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Books - I

I DREAMED I WAS A VERY CLEAN TRAMP: An Autobiography - Richard Hell {308 pages, Harper Collins}
Anyone who has even a passing interest in the life of RICHARD HELL will know that he is an exemplary writer. He has lived a life of a poet, musician, actor and author while consuming a number of drugs and creating a vast array of stories and legend. This book, coming literally from the man himself, clarifies a number of rumours, corrects a few contradictions and adds fuel to the fire of the legend.
The book is a complete autobiography up to approximately 1984 when, by his own admission he "stopped playing music and stopped using drugs". It dates back to when his parents met in 1946 in New York and his upbringing in Lexington, Kentucky. It’s an interesting, touching and intimate story of childhood and adolescence, and cites the ‘only three albums’ he owned as a youth - ROLLING STONES, BOB DYLAN and THE KINKS.
Obviously he moves to New York and there the story takes off in terms of musical activity, poetry and drug use. In some ways, HELL’s constant referencing of poetry is a bit of a detraction for those (like me) who are more interested in his musical output and with whom he was socialising. He pulls no punches on sex and drug abuse and has some interesting (and not always polite) things to say about Tom Verlaine and TELEVISION. What he does emphasize though, is how much he enjoyed being in THE HEARTBREAKERS - that’s both as a functioning band and as a bunch of heroin-taking junkies. He is also full of praise for the VOIDOIDS guitarist, Bob Quine.
There is also a sense of bemusement and a susceptible naivety about a lot of his musical endeavours. The narrative certainly reads that he was a writer first, musician second - and in places it could be suggested a musician third after being a full-time addict.
It is without a doubt HELL’s story is dark, dangerous and hedonistic. Yet, he comes over as witty and honest, reflective but not self-absorbed; he recounts these tales in a very matter-of-fact way, as if we all had spent a great deal of our life shooting dope, indulging in illicit sexual acts and performing in three pivotal NYC bands at the very forefront of the birth of the original US Punk scene.
His narrative also exemplifies a New York City of the late 60s through to 70s that was a very different city from the one that exists today. There is no sugar-coating of those crime-riddled, filthy streets of the era. He was living in NYC accommodation for a rent that wouldn’t by a Manhattan Cocktail in Manhattan today. NYC virtually becomes another identity in the book - the apartments, the book stores, the venues - all take a life of their own when placed in the ghetto that was NYC in the mid-late 70s. His words lend a vague romanticism to the city, especially (but not exclusively) for those of us who dream of hanging in Max’s in 1974 or being on the Bowery in 1976.
The book is completed with some rarely seen photos from the likes of Roberta Bayley, Bob Gruen, Leee Black Childers and several from HELL’s own personal collection.
It seems everyone is doing autobiographies these days but you won’t find one that’s as gracefully written, as determinedly gritty or as powerfully evocative of the time it discusses as this book of Hell’s. (19.03.15)