Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large

Book review: one of punk music's big influences tells his hellish story

In I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, New York punk rock legend Richard Hell chronicles his years in the vanguard of anti-establishment music.

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp
Richard Hell

The 1970s punk scene owes its style, or lack thereof, to one Richard Hell. Born Richard Meyers in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1949, the high school dropout, sometime poet, publisher, writer, singer, bookstore employee and self-taught bassist has been credited by Malcolm McLaren as having influenced the Sex Pistols' punk look - torn trousers, safety pins, T-shirts, spiky hair - and anti-establishment attitude. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp gives us the first 25 years of Hell's life, and attempts to explain where the mentality came from, but questions do remain.

Hell's band, Television, kicked off the punk scene in 1974, primarily at the club CBGB in New York City. He collaborated with former New York Dolls members to create The Heartbreakers in 1975, then started Richard Hell and the Voidoids in 1976, whose best-known song, Blank Generation, is considered by some to be the anthem of the punk movement. The book is peppered with anecdotes and incidents with a number of colourful members of the scene, including Paula Yates, Nancy Spungen, Dee Dee Ramone and Lester Bangs, and more muse-worthy girlfriends than one can keep track of.

Hell says early on: "Being a pop star, a front person, takes indestructible certainty of one's own irresistibility", yet comes across as surprised as anyone by his success, having not had any formal musical training; as well as by his survival despite years of addiction. The book ends in 1984, when he quits the music scene to focus on his sobriety and begins writing professionally, saying: "... the closer I get in the story to the present day the more problematic it gets to describe situations frankly".

Was there more clarity to Hell's story in its early years? Were his musical achievements trumped by the mythology of his influence on other, more successful bands? Has his angst been quelled? In a memoir written 30 years after the end of an era, readers desire some clarification and a tidy tie-up stitched together by mature reflection and the passage of time. But to end it and leave us wanting more is just so punk rock.

*Ellen Fortini

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 Hajer Almosleh, the winner of the last year's short story competition, at her home in Dubai. Duncan Chard for the National

Get involved with The National’s short-story competition

Writers have two weeks to craft a winning submission, under the title and theme "The Turning Point".

 It is believed that the desert-like planet of Tatooine is being recreated for Star Wars: Episode VII. Could that be where filming in the UAE comes in? Courtesy Lucasfilms

Could the force be with us? The search for Star Wars truth

On the hunt for the Star Wars: Episode VII set, which a growing number of people are sure is in Abu Dhabi, but no one can seem to find.

 With an estimated 18,000 comic and film fans having already paid a visit to this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con, organisers are hopeful they will have surpassed last year total, of 21,000, by its close. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

In pictures: Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai

Dubai's World Trade Center was awash with people visiting this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con. Here's some of our best pictures.

 Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, presents Quincy Jones with the Abu Dhabi Festival Award as the Admaf founder Hoda Al Khamis-Kanoo applauds. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival.

A candid talk with Quincy Jones about the UAE, Lil Wayne and the Abu Dhabi Festival award

The Abu Dhabi Festival honoree Quincy Jones discusses his legendary career as a music producer, the return of Dubai Music Week and why he can’t handle the rapper Lil Wayne.

 Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge arrive at Wellington Military Terminal on an RNZAF 757 from Sydney on April 7, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Chris Jackson / Getty Images

In pictures: Will and Kate visit Australia and New Zealand

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge are on a tour Down Under for three weeks.

 A protester gives a victory sign during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2011. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Street life: humanity’s future depends on ability to negotiate and sustain public space

Negotiating our ever more crowded cities and maintaining vibrant public spaces are among the major challenges facing humanity in the coming decades.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National