Richard Hell Talks About His Epically Badass New Memoir
Photo by Iniz and Vinoodh
Richard Hell—legendary punk rock iconoclast, intrepid novelist, poet, and now memoirist—is lounging on his couch in the cozy East Village pad he’s called home since 19 fucking 75. Considering how brutally forthcoming Richard is about his drug use in his new autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (“Thirty years later, I still have the scars on my left forearm”), it’s a surprise that he looks significanty younger than his 63 years. His litany of feats since he escaped to New York are a total mind-blow.
In Tramp, Hell vividly recounts his gun-toting cowboy dreams as a young miscreant and his rabble-rousing school-dropout years before hitting New York City and altering its landscape. He helped create the punk template with a fuck you attitude, birthed anarchic style with tattered, thrift-store threads, botched hairstyles that Malcolm McLaren later swiped for the Sex Pistols, started Television with Tom Verlaine, put CBGB and Max's Kansas City on the punk rock map, wrote era-defining tunes like "Blank Generation" with his band the Voidoids, survived life as a junkie, and penned Burroughs-level dirty sex 'n' track-marked novels and poetry.
Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is epic badassness. He hides little about his life's trajectory and his disdain for Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, his undying love for Dee Dee Ramone and Bob Quine, the drugs, the music, and the debauchery. Just don’t ask him about being Jewish and what he thought of Marquee Moon. He’d much rather talk about his dick.
VICE: When did you start writing I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp?
Richard Hell: Right after my last novel (Godlike) came out in 2006. It’s been a long haul. But I did a bunch of things—other projects—as I was doing it, too. Still, it was a slog. It’s twice as long as anything I’ve written before. And also more confusing. It gets delicate to write about yourself [laughs].
I assume it’s much easier to write fiction.
Yeah, yeah. It’s easier to write fiction. You’re right. But it was a long process figuring out what to keep and what not to keep. Things are coming back to me that I forgot to mention [laughs]. Still, it hits you when you’re working on a book like that, that it will be easy enough to spend 600 pages describing one day.
But you kept journals over the years. Did those help in putting the book together?
I did, yeah, but I was never really systematic about it. They were really useful. But it’s not as if I could wonder what I was doing some month from looking at my journals. I’d go three months without writing anything in there and then just open it up and just write a page. But they were helpful. They did nail down dates and did also just show me exactly what was going on in my head.
When you started writing Tramp, was the book already bought?
Oh, I never do that. I’ll write the book, then I’ll go look for a publisher.
So, there weren’t any publishers on your ass to write an autobiography?
Are you kidding me? Noooo! In fact, I was turned down by probably about six or seven publishers. There were basically two offers. The book was in sloppier shape then. I did send it out because I was so tired of working on it. I really OD’d on it. I was nauseated and I just wanted to find a publisher—just to get a little charge goin’, ya know? [laughs]. But I got the ideal publisher for it, and it worked out great. No regrets, really.
Did you plan on Tramp being your next project after you were done with Godlike?
No, I had to figure that out. I thought writing Tramp was gonna be easy in comparison because I figured I had the… narrative… so that solves a lot of problems. Then I’d just try to figure out how to write good sentences. It sure turned out to be a lot more complicated. I kept getting turned around and all the fuckin’ internal turmoil figuring how to regard my own self… I mean, that’s really confusing.
Did you feel like by writing the book, you were penning a de facto obituary?
No, it’s nothing like an obituary. An obituary is just a really flattering curriculum vitae. That wasn’t the issue.
When you were writing the book, were you cognizant about other musicians writing memoirs, like Patti Smith (Just Kids) and Keith Richards (Life)…
I can’t see this interview in VICE magazine.
Why? OK, I’ll ask you some more provocative questions [laughs].
Yeah, you’re supposed to ask me about my dick or something.
Yeah, you’re right. Who’d you bang?
I thought I was actually kind of discreet about that in the book. I knew I was gonna get flack for mentioning a lot of girlfriends, and kinda saying this and that about them. And sure enough, that happened immediately in various places where there’s events and descriptions in the book and it kinda annoys me… like, they are making the book out to be like a kiss-and-tell kind of thing. And it’s not like that at all. I just wanted to be honest. That stuff is what it’s like when you’re young, certainly if you’re in rock ’n’ roll. I wasn’t going to act like there wasn’t a lot of sex going on. That would be stupid. But the kiss-and-tell thing is really offensive because if there was any uncertainty in my mind about the sort of things I said about anybody—and if they are still alive—I made sure that they didn’t mind. It wasn’t like I was being indiscreet, saying stuff about people that embarrassed them. They knew about it, and it was OK with them.
You said some harsh things about Richard Lloyd and were brutally honest when talking about Tom Verlaine. Were there any reservations at first about doing that?
What’s the point of putting the energy into it if you are not honest about what your thoughts and feeling about it are?
You barely talk about your being Jewish in Tramp, other than your writing at a very young age you had no understanding of it.
And other than that, you didn’t really expound on it.
I didn’t talk about what?
Being a Jew.
Well, I did. And I said everything I had to say about it. I mean, I told what the case was.
When you first came to New York, was that something you tried to conceal or disassociate yourself with?
No, I just was myself.
There were a lot of other Jews in the CBGB punk and New York music scene besides yourself… Lou Reed, Joey and Tommy Ramone, Hilly Kristal, and Chris Stein. Was there any kind of jokes back then that many of you were Jewish dudes?
Not any more than anywhere else in New York. I mean, do you do that with people? Something would arise once in a while but nothing really noticeable. I didn’t have any kind of Jewish identity whatsoever. As I said in the book, all I knew was that Judaism was a religion and we didn’t have a religion. That was the extent of it. There was no Woody Allen or Saul Bellow or Philip Roth. I didn’t go to a synagogue until a friend of mine got a bat mitzvah—is that what it’s called?—ten years ago or something. It was the first time I’ve been in a synagogue. I’m just a person. It just wasn’t an issue.
Well, getting off that topic…
You’ve lived here in this same apartment since 1975. There’s a passage in the book where you describe going out and hitting some neighborhood spots. What goes through your mind about how New York City has changed over the last four decades?
It kind of conveniently corresponded to my own arc because by the time that was happening ,I wasn’t somebody who spent much time outside anymore [laughs]. I like my apartment, and I never go out on weekends when it’s like a fucking carnival boardwalk—actually, a carnival boardwalk is much better. Here, with college kids and tourists? No. I do not go out on weekends.
It was great when I was young when everything was cheap, and it was good music and good book stores and movies. And drugs. But now that I’m older, all of a sudden there are nice restaurants I can go to.
And you frequent those restaurants?
I do. Just not on the weekends [laughs].
You had some choice words for Verlaine in the book. What did you think of Marquee Moon when you first heard it?
Oh… umm. I have no idea. I can’t remember. I pretty much stay away from the stuff that pushes my buttons [laughs]. I definitely have a lot of respect and admiration for stuff and certain things that were done. But there were a couple of Tom’s songs that I happened to come across that were utterly mind-boggling. There was one song I had to listen to one more time, and that’s the funny thing: every time you listen to it, there’s no way to predict how you are gonna react to it. There’s a song on one of Tom’s records—I don’t remember how I heard it—called “The Scientist Writes A Letter.” It’s really gorgeous. There’s certain things he can do that are really exquisite.
When the lists like the Best Records of All Time are bandied about, the usual suspects show up: Marquee Moon, the first Ramones record, and Horses by Patti Smith. It seems like your Voidoids record Blank Generation doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
I agree with it. I think Blank Generation is really spotty, and it’s eccentric—it’s something that either sticks with you or not. There’s a lot of spectacular stuff on it, and there’s a lot of it that’s flawed.
Destiny Street was the second and final Voidoids record. Why do you think Blank Generation gets all the accolades and that record doesn’t? You write very highly of Destiny Street in your book.
Well, Blank Generation is much better produced, and Destiny Street came out on a tiny, tiny label. I let it go out of print, but I could easily have it rereleased—and I will eventually—but I just haven’t got around to it. Altogether, as a recording, Blank Generation is superior, for sure.
The mixes, production, and arrangements—Destiny Street isn’t nearly as well done as Blank Generation. It’s just better material.
You devote a big chunk of Tramp to Bob Quine. Is there a song of yours you can point to where Bob just floored you with what he could do with a guitar?
One that always blows my mind is the solo on “Betrayal Takes Two” from Blank Generation and also the solo on the original demo version of my song “Time.” People always single out the solo on "Blank Generation,” and that’s really good, too.
You write in Tramp that sometimes you’ll see Verlaine in the street, and you describe a happenstance where the two of you spoke. Are you friends or at least on speaking terms?
No. We haven’t been friends since 1975.
What do you think when you see Television, New York Dolls, and Patti Smith still playing?
I don’t really have an opinion about it. They gotta make a living.
You end the book in 1984, and you stopped playing music and bass around that period. In 1991, you “unretired” briefly to play with Dim Stars, a band with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley and Don Fleming [of Gumball and Velvet Monkeys]. How did those guys convince you to play again?
It was a total of one month. I like all those guys, and originally, we were gonna go in and have this one session and make a single out of it and it sounded like a kick. If I could just make a record every 18 months and there were no other responsibilities or obligations but as a musician, that would be great; I’d love to do that. It’s just that I don’t want to have the life of a rock ’n’ roll musician where I’m out touring all the time and I’d have to pay a band and deal with all the promotion and the music industry. It’s all that peripheral stuff, but I love making records.
So, Dim Stars was just that: we were gonna go in and play for an afternoon and make a single out of it. It went really well—and it was actually my idea—I said, “Why don’t we do a whole album?” In two weeks, we composed, recorded, and mixed the whole record, and we didn’t even bring in new songs. I brought in three songs that were leftover things, and out of twelve songs, we completely created in rehearsal. It was a blast.
Have you picked up a bass since then?
No. The last time was 1992. Well, I did do this modification of Destiny Street… Destiny Street Repaired, in 2009.
Finally, with so many of your peers having passed away and the substance abuse you battled, are you surprised you’ve survived this long?
Well, you’re just always surprised to wake up and have a long past here.
I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is out now via Ecco/Harper Collins
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