BY JOHN B. MOORE
Richard Hell’s autobiography is unlike any of the standard rock tell-all memoirs that have come off the conveyer belt these past few years. It shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering his non-musical vocations: his work as a poet years before taking the stage as one of New York’s earliest punk rockers, and his career a writer (both fiction and non-fiction) long after he hung up the mic.
To begin with, you have to get more than a third of the way through the book before he begins even talking about starting a band (while the template for the modern rock bio usually begins with the musician detailing his spiraling out of control relationship with sex, drugs, and likely both, as a result of Rock God status). And Hell (born Richard Lester Meyers) does get into his heroin addiction, but not until much later, and it comes out more matter of fact than the standard Behind the Music-esque scared straight tales (as read in recent bios by members of Aerosmith, Motley Crue, Guns N Roses, and on and on…). That’s not to say Hell’s memoir is short on salacious stories; there are plenty, including his revelations about his relationship with Nancy Spungen before she hooked up with Sid Vicious (it’s pretty clear, if Hell is to be trusted, that she was psychotic long before she paired up with Sid).
I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is an honest, if at times very detailed telling of his early life in Kentucky, his brief stint as a high school student at a boarding school in Delaware, and his transition from starving New York poet to punk rock pioneer as frontman and founding member of legendary bands like Television and The Heartbreakers (both of those short-lived tenures) and The Voidoids. Considering the colossal impact all three bands have had on punk and indie groups up to this day, it’s startling to imagine none of those groups was consistently active for very long. As for his attention to detail, Hell relays the layout of not only every apartment he had in New York dating back to the late ‘60s, but those of his friends and girlfriends as well, in savant-like feature.
In the years since, Hell has worked as a part-time music journalist, an actor, and a prolific novelist, poet and essayist. It’s surprising that it took this long for him to pen a formal recounting of his life, but it was worth the wait nonetheless.