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)

I SWEAR I WAS THERE - David Nolan {292 pages, John Blake Books}
Subtitled, ‘SEX PISTOLS, Manchester And The Gig That Changed The World’ this is an in-depth look at the two gigs SEX PISTOLS played in Manchester in 1976 and all that followed in their wake.
If you are unaware of the story, here’s a quick synopsis. Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto (who went onto form BUZZCOCKS), head to London to see SEX PISTOLS - a band garnering attention in the music press. Blown away, they invite the PISTOLS to do a gig in Manchester at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. Those in attendance are changed for life, the PISTOLS become a legend and, although only 28 people paid to get into the first of the two gigs, thousands now claim to have attended.
Nolan has done an incredible job here, tracking down those who actually went - and have the ticket stubs to prove it - and those who say they went. It’s often a contentious story, with lots of claims and counter-claims on who went, what occurred and the cultural importance of the event.
His narrative is inter-woven amidst the aural biography style quotes of those he has interviewed. He is clearly a quick and clever witted man, writing with flair and pointing out some serious contradictions in the stories he relays. Of those interviewed are original Pistol Glen Matlock, Devote and Shelley as well as John Maher and Steve Diggle who made up BUZZCOCKS at the second gig, Mick Rossi and Wayne Barrett of SLAUGHTER AND THE DOGS who also supported at the second gig, TV presenter Tony Wilson, Mark E Smith of THE FALL, Peter Hook of JOY DIVISION/ NEW ORDER and some associated with Solstice - the band that supported the Pistols at the first Manchester gig.
There is great debate about whether Tony Wilson was at the first or second gig, the guys from SLAUGHTER.. make hilarious reading as does the expose of Mick Hucknall of Simply Red when he is discovered to have re-invented his own past to state he was at the gigs. In fact, one interviewee possibly takes quote of the book as, when asked if he saw Hucknall at the first gig, replies "I didn’t see no Charlie Drake lookalikes."
Besides the two gigs, the book also looks at the band’s TV debut on the So It Goes show. From there the formation of Factory Records, the Hacienda Night club, Madchester, The Smiths and Oasis are all examined and proven to have a direct link back to those two PISTOLS gigs.
The book is filled out with just four pages of glossy photos, a few additional graphics and a cast of characters.
This is a very easy book to read, there’s no over-intellectualizing of the story/ myth, the aural biography style allows the book to flow in a chronological order and makes the juxtaposition of opposing opinions and memories even more effective. It’s real strength however is in the depth of research Nolan has done to bring the full, as-true-as-possible story to the reader, and the energy which he brings to the story. If you think you’ve read all you need to know about SEX PISTOLS, that nothing new can be written from any one who wasn’t in the band, think again. (03.08.17)