I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp
The standard musician’s autobiography can run long on detail and short on writing style. It is doubtful, really, that anyone would pick up Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace—as interesting as his story is—for the prose. There are exceptions, of course, like Patti Smith’s recent Just Kids, which has garnered an enormous amount of critical acclaim. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, the autobiography of Richard Hell, is another of these exceptions.
It is not a far leap to compare Hell’s book to Just Kids. Smith and Hell are both poets, both part of the legendary musical and cultural milieu associated with downtown New York in the 1970s. Hell’s book, though, can really be seen as a descendant of Charles Mingus’s artfully crafted Beneath the Underdog. Mingus’s music and writing could be blunt and it could be funny. The man didn’t suffer fools gladly. Nor was Mingus aiming for any real measure of mainstream appeal—it’s a safe bet that Mingus Ah Um didn’t rocket up the charts. If one has to place I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp in any particular lineage, this may be the most appropriate choice. Hell’s musical output—via Television, the Heartbreakers, the Voidoids—has been the polar opposite of mass-produced (and consumed) music. And in essence, Tramp is a poet’s chronicle, with the author exhibiting a passionate involvement in poetry that pre- and postdates his splashier accomplishments onstage.
Born in 1949, Richard Meyers grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. He suffered the shock of his father’s sudden death in 1957—an incident that, for a book that can be shockingly frank, gets oddly perfunctory treatment. As a teenaged anti-authoritarian reprobate, Meyers displayed a pronounced Kerouacian streak: “Taking the four-lane interstate was like shooting at seventy-five miles an hour down the aisle of a giant empty supermarket,” he writes. “We laughed and drank and smoked.” Like so many other artistic strivers, he arrived in New York City at the end of 1966. Taking inspiration from the “wiseass goofs and collaging phraseologists” among New York’s poets, Meyers spearheaded an on-the-cheap poetry journal and exhibited the youthful fecklessness of rejecting a poem by Allen Ginsberg, “which he’d kindly sent on receipt of our pathetic solicitation.” Meanwhile, Meyers’s own poetry had begun to attract some serious critical attention.
Meyers, together with school friend and artistic soul mate Tom Miller, aimed to fuse his poetic creations with the burgeoning punk culture emerging around him. As Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, their artistic endeavor took the form of a band called Television. Their salon, in a sense, was CBGB. Hell’s brief and ultimately unhappy involvement with Television—and rupture with Verlaine—was followed by a new venture, the Heartbreakers, with ex–New York Dolls Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders. Meyers’s last musical undertaking was as front man in Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the success of whose album Blank Generation brought the mixed blessing of iconic status.
Hell rubbed shoulders with artists like Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, and Willem de Kooning. In one of the book’s most lyrical passages, he recounts a snowy winter’s evening spent dining and conversing with Susan Sontag: “The whole nighttime city outside hung in cold glittering curves, the street surfaces lit in blurry stains by the streetlights and signals and signs, the only sound the clicking of the traffic-light mechanisms, no people anywhere to be seen.”
Punk’s complicated legacy is also very much a legacy of premature death, of crash-and-burn lives. Hell’s penchant for dissipation manifested itself—as did so many others—in heroin addiction. Punk flourished in a hardscrabble, often dangerous New York. Like postwar bebop, it had far-ranging cultural ramifications that did not always deliver the rewards of mass popular appeal.
I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp takes the reader to the mid-’80s, by which time Richard Hell has kicked drugs and, not coincidentally, has made an exit from the music world in pursuit of a renewed literary career. That career has been a successful one, and continues to this day.
Hell is not diplomatic in his dislikes, as this autobiography makes very apparent; nor does he spare himself. He doesn’t dwell on the hope of redemption, though perhaps, in his case, such hope wouldn’t be unwarranted. “A writer’s life is fairly uneventful,” he concludes at the end of the book. “The tale is consistent, even repetitive.” That might be redemption enough.
Richard Klin is the author of Something to Say (Leapfrog Press, 2011).