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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
Ecco

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

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