29 March, 2016

I dreamed I was a very clean tramp : an autobiography by Richard Hell

Richard Hell is one of the founding figures of punk rock. Not only is his autobiography chock full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (as all good rock bios should be!), I also discovered how much Hell’s look, sound and attitude influenced the nascent punk scene in the mid-1970s.

Hell explains that his trademark spiky dishevelled hair and ripped clothes held together by safety pins were inspired by the bums hanging out on New York City’s Bowery. In turn, Hell’s look was appropriated by fashion and music impresario Malcolm McLaren who styled the Sex Pistols after him. In addition, McLaren credited Hell’s song ‘Blank Generation’ as the inspiration behind ‘Pretty Vacant’ by the Pistols.

I couldn’t help drawing parallels between Hell’s book and Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, which I’d just finished reading before his. They share the same timeframe and terrain, from their respective suburban upbringings in 1950s middle America to New York City, performing at the legendary CBGBs alongside other emerging bands such as The Ramones, Blondie and The Talking Heads.

Despite the impact Hell has had on music, he considers himself to be a poet and writer first. Like Patti Smith, he was heavily influenced by the French Symbolist poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. The latter became the adopted moniker of Tom Verlaine who, with Hell, cofounded the ground breaking band, Television. Coincidently, as Hell reveals, Verlaine and Patti Smith were also couple for a while.

At first, I was surprised at the connection between French Symbolism and punk rock. Originating at the end of the 19th century, Symbolist writing was considered very decadent and subversive at the time, so I can understand now why Hell used their ideas as fuel for punk’s angry, nihilistic and anti-establishment ethos.

True to rock bio form, Hell definitely had a way with the ladies. Every few pages is a new conquest: writer/actress Cookie Mueller; ‘super-groupie’ Sable Starr; writer Kathy Acker; a very young pre-Bob Geldof Paula Yates, a pre-Sid Vicious Nancy Spungen(wtf?) and many, MANY more.

Which, lastly, brings us to the drugs. Hell’s book is pretty much a drug fuelled debauch. Once glamorously dubbed ‘The Junkie-poet of New York’ by the Guardian  newspaper, he struggled with a lengthy and unglamorous heroin addiction. His book ends in the mid-1980s when he stopped playing music to focus on his writing and kicking dope (which he did eventually). Things could have turned out very differently – as he reflectively puts it: “If I had died in 1984…as could easily have happened, there would have been left such scant evidence of me that my life would be mostly a sad cautionary tale.”

Title: I dreamed I was a very clean tramp : an autobiography
Author: Richard Hell

Recommended by Karen I, Devonport Library

Karen I likes reading memoirs and biographies about people with interesting and unusual lives, because she spends a lot of time reading and doesn't get out much.

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