Richard Hell — “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp”

Clean TrampI belong to the blank generation.

Well, not really. I’m a bit too old, but I loved the punk era and was lucky enough to see Richard Hell & The Voidoids at the Village Gate in New York.  It was summer of 1977 if I’m not mistaken.  (Helen Wheels opened.)

I don’t remember much except the intensity and the big anthem, “Blank Generation,” as catchy a punk song as there ever was. (Catchy punk sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?)

I liked The Voidoids’ first album, particularly “Blank Generation,” “Betrayal Takes Two,” “Love Comes in Spurts” and the overlooked “The Plan.”  Hell’s not a great singer but that wasn’t the point. “Blank Generation” was all about attitude.

A few years later, he released “Destiny Street” and I liked that album okay, especially “Time.”  A mellower, more reflective Hell. Later, an album called “Dim Stars” that went nowhere (from what I can tell) but that’s about it.

But Richard Hell is iconic because he was there at the start, helped define the look and feel and vibe and energy of the punk wave.  It was Malcolm McLaren, Hell asserts, who stole or least heavily borrowed his ripped-jeans look for The Sex Pistols. At least, that’s the ground he stakes out in his emphatic memoir, “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp.”

I can’t argue—and most music insiders agree.  Hell deserves some credit.

I enjoyed the first half of “Clean Tramp,” following the evolution of high school dropout to arty street kid in New York City. Richard Meyers’ developing taste and point of view is interesting enough and early on he seemed to be unimpressed with Big Time Corporate Rock and Roll.  “Half of the beauty of rock and roll is that ‘anyone can do it’ in the sense that’s not about being a virtuoso but about just being plugged in in a certain way, just having an innocent instinct and a lot of luck. That’s why it’s the art of teenagers,” he writes.IMG_0696

He discovered William Carlos Williams, Dylan Thomas and others.  He worked in bookstores and, essentially, schooled himself. He published poetry magazines and immersed himself in the poetry world.

If you enjoyed Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” and if you have any interest in this period of rock and roll history, you’ll likely enjoy seeing New York from Hell’s perspective as bands around him form and take off—including Smith, The Ramones, The Modern Lovers, and the New York Dolls. “Their gigs were unlike any I’d ever experienced,” says Hell of The Dolls. “They were parties, they were physical orgies, without much distinction between the crowd and the band: the band felt like an expression of the dressed-up avant-garde teenagers, and all the downtown hipster cognoscenti who’d materialized from the gutter-glitter of the whole sexy area and history itself. It was like some kind of funny dirty religious revel.”

Hell formed the early incarnation of the seminal punk band Television with his childhood pal Tom Miller, who later changed his name to Tom Verlaine, but the early line-up didn’t last and later Hell hooks up with Johnny Thunders, fresh from The Dolls, for a band called The Heartbreakers and then later came The Voidoids.

Hell isn’t very forgiving toward Verlaine about having Television hijacked away and that’s where “Clean Tramp” grows boring and repetitive as Hell recalls his descent into drugs and tosses out observations on a variety of big names. In making his case that there aren’t that many interesting guitar soloists in rock and roll (??), Hell asserts that Keith Richards and Pete Townshend were just “rhythm players.”  In the second half of the book, we are also treated to the physical details of every girl he took to bed.

Hell said as a leader of The Voidoids he was “a leader of the new sensibility. Patti (Smith) as the only other writer/performer/conceptualist/bandleader who rivaled me in that way.”  He trashes Smith as a “pandering diva” and her band as “generic and mediocre.”

In “Clean Tramp,” Hell tries to stake his claim to his turf in the history of rock and roll.  Okay, fine. He was part of it and contributed a few terrific songs.  But buffing your own reputation by stomping on others, well, ain’t pretty. Particularly when you’ve produced so precious little music since “Blank Generation,” nearly 40 years ago.

I enjoyed the first half of “Clean Tramp.” The rest left me feeling, well, blank.

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