The beauty of the memoir is not only the writer's life, but also the placement of the story. For me Richard Hell's great book “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp” is not only about Hell's life, but also a great New York City narrative. With out the actual city New York, there would be no N.Y. Punk Rock. Even though Richard Hell met Tom Verlaine somewhere else, they needed Manhattan to do what they had to do. And the same goes for the NY Dolls, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground and for god's sake The Lovin' Spoonful!
Many years ago, via the pages of Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine there was an image by Christopher Makos of Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell sitting close together on a couch, who were in a band called Television. The image of the two and what they were wearing really caught my imagination. From that image I became a fan of the band, without hearing one note. I had imagined what Television sounded like by the various reviews in the underground and hip presses at the time. I knew it was guitar music and I presumed the tunes were wild yet restrained like their clothing. Some years later I finally heard the first Television album and the sound was even more remarkable than my imagination. Around that time (maybe later..) I heard Hell's single that came out on Ork Records and I thought “Oh my god this is great as well.”
Ever since those series of moments, Hell has never failed me. At the time I thought of Hell as the male version of Patti Smith. Both were in poetry and books and they captured that poetic rock n' roll look. But all of that is just the surface. After reading Patti's “Just Kids” and Hell's book, the city of New York is the same, but the personalities are different. But both of course are extremely over-the-top talents.
What makes Hell so unique is his love for the written word, and I think that is what kicked him to do music. “Blank Generation,” Love Comes in Spurts” and so forth are classic texts set to music. A combination of jazz jive with a Beat's love of the moment. His memoir goes into his songs, but also the faces and names that surrounded him and his creative work. To this very day, Richard Hell is a remarkable looker, and he knows by instinct the power of the visual and how it would affect his medium. Which is rock and rock is visual as well as poetic.
The stuff I loved about this book is how he maps out Manhattan with bookstores as pin-drops in various areas of the island. It is a world that is totally closed in, but with great bookstores serving the imagination and the fuel that lighted the music. I visited that city and went to CBGB's in the late 70's. Richard Hell was on the stage, David Johansen was near the entrance talking to someone sounding like a Dead End Kid, and then walks in Johnny Rotten. How perfect was that for a visitor from Los Angeles who is a Punk Rock fan! This memoir serves the same hunger and excitement for me.
One thing that stays in my mind is how little one knows Tom Verlaine. Hell writes about him with great love and horror disappointment at the same time. A love/hate, but I never get a clear picture of what makes this guitar god click. And it is not only in this book, but in all books about this period and series of characters. Verlaine seems to be a ghost in every narrative. Will there be a day when he will write his own memoir? Now that can be interesting?
“I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp” is Hell still keeping the high standards of his other books, which by the way are excellent. The memoir is very focused on the punk rock years, which I think will please the fan out there, but hopefully there will be a second part of this memoir. Hell is very much of the 20th Century Dandy, and his outlook in life is basically to find pleasure, and his taste in women are excellent. For those who read and loved “Please Kill Me” this book is an essential part of the big story.
“I Dreamed I Was...” is the flip side of Patti Smith's memoir, and its a perfect companion piece to that book. Both books to me are a love letter to what was New York, and how that city played in both artist's world and inspiration. So yeah I love Richard Hell and I love his memoir.