I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp
by Richard Hell
Few figures in rock and roll can lay claim to as much influence with as little recorded output as Richard Hell, who was for bedhead and ripped clothing what Elvis was for pompadours and raised upper lips. One of punk's first sex symbols, Hell is (unfortunately) remembered more for how he looked in the mid-'70s than how he sounded, but as he writes in his new memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, "vocations often begin as poses." This is the story of a poser's progress, then, and it is 100-percent genuine.
From an idyllic childhood in Kentucky we follow bright, sensitive Richard Meyers as he metamorphoses-via small-time delinquency, insatiable restlessness, sexual frustration, and poetry-into boho No. 1 in the Big Rotten Apple. He publishes his own lit mag, shags a blue streak across Manhattan, and graduates from cherry cough syrup to . . . every drug. (Later, his explorations of sex and drugs are so advanced as to yield recollections as wonderfully debauched as this: "My introduction to the real, complex pleasures of slave ownership began on a hot summer night in 1979, at the loft of my crystal meth dealer.") Landing on rock and roll as the only medium able to reconcile his need to be seen and sexed without anyone's approval, Hell sets out with doppelganger Tom Verlaine to "bring real life back into it." Together they form the heavens-rending band Television, but Hell (who, by this point, is called Hell) leaves before a record is made. With Johnny Thunders he forms the Heartbreakers but leaves before a record is made. Finally, with his own Voidoids, self-invention is achieved: "I belong to the blank generation," he sings, "but I can take it or leave it each time." Within a few years he leaves it, more or less, forever-letting himself out the back door of the scene as easily as he stormed through the front. It's a remarkably lucid account of a rock and roll life for someone who spent much of it under the influence, and it belongs on a shelf with Patti Smith's Just Kids as one of the more eloquent, lyrical homages to New York bohemia.
While some passages carry a whiff of score-settling (Patti Smith, in fact, was "full of shit in many ways, and a hypocritical, pandering diva, and her band was generic and mediocre"), Hell's portraits of artistic collaborators, friends, and lovers (and lovers' body parts) are startlingly affectionate, from Dee Dee Ramone ("the best example of a certain rock and roll essence that punk sought to embody") to Susan Sontag ("I wanted her to bond with me"). We discover that it's with these people that Hell fills in his blanks as he invents himself song by song, page by page.