Saturday, 26 December 2015

I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp - Richard Hell


Legend has it that Richard Hell invented Punk. The spiky hair, the torn clothes held together by safety pins, the attitude, the back-to-basics rock sound. It all sprang from him. He gave us the band Television with Tom Verlaine, then a version of the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders, and then the Voidoids; as well as helping to turn a smelly bar called CBGB, on the Bowery in Manhattan, into what is now near-universally recognised as being the cradle of Punk.
Factory Records founder Tony Wilson once said "When you have to choose between truth and legend, print the legend," and this, so it would appear, is the maxim Richard Hell has adopted for his autobiography I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp.

Although I've probably listened to most of Richard Hell's recorded output over the years, I've never actually owned any of his records. As a boy, however, I once saw the Voidoids supporting Elvis Costello and from what I can remember, they were alright. They were nowhere near as good as Stiff Little Fingers who I saw at the same venue (the Locarno, in Bristol) the following month but even Elvis Costello wasn't as good as them. I've also hung out at CBGB a few times in the past.
So yes, being as I'm someone who freely admits to having been unduly influenced by Punk this means, of course, that Richard Hell has influenced me. Or so he says.

I would have still been at school when I saw the Voidoids and at such a tender age I was under the impression that Punk was Year Zero, as in a line in the sand from where everything could be started anew. 'No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones,' as the Clash put it. There was always going to be exceptions, of course, and Richard Hell (along with the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, and a few others) was one of them. Where so many weren't excepted, Richard Hell was.
With this in mind, it's strange to read that he was once drafted to join the Army, to be sent off to Vietnam. He avoided being drafted in the end but his writing about it puts him into perspective as to what time period he was from. I'd never considered it before and I certainly didn't consider it when I saw him play live all those years ago.

Richard Hell's position within Punk was always a slightly veiled one. He was always acknowledged as being an originator but at the same time he was always an enigma. It didn't help matters none that in those days Punk was mutating so quickly that he very soon got left behind and came to sound somewhat dated. Year Zero created a level playing field which meant you were only as good as your latest (or last) record and unfortunately to a lot of young Punk Rockers, Richard Hell just wasn't delivering and his reputation just wasn't sufficient to sustain interest in him.
After a couple of years of trying at it, and after two tours of the UK (one with the Clash, the other with Elvis Costello) Hell called it quits and left the music business for good to reinvent himself as a professional writer.

I've no problem with the idea of printing legend over truth, and Richard Hell must know he has a vested interested in his so it's hardly likely he's going to set out to destroy it in his autobiography. The problem, however, comes when he veers away from his legend and starts to fill in the blanks with his personal views on people and events, and when he tries also to bolster the legend. This is when he starts coming across as being an unlikeable character.

I read somewhere that Hell spent 6 years writing this book and in a way it shows because not only does the tone keep changing but there's a lot of back tracking and revisionism going on throughout. One minute he'll disparage someone or something but then later on he'll do a reappraisal.
This is more than evident in his treatment of Tom Verlaine who throughout almost the entire book, Hell rips apart his character until the very last page when he suddenly tells us how he loves him and how he's grateful for him.
When he writes about touring the UK he has nothing good to say about the experience at all and holds nothing back in expressing his disgust about almost everything English. Right at the end of that particular chapter, however, reading as though it's been tagged on as some kind of disclaimer, he writes: 'I should add that on the whole, all the above said, I've gotten more attention and respect from the British writers and music public than I have from the American... Those British kids were honest and spontaneous and unpretentious and funny. They took care of each other.'
It comes across as being painfully cynical, actually. As if those last words were being added on so as not to alienate his British market.

Rather than going on (and on and on), I'll come out with it now: I thought I was going to like this book but instead ended up disliking it and even disliking Richard Hell too. The first sign that something is going wrong is when he starts to quote lines from some of his favourite poems. There's a couple of poems in particular, from a poet by the name of Andrew Wylie, one of which goes: 'I fuck your ass. You suck my cock.' And that's it. A complete poem that Richard Hell likes and rates highly. Call me a philistine but am I meant to be impressed? It's not exactly William Blake, is it?
He then introduces Patti Smith into the story and describes her as 'skinny as a rod, massive tits deceptively draped in her threadbare overlarge Triumph motorcycles T-shirt'. I mean, who gives a fuck about Patti Smith's tits? What have they got to do with anything? Is this description of her in any way valid? Is this the best way of describing her? I thought, after all, that Richard Hell was a writer? Good with words?
Later on in the book he ends up writing about his experience of S&M and out of the blue - for the first and only time - he suddenly mentions Kathy Acker: 'Some years later when Kathy Acker wanted me to slap her while I fucked her in the ass, it was hard to work up the motivation, even to keep a straight face. Not that I didn't enjoy it.'
Again, where's the validity in mentioning someone like Kathy Acker in this manner? What point does it serve? Particularly as she's now dead so has no right of approval or reply.
It's when writing about touring Britain that Hell gets it spectacularly wrong, however. On so many things. As an example, he's the only person to ever believe that Malcolm McLaren would never exploit anyone for financial gain. The only explanation for the whole chapter regarding Britain is that at the time he was a full-blown junky. His judgement may have been a little clouded for this reason maybe? Possibly? Perhaps?

As I said, I wanted to like this book and I wanted to like Richard Hell but the opposite has happened. I also fail to understand all those who have praised it (including Thurston Moore and Kathleen Hanna) because I feel he's actually made a mistake in writing it as (in my eyes) it's damaged his reputation irrecoverably. I wonder if Tom Verlaine has read it and if so what he makes of it?
And in conclusion: Between the Voidoids and Television, without question the better band is Television, particularly when comparing the Voidoids' Blank Generation album to Television's Marquee Moon.
And the most interesting character is Lizzy Mercier Descloux...
John Serpico


  1. That first Voidoids album has always been a big favourite of mine but I'll not bother to seek out this book. Always thought he might be a bit of a twat and you've conformed my suspicions.

    1. Always nice to hear from you, Mr Bear. I must admit, I feel a bit bad in being negative about Richard Hell and his book but I'm not going to start editing what I think as what would be the point of doing a blog if I start doing that? The weird thing about his book, however, is that if I can see the flaws in it, then why can't others? Perhaps they can but choose not to say anything? Thurston Moore? Kathleen Hanna? All the other critics that have praised it? Have they even read it, I wonder?
      I feel like the little boy who points at the King and says "Look! He hasn't got any clothes on!"