Book Review: “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp” by Richard Hell

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One thing you need to know about me is that I’m in love with everything about New York City in the seventies. Maybe not the stupid amount of drugs that were available and probably not the violence, but everything else. The music scene in particular makes me wish that I could have existed at that point in time. Hilly Kristal’s club, CBGB, was in full swing, with bands like Blondie, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Television playing all the time. Music magazines including Punk and Creem were all the rage. American punk music was at its peak. Everything was raw and dirty and real.

I’ve read about a bajillion and one books about this era – Mick Wall’s famous Lou Reed biography, “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” by Will Hermes, and, most recently, “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp” by Richard Hell. I picked it up on a whim just because I was intrigued by the title and the photo on the cover. I’ll admit that I’m a little attracted to young Richard Hell, and his striking features and the stark contrast of black and white interested me. I think he’s one of the more underrated minds of the New York punk scene, and I wanted to read his words and experience that time period through him.

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Richard Hell is best known as the frontman of Richard Hell & the Voidoids. He also spent time in Television along with Tom Verlaine, as well as The Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders, but he seemed to have developed fully into who he was supposed to be while he was with the Voidoids. The band is famous for their single “Blank Generation,” which I actually cannot stop listening to. They put out an album by the same name, as well as one called Destiny Street. Both are great records, and they sound exactly like they were made during the club scene of the seventies and early eighties. I like that.

“I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp” is, to say the least, an incredible book. The day I began reading it I got through a hundred and fifty pages. I could barely put it down, and I ended up finishing it within three days. I’m obsessed with it and with Hell’s life and with the people he interacted with and the albums and films he created. Hell is often overlooked, however he was largely responsible for what we know as punk. He was the original, he is who the Sex Pistols and countless other bands are stylized after, and he’s usually unrecognized for that.

The book recounts Richard’s life from his birth in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, to quitting music in 1984. Hell doesn’t hold anything back, but he’s respectful and fair. He’s truthful about what he was going through as well as everything else that was going on. His writing itself is incredible, if not somewhat messy. It feels like reading Hell’s exact train of thought. That roughness adds a certain quality to the writing and is instrumental in creating a connection with the reader, although I’m not entirely sure that that was Hell’s goal in releasing his story.

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Hell’s autobiography includes everything important from the rapidly growing punk movement of New York in the seventies. He recalls his own experiences, his movement from band to band, his relationships, his drug addiction, and his ennui. He goes into detail about his need to do things differently, his desire to define things for himself and to do things on his own. He talks about the good parts of his life and the times when he was at his lowest, and his honesty is much appreciated.

Not even a quarter of the way into the book, I fell in love yet again with punk. I’ve always been intrigued by the movement and its intense powers of change, but Hell’s story just solidified my love for it. I like to say that I’m punk rock, which is probably pretty far from the truth, but the words inked onto these pages gave me more and more to identify with. I came away with an intense desire to wear only black and white and to rip holes in my t-shirts and to put on heavy, dark, eye-makeup and to mess my hair up a little more. And I also realized that punk isn’t necessarily the image, but it’s a do-it-yourself attitude, the will to stop at nothing to get what you want, it’s about doing what you’re passionate about. I relate to all of those things. So maybe I am pretty punk rock after all.

“I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp” reminds you of what it is to dream. I am a self-proclaimed dreamer, and I’m sure most of my family and friends would back me up on that, and it felt good to read a book about a man who dreamt so unapologetically. According to Richard himself, he achieved the dreams he had throughout his whole life, so I guess the book, or Hell’s life, is proof that dreaming without limits and working hard pays off.   And it’s worth it. Books like this make dreaming big sound less stupid and more like a way to live, and anything that does that sounds good to me.

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