Poetry and Punks on The Bowery: Richard Hell’s “I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp” Reviewed


I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp
By Richard Hell
Ecco; 304 p.

“Broadway had two shadow companions,” Luc Sante wrote in his book Low Life. “Starchy, upper-class Fifth Avenue on the one hand, and on the other the Bowery, the proverbial den of all vices.” Sante was writing about the Bowery as the street and neighborhood of mid-1800s to the early 20th century, but prior to the Civil War, farmland, estates, and theatres populated the area we recognize today as Bowery, which is the oldest thoroughfare on Manhattan, for everyone from the last of the Dutch settlers to billionaires like John Jacob Astor. Far from any preconceived contemporary images or ideas we have of the stretch of concrete and buildings on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

But then everything went sour. The Bowery became one of the most notoriously awful places on the planet, prompting Methodist missionary Lewis Pease to report, “Every house was a brothel, and every brothel a hell.” The area continued to descend until sometime around the last fifteen years, when developers started putting up expensive condos, clothing boutiques, and a Whole Foods. In the grand scheme of New York gentrification, The Bowery stands above any other neighborhood in terms of turnaround from being called skid row, to being a place that people who can afford $2,000 dollar baby strollers choose to live. Part of the reason the Bowery and Lower East Side has become such valuable real estate can be chalked up to the classic equation of artists move into an undesirable neighborhood, make it hip and trendy, and sooner or later people with the means to live in better neighborhoods are attracted to the gritty and hip new nabe, start moving en masse, and make it harder and harder for artists to afford the rent.

One of the artists that helped usher in these brighter days for the Bouwerji by being associated with the iconic dive bar venue CBGB’s, Richard Hell (born Richard Lester Meyers), is the latest alumni of the late 1970s punk scene to write a memoir with I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp, out a few years after another artist that made their name playing on The Bowery, Patti Smith, wrote her own hugely successful memoir of life in New York, Just Kids.  And while it isn’t necessarily fair to compare Hell’s book with Smith’s, it isn’t as easy to imagine a big publisher being as willing to shell out the money for a memoir like this if Smith didn’t win the National Book Award.

While Smith and Hell are close in age, and rose to prominence in the same scene, there’s something very noticeably different between the two books, mainly where Smith’s book has this wide-eyed and romantic feel to it, Hell’s book is darker, grittier, and at times cynical. All of those are things we’ve come to expect of Hell; he wants very little to do with music anymore, and makes a point of letting people know that.

Hell tells his story about growing up unsatisfied with the world around him, and always wanting to run away for no real reason. He calls his schooling “a joke,” and relays a sample birthday-present thank you note he wrote in his English class that focused more on “forms of correspondence” rather than the classics:

“Dear Betty,

Thank you very much for your thoughtful gift, The Wit of De Sade. Our entire family laughed aloud at the rollicking humor of the “merry marquis.”

What you come to realize reading I Dreamed… is that Hell doesn’t like people, he doesn’t like The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band, he doesn’t like making music, and he doesn’t like authority. But what he does love is poetry. It’s his love of poetry that truly connects this with Smith’s memoir more than punk, and it’s also poetry that makes this book so much more interesting than your common rock and roll memoir. And it isn’t faux-cerebral rock star claptrap either. Hell’s entire story is based off his wanting to be a writer and poet. At one point he wears “archaic T.S. Elliot round tortoiseshell glasses, and talks about Dylan Thomas and other poets more than music. He finally leaves home once and for all in 1966, taking a bus to New York, where he works a crappy job, lives in something that resembles an apartment, and describes Allen Ginsberg liking his looks on the street and inviting him over. “It made me think of Walt Whitman admiring the sweat-sheened torsos of laborers.” Hell declines Ginsberg’s invite “without hesitation, automatically, never having felt much rapport with Ginsberg from his writings, and because it wasn’t within my range to give encouragement to a gay guy trying to pick me up, though it didn’t bother me.”  He wasn’t some kid moving to the big city with dreams of becoming famous or iconic. He works at the Strand, takes drugs, hangs out with his on and off friend Tom (Verlaine, who Hell would later start the band Television with), starts a poetry journal called Genesis: Grasp, and publishes eight of his poems in a 1970 issue of the New Directions journal.

Of course, there’s music. But when there’s music, there’s also still poetry. He talks of the pre-Television band, Neon Boys, showing the first cracks in his friendship with Verlaine: “Tom didn’t like the [New York] Dolls. He liked Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers more.” And then goes on to compare Verlaine’s dislike of the Dolls to Frank O’Hara because “too much was allowed in Frank O’Hara.” He talks about Patti Smith coming to see his band while he was working with her, preparing her book for publication with his Dot Books imprint, and then goes on to say that the affair between Smith and Verlaine “clinched the conflict between Tom and me.”  Like Smith had Robert Maplethorpe in Just Kids, Hell’s conflicted friendship with Verlaine is a crucial ingredient to the book. But where Smith and Maplethorpe work as each other’s muses, Hell and Verlaine’s relationship is more complicated and strange.

Hell is also great at being self-aware and self-deprecating all in one sentence. Saying how “It was interesting how playing rock and roll made a person handsome. I hadn’t been handsome before. My looks improved partly because I kind of knew what I was doing, that I was using the shift into music life to re-create myself.” There are stories about groupies, but not many, and they don’t seem like a former rock star trying to relive his younger years. He talks of his relationships, saying, “I didn’t believe in love. I believed in science, in chemistry,” but then admits that for years he thought that French musician Lizzy Mercier Descloux was his soul mate, and eventually the inspiration for his first novel, Go Now.

But the most interesting revelation in the book is one that, by the point it is placed at is one we’ve already come to, most of us could figure out. Hell, discussing the “inherent contradiction in rock and roll” for him, being “On one hand I wanted to do it because it was physical and unhinged; on the other, I wanted to use my brain to make the songs say as much as possible and to exploit every other aspect of having a band to say as much as possible, as interestingly as possible.” He then goes on to say that, “I wasn’t ashamed of my interest in books, and in thinking, and even wanted to affirm that, just to make a point, American being so anti-intellectual.” And that’s what makes this book so interesting to read; that Hell is a writer and a thinker who is more willing to write a few pages about meeting Susan Sontag, than he is writing about his most famous songs. He writes about the sex, the drugs, and the rock and roll, but he cuts it off where that all ends, in 1984. He cuts I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp off at the point where that whole life ended, saying that “the closer I get in the story to the present day the more problematic it gets to describe situations frankly.” Meaning that Richard Hell knows what you came for, and if you’re there for one of the smartest memoirs ever written by somebody primarily known for his musical skills, you’re in for a treat.

(Buy the book at WORD)

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.