Richard Hell wrote one of the best songs built around one of the least useful, or at least most misunderstood, phrases of 1970s punk rock in “Blank Generation,” for his band the Voidoids. To his great credit, as his new memoir I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography (Ecco Books) proves, he and a few of his cohorts were among the least blank, most thoughtful and informed young musician-writers working during that period, not nihilists but poets with the romanticism wrung out of them by some combination of natural asperity, experience with music-biz venality, and a genuine passion to make some kind of art.
And so while I Dreamed is indeed the memoir of a man who spiked his hair, consumed a lot of different chemicals, and lived in the shadow of Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, and Johnny Rotten, Richard Hell stakes out his status as an always-intelligent man whose musical value has been underrated and whose excellent taste extends to a casual yet more than knowledgeable reference to “my main man New York poet Ted Berrigan.”
Indeed, the most interesting aspect of this swiftly paced tale of a Kentucky-born first-gen punk-rocker is that he was a poetry fan and a poet before he was a bass player, a lyricist of concise note, a by-his-account profligate yet caring ladies-man. Hell – born Richard Meyers in 1949 – writes with some of his greatest passion about the second generation of New York School poets including Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Tom Veitch, as well as ornery outliers like Bill Knott, the latter for writing “fully thought-through funny word-packs of imagery and ideas of loneliness, desperate love, shock and fury.” He lavishes as much praise upon publications such as “C” magazine and “Ashbery’s and Koch’s and Schuyler’s and Mathews’ swoon of witty word-chess” Locus Solus as he does influential recordings by the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. If Patti Smith’s award-winning memoir Just Kids took a more literary shape than the straightforward prose and chronology Hell offers here, his is the book to read to get a less self-mythologizing view of what it was like to live in the blended musical-literary circles that overlapped and bedded down with each other in the late-70s/early-80s.
It may be that, as someone who wedged into the vibrating narrow corridor of CBGB’s and sat at the same Gem Spa counter stools as Hell during this period, I am more susceptible than an average reader to his amiable rambles not just through CBGB lore but also his jobs at the Gotham Book Mart and the Strand Bookstore. But that also means I know his details are pretty much spot-on. Plus, I like the way Hell is not so highfalutin’ that he doesn’t enjoy sharing gossip about and quarrels with characters including his Television band-mate Tom Verlaine (boyhood buddies who became thoroughly sick of each other over the course of launching a career – that’ll happen when you’re a part-time drug-head and he’s a full-time control-freak); record-biz hustler-talents like Richard Gottehrer and Terry Ork; or Hell’s quick, vivid portrait of a pre-publishing-agent shark Andrew Wylie when he was still a punk-loving poetaster (a would-be Aram Saroyan, no less!); and the way Hell disliked Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye because Kaye disliked Hell’s guitarist Robert Quine (I know Lenny; I like Lenny; but the late Quine was undeniably great).
Even better, Hell writes vividly about “what it felt like to be creating electrically amplified songs,” the way “it was like making emotion and thought physical, to be undergone apart from oneself.” Hell halts his story at 1984, when he “stopped making music and stopped using drugs.” Yet I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is not that dreadful thing – the “survivor’s memoir”; it’s a chronicle of an assiduously adventurous life lived with an acute awareness that the adventure is not something to be exaggerated or obliterated, but rather a blessing to be well-remembered.