By Richard Hell
Richard Hell changed the world with a t-shirt and a haircut. The legend goes that Malcolm McLaren, hanging around New York after managing the New York Dolls in their waning days, saw Hell, his hair chopped and spiky, wearing a torn t-shirt with “Please Kill Me” scrawled on it. McLaren, who knew an icon for ruined youth when he saw one, returned to England, and one day in 1976, Chris Stein of Blondie showed Hell a picture in a European rock magazine:
Everybody in the band had short, hacked-up hair and torn clothes and there were safety pins and shredded suit jackets and wacked-out T-shirts and contorted defiant facial expressions. The lead singer had changed this name to something ugly…. I thought, “This thing is really breaking out.”
The band was the Sex Pistols, the “thing” was Punk, and in any history of the music written since, Hell has as much claim to starting the movement as anyone else. He’s that breed of celebrity revered in certain sub-cultures and utterly unknown otherwise, but for those whose lives were changed by the punk/new wave movement in mid-1970s New York City, he’s a bit of a legend. In a five year period, he defined the look and attitude for a new international youth culture, was instrumental in turning the Bowery dive bar CBGB’s into a breeding ground for groups like Television, Talking Heads, Patti Smith Group, and the Ramones, and with his band the Voidoids, produced Blank Generation, one of the seminal, and most enduring, albums of the new wave zeitgeist. Then, alas, came heroin. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is Hell’s memoir of his rise and fall, an eccentric testament to the powers and limitations of self-invention, and like his career, a hodgepodge of singular achievement and dwindled potential.
Hell, born Richard Meyers, comes from intellectual stock; his parents met as grad students studying psychology, and his father, upon receiving his PhD, became an experimental psychologist. Dr. Meyers found teaching work at the University of Kentucky, Mrs. Meyers became a homemaker, and Richard grew up adrift in the idylls and monotony of the Lexington suburbs. His father was Jewish and his mother Methodist, and while it’s tempting to view Hell’s seismic rending of cloth as a nod to paternal heritage, the Meyerses were never beholden to a strong sense of lineage:
There wasn’t much awareness of family, or family history. I had no real understanding of what a Jew was, for instance, though I knew that my father’s family fit that description somehow. I thought Judaism was a religion, and we didn’t have any religion…. My roots are shallow. I’m a little jealous of people with strong ethnic and cultural roots. Lucky Martin Scorsese or Art Spiegelman or Dave Chappelle.
In the void of assimilation, he found a new place of origin: the space in front of the family television. “I came from Hopalong Cassidy and Bugs Bunny,” and a few of the book’s photos bear this out, the child swaggering in cowboy attire, brandishing six-shooters, an anomalous pipe, and the squint of a grizzled cowhand peering deep into a sun-bleached prairie. His tribes were “the fan clubs, or the brotherhoods, of the heroes of the Saturday-morning TV shows,” but after outgrowing the Flash Gordon club, he moved on to the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, casual drug use and minor transgressions. He was a typical small town misfit knucklehead, evidently benign enough not to spur the overt intervention of psychology majors, but frustrating enough to inspire his mother to interrupt one of their drives by silently pulling the car over and banging her head repeatedly against the steering wheel. It was exactly the type of life that a teenager in love with Lautréamont and psychedelic drugs would ultimately find unbearable, and after a few false starts, his wanderlust led him to New York City.
For ten years he bounced between apartments and menial jobs, wrote poetry, dove into the mimeograph aesthetic endemic of the time, and produced a poetry magazine called Genesis: Gasp; in other words, a typical bohemian life on the Lower East Side in the mid-‘60s, when rents were still in the double-digits and the mark of arrival was getting hit on by Allen Ginsberg. Then a former schoolmate, Tom Miller, showed up, and Richard Meyers began to morph into something unique.
First, he changed into half a woman. Miller and Meyers collaborated on poems, credited them to “Theresa Stern,” had solo pictures taken of each wearing makeup and an unruly black wig, then created an author portrait by superimposing the two. “Feminism and androgyny and tranvestitism were in the air,” they figured. “We’d cash in!” Somehow, riches didn’t materialize. But the collaboration was fun and productive, and, inspired by New York Dolls gigs at the Mercer Arts Center (“unlike anything I’d ever experienced…parties…physical orgies…like some kind of funny dirty religious revel”), they started writing songs. Miller became Verlaine and brought the musical chops. Meyers became Hell and brought “my conception of the band as a subculture.”
The style was “stark and hard and torn up, the way the world was.” Clothes were “torn and frayed and sometimes held together by safety pins.” And of course, there was the hair:
I arrived at the haircut by analysis. Rock and roll had had two main innovative hairstyles so far: the Elvis ducktail, and the Beatles bowl cut. I tried to figure out what they signified and what they had in common and what made them work. Elvis’s more or less had already existed – it’s power was in its southern underclass hoodlum origin (along with the reverse-machismo of the way it required so much attention to maintain and in that way screamed vanity), and the shock of that suddenly being splashed as glamorous and successful onto the front pages of national music magazines and then newspapers, when before it’d been limited to mug shots – truck drivers and bootleggers and petty thieves.
The Beatles’ haircut, on the other hand, had been created by the band. It said two interesting, conflicting things: one was innocence and youthful charm, since it was a hairstyle typical of five-year-olds of the Beatles’ generation, and two was perversion, transgression, and defiance, since among adults only girls or bohemian freaks and artists work their hair that long.
I thought of what the haircut of my childhood had been, and it was a super-short, stiff, almost military ‘butch’ or ‘crew’ cut that had gone ragged because kids don’t like going to barbers. When that patchy raggedness was exaggerated to the degree that I exaggerated it, it expressed defiance and criminality too. For one thing, a guy with a hair cut like that couldn’t have an office job. In addition, it didn’t require a barber. In fact no barber could even conceive of it. It was something you had to do yourself, and something that flaunted its freedom from propriety, even from stylishness.
If Hell had devoted this level of scrutiny to medicine, he might have cured cancer. Instead, he sparked a movement, and for a while, he and Verlaine had a symbiotic relationship that’s the closest Hell’s ever come to having a soul mate. They started a band called Neon Boys, soon renamed Television, and found a musical home in CBGB’s. Their scene flourished wildly, and for a time, Richard Meyers had effectively reinvented himself as a Tristan Tzara of the Lower East Side, a music and fashion provocateur, hero to both art-damaged outlaws and angry vagabonds whose version of rebellion would never extend past variations of ‘fuck you’:
Television was the beginning of the rejection of hippie values and the rejection of star worship (even ironically), replaced by a furious, if icy at times-and somewhat poetic-alienation and disgust and anger, expressed in the way we looked and behaved, and in [our] songs…. This was the essence of CBGB then and there – that we, with our rejected and extreme sets of beliefs and values and intentions, had managed to materialize an environment in which we were not outside, but at home ourselves. Where we were the positive standards of being, rather than examples of failure, depravity, criminality, and ugliness.
The invented persona, imbued with its attendant philosophy of lowlife empowerment, was, and continues to be, a resonant inspiration to misfit youth. But for Hell, who writes that “creating electrically amplified songs…was like being born,” it only provided for a very short life, as it didn’t (couldn’t possibly) satisfy his great recurring need – to leave.
In an interview with Punk magazine in 1976, Hell said, “Basically I have one feeling…the desire to get out of here. And any other feeling I have comes from trying to analyze, you know, why I want to go away…. See, I always feel uncomfortable and I just want to…walk out of the room. It’s not going to any other place or any other sensation, or anything like that, it’s just to get out of ‘here’.” So he left Television because the band was becoming too Verlaine-centric, then joined Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers and left them because he wanted a band that was more Hell-centric, then he formed the Voidoids and released Blank Generation, then became a full-fledged heroin addict and effectively left planet Earth.
Those who romanticize Hell’s scene, or whose lives were affected by the music, or even those looking for a coherent recapitulation of the era will be disappointed, if not distressed, by I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, which inadvertently reads like the greatest argument against hard drug use ever written. Hell eventually quit heroin, but the ravages of the life are evident on every page, not so much in the events (which will be mundane to anyone who’s read Bird Lives! or Hubert Selby, Jr.), but in the voice, a jumble of weird regressions, childish vulgarities, stale observations, incongruous metaphors, fatuous philosophy, and hackneyed conclusions. For those who admire Hell, it’s a painful experience, arousing both confusion and pathos, like listening to a beloved relative teetering on the edge of dementia.
Emblematic of the book’s style is Hell on losing his virginity, a masterpiece of anti-erotica and haphazard paragraph construction:
I didn’t have full sexual intercourse until I was fifteen. My only interest in her was that I thought she might let me do that. Sex drive overcomes almost everything. Many have died behind their dicks. After all, where does reckless aggression come from but testosterone, and where does testosterone come from? Many have died and many around them have been totally fucked. And often greatly liked it. But this unlucky girl didn’t like it, or very much of anything else, as far as I could tell. She was a waitress at a Big Boy drive-in by the university. She was nineteen, and a hillbilly from Appalachia, and she was not just narrow-minded and ignorant, but dumb as a rock and about as energetic. I flirted with her when I’d go in for a hamburger. I told her I was a premed student. I walked her home from work. Soon she gave me a key to her apartment.
The making out was not relaxed. It was like hacking through wilderness brush that clung to your ankles and scratched your face, as you struggled on, further and further, your heart racing because the incentive was so powerful. Namely female genitals: dripping wet pussy. In the end, her pussy wasn’t even very wet, she was so nervous and put-upon. Fucking her was horrible, though God knows I couldn’t get enough. Even once her clothes were off and she was lying under me on the bed, she didn’t participate, but resisted uncomfortably and for appearance’s sake, all the way through full penetration, which she refrained from giving any sign of joining, but rather lay there stoically, performing only a last symbolic hip buck or two of denial and refusal. This was to confirm that she wasn’t a disgusting person, but was permitting this terrible, embarrassing act as a begrudged extreme favor to me.
I understand there are still cultural strata where this is standard behavior even among married people. Thank god for pornography. Thank god for the sexual revolution and the pill, and rebellious, fun-loving girls. Though I can’t deny I am still repressed and American enough to like sex dirty. And I do love hair. Because it’s dead but personal and because I’m moved by the futility of its attempts to warm and protect the places where it grows.
Typing all the required [sic]s would give one carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s difficult to recall another book so intent on providing sentence-by-sentence bewilderment, or prose with less cumulative power. But Tramp is packed with such garbled madness, especially when it comes to women, girlfriends and otherwise, who have a special place in Hell’s life, as they serve the invaluable function of providing him with breasts. Hell has ogled many pairs, and is adamantly determined to relive the experience. There’s Catherine (“large breasts”), Paula Yates (“quite large breasts”), Liva (“luscious luscious [sic] large snow-white tits”), Roberta Bayley (“the prettiest breasts I’ve ever seen”), and Patti Smith, who receives an inordinate amount of respect from Hell for her writing, her performing, and her “massive tits deceptively draped in her threadbare overlarge Triumph motorcycles T-shirt”.
One can’t make too much of this, as Hell can’t make too much of this. For him, female private parts are not only objects of ceaseless obsession, but portals to hallucination. Carol had “breasts that lifted as if they were scenting the air,” an unnamed “sad, hysterical girl with red capillaries on her nose and cheekbones” had “large breasts that looked like twin Eeyores”. Eeyores. Then there’s Nan, whose “pussy got damp but not soaking wet. It was slick, like a squeaky rubber duck,” and another unnamed partner with whom “sex was tense and claustrophobic, like it was a room that had those infrared alarm beams crisscrossing it, like in jewel-heist movies.”
So this is a memoir by a 64-year old man who sees a woman’s erogenous zones as cartoon animals and a vagina as a jewel to be heisted, makes proclamations like, “I wanted to fuck her so much,” and pointlessly, cruelly, notes things like, “Kathy Acker wanted me to slap her while I fucked her in the ass.” He reserves his kindest words for Sable Starr, an “avant-garde underage groupie” that Hell, perhaps too defensively, notes is not a prostitute, but rather a “humanitarian benefactor” who graced him with “just about the nicest thing that anyone ever said to me. She told me that, at any time in the future, for the rest of my life, if I had the desire, all I had to do was ask her and she’d suck my cock.” If he considers an offer of unlimited fellatio the apex of human kindness, it goes a long way towards explaining why he’s crafted a memoir where Johnny Thunders doesn’t get as much text time as Kate Simon (Who? Exactly.), and why he views the real new wave in 1970’s New York as not so much about creative upheaval, but rather innovations in female servitude and the influx of donkey-breasted women.
Hell’s misogyny vacillates between jejune and vile, which gives that topic more range than his other philosophies, which function in the slightly narrower confines of anemic to inane. Having exhausted the possibilities of female objectification, Hell tackles the really big topics and offers the reader treatises on:
I suppose that’s what religions are all about – coming to terms with the way that behind the veil, nobody is different from anyone else, much less better, and no one even has any real control over phenomena, including themselves – and is the sense in which religions are true, recommending, under the circumstances, surrender to ‘God’ (which is to say, acceptance of ‘what happens’).
The American psyche:
Baseball, the apotheosis of romantic American self-image, is a good example of the national appreciation for winning dirty. Does a guy sliding into second ever honorably return to the dugout because he knows he was tagged before he touched base? No, the player cheats and lies if it increases his chance of winning. We take that for granted as built into the national pastime. Americans are not ‘gentlemen.’ Baseball is not cricket, which is played differently because the object is not ‘to win’ but to get exercise, and the players are ‘gentlemen.’ In America losers are considered fools if they haven’t played dirty enough. Winning justifies everything.
Progressive logic in the charisma/intelligence dynamic:
All charismatic people are smart, in the same sense that it’s the fittest that survive – tautologically. But that doesn’t make it any less valid. Stupid people look stupid; a charismatic person never looks stupid; therefore a charismatic person is smart.
Potential addicts undeterred by a fear of early death or the ignominies of the lifestyle might want to consider this kindred spirit’s wisdom of a lifetime. Quotes like these could set back drug legalization efforts by decades, perhaps centuries. After lines like “the huge, rough, but delicately leaf-budding trees were pretty in a transvestite kind of way” or “‘Be-In’ makes me think ‘donut,’ internal donut,” perhaps forever.
And on it goes, every page a tangle of prosaic commentary and stumbling idiosyncrasies. Whatever the actual state of Hell’s mind, his writing here is mostly insensate sputters, and the feeling it leaves is so disagreeable that it’s difficult to view the results as little more than a post-Just Kids exploitation of a once-vibrant imagination that has exhausted its resources.
That said, there is hope for one last re-invention. Since retiring from music, Hell has produced some noteworthy prose elsewhere, especially the novel Godlike, a sort of East Village Book of Disquiet that was, if indebted to obvious influences, witty, self-deprecating, and clearly expressed, no matter how unrestrained in subject or structure. It was written by a Richard Hell alive to disciplined lyricism and the wonders of tenderness. Tramp feels written by a Richard Hell alive only to puerile desires and contractual obligation. But buried inside are some genuinely moving passages where Hell is almost childlike instead of childish, where there is lucidity and vulnerability, and the notion that, contrary to his obstinate scuzziness, there was once an innocence that existed to be lost.
For some indiscernible reason, between two chapters on doings in the late ‘60s, Hell sandwiches a chapter where, in the present, he walks through his neighborhood and winds up at his late grandmother’s old apartment. The sentences become sensible, concise, unaffected by stabs at insight or poetic cleverness, and convey something all too rare in Tramp – a sense of genuine fondness, of wistfulness. Of care. “I was conscious of my grandmother and her selfless love. I remembered how it was possible for such a thing to exist, and I felt grateful again, not just to have been the object of it, but to recall the way certain people are that pure, and then I felt my own pettiness fall away for a moment.”
He should remember more often. Of his childhood runaway escapades, he writes of a bliss that Richard Meyers aspired to,
simply to sit in a diner in the darkest depths of the night drinking coffee with a friend. For many years it kept its potency, and for most of those years that friend was Tom. There’s an eternal, godlike feeling to sitting with a good friend in the middle of the night, speaking low and laughing, lazily ricocheting around in each other’s minds, eyes a little fuzzy and stinging maybe, sipping the flavorful, stimulating sugary hot milky coffee, voices hoarse, the restaurant’s harsh light isolating you inside the rampant darkness beyond the windows.
And when he recalls a childhood crush, how “I would lie in my bed at night thinking of Mimi McClellan and fantasize getting hit by a car so that she would take my hand and I could tell her that I loved her,” he gives a moment more moving and soulful than all of his adult observations combined. Richard Hell should have rephrased the t-shirt; the wrong ‘me’ got killed. Little Richard Meyers, who dreamt of being a cowboy and would suffer agonies to proclaim his love, was the real poet. Hopefully, the next time out, he’ll be the one to share his world.
Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine, teacher at City College, member of the Terranova Theater Collective, volunteer at the Housing Works Bookstore, and loiterer at the Hungarian Pastry Shop.