In 1979, at age 16, I saw Richard Hell & the Voidoids at CBGB, the first rock show I ever paid for with my own money. I remember being in awe of the venue, of Hell himself, and his guitarist Robert Quine — he of the bald pate and dark sunglasses. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this night surely had an impact on my future trajectory; I do know that it impacted my wardrobe immediately.
So I’ve been waiting a long time for I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, Hell’s coming of age story and account of the early days of the New York punk scene, with revelatory, sometimes vulgar (in a good way) stories of the New York Dolls, the Mercer Arts Center, CBGB, Patti Smith, Andrew Wylie, Dee Dee Ramone, Nancy Spungen, Lizzy Mercier, and Tom Verlaine.
Hell covers a similar time and place as Patti Smith’s Just Kids; both arrived in New York City in 1967 and both became more successful as singers and songwriters than as poets — Hell’s verdict on William Carlos Williams notwithstanding. (“I knew I could write better than him.”) But where Smith’s book is all about innocence and art and her quest for sacred poetry, Hell mixes the high and the low to enjoyable effect. He discusses his favorite poets, such as Ted Berrigan and Bill Knott, but also writes about good drugs and bad, good sex, bad sex, drug sex, and awkward sex. “The difficult sex seemed normal at the time,” he writes. “God knows I craved it.” He shares the transcendent moment “When I eventually got a finger inside a vagina, at thirteen or fourteen, it was like being ordained into a new dimension,” and confesses that, in 1967, he pretended to like Sgt. Pepper only so he could get into a girl’s pants.
The heart of the book is Hell’s friendship with Tom Verlaine, whom he met at Sanford Preparatory School in Delaware. Together, these skinny, misfit kids took long road trips together, to Kentucky, Florida, and Alabama, and together they were expelled from school after one of these trips. By 1969, they’d both wound up in New York, best of friends who in some ways didn’t even like each other. “There was an unspoken competition going on,” Hell writes. After years of working in bookstores, hanging out, collaborating on poems and songs, Hell and Verlaine decided to start a band called the Neon Boys. Soon, with the addition of guitarist Richard Lloyd and drummer Billy Ficca, they would take the name Television. Hell played bass and shared singing and writing with lead guitarist Verlaine. He writes that he had neither aptitude nor the desire to be a real musician; he was not a bass player, but rather a singer and writer who happened to play the bass, a poet who had “taken a detour” into the musical life.
Hell realized that “There is more to having a band than writing and performing songs, and instantly I felt like I was in my element — that I could do this in a way that had hardly ever been done before.” He was keenly interested in the fashion and the self-invention of being in a band, and he devised Television’s image: the clothes, photo shoots and his haircut, a self-made ‘do that immediately signified that you couldn’t possibly hold down a job. He wrote press releases and designed posters, and of course there was the name change: Richard Meyers became Richard Hell, and Tom Miller became Tom Verlaine.
He writes of the joy of those early Television years, the most exciting of his career in music: “it was like having magic powers… it was like being born.” But it didn’t last. Hell and Verlaine’s friendship survived prep school and road trips and shitty jobs, but it would not survive being in a band together. This is the risk you blithely take when you start a band with your best friend.
As Television grew in popularity, he writes, Tom Verlaine grew cold and egotistical. And when Verlaine started dating Patti Smith, he became, as Hell puts it, “insufferable.”
I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what Verlaine was doing that was so annoying. (And I should disclose that though I don’t know him well, Verlaine played guitar on two songs for Luna’s Penthouse album). But I’ve had this same charge leveled at me by former bandmates — that as the band became more popular (and I was also 26 years of age at the time) I changed, that success went to my head.
Of course, the dynamics do change when a band experiences even a small measure of success, and it surely goes to everyone’s head. Instead of just playing in your rehearsal room or to a crowd of 12 friends on Tuesday night, you’re now doing interviews and traveling together, and he who stands at the front of the stage is now getting more attention, and that in itself might be insufferable. Or maybe one person is jumping around on stage while another would prefer he not do that (and I’ve been on both sides of this argument). Insufferable, like betrayal, takes two. Insufferable is also what you are when the band is about to splinter.
Hell describes Television’s early sound as “rackety,” although “in a glorious way.” But to Hell’s dismay, “That’s not what Tom was interested in anymore. He heard these crystal-clear crisp sweet-guitar suites of highly arranged series of time and dynamics in his head, and they were about specific parts constructed for effect where everything was subordinate to what his guitar would be doing.” Clearly, one of them had to go, and it wound up being Hell. And this was as it should be — Television lost a singer but achieved their ideal. It is obvious now that Hell’s “Love Comes In Spurts” and Verlaine’s “Venus De Milo” belong on different albums, and that Hell was inventing punk rock while Verlaine had other concerns.
Hell then spent a short period with ex-New York Doll Johnny Thunders in the Heartbreakers. They would rehearse three times a week and score a bag of heroin each after rehearsals. Hell was happy with their shows and happy with his life. “I got to live the ideal I’d had in mind when I came to New York to be a poet — to have a well-placed platform for saying things to the world, and an audience that thrived on it and wanted to have sex with me because of it, and I ran my own life, had no boss. And there were drugs and money.” Soon enough he recognizes that he doesn’t belong in this band either, that his lyrical concerns are very different from Thunders’, that he needs to put together his own thing.
He hooks up with another brilliant guitarist, Robert Quine (who later played with Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull, and Matthew Sweet, among others) to form Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Quine was, Hell writes, “the best rock and roll soloist ever.” (He also includes Verlaine in a short list of other greats). Hell acknowledges that in the Voidoids he surrounded himself with very talented musicians: aside from Quine, there was rhythm guitarist Ivan Julian and drummer Marc Bell, who went on to become Marky Ramone. “For nearly the entire time I was a professional musician,” he writes, “I chose ignorance. I depended on instinct and attitude rather than technical knowledge.” And this, I think, is often what makes the most interesting bands: not a band where no one can play (though that can work for an album or so), nor a band where every member is a virtuoso (which should sound great but instead oven becomes unfocused) but a mix. If just one of you can play well (preferably the drummer), that pulls the whole thing together.
Hell details the pitfalls of entering into a truly bad recording contract at age 26, giving up 50% of his earnings to a management company, a deal that would haunt him for years. Record companies prey on the young, he says. They know that you desperately want to make your album and that you have no money, so they proffer a terrible deal. (I was offered a deal like that in the early days of Galaxie 500, and we wanted to sign it too. Thankfully our lawyer protected us.) Never mind, thought Hell, let’s sign the deal, it’s only for a couple of albums and I’ll be making an album every year from now on. (In fact, Hell’s entire recorded output consists of three albums.)
Everyone who is not English knows that Richard Hell (along with the Ramones and others in New York and Cleveland) invented punk rock. But one day Hell visits Blondie in the studio and Chris Stein shows him a photo in a European magazine of four guys who “look just like you.” The Sex Pistols were assembled by one Malcolm McLaren, who was well acquainted with Richard Hell’s music and fashion sense and seems to have appropriated this look for his own band. And they have names like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious and wear ripped clothes and safety pins, just like Hell was doing the year before. And Hell admits he finds this all rather deflating, but when he hears the Pistols he knows that they are amazing in their own right. “Rotten was all energy and extroversion,” he notes. “I was the opposite, a sullen forlorn junkie outcast who wanted to be left alone, except by admiring girls.”
The punk explosion in England is a much bigger (and younger) scene and it turns everything upside down. Soon Hell finds himself on tour in the UK, opening for the Clash, being called a “poser” by snotty NME journalists, driving ’round England with four musicians and a tour manager crammed into a Mini (not a minivan, a Mini) while the Clash travel in a tour bus.
“By the end of the first week of our traveling I’d accepted that I wanted to leave rock and roll,” he writes. I know from my own experience that touring the UK will do this to you — I now instruct my agent to keep UK tours to four dates or less. Preferably less. Of course, many English bands tour the US and feel the same way. It takes a certain stubborn type to be able to handle touring, the strange mix of glory and boredom, high times and humiliation. Some come back from that first tour determined never to do it again.
Hell did make another Voidoids album, Destiny Street. He details the rehearsal and recording sessions, when he was a raging coke addict, running to the bathroom to shoot up every 20 minutes. They had three weeks to make the album and for one of those weeks he was unable to make it to the studio at all; instead he would telephone and say “add more guitars.” Unsurprisingly he was not satisfied with how it turned out. “All I could hear,” Hell writes, “was my indifference and self-destruction, fatalism and raw mania.”
When you complete a difficult album, for a while all you hear is the pain that went into making it, the arguments that took place, your ambivalence about your own voice or lyrics. And maybe listening to that album still reminds Hell of his own personal failures in that period, since he re-recorded parts of Destiny Street, singing new vocals and adding new guitars by Bill Frisell, Mark Ribot and Ivan Julian, in 2009 and retitled it Destiny Street Repaired. But do seek out the original: Richard Hell sounds like himself, a little broken at moments but I would argue that this is part of the appeal, rather than something that needs a fix.
Hell wraps up his story in 1983, after a disastrous/hilarious trip to Paris. At this point he stops taking drugs and stops making music, choosing instead the life of a writer.
I’ve read a lot of these musical memoirs. Most are ghostwritten, and while they may still have personality and can be entertaining, I consider this a cheat. Other rock bios are tasteful and cautious — you feel the writer take you to a certain point but then pull back, not wanting to tell you anything unsavory or embarrassing. Hell will take you right there, and that is why this book is an honest and special treat.