Old Book Review: Richard Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp

The following book review, which I am pretty sure was the second one that I ever wrote,  originally appeared on DigBoston.com in March or April 2013.

Since today is Richard Hell’s 70th birthday and his name has popped up more than once in the book that I am currently reading — Girl To City: A Memoir by Amy Rigby — and because all of my pre-2015 online Dig material has long since vanished, I figured this was a good opportunity to revisit my long-neglected blog by posting it here.

In his new book I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (HarperCollins), Richard Hell—arguably the first New York City punk rocker—writes that “the ground work that we’d laid was paying off big for complete strangers.”

The “we” in this statement was the early 1970s line-up of his first band, Television. The “complete strangers” were, among others, The Sex Pistons.

Granted, The Damned and The Ramones released the first punk recordings in 1976, one year before Richard Hell & The Voidoids released their debut album, Blank Generation. However, “punk” designated a style and attitude before the sound associated with the term was captured on vinyl.

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp tells the story of how this way of life was realized by a boy born Richard Meyers in the Bluegrass State in 1949.

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Meyers was a poor student and a bit of a troublemaker growing up, but he was no dummy. His father, who died in 1957, was an experimental psychologist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University. If the shirtless, poolside pic of him on page 2 is any indication, he was damn handsome, too. (Hell himself was not much of a looker, but lucky for him, “playing rock and roll made a person handsome.”) His mother got a Ph.D. in 1965 and taught American literature at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

Having such brainy parents must have helped him get the “highest scores in the whole school” on a standardized achievement test in junior high. This, in turn, was his ticket to admission to boarding schools in Kentucky and Delaware. He was frequently suspended from both and eventually expelled from the latter.

After being expelled, Meyers made a deal with his mom to attend a public high school in Norfolk until he saved enough money to transplant himself to New York City. On December 26, 1966, at age 17 and sans a high school diploma, Meyers hopped a bus to the Big Apple.

This happens on page 51 of the book. The remaining 230 pages cover his life in New York City—with one brief excursion to Santa Fe, New Mexico—from 1967 to 1984, when he retired from music. Thus, “A Memoir” would have been a more accurate subtitle than “An Autobiography.”

After he arrives in the Naked City, Hell tells nothing of what became of his mother or younger sister. Nor do we learn when and how he met the woman to whom he is currently married. I found this disappointing.

The story he does tell, however, is fascinating and poignant.

In New York, he worked many jobs. These included a construction job during the course of which he got hit on by Allen Ginsberg. (Not to be, it would turn out, the last time that he would reject something that Ginsberg offered him.)

Although Meyers moved constantly and never made much money, he never wanted for female companionship, even if it meant having to pretend that he liked Sgt. Pepper by The Beatles.

In 1968, he began an affair with the soon-to-be ex-wife of artist Claes Oldenburg. This one-and-a-half-year relationship brought the young tramp, very clean or otherwise, into personal contact with the artists Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Willem de Kooning.

Tom Miller, Meyer’s only friend from school in Delaware, eventually moved to New York as well. Together, they resumed what Hell calls “the most meaningful friendship I’ve had, I think, and the last male friendship of its importance.”

In 1972, Meyers and Miller changed their “hopelessly banal” last names to Hell and Verlaine, respectively, and started a band called The Neon Boys. This band went nowhere, but Television—the band that they formed a year later—was a different story.

In describing videotaped 1974 rehearsals of Television, Hell writes, “modern punk can be seen first emerging …: four pathologically skinny guys in ripped shirts, tight black and blue jeans, and spiky short hair blasting their brains out … in the service of compelling, noisy, contemptuous, angry, but also lyrical, rock and roll.”

Hell further describes the band’s fashion sense: “In early 1974 we were dressed in cheap black leather (before the Ramones) and torn shirts stuck together with safety pins, thrift-store suits, sunglasses and sneers and throwaway grins and short hair …”

To sum up, “Television at CBGB represented the Future [sic] …” and “the beginning of the rejection of hippie values and the rejection of star worship …”

Hell is not giving himself undue credit for his influence on American and English punk rock. After all, the man who saw Television at CBGB in 1974 and 1975 and offered to take Hell under his wing after he had left Television and joined The Heartbreakers (not Tom Petty’s band) was Malcolm McLaren.

Hell recalls a 1976 incident in which Chris Stein—the Blondie guitarist who had unsuccessfully auditioned for The Neon Boys—called Hell over to look at a picture in a European rock magazine of, in Stein’s words, “four guys who look exactly like you!” Those four guys were The Sex Pistols. Their manager was Malcolm McLaren.

Hell’s response was, “Malcolm really did like me … This thing is really breaking out.”

By this time, Hell had left The Heartbreakers in the hope of forming a new band of which he would be the leader. That band was The Voidoids, who recorded the classic punk songs “Love Comes in Spurts” and “Black Generation.”

According to Hell, “One could say I’d been good, as well as happy, for five minutes in the Neon Boys/Television and ten minutes in the Heartbreakers, and I would be happy and good for twenty minutes in the Voidoids.”

He may have been happy, but he was also trapped in the throes of drug addiction.

“What had begun as an occasional vacation …in the Television days,” Hell declares, “had become a regular routine in the Heartbreakers, and by 1977 I was using a bag or two [of heroin] every day.”

Before long, cocaine and speed became a regular part of his diet.

The story of Richard Hell the musician is sex, junk, and punk. I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp tells that story effectively and—as far as I know—honestly.

Hell does not glamorize or demonize anything of which any reader is likely to change his or her opinion. He does not preach “just say no” when “I was sleepless, in full-body pain, and sweating and vomiting and spurting diarrhea” might send the same message.

Hell is a pretty good writer who knows how to turn a phrase, such as “It tasted like cold God.” Although what he has written cannot properly be called an autobiography, he succeeded grandly at writing “about a person through time” and “time through a person.”

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THROWBACK: MARQUEE MOON BY TELEVISION

This coming Monday (5/12), Television is playing at the Paradise Rock Club. So I figured, why not revisit the review that I posted on Amazon.com in February 2004? No reason at all!

A decade on, I would say that I stand by all that I wrote about this highly revered album. But remember, I was 10 years younger when I wrote about it.

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Truly Unique, but Not Equally Great

This CD is difficult to review. For one thing, its reputation precedes it. It is universally hailed as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, so that might predispose the listener to read greatness into it. For another, it is difficult to classify. It has its moments of catchy songcraft, but it is certainly not pop. And it is NOT punk, neither in sound nor in attitude. At best, it is punk by association: Richard Hell (click for my review of his autobiography) was an early member, Malcolm McLaren offered to manage them, they played at CBGBs, the LP was released in 1977, Tom Verlaine wrote and recorded with Patti Smith, etc.

The whole of Marquee Moon generally does not follow any sort of obvious conventional structure, and it is more easily contrasted with than compared to other CDs of its era.

Finally, there is nothing obviously terrible about the CD, nor anything obviously and consistently great (except for the guitar work). So the album is very much a one-of-a-kind affair, and might be described as a warped sort of post punk or new wave. It is thoroughly unconventional without being particularly radical (although that may be a radical achievement in itself). However, uniqueness does not entail greatness, and in the case of Marquee Moon, the uniqueness is much more apparent than the greatness.

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So what is it that is so great about this CD? Well, it is impossible to not be impressed by the inspired and majestic guitar work. Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine trade off of each other with intuitive artistic ease.

They might be accused of showing off because it sounds so good, but this is one of the least pretentious guitar showcases that I have ever heard. It is virtuosic, but in a professional, unflashy way.

One cannot help but feel that beauty and grace with the instrument just comes naturally to them. Snotty and snarling riffs, ringing arpeggios, bright cascading scales, and wild and crazy solos adorn every song on the CD.

Richard Lloyd (left) and Tom Verlaine with Lou Reed

Richard Lloyd (left) and Tom Verlaine with Lou Reed

Unfortunately, the guitar work is the best part of every song, and the other components suffer a bit at its expense. Tom Verlaine’s voice is not great, but it is at least nicely off beat and it suits the material well enough. But the lyrics are often a bit too obscure, and one must not mistake obscurity for profundity (which is largely lacking on this record). Verlaine may have been a poet, but he wasn’t a great one.

Moreover, the emotion of each song seems a bit calculated, but that may be, in part, a downside of the naturally good guitar playing.

Still, the lyrics to “Venus”, “Guiding Light,” and “Torn Curtain” are quite beautiful. And the title track is stunning.

All of that said, however, I would certainly not discourage anyone from at least listening to this CD. Its uniqueness is itself refreshing and rewarding to the patient listener. Moreover, the weight of its reputation is lifted by repeated listenings, and once that happens, the listener is able to hear it for what is it: a fine, ambitious, and largely unpretentious record. Some of the songs are better than others, but none of them sound out of place. The CD plays very well as a whole, and should be listened to in a single sitting. And the influence of the album’s NYC cool is plain to see in bands like The Strokes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

BUT STILL, Marquee Moon‘s greatest asset is its uniqueness, and while that may not translate to an equal level of greatness, it still proves the validity of the effort.

And enough people have heard something all-around spectacular in this record, and it is worth taking the chance that you may be one of them.

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Left to Right: Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Billy Ficca, Fred Smith

(One last thing: There have been tests done in which each participant is shown three lines of obviously different lengths. S/he is asked to pick the longest one. When s/he picks the obviously longest one, s/he is told that most people picked a different one. Then s/he is asked if s/he wants to change his/her mind. Many participants do. What’s my point? This: if I were to call this CD “punk,” I would feel like one of the people in the study who changed his mind, i.e., like someone who said something he knew to be false just because everyone else did.)