maybe it's a desire to capitalize on what was mostly an underground, under-compensated sort of fame, but it is not a throw-away book. And I also hope there will be another volume, because I for one would be curious about Hell's take on the changes in NYC, music now, etc. He's a thoughtful and honest person.
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