- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Ecco; First Edition edition (March 12, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0062190830
- ISBN-13: 978-0062190833
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 101 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,176,998 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 12, 2013
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Richard Hell (born Richard Meyers in Lexington, Kentucky), the punk-rock musician with the seminal punk bands Television and the Voidoids, presents an autobiography that ends in the early 1980s, when Hell stopped playing music and became a full-time writer. From an early age, Hell knew what he wanted: a “life of adventure.” He remembers growing up in suburban America in the 1950s and feeling like an outsider. He was bored with school, got into small scrapes with the law, and generally wished he were somewhere else. He eventually made his way to New York. He writes about the jobs he had (including stints in such iconic bookstores as Gotham Book Mart and the Strand) and the musicians he met, from Debbie Harry to Patti Smith. Hell is a fine writer and full of self-knowledge, and part of the pleasure of this randy, drug-addled memoir are his descriptions of New York during the bad old days when crime was rampant and the streets filthy. A compelling and entertaining memoir by a punk-rock pioneer. --June Sawyers
"Half of the beauty of rock and roll," Hell writes, "is that 'anyone can do it' in the sense that's it 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." So much of Tramp is just a recounting of where that instinct took him. Mostly you read I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp for Hell's mind, which is weird and singular and superbly self-aware. He's a scumbag with an intimate, articulate understanding of scumbag psychology. "Being a rock and roll musician was like being a pimp," he writes, "It was about making young girls want to pay money to be near you." This isn't nice, but it's true—something you could say about most of this memoir. Hell's gift, then and now, is for finding a redemptive kind of ugly in otherwise blank, beautiful things, himself very much included. —Zach Baron
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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.
In the 70′s and early 80′s, Hell (real name Richard Meyers) was the cofounder of three bands: Television, the Heartbreakers, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He quit both Television and the Heartbreakers due to conflicts with other band members, and then went on to form the Voidoids, where he could actually drive the bus for a change.
While saying that all three outfits were incredibly influential is simply stating the truth, that's like saying that Beethoven was a great composer, or Shakespeare wrote some pretty nifty plays. It can be argued that, had there been no Richard Hell to help mold and form the early influences of the music that came out of New York City in the mid to late 70′s, the resulting punk explosion simply would not have happened the way that it did, or with as much ferocity, or the same style and esthetics.
Which means that, if you were slamdancing at hardcore shows in the 80′s, had Sex Pistols or Clash posters up on your walls in high school or college, and still sneer at "punk rock" acts that play large stadiums and charge an arm and a leg for tickets, then you have Richard Hell to thank.
And if you close your eyes and make believe, you might just imagine he's sneering right alongside you -- safety-pinned shirt and all.
Richard retired from music in 1984, after the Voidoids broke up. Since then, he's been concentrating on writing, producing novels and a wealth of poetry, commentary, and criticism. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is his long-awaited autobiography.
And saying that it's phenomenal is, again, like saying that that Beethoven guy was really something.
When it comes to an autobiography, you have to understand that you're being told a story. A biography is an exercise in provable facts (so as to avoid very angry editors and highly-litigious estates) because you're telling someone else's story, and you really need to get it right. But an autobiography is like sidling up to a stranger at a bar, and buying them a drink in exchange for them telling you about their childhood, or their first job, or the first in a long string of lovers who did them wrong.
If you pass them enough drinks they might just pass out, but hopefully not before you get to the real meat of their life and work, and maybe a revelation or two. If you're lucky they're really good at telling stories.
As anyone who's listened to his lyrics or read his poems or novels can tell you, Richard Hell is really damn good at telling stories. Tramp sings the song of his life up until 1984, when he quit music, and it's told in what appears to be naked honesty -- quite literal, in many spots -- complete with his triumphs and failures, slights and revenges, and a philosophy that may bend but not quite break. There are lines in here worthy of song, and for all we know they may have already been performed, somewhere along the way.
By the time you're done with it, you feel like you were there, laughing and loving and crying along with him, and feeling like maybe you missed something by not cohabiting his sphere of existence. Whether it's entirely true or not is a matter for others to parse out and argue over; this book was meant to be a rich and filling feast -- who cares what went into the sausage?
But one thing this autobiography isn't -- for which I call it phenomenal, as opposed to just darn good -- is a story with a purpose.
Far too many autobiographies are written for a reason other than just telling the story of a life: the reporter who wants to say why she got fired from the major newspaper; the possible or failed presidential candidate; the outed spy or the crapped-upon victim; the man who cut his hand off to escape a hungry rock. All these stories are presented to us in order to give their side of "the story," or get some kind of revenge or justice by way of the court of the public eye, or else justify their having lived instead of died.
Tramp hasn't been written to denigrate Hell's cohorts, excoriate his exes, or prove how valuable he was to the time where he had the most input. Like the perfect song, it exists simply for its own sake, and can be enjoyed without worrying about devious subtexts, or having to watch out for the bill of goods it might stick you with.
I was really hoping this book would be in the vein of Patti Smith's wonderful Just Kids, but Smith had a definite story to tell when she wrote that book. Even the most mundane details add up to a very specific purpose and it really pays off in the end. In Hell's memoir, a million things happen, but it's almost as if nothing happens, and right when he really has the opportunity to make some meaningful statements, he just quits with a lame excuse that still doesn't really justify a cop-out ending. It's like he got bored and didn't know what he was doing anymore, so he stopped. It's revealing, especially in light of how he handled his career, and it's a shame. It's also a bit insulting to the reader, because it doesn't seem like Hell tried that hard at all.
I did enjoy this book, even if it frustrates me greatly. It's fun, but don't expect too much from it.