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Winter 2013 - BOOK REVIEW by Nitin Jagdish
"I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp"

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp
by Richard Hell
Ecco Press, 2013
$ 25.99, 304 pages
ISBN: 978-0062190833

There's no way I would want to write just a memoir. But I have a few ideas. I'm also just interested in memory, and I think that whatever I did would end up being partly about that. About how you have to... you don't really trust your brain. It would have to somehow mesh with the reliability of the memory. — Richard Hell, in an interview with Mark Prindle

The Unreliability of Memory is an overused theme that was dull and stale at its birth. Even a twenty—year ban on literary works that meditate on it would not provide enough of a holiday for readers (pointless aside: the other day, some coffeehouse dweller wondered why nobody wrote about unreliable amnesia. He seemed very pleased with this bon mot until the barista pointed out that “unreliable amnesia” is just a clumsy synonym for conscience). Luckily, in his new memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, Richard Hell quickly discards this theme like a pair of shoes a size too small. Instead, Hell sharply details his quest to exchange the mundane for the rapturous (or, to misuse the lyric of a third—rater who will remain nameless, break on through to the other side). We see Hell as a child and teenager running away from home and boarding school; we see him as a teenager and adult taking drugs; and we see him as an adult writing poetry and playing music. At least that’s how I remember it.

Richard Hell has been the most emotionally compelling, brilliant, and innovative rock and roll performer of the past ten years. Unfortunately these qualities are evident in neither his live nor his studio performances. You'll have to take my word for it. So much for rock criticism. — From Richard Hell’s liner notes (written under the pseudonym Lester Meyers) to his 1984 compilation, R.I.P.

Because I’m a fairly miserable person, reading or hearing one artist attack another gives me great pleasure, especially if the attack is dunderheaded. Classics in the genre include Norman Mailer’s comments on James Baldwin and Saul Bellow, and Ingmar Bergman’s comments on Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard.

Very Clean Tramp includes some rather misguided takedowns. Patti Smith’s band was “...generic and undistinguished, and her songs became more and more ordinary too.” The Ramones were “...basically, a joke (‘Beat on the Brat’) and a formula.” Blondie “had a bland, occasionally quirky, urban girl—group style but were primarily an excuse to look at their stunningly pretty singer.”

Unfortunately, these comments will never become classics for two reasons. First, Hell is as hard on himself as he is on his peers. Second, unlike Mailer and Bergman, Hell does not aim his remarks at his aesthetic superiors (second pointless aside: Bergman’s status as an Important Artist and Master Filmmaker is one of the great frauds of the last century.)

Like most great rock & roll, it stands alone; there are influences, not all of them musical and many of them literary, but he is no arty poseur, in fact this is also some of the most honest music I have heard in some time. — Lester Bangs, on Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ debut album Blank Generation

Mr. Hell's first album has earned its reputation as the most powerful and musically adventurous of all American punk lp's, but while the music on that album sounded wild and even revolutionary until 1977, it's practically tame compared to the supercharged Manhattan psycho—bop unleashed on the new ''Destiny Street.'' ... This is rock poetry at its best — insightful, felicitously phrased, and to the point. — Robert Palmer, on Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ second album, Destiny Street

Hell imbues his memoir with the same idiosyncratic energy that animated his records. It is almost inevitable that a rock memoir chronicles its writer’s drug use, and Hell honors this convention — Very Clean Tramp describes various perceptual shifts brought on by drug highs, physical mishaps while taking drugs, and the inevitable Moment When the Rock Musician Hits Rock Bottom and Realizes He Must Change His Life.

That being said, one of the more irritating ideas infecting our culture (perhaps even more irritating than Bergman’s critical standing) is the one that links drug use to creativity (but, oddly enough, only those type of drugs that well—off or middlebrow types could see themselves using. There aren’t too many opinion merchants making the case for crack as muse). To his everlasting credit, Hell tries his best to stamp out the romantic view of the junky artist (“...interesting work can be done, but it will probably be fragmentary and rambling, and chances are there will be far more unrealized or abandoned projects than there would have been otherwise.”). And Hell’s gift for detail and simplicity yields one of the most chilling depictions of, to use William S. Burroughs’ term, the algebra of need:

She once came back with a bruised face from a job she took, and which got me money for drugs. When she got home she cried, which hardly ever happened. She’d been sent to find a trailer—truck driver in the cab of his vehicle parked in SoHo, where she’d had to give him a blow job, and he’d hit her in the face. We lay in bed together in the morning daylight and it was like breathing sadness, like being cut open. On the other hand, we had some money now and I could get drugs for another day.

The best proof of how brazenly punk yoked New York's post—hippie avant-garde to rock and roll is two albums by Richard Hell: 1977's Blank Generation and 1982's Destiny Street. ... I liked those two albums when they came out without imagining that they'd be acknowledged classics three decades later, different yet of a piece. — Robert Christgau, review of Very Clean Tramp

Hell’s portraits of his dead friends and comrades from the New York punk scene comprise the strongest sections of Very Clean Tramp. Hell avoids describing his friends’ and comrades’ deaths or his feelings when he learned of them; instead, he introduces these people with a few paragraphs, and then integrates them into the memoir. For instance, before forming his own band, Hell played in the Heartbreakers (no, not those Heartbreakers) with Johnny Thunders (who died in 1991). Hell mentions only in passing that Thunders is dead (“As I said in a memorial article the week of his funeral...”). However, Very Clean Tramp devotes a fair amount of space debunking one of the more pervasive myths among Thunders’ fans: that Thunders threw Hell out of Heartbreakers because, like some Third World army officer, Hell tried seizing control of the band. Writing warmly about Thunders and fairly about the situation, Hell explains that he left the band to pursue a more complex and eccentric approach to rock and roll.

It’s a simple but stunning technique; Hell’s portraits don’t settle for mere memory — they summon their subjects from the dead and bring them back to life (in the example above, it’s almost like Hell is trying to set Thunders, as well as the reader, straight). Throughout the book, Hell shares his love of the New York Poets. However, his approach to death recalls a very different poet, James Merrill (minus the Ouija board and David Jackson).

Hell makes one exception to this approach. Robert Quine, lead guitarist for the Voidoids, deserves to be on any shortlist of contenders for the title of Greatest Rock and Roll Guitarist Ever (and while I don’t agree with all of his judgments on music, Hell nails the precise reasons for Quine’s greatness). He also inspires Hell’s only direct reflection on a friend’s death, which is all the more moving for its muted tone:

I’ve seen over the years how a person sometimes absorbs bits of behavior from friends — speech mannerisms or gestures. It can be eerie to recognize it in yourself after the friend has died. There was a thing Bob would do. Instead of smiling, he would just stretch his lips across his teeth in a cursory sign for “smile.” His eyes wouldn’t change at all, just his mouth for a moment. It was actually friendly — a signal that he was not unwilling to expend the energy to give a little reassurance. I catch myself doing that now and feel switched with Quine for a second. 

Look, I started out saying how much I respected this guy’s mind and perceptions. I still do in a curious way — it’s just that he paints half the picture of reality with consummate brilliance, and the other half is Crayola slashes across a field of Silly Putty and Green Slime. — Lester Bangs, “Richard Hell: Death Means Never Having to Say You're Incomplete”

Richard Hell may have invented punk as we know it, but a Very Clean Tramp is not the work of a perpetually angry young man. It brims with wit, generosity, and something suspiciously resembling good cheer. Lester Bangs would have been surprised.


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