I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography by first punk Richard Hell, available now for order online and from your favorite local new bookseller, is the latest memoir of those early days, following Patti Smith’s account of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, which took place during the same era, covering many of the same events. Word has it Hell’s English successor, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) is planning a new memoir of his own. Misconceptions persist stateside about the origin of punk rock; many Americans believe England’s Pistols to have been the first punk band. This misunderstanding has likely arisen because of the notoriety generated by the death of Pistols bassist Sid Vicious’s girlfriend, Nancy Spungen in New York in 1978 (allegedly by Sid’s hand), and Sid’s own heroin overdose shortly after. As everyone knows, in America, if it bleeds it leads, and these events made headlines.
In fact, the New York Dolls, who habitually dressed as prostitutes as part of their shtick, began gigging in the very early seventies in New York, attracting a crowd of likeminded others, including the Ramones and Hell himself, who originally played in Dolls spinoff band the Heartbreakers, led by the late Johnny Thunders, before forming a band called Television with an old friend, Tom Verlaine (nee Tom Miller). Situationist Entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren from England, who managed the NY Dolls at the very end of their run, became entranced with aspects of Hell’s then unique appearance (spiked hair, ripped and safety-pinned shirts, etc.) and brought his inspiration back to London where it directly affected the personal and ideological flavor of his next project, the aforementioned Sex Pistols, a purposely confrontational band comprised of hangers out at McLaren’s clothes boutique, Sex. The Sex Pistols were unquestionably the most defiant band yet seen in the UK, going so far as to directly attack monarchism in one of first hits, likely another reason for their greater popularity in the modern mind than their stateside forebears.
I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, takes its title from a childhood dream of Richard Hell’s (he was then Richard Meyers in Kentucky) in which he runs away from home and becomes an outlaw, is a thoughtful and well written account of his experience, from Television to the Heartbreakers to the Voidoids. Indeed, Hell was always more of a writer than a musician, and makes no secret of it in this book. Having dedicated himself to guerrilla creativity in any form, when Hell found himself in the fertile wonderland of the 1970s NYC punk scene he took it as far as he could, unwittingly inspiring the Sex Pistols in so doing by making an impression on a visiting postmodern Brit with his uncommon style. While some readers are sure to take issue with his frank relation of backstage sleaze and addiction (regardless of national origin, American or otherwise), and a perceived lack of sensitivity has been cited in several of the online reviews this reporter has read, the book is canny and orderly and well-appointed, as few rock star bios are. “An acutely rendered, unforgettable coming-of-age story, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp evokes with feeling, lyricism, and piercing intelligence both the world that shaped him and the world he shaped.”