Richard Hell: Cold, angry days on the houseboat


I had Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation and Destiny Street in high school and although those were never albums I listened to from start to end a whole lot, I’ve always really loved a few of Hell’s songs: e.g. “Time” (“Only time can write a song that’s really really real”), “Love Comes in Spurts,” “Kid With the Replaceable Head,” and “Blank Generation.”  He was a bit of a punk-rock Zelig: a founding member of the great Television before his high school buddy Tom Verlaine kicked him out; briefly in Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers after the breakup of the New York Dolls; slept with Nancy Spungeon for a while before she got involved with Sid Vicious; opened for the Clash with the Voidoids in Britain in 1977.  That year Time dubbed him “the demon-eyed New Yorker who could become the Mick Jagger of punk” (it didn’t quite work out that way). I don’t think I had really known this, but Hell’s memoir (I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp) makes a convincing case that when Malcolm McLaren spent a while hanging around NYC in 1974-5, he admired Hell’s style — his good looks in torn leather jacket, the safety pins, spiky hair, aggressively graphic hand-printed text on t-shirts, a Situationist-influenced collage aesthetic — and that when he couldn’t recruit Hell to form his own band, McLaren just appropriated the look and gave it to the Sex Pistols. (Hell admits to spending some time feeling frustrated about his unacknowledged role as the originator of punk’s signature style, but seems Zen about it now.)

Robert Christgau claims that with the memoir Hell equals or exceeds Patti Smith’s achievement in the National Book Award-winning Just Kids.  I definitely disagree; overall I found I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp hit or miss. It has some great stories to tell, but eventually it devolves into a dispiriting narrative of heroin addiction, reflexive promiscuity, and missed opportunities– somewhat redeemed by the awareness that Hell eventually got clean and turned into an apparently healthy person.

Some examples:

Our record company was another source of disgust and disappointment.

Later, as the monotony and discomfort of the tour became more and more horrible, the great [Clash friend/ roadie] Roadent introduced me to his antidote for ennui — self-inflicted cigarette burns.  It worked and I still have the cherished memory on my left forearm.

Jake did a creative thing for us in London by renting a houseboat on the Thames, off Cheyne Walk, for the band to live in.  But it turned out not to be a good idea to cram us all into a tight space.  By the end of the first three days I was junk-sick and irritable… My hopelessness grew… It got labyrinthetically self-repellant… The entire… tour was just a stretched-out version of those first few cold, angry, nauseated days on the houseboat.

Some friend or editor also really should have gotten Hell to ease off on of the punk-groupie sex stories, which also get monotonous and depressing. He indulges too much in plain old objectification of the array of women who pass through his various fleabag Lower East Side bedrooms. “Although he’s self-deprecating about it of course,” Christgau writes (unfortunately), “Hell was New York punk’s great ladies’ man.”  Sabel Starr is one example of his conquests.  “Sabel was fifteen (Johnny [Thunders] was nineteen) when they met and she was already notorious as an L.A. groupie.  Word was she’d slept with Iggie Pop was she was thirteen… She always had the cheeriest healthy smile.  The smile was real — happy and friendly.  Everything about her was real.  She was heroic.  At least from the point of view of a musician she liked.  She truly lived for fun and joy, and the thing that was the most joyous of all to her was to make a meaningful rock musician happy.  That was her mission, the way someone else might join the Peace Corps.  Instead of digging wells and planting crops and offering medical care, she provided pretty and entertaining companionship, astute and sincere encouragement, favorite drugs, and magnificent blow jobs…. She was a soulful, sane, self-aware sweetheart of a committed groupie.”

Eww. As he comments at one point, while on coke his “brain and cock were one”… and he was high most of the time in the late 70s and early-mid 80s.

Hell is a pretty smart guy, one of the better-read and more intellectual of the punk generation (he always saw himself as a writer/artist who happened to decide to make music for a while), and there are some good/fun things about the book… he knew everyone in those days, and it’s fascinating to see the emergence of punk from the perspectives of one of its conceptual architects.

He observes interestingly at one point that “the British punk culture also seemed strangely asexual.  There were some classic teenage sexpectations among stray members of bands, but for the most part the relations between the boys and the girls seemed infantile, like prepubescent.  People kidded and cuddled and might even share beds, but it seemed to be in bad form to regard one another as sexual prospects.”  The book brought out the prude in me: I kept thinking, “stop doing drugs and chasing groupies, focus on your opportunities.”  Punk saw itself as an alternative to the excesses of 1970s rock and roll culture, but people like Hell got caught up in an arty downtown version of those same excesses, to the point of sleeping with the very same groupies.  Although he definitely gets the problem of drug addiction, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that there might have been something valuable in a (relative) prudishness and “asexuality” in the London scene, which may have helped to prevent punk from reverting into just a new form of rock and roll.  (Just read this Bookforum review which comments of Hell, “he’s a scumbag with an intimate, articulate understanding of scumbag psychology.”)

The “clean”/chaste vs dirty/ “tramp[y]” [vis. the book’s title] dichotomy may also relate to Hell’s complicated feelings towards Tom Verlaine, who is the closest this book comes to the Robert Mapplethorpe of Smith’s Kids — e.g. the roommate/ best buddy/ co-conspirator from the early days.  Hell still seems to feel rejected by and angry at Verlaine to some degree, perhaps in part because of Verlaine’s aloof, un-rock-and-roll fastidiousness: he didn’t do drugs, didn’t hang out much, and you don’t hear a lot about his girlfriends.  I guess he just dedicated all his energy to making genius music… (Although to be fair, Verlaine does sound as if he could be a pain in the neck, a bit of a control-freak J. Mascis type, with Hell as the bewildered/rejected Lou Barlow).

But then, I was always much more of a bookish Verlaine than a bad-boy Hell type (sans any musical talent), personally.

2 thoughts on “Richard Hell: Cold, angry days on the houseboat”

  1. I assume Verlaine is a name taken from literature…

    Cheyne Walk: oddly, we’ve been there; one of Mags’ good friends has a flat/house there, right next to the river. The cab driver had (as I remember) a hell of a time finding it (usually we take the tube in London but I figured out that finding her place was not going to be so simple…or perhaps we had something else to do which left us without enough time to go by underground).

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