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March 17, 2013 / schulerbooks

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography by Richard Hell


Who the hell is Richard Hell? If you have to ask that question, you haven’t been paying attention.

In the 70’s and early 80’s, Hell (real name Richard Meyers) was the cofounder of three bands: Television, the Heartbreakers, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He quit both Television and the Heartbreakers due to conflicts with other band members, and then went on to form the Voidoids, where he could actually drive the bus for a change.

While saying that all three outfits were incredibly influential is simply stating the truth, that’s like saying that Beethoven was a great composer, or Shakespeare wrote some pretty nifty plays. It can be argued that, had there been no Richard Hell to help mold and form the early influences of the music that came out of New York City in the mid to late 70’s, the resulting punk explosion simply would not have happened the way that it did, or with as much ferocity, or the same style and esthetics.

Which means that, if you were slamdancing at hardcore shows in the 80’s, had Sex Pistols or Clash posters up on your walls in high school or college, and still sneer at “punk rock” acts that play large stadiums and charge an arm and a leg for tickets, then you have Richard Hell to thank.

And if you close your eyes and make believe, you might just imagine he’s sneering right alongside you — safety-pinned shirt and all.

Richard retired from music in 1984, after the Voidoids broke up. Since then, he’s been concentrating on writing, producing novels and a wealth of poetry, commentary, and criticism. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is his long-awaited autobiography.

And saying that it’s phenomenal is, again, like saying that that Beethoven guy was really something.

When it comes to an autobiography, you have to understand that you’re being told a story. A biography is an exercise in provable facts (so as to avoid very angry editors and highly-litigious estates) because you’re telling someone else’s story, and you really need to get it right. But an autobiography is like sidling up to a stranger at a bar, and buying them a drink in exchange for them telling you about their childhood, or their first job, or the first in a long string of lovers who did them wrong.

If you pass them enough drinks they might just pass out, but hopefully not before you get to the real meat of their life and work, and maybe a revelation or two. If you’re lucky they’re really good at telling stories.

As anyone who’s  listened to his lyrics or read his poems or novels can tell you, Richard Hell is really damn good at telling stories. Tramp sings the song of his life up until 1984, when he quit music, and it’s told in what appears to be naked honesty — quite literal, in many spots — complete with his triumphs and failures, slights and revenges, and a philosophy that may bend but not quite break. There are lines in here worthy of song, and for all we know they may have already been performed, somewhere along the way.

By the time you’re done with it, you feel like you were there, laughing and loving and crying along with him, and feeling like maybe you missed something by not cohabiting his sphere of existence. Whether it’s entirely true or not is a matter for others to parse out and argue over; this book was meant to be a rich and filling feast — who cares what went into the sausage?

But one thing this autobiography isn’t — for which I call it phenomenal, as opposed to just darn good — is a story with a purpose.

Far too many autobiographies are written for a reason other than just telling the story of a life: the reporter who wants to say why she got fired from the major newspaper; the possible or failed presidential candidate; the outed spy or the crapped-upon victim; the man who cut his hand off to escape a hungry rock. All these stories are presented to us in order to give their side of “the story,” or get some kind of revenge or justice by way of the court of the public eye, or else justify their having lived instead of died.

Tramp hasn’t been written to denigrate Hell’s cohorts, excoriate his exes, or prove how valuable he was to the time where he had the most input. Like the perfect song, it exists simply for its own sake, and can be enjoyed without worrying about devious subtexts, or having to watch out for the bill of goods it might stick you with.

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography is out now, in Hardcover, and available at all Schuler Books and Music locations.

– Jim Tremlett


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