Book Notes

Punk poetics: Richard Hell in his own words

I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography, by Richard Hell, 293 pages, Ecco/Harper Collins, $25.99

“Poetry must be made by all and not by one.”
— Comte de Lautréamont

The ripple effect of an influential life creates plot developments to rival the greatest novels. In his new autobiography, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, singer, songwriter, musician, publisher, and writer Richard Hell relives selected moments from his own ongoing narrative.

Known as one of the innovators of the punk rock movement, Hell’s influence is far reaching. In the 1970s, Malcolm McLaren adapted Hell’s spiky hairstyle, torn clothes and safety pins to fashion the look of his new group, the Sex Pistols. Hell is also a character of contradictions. A high school dropout, at an early age he was obsessed with poetry and literature. He made a habit of rebellion while seeking a kind of acceptance in New York’s overlapping worlds of music, art, and literature.

Born Richard Meyers in Lexington, Ky., in 1949, he describes a mid-century childhood imagination full of cowboys and Indians, Mickey Mouse, and The Lone Ranger. An early lesson in impermanence came when his father died suddenly — an event made more poignant because it was connected with the first time young Richard ran away from home, something he would repeat with his schoolmate Tom Miller, later known as Tom Verlaine.

The reader can never be sure if Tom Verlaine, Hell’s primary collaborator, is a friend or an enemy. Powerful things were born out of the edgy uncertainty of their relationship. Their bands the Neon Boys and Television influenced countless groups. Hell and The Voidoid’s “Blank Generation” became an anthem of alienation in the burgeoning punk-rock scene. Hell portrays these times, and himself, with a playful detachment and naked honesty. Youthful arrogance, the excited rush of forming a band, writing a song, performance, drugs, sex, the smell of an old book store, sleeping on floors in bare rooms, a scarcity of food, money, dead ends, and new directions — Hell’s episodic recollections read like short poems told with a grace and precision refined over the distance of years.

I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp stands apart in a time when autobiographies and memoirs are published with greater and greater frequency. Do we really need another life story? This one burns brighter among the excess of remembrances. Hell’s autobiography is frank without self-indulgence; his lean, eloquent writing style possesses a conversational immediacy that carries the story along and ignites it with an energy that keeps the pages turning.

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at