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I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography
by Richard Hell (book review)

Review by Jessie Lynn
I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp: 
An Autobiography 
by Richard Hell (Ecco, 2013)

Richard Hell – founding member of Television, former member of The Heartbreakers (Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers, not Tom Petty’s), former frontman for The Voidoids, and writer – has published his memoir.

I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is the story of his early life.

He dreams of escape from suburban Kentucky, gets in trouble at school, then goes to boarding school in Delaware, where he meets Tom Verlaine (who he would later found Television with), then drops out and goes to New York City, where he makes small-run lit mags and eventually gets into music.  It’s impossible not to compare this book to Just Kids – Patti Smith’s memoir, which was published in 2010.

The comparisons between the two are easy to draw, because they both write about their childhoods and their eventual moves to NYC (where they were both early members of the burgeoning punk scene), and both their stories hinge on an intense friendship /creative partnership – Hell’s with Tom Verlaine, Smith’s with Robert Mapplethorpe.

It’s impossible not to draw the comparisons, and I like both, but I have to say, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is my favorite of the two.

Smith’s book was a slower read, for me, and I felt more of a kinship to Hell’s story. This feels strange for me to write down: I relate more to Richard Hell than I do to Patti Smith. You’d think, because of gender alone, I’d relate more to Patti Smith, but no – and who knows why. Maybe my sensibilities about art and life are more in line with Hell’s, or maybe it’s just because of the way he approaches the subject matter. In Just Kids, no matter what heart-rending topics she delves into, Smith seems somehow more detached from her story. In I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, Hell seems like he’s feeling it all, all over again.

I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is a perfect blend of three aspects of Richard’s personality. There’s the part of him that’s snarky and shit-talking. He writes things that are bitter and a little mean about many of the people he has encountered in his life. Most frequently, his old friend Tom Verlaine is the target of his vitriol (in modern lingo, we would refer to Hell and Verlaine as frenemies). What saves the book from reading like the tirades of a grumpy old punk is that Hell usually follows up his snarky comments with something that’s, if not entirely redeeming, at least somewhat understanding – not to mention, he’s harder on himself than he is on anyone else he mentions. There’s the part of him that just wants to lay down the facts, to say, ‘I was here at this place in time when a variety of people with a variety of influences converged, and that’s how punk happened.’ (And thank god he doesn’t fall into the trap so many punks seem to, the whole ‘my punk scene was the only true punk scene, punk has been dead since’ thing.)

And finally, the part of him that is a tiny bit sentimental – which is probably the element of the book that made me feel so close to it. He writes about the seedy elements of his past, the short-lived relationships with a variety of women, the drug abuse, the lack of money, and he says that he is glad he’s gotten past all that. But from the way he describes it all, you can tell that he also misses it, just a little. And I understand that – sometimes I miss those days, too: the days that were full of dysfunctional love affairs and one-night stands, drug and drink binges, and chronic broke-ness, but also full of utter inspiration.

Most of all, it is easy to see that he misses Tom Verlaine, and the descriptions of their friendship remind me of a couple tumultuous friendships from my own life. In the epilogue, he writes about a recent encounter with Verlaine, and this passage made me tear up:

“He continued to smile widely. His teeth looked brown and broken in the night light, even worse than mine (he still smokes), and his face was porous and expanded and his hair coarse gray. I turned away and walked on, shocked. We were like two monsters confiding, but that wasn’t what shocked me. It was that my feeling was love. I felt grateful for him and believed in him, and inside myself I affirmed the way he is impossible and the way it’s impossible to like him. It had never been any different. I felt as close to him as I ever did. What else do I have to believe in but people like him? I’m like him for God’s sake. I am him.”

All in all, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is a must-read for anyone interested in the early days of New York punk. And, if you’re anything like me, perhaps you will feel a deeper connection than that, and come away from it feeling like you’ve just been told a story by an old friend.

I urge you to buy this book from your local independent bookstore, but if you can’t find it that way – there’s always Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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