If proof is ever needed that some of our most talented creative geniuses keep a low profile, we only need to look to Richard Hell, an experimental poet, ex-punk star, novelist and now memoirist, who lives a humble but glorious life around downtown New York City and graces us with a new book every few years. He is one of my favorite living writers, a marvelously inventive and truthful observer of humanity and critic of life. His new book is a bratty and colorful autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.
Born somewhere in the United States of America to a Jewish psychologist father and a southern Methodist mother, Hell quickly booked out of there and headed for New York City, where he made a living working in bookstores and cinemaphile collector shops and eventually played bass guitar, wrote and sang for three seminal punk rock bands, Television, the Heartbreakers (with Johnny Thunders, not Tom Petty), and finally his own outfit, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He had a signature hit with the Voidoids, "Blank Generation", but found that he was not cut out for the rock star life -- not even with all the heroin and crystal meth he applied to heal the pain.
He retired from rock in the early 80s to become a full-time writer, even though this meant he'd be scraping for a living until his dying day (as far as I know, has never attempted a lame "comeback" as a musician, though many old Voidoids fans like myself would surely like him to). He proved himself as a serious novelist in 1997 with Go Now, a tale of twisted love, and again in 2005 with Godlike, a modern-day retelling of the literary legend of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. I could not resist quoting this author liberally when I reviewed Godlike on this blog in 2005, because his shimmering nuggets of prose are simply so beautiful that I enjoy typing them in. After reading I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, I feel an urge to honor this excellent book by sharing quotes again.
Here are a few tastes. Richard Hell on childhood:
I set up a cigarette slow fuse on a pack of firecrackers in a locker at school. The rapid popping was amplified into one long crashing boom by the metal box. My homeroom teacher leaped into the hall and jumped back gasping, "The clock exploded!" ... I couldn't stop laughing, which might have been what gave me away. I was suspended for a week that time.
What I like about this anecdote is the Dali-like surrealism of "The clock exploded", which prefigures the fascination with time that would underlie his later work. The last sentence of this book is "I didn't want to write about a person through time, but about time through a person".
Here's Hell on the psychology of being a rock star, and the qualities he didn't personally have that would have allowed him to stick with it longer than he had.
Being a pop star, a front person, takes indestructible certainty of one's own irresistibility. That's the monster part. If that ego confidence doesn't eventually come so naturally that living at all is to flaunt it, you won't have what's necessary to give your audience the show, the stimulation, it needs. The audience needs it from the performer in order to identify with it, to give themselves the sense of their own power, to get the full effect and function of rock and roll. If starts off natural and even cute, in the beginners, but is fed and tested on the way to stardom until it's grotesque in every dimension except that of performance, where it is thrilling and uplifting, which is the sacred part. It's also usually a monster of stress on its adepts; not really a fate to be desired. Which is another reason the stars are so cranky. They hate everyone for making them into what they've turned out to be, so they rub everyone's faces in it.
Here's the young poet as an unknown in 1960s New York City, searching for a plan and letting his intellectual arrogance proudly fly:
I went to the library, too, to see who the other modern poets were. I disliked the educated, fastidious, grim ones like, say, Robert Lowell. I discovered William Carlos Williams, and that decided me that poetry was the ticket. He'd had book after handsome book published by New Directions, and was treated like a VIP, and I knew I could write better than him. I thought if he could make it with a few white chickens, a wet red wheelbarrow, and some cold plums in the icebox, I could damn well make it too.
More glorious arrogance: before becoming a musician the young upstart published a variety of zines, often with creative partners, including one called Genesis: Grasp while he was momentarily in Santa Fe, New Mexico:
Our finest moment there was getting a poem from Allen Ginsberg for the magazine, which he'd kindly sent on receipt of our pathetic solicitation, and then rejecting it. It didn't meet our standards of craftmanship. He wrote a cold angry couple of sentences back. We literally did not know what we were doing.
Actually, I think Richard Hell knew exactly what he was doing. Here he is on the meaning of style:
Stupid people look stupid; a charismatic person never looks stupid; therefore a charismatic person is smart.
One of my favorite sections in the book is Hell's close-up portrait of his musical partner Robert Quine, the dynamic and innovative lead guitarist for the Voidoids. It's amusing to learn that Hell discovered Quine as a fellow cinema-shop menial worker, and that Quine had no plans to do anything with his awesome musical talent until Richard Hell put him on stage (he would eventually be recognized as one of the best guitarists of the punk rock era, along with Steve Jones, and would play for Lou Reed and Matthew Sweet). Richard Hell (the psychologist's son) tries to deconstruct the mental jigsaw puzzle that was Robert Quine, who was clearly a shyer and more complex person than his gruff persona revealed.
I've seen over the years how a person sometimes absorbs bits of behavior from friends -- speech mannerisms or gestures. It can be eerie to recognize it in yourself after the friend has died. There was a thing Bob would do. Instead of smiling, he would just stretch his lips across his teeth in a cursory sign for "smile." His eyes wouldn't change at all, just his mouth for a moment. It was actually friendly -- a signal that he was not unwilling to expend the energy to give a little reassurance. I catch myself doing that now and feel switched with Quine for a second.
Richard Hell's work has always been marked by a self-tormenting unpredictability, and this book feels as edgy as everything else he's ever done. Hell dishes on his un-friends (he seems to really dislike Lenny Kaye and Victor Bockris), raves about Susan Sontag, complains about all the potatoes he had to eat when the Voidoids toured England with the Clash, and reminisces about all the women he loved, even sharing a topless photo of the former girlfriend (later a famous singer, apparently, though I never heard of her) who inspired his song "Another World".
It's gratifying to know that Hell specifically cherishes the memory of the song "Another World", the epic eight-minute closer to the "Blank Generation" album, which is probably the best track of his career. The song features excellent guitar lines by Robert Quine and a searing, moving vocal performance ... though when I listened as a teenager I always thought the coughing fit that ended the song sounded fake. But it probably wasn't fake. Nothing else about Richard Hell's career has ever been.