“It’s all essence, and it’s available to those who, to all appearances, have nothing,” writes Richard Hell of his bread, butter, and jam from the mid-70s to the mid-80s: rock ‘n’ roll. In 1974, Hell and Tom Verlaine dreamed up their first band, the Neon Boys, which by the end of that year had a new name, Television, and regular gigs at Hilly Kristal’s infamous punk club in the Village, CBGB. In 1975 the members of Television, with their ripped and reconstituted shirts, their waywardly cropped mops, were playing alongside Patti Smith, Blondie, the Ramones, and the Dead Boys. Soon after, Hell left the band and joined Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, formerly of the New York Dolls, as the third member of the Heartbreakers. He did a bit of acting and, much like Smith, had become an accomplished writer in the New York City underground before his lips ever got anywhere near a mike.
A distaste for authority, convention, and Ray-Bans courses through Hell’s autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, released in paperback last month. The essence of stardom—the kind that turns small-town rebels into major successes—was percolating in Hell from a young age. Born Richard Meyers in 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky, Hell was sketching elaborate plans to run away from home before he hit adolescence. As a teenager he reveled in the objectivist lyricism of Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, and Ron Padgett.
By 1965, when he and a fellow high school runaway landed in New York City in an apartment on the edge of Union Square, Hell was a seething sex pistol, permanently cocked. Over the course of the book Hell hath girlfriends, groupies, artists, intellectuals, drug dealers, flings—women with legs that go on forever, straddling the memoir from opener to epilogue. Hell’s rendition of his sex life does justice to some women, damage to others, and thankfully he rarely misses a chance to fill us in on the many fascinating details of attitude and anatomy.
Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ album cover for their EP Blank Generation features Hell in a dingy black jacket, flung open to reveal his bare chest upon which is scrawled: “You Make Me ___.” It remains one of his most iconic images. His appeal is undeniable, a little bit crushing and a little bit blank. The charisma of Hell’s story, and the charm of his book, is that it plucks just this chord. Much of what Hell does is raw, experimental, clogged with influence, and dying for a quick hit of transcendence. Even after he made it in rock ‘n’ roll he never acted like he had anything, at least no more than before. “For me,” writes Hell, “singing was like throwing something as hard as I could to stop a threat in its tracks, or stating something beyond a doubt to reassure someone whose confidence I needed, as if everything depended on it.”