‘My favorite thing to do was run away,” Richard Hell writes about his younger self on the first page of his acute and acerbic autobiography “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.” He adds: “The words ‘let’s run away’ still sound magic to me.” In many ways, his almost but not quite quintessential coming-of-age tale, like the punk rock music he helped pioneer, is a testament to the unfettered drive to escape a world you don’t want any part of with self-reinvention. It’s also a cautionary one of a life that momentarily came unhinged.
Born Richard Meyers in Lexington, Ky., Hell depicts growing restless with suburbia, ditching high school and running off to the city for a life of outsider otherworldliness. “A day after Christmas in 1966,” writes Hell, “I left home permanently on a bus to New York.” In short order, he’s joined in seedy vagrancy by his old schoolmate Tom Miller. “We shared pretty much everything we had, except girlfriends,” writes Hell. “Since we didn’t have anything, it evened out.”
Around this time, Hell was feebly striving to be an avant-garde poet. He ended up a “stark and hard and torn up” singer, songwriter and bassist. An undeniably influential one. In the early to mid-1970s, Hell had a Zelig-like quality when it came to starting and being in epochal acts. He cofounded the proto-punk band Television with Miller, landed in the Johnny Thunders-led group the Heartbreakers, and ultimately began his own ground-breaking one, the Voidoids.
When he first became engrossed with music, he describes in the book, he threw out his surname for Hell since his given one “sounded hopelessly banal” and because, he says, “it captured my condition.” Miller followed suit, adopting the last name Verlaine (a nod to the poet and “archetypical bohemian mess” Paul Verlaine).
Indeed, the aesthete-punk persona Hell cultivated for himself is thoroughly mapped out here. So is his falling out with Verlaine, which culminated with Hell quitting Television.
In the course of the self-portrait, Hell reminds us how he played a central role in crafting the club CBGB into the once cultural zenith of lower Manhattan (and in his estimation “the most interesting thing happening in the world at that time for both high art and popular culture’’).
He chronicles how his “deliberately calculated style’’ ignited the archetypal punk look — the ripped clothes, the safety pins, the unruly chopped hair — that was later adopted and popularized by the Sex Pistols.
Guest appearances, of course, also flourish. Early on, Hell claims Allen Ginsberg made a failed pass at him when the poet spotted him doing construction work in his nascent days in the city. “It made me think of Walt Whitman admiring the sweat-sheened torsos of laborers,” writes Hell.
Typically, Hell teeter-totters with admiration and insult. On the Ramones: “popular but were regarded by the core movers as intrinsically minor, a kind of novelty act.” On Thunders: “genuinely smart” but his lyrics “were half-assed in never having an original idea or turn of phrase.” Hell sizes up singer and poet Patti Smith by writing that she “was more charismatic than me and a better performer and drew bigger crowds” but also “a hypocritical, pandering diva, and her band was generic and mediocre.”
The book is anything but diffident. It also has some well-worn tropes. Most (male) rock autobiographies and memoirs are at least in part an indexing of sexual conquests and drug abuse, and Hell’s book is smothered with them. Hell the heroin fanatic. Hell the horndog. Sometimes the drugs and sex go hand in hand, as when he describes his incursion into sadomasochism: “My introduction to the real, complex pleasures of slave ownership began on a hot summer night in 1979, at the loft of my crystal meth dealer.”
In the end, the demiworld salad days came crashing down. Hell ended up a full-blown junkie, subsequently sobered up and quit music in 1984. Nonetheless, one of the results — this valuable book — is not only an absorbing cultural history but also a clear-eyed story that superbly channels the attitude expressed in the first blurt to his best-known song “Blank Generation”: “I was saying let me out of here before I was even born.”
Eric Allen Been, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @ericallenbeen.