Richard Hell – underground poet, critic, and one of the chief architects of New York’s punk scene in the 1970s – begins his long-awaited autobiography with a snapshot of childhood in 1950s middle America: “Like many in my time, when I was little I was a cowboy,” he writes. And a few lines later: “My favorite thing to do was run away. The words “let’s run away” still sound magic to me.”
This image – invoking Tom Sawyer as much as it does The Lone Ranger – aptly prefaces Hell’s narrative of his first thirty-five years: his childhood in Kentucky and Delaware, his move to New York’s Lower East Side after dropping out of high school, his poetic ambitions, his role in punk rock’s birth, his rise to cult celebrity, and, along the way, his quests for friendship and sex and his near demolition by drugs. The serial identities Hell created – changing his surname from Meyers to Hell being just the most notable of a series of transformations undertaken over the course of four decades – were shaped not only by post-War pop culture, disseminated by television and the movies, but by magical encounters with language: “I was always reading and had gotten a lot of mileage out of words, incoming and outgoing.” His method as he writes about his childhood, for instance, is to verbalize a photograph: “My flat, vacant, smudged ten-or-eleven-year-old face. [...] I’m sitting in my backyard, suddenly self-aware, or aware that this moment is going to happen again someday, portraying my condition and environment (this sentence on this page in this book).” Along with the opening gambit, such lines typify Hell’s approach as narrator of his life story, reminding the reader throughout that we’re not witnessing scenes as they happened decades in the past, but as they are recalled, mulled over, and framed by the Hell who’s currently in his mid-sixties and who has always thought of himself as a writer first, then a musician. He narrates in the voice of a survivor: wizened, reflective, witty, and even compassionate – toward himself and most of his contemporaries. That character – the elder Hell – along with his unfussy, precise, yet still writerly prose, makes this book so enjoyable and insightful.
His impulse to confront the past would seem to run counter to the magical pull of running away, which defines the book’s action from start almost to finish. As in his recollection of his cowboy childhood, there’s friction between performance and identity, or performance as identity. Hell describes his determination to quit high school with his friend Tom Miller (later renamed Tom Verlaine), with whom he would eventually form the seminal New York band Television, as “almost an aesthetic decision.” But such expressions of taste leave lasting emotional traces that ultimately make us who we are. Their brief stint on the road together also supplied a “dose” of Hell’s “favorite feeling: of leaving myself behind for another world.” That old Mark Twain impulse, it turns out, underwrites punk. The quest to renew this feeling of lighting out for new territories propels the narrative. You can get hits of it in a variety of ways, Hell writes: by cutting your hair, getting high, falling in love, changing your name, finding a new vocation, and so on. The book follows him through a series of new worlds and relationships from which he eventually, inevitably, moves on.
Hell’s flight instinct comes with a constant craving for companionship. In the autobiography, as in a classic Hell song, love comes in spurts. Tom Miller stepped into the role of the longed-for sidekick and roaming partner in Hell’s teens and twenties, when the two ran away from school and eventually met up in New York, where they struggled as marginal figures in a Lower East Side DIY poetry scene and then as more central figures in the downtown rock scene. They worked odd jobs – and educated themselves – at rare book and film stores. Hell established a small press and published a literary journal. He and Miller collaborated on a book of poems under the joint pseudonym Theresa Stern, supposedly a half-Jewish-half-Puerto Rican hooker from Hoboken. By 1972, when they had more than a few years in New York under their belts, they decided the real avant-garde action was going to be in rock and roll. After seeing the flamboyant, grungy New York Dolls perform a couple times, they decided to start a band, in spite of the fact that Hell didn’t yet know how to play a note. Within a year, after a few false starts, they’d found a drummer and another guitar player and a space to rehearse, courtesy of their first manager. They changed their names to Hell and Verlaine, echoes of French surrealists Verlaine and Rimbaud. They named their band Television and stumbled upon a little club on the Bowery that let them play a string of Sunday nights as they honed their craft. That club, CBGB, would become the crucible of New York punk: before long Television was joined there by other unsigned bands such as The Ramones, The Patti Smith Group, Blondie, and Talking Heads. The local press heralded the new scene as rock’s third revolution.
It’s inevitable that readers will compare Hell’s Tramp to Patti Smith’s Just Kids, given that both traverse the same CBGB-era New York downtown scene and that they’ve even been delivered by the same publisher within a few short years of one another. But Hell’s narratorial intrusions in his current guise – as the elder Hell, a writer who survived the first punk era and decided to leave the rock and roll to the teenagers – decidedly sets his book apart from Smith’s. Both Smith and Hell were key mythologizers of New York punk’s origins from the start, even collaborating on such myths at times, especially in crafting the image of Verlaine and Hell’s band. (Smith for a time was romantically involved with Verlaine.) But where Just Kids continues to exist in a kind of mythological dimension, in which Smith’s memories seem so perfectly recalled as sometimes to stretch credulity, Hell never lets you forget that he’s looking back at events that happened three or four decades ago. Leaving aside his long-standing endorsement of John Ford’s dictum “Print the legend,” he takes on the role of historian, sifting through the evidence of his own life, distrusting his memory, deflating myth, revising opinions expressed by earlier incarnations of himself. Smith’s anecdotes never shy away from the Romanticism that has always characterized her writing, and in Just Kids she tends to overlay the past with a gauzy purple prose that borders on the euphemistic. (One example: she rewrites a story from her ex-lover Jim Carroll’s Forced Entries, in which he and Patti pick out each other’s pubic lice and stage races with them, into an incident in which they merely contract head lice in their bohemian existence at the Chelsea Hotel.) Hell, by contrast, feels like a Romantic but writes like a hard-edged realist. He has no interest in white-washing the past: “[T]o me, it’s interesting to find out what’s actually going on, what really happened.” Though he acknowledges where his memory or perhaps his ability to be dispassionate breaks down, for the most part he’s created a credible narrative in which the words feel as vital as the stories they shape, without compromising a genuine pursuit of self-understanding or truth. The irony of Hell’s strategy as narrator is that his memories feel alive, more three-dimensional than Smith’s.
The most exciting portions of Hell’s book come when he establishes a new identity or forms a new relationship. He took seriously his calling to create an image for himself and for his band that would distinguish them from the New York Dolls’ glitter scene that had dominated downtown. And so Hell stripped down Television’s look to match their stripped-down sound. He cut his hair and ripped his clothing. He sometimes wore baggy suits on stage. He sincerely identified with the bums on the Bowery outside CBGB, an act of empathy resonant with the childhood dream referenced in the book’s title. The new look and attitude caught fire, was snatched up by the London music and fashion impresario Malcolm McLaren even before Television’s records could cross the Atlantic. Hell’s punk anthem “Blank Generation” was rewritten as “Pretty Vacant” by McLaren’s new creations, The Sex Pistols.
Hell’s account of punk’s origins, including his eventual split with Verlaine and his drug-addled years in equally influential bands The Heartbreakers and The Voidoids, might not have been so successful if he had stuck to the narrative that has so often been told: a story of backstabbing American bands angry that the British punk scene was getting all the credit for something they’d created. Hell himself, in the early 1980s, wrote a few defensive articles about how his role in punk’s invention had been overlooked. To be sure, he’s capable at times of letting someone have it: Verlaine, for his controlling temperament, or the British journalist Julie Burchill, who always had an axe to grind against the New York scene.
But such outbursts are limited. Instead, the rock and roll Bildungsroman takes more introspective turns as he examines his past. It was hard to watch the success of British acts that were ripping off his schtick, he writes, but “the most frustrating thing was that they were so good.” And “I might try to straighten the record where I regard it as misrepresenting me,” he breaks in at one point. “But I try to be as faithful to what happened as I can, however what happened might reflect on me.” His reflections on rock and roll, which he considers the rightful property of teenagers (in spite of the fact that he was in his twenties when he helped invent punk) form something like a handbook for young musicians, and his descriptions of taking up an instrument and tearing up the stage may just inspire some readers to follow suit. But he’s clear about the emotional damage that can come with even cult celebrity. Such candor extends not only to the impact of his drug use on his relationships with bandmates, but to descriptions of sexual escapades. In these moments he’s not bragging – though his list of liaisons includes several well-known figures, from the much-older ex-wife of the Pop artist Claes Oldenburg to photographer Roberta Bayley, actress Cookie Mueller, and ill-fated groupie Nancy Spungen. Hell doesn’t make light of such encounters. Sex, for Hell, even more than rock and roll or heroin or writing, is a quest for transcendence, the ultimate form of self-discovery through escapism, and he clearly relishes reliving such moments by rendering them in gripping, frank, and sometimes erotic prose.
Time has always been a central preoccupation of Hell’s writing. His 1979 song “Time,” eventually released on his 1982 album Destiny Street, is perhaps his greatest achievement as a songwriter and lyricist. “Only time can write a song that’s really really real,” he sings, with all the world-weariness of a thirty-year-old punk. “The most a man can do is say the way the playing feels / And know he only knows as much as time to him reveals.”
I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is made up of one such revelation after another, generous gifts to the reader. In the book’s epilogue, a chance encounter on the street between Hell and Verlaine, two former best friends, decades after their falling out, is what you might call this book’s “they’re just kids” moment. It returns the autobiography to its central relationship, the one that gave the author a new name and confirmed the identity he’s borne for the rest of his life, the relationship that most haunts the narrative throughout. Judging from Hell’s capacity for compassion in that postscript, I take it time has revealed a lot.