-Richard Hell from I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp
It’s important to know what excited Richard Hell. It leads to a clearer picture of his life until age 34, as he lays it out in his autobiography. He followed that quote by saying he and friend/fellow Television bandmate Tom Verlaine disagreed on how they wanted their music to sound. According to Hell, he was exhilarated after the band’s first performance. Verlaine was not. It was the end of Television for Hell before it really even began. This is a pattern that would follow him throughout his music career.
Richard Hell’s influence on both music and culture is understated. I mentioned I was reading his book, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp and only 1 of the 20 people I spoke to had a passing knowledge of him. A handful of them were my partners in crime in frequenting the NY clubs mentioned in the book. We lived these times and Hell still didn’t register with them. It’s not a name you would forget. He was the first to have choppy spiky hair, wear torn closes, paint words on them and use the safety pin as a fashion accessory. He performed with abandon.
I never paid much attention to Television or Richard Hell. I knew the song Blank Generation. I was into bands with tight songs mixed with pop sensibilities. Even the anarchy of the Sex Pistols could fit in with that description, although I wasn’t a big fan of them either. I love Blondie and the Ramones, both of which Hell has distain for. He mentions that Chris Stein (Blondie) and Dee Dee Ramone auditioned for Television but didn’t make the cut. While Dee Dee had his problems, I think both fared better with their respective bands.
The writing is erratic, but so was his life. He was a heroin addict who kept journals. Without the journals how would he be able to describe in such detail all of his sexual conquests breasts? (There are many references.)
His childhood was unremarkable. He grew up in Kentucky. It’s not a charmed life, but it certainly isn’t the broken home of a truant which he later became. His father dies at an early age. At sixteen, he and best friend Tom Miller (later re-christened Verlaine) have their Thelma and Louise moment by fleeing home and driving a car as far as Alabama where they get picked up by the cops. They were heading to Florida. Shortly after that Richard earns enough money to come to New York City. His mother agreed to let him go at 17. His early tales of a grizzly Lower East Side are accurate and intriguing. He has many menial jobs, but it was possible to live off of next to nothing those days in the city. The book then starts to read like many a candied musician memoir: lots of drugs, lots of sex, record company screws artist. (Somehow Keith Richard’s book didn’t fall into that trap.)
His description of drug addition has become the norm for these autobiographies:
Addiction is lonely. It starts as pure pleasure, and the degeneration, in a few quick years, into a form of monumental compulsive-obsessive condition is actually more psychological than physical. One the drug use has replaced everything else, life become purely a lie, since in order to keep any self-respect, the junkie has to delude himself that use is by choice.
Richard doesn’t stick with anything that isn’t solitary. He can’t hold on to jobs, he moves from one band to the next. He didn’t hang around long enough with either Television or The Heartbreakers. When both bands released their debut albums, he was long gone.
It makes sense that he eventually settled in a career that is solitary: a writer.
Probably most overlooked was how smart he was about marketing his bands early in his career. He went to the owner of the newly opened CBGB’s and asked for and got a Sunday night residency. He knew the importance of having people know where to see the band and being able to see them on a regular basis. He created posters for specific shows using band photographs as well as eye-catching graphics and text. He gave a performance.
There are passages that are so ripe with description that you can see the scene play out in your head. They are also very humorous. In describing the girls in his neighborhood:
They were a skittish herd of scaled-down giraffe girls with pretty, flat kitty-cat faces. I liked all of them. We were going to drive into the country out by Versailles, where another of the giraffe girls lived on a horse farm. It’s those moments that make reading about his early childhood so rewarding.
His tale stops cold at age 34, which is when he decided to get out of music. He has since dipped his toes back in on several occasions, including a stint with the band Dim Stars. Life in New York in the 70’s and early 80’s was raw, gritty and oh so much fun.