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Monday, April 8, 2013

Love Comes to a Building in Hell


















I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp
by Richard Hell
(Eco, 2013, 304 pages)

"This is the story of my life up until I stopped playing music and stop using drugs."
- Richard Hell

I just finished reading Richard Hell's new autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (an anniversary present from my sweetheart), which covers Hell's wild sex, drugs & rock 'n' roll adventures from the time he fled the hills of Lexington, KY in 1966 to reinvent himself in The Big Apple through his "retirement" from pop music and (more importantly) drug addiction in 1984. That's right, the book ends in 1984 when the man christened Richard Meyers finally decided to attend Narcotics Anonymous and commit himself to a comparatively healthier life as a full-time writer.


Blank Generation: He can take it or leave it each time

I have to admit that - while I was a fan both of his band The Voidoids and his abilities as a punk lyricist (for me he's right up there with Dylan, Syd Barrett, and Robyn Hitchcock as a wordsmith) - I was a little disappointed in his actual life story. Perhaps the book is just a reflection of what he wrote about his most famous song, the iconic punk anthem "Blank Generation": "...really the song was an evasion of explanation, as most attempts to write something decent are."

The rock 'n' roll part of his CV with three legendary bands (early Neon Boys/Television, The Heartbreakers, The Voidoids) and three legendary guitarists (Tom Verlaine, Johnny Thunders, and Robert Quine) has previously been exhaustively examined in two excellent oral histories - Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me (1996 - the title came from a line on an early Television poster) and Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids (1993) - and there are few surprises here. Yes, Hell and Verlaine famously loved, and then loathed, one another, as only egomaniacs seeing  mirror reflections of themselves could ("I'm like him for God's sake. I am him"); Johnny Thunders was a fellow addict, so they did lotsa drugs together, but in Thunders Hell found someone even lazier than himself, as least intellectually, and completely rooted in the old Chuck Berry-era School of Rock; and the introspective Quine - arguably the most talented and original guitarist with whom Hell worked -  was every bit as insecure and angry as Hell, but lacked his spiky shock of locks and effortless club-scene cool, so their partnership was born to lose as well. Quine was particularly miffed when Hell, at the height of his junkiedom, couldn't be bothered with playing bass (not that the world's ears suffered any from the loss). Few spoilers there, either.

Early Television was Hell-bent for leather

Hell sums up his Big Three musical collaborations rather succinctly: "I was happy for 5 minutes in Television, 10 in Heartbreakers, and 20 Voidoids." 'Nuff said!


Richard Hell and Patty Mucha

Hell comes off as unblinkingly honest in his self-examination, but that honesty reveals a fairly lazy, egocentric narcissist who was obsessed with fame and drugs and sex - and hoo boy there's a lot of the latter! Love may have come in spurts, but sex came in a tidal wave of opportunities and Hell was delighted to be awash in them. Everyone from escorts and friends' girlfriends to Claes Oldenburg's Cougar Town ex-wife Patty Mucha ("She was...a funny rich chick who liked my company and took good care of me and loved having sex"), CBGB club girl Anya Phillips (who was also stripper and dominatrix but was Hell's ties-that-bind sex slave), and even Baltimore's own Dreamland Studios starlet Cookie Mueller ("A trailer-park-style girl" and "kick-ass memoirist" with "the most muscular ass of any woman I've ever known" that Hell genuinely liked, even though he would go on to steal drugs from her in his darkest hours), who went from having sex with chickens in John Waters's Pink Flamingos to writing a health column for the East Village Eye - a juxtaposition Hell rightly finds quite amusing!

That's the way it crumbles, Cookie-wise

"When you're young enough, you can get away with anything," Hell observes at one point. And he did, for a long time (especially with the ladies). He adds that "it's part of the beauty of rock and roll that it's about people with no conventional skill, but only assertive youthfulness, becoming fascinating."

Anya Phillips: Slave to love.

Hell was certainly a Bad Boy and dove deep into the shallow waters of the rock lifestyle. After all, as a writer, he understood that "doing bad" is what sells.

"Who's good and who's bad anyway? People like villains as often as they like heroes. Americans love winners all the more if they lied and cheated and coerced their way to the top...in America losers are considered fools if they haven't played dirty enough. Winning justifies everything." In his case, he could have added, "Being a rock star justifies everything."

And, speaking of strange fascinations...in a sign of his furry '70s times, Hell admits he really likes pubes (wonder if he subscribed to Hair To Stay?), as revealed in this passage about his girlfriend Nan: "In those days girls didn't groom their pubic hair. That was sexy - it was an animalistic sign of individuality, despite a girl's otherwise carefully managed appearance." He added (in a line destined to stick with me forever, unfortunately), "Nan's pussy...was slick, like a squeaky rubber duck."

But what's surprising is how dispassionate Hell is talking about his multiple trysts, relationships, and betrayals (Hell may have sang "Betrayal takes two," but his "one" always guaranteed a betrayal well done) - he waxes far more poetic talking about drugs (heroin, cocaine, and speed being his Holy Trinity) and his apartments. Especially 173 Elizabeth Street: "The best I ever had."

Yes, Hell got way more emo for his bare-boned living quarters - not to mention his shooting galleries, his beloved bookstores and rock 'n' roll clubs - than for any single woman or relationship mentioned in the 300-plus pages of his autobiography.

Maybe that's because, as he writes "Anything said about sex is going to push people's buttons and arouse resentments, interfering with communication...everyone's sensitive to how it's talked about, including me..."

Richard Hell's New York (New York Post)

Writing about things was easier. In fact, the New York Post even featured a list of Hell's Top 10 favorite NYC locations called "My New York," that contains some of his most inspired writing - about "broken-toothy" buildings and other inanimate objects! One of Hell's favorite spots was a weed- and graffiti-covered vacant "Mystery Lot" (as shown below) between 14th Street and 13th Street east of Third Avenue (soon to be an 82-unit, eight-story development).

Vacant Lot, north side of 13th Street between 2nd and 3rd Ave.

Here's Hell's full Top 10 countdown of favorite NYC buildings and spaces:

1. Ziegfeld Theatre, 141 W. 54th St.
“I love it! It has a huge screen, which is rare now. And the auditorium is really big — the size that you just don’t see anymore. And all the seats are really comfortable. The whole environment still has that flavor of going to see a movie where they wanted to make you feel like royalty. Beautiful lighting, curtains, the seats are plush. I saw Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ there in 3-D. The Ziegfeld was the perfect venue for it.”

2. Madison Avenue, between 59th and 86th streets.
“It’s mildly embarrassing, but I like to window-shop here and buy shoes sometimes, where it’s all the really haute designer label kind of stuff. If something takes me up to that area, I’ll usually take 20 minutes and look at it all. It’s like a beautiful walk in the woods in the winter, looking in these shop windows. Everything is sparkling and pretty.”

3. The courtyard of his grandmother Linda Meyers’ apartment building, 72 Barrow St., at Hudson Street
“I came here when I just turned 17. She would invite me over for dinner every couple of weeks. That courtyard has always been a kind of little oasis to me. The walkways are paved with shale, and there are these flower beds — filled [in season] with Life Savers-colored tulips. And a really pretty urn on a stone pedestal in the middle, and a couple of fruit trees. Going where my grandmother lived is good for my disposition, soothing.”

4. Underneath the Manhattan Bridge, Manhattan side
“For about 10 years — from the mid-’90s — I had a car here, a ’68 Plymouth Satellite, bright yellow, kind of souped-up. You could go park your car there and work on it. I might be changing the sparkplugs, replacing some part. It was all desolate. There were just these big, wide streets, vacant lots, seedy buildings. I like emptiness.”

5. Horn & Hardart, formerly on 14th Street, near Irving Place
“I was living with a roommate at 1 Irving Place shortly after I arrived here. It had a Horn & Hardart automat underneath it. I used to go in there because they didn’t have a very thorough busboy service. So I’d go in and sit down at a table that had just been vacated, and eat the food that was left on the table.”

6. Cinemabilia, 10 W. 13th St. (no longer there)
“I worked here, and I started off packing. They sold scripts, film literature — just about anything made of paper associated with movies. I got some good stills from [Jean-Luc] Godard films there of [actress] Anna Karina. I also got this amazing education there about movies, and used to enjoy Andrew Sarris’ film columns for the Village Voice. By the time I left Cinemabilia, I had a side business going writing term papers for students in his film class at Columbia. $75 was a guaranteed B+. It was significant to me because we actually got off the ground as a band [Television] when I was working there. It was the manager of the store, Terry Ork, who enabled us to get on our feet as a band. He knew Richard Lloyd, who became our guitarist, and we practiced at Terry’s loft in Chinatown. He also became, nominally, our manager.”

7. Strand Bookstore, 828 Broadway
“I got my first job there when I was 20. I packed — down in the basement, when it was just for employees — for libraries and also for private customers. The great thing about it was that the management was really kid-friendly. It tended to attract young people to work there who were artistically inclined — writers or musicians — so it was really congenial. And you got a discount on the books. I bought books every payday. It’s amazing that it hasn’t lost the kind of appeal that it had for me then.”

8. Hudson’s army-navy store, formerly at Third Avenue and 13th Street
“They had all kinds of functional and low-priced clothes — jeans, T-shirts, work boots. I got the suits that the Voidoids wore for our debut at CBGB. They were black corduroy, suits you’d imagine a miner would wear to church in West Virginia.”

9. Chinatown market area, near corner of Bowery and Canal Street
“It’s just full of life, and almost all locals, not tourists. You just feel this whole other flavor of another culture. It’s almost like going to China. All this beautiful fresh fruit and this wild seafood — half of it is alive. I was down there a week or two ago with my wife, and there was this big plastic bucket, 2-feet-high, and we glanced down and it was filled to the brim, completely thick with 4-inch-long frogs — alive. I wish I knew how to prepare that food.”

10. Vacant lot, north side of 13th Street, between Second and Third avenues (now a construction site)
“Whenever I would have to walk across town, I’d try to wrap myself down 13th Street. The lot was all overgrown. And when you were walking down 13th, the buildings that were still standing on 14th Street gave it this kind of broken-toothy kind of edge to it. A friend of mine wanted to make a movie with me — and my first idea was to do something in that lot. I put on a bunch of wounded-person makeup and staggered out from behind one of the 14th Street buildings. I have the footage, somewhere.

And don't forget, Hell even wrote a 1,000-word essay lauding the merits of "CBGB As a Physical Space" as the intro to the John Putnam (photos)  and Christopher D. Sayles (text) book CBGB: Decades of Graffiti (Mark Batty Publishing, 2006).

******

Hell concludes the book with this reflection:
"If I had died in 1984, at the point this book ends, as could easily have happened, there would have been left such scant evidence of me that my life would be mostly just a sad cautionary tale. It's by writing a book like this one that I am redeemed at all. My life is not different for having written this book - my life only comes into being by having been written here."

Like Ray Davies musing that "People Take Pictures of Each Other" just to prove that they really existed, I think Hell was motivated to pen this memoir so that there would be a record of his scarred, "broken-toothy"-edged existence back in the day, warts and all. Much like his beloved vacant lot on 13th Street between Second and Third Avenues - before it's bulldozed over and prettied up for a new (blank?) generation. He - and we - can take it or leave it.

1 comment:

folksnake said...

Such a great post! Thanks--loved it.