photo & text by nacrowe
any time there is a progression in literature, art or (in this case) music, there is a transition period when new ideas are experimented with and eventually solidified into new forms and orthodoxies. in his memoir I DREAMED I WAS A VERY CLEAN TRAMP (ECCO PRESS, 2013), PUNK ROCK originator and pioneer RICHARD HELL of TELEVISION, THE HEARTBREAKERS and THE VOIDOIDS fame sets straight his account of the narrative of the CBGBs mid-70s scene and the literary aspirations that underpinned it.
what is lost in the worship of THE RAMONES, SEX PISTOLS and others that popularized PUNK ROCK in the late 70s was how at its root the scene traced itself to the lower east side of MANHATTAN in the mid 70s was eclectic and quite avant garde. in many ways the NO WAVE scene that followed it in NYC largely kept its spirit alive. HELL does not attempt to hide the fact that he is not a trained musician, but rather he is a lover of books, poetry and ideas despite his being a high school dropout with a troubled childhood. it is his love of the written word that elevated him and helped him initiate a community that is largely intact today. for me that is his greatest accomplishment as his work is still relatively obscure in comparison to colleagues like BLONDIE, PATTI SMITH, THE TALKING HEADS, THE DEAD BOYS and the aforementioned RAMONES.
his take on that scene is interesting in that he felt PATTI SMITH was full of shit with a mediocre band that mimicked early TELEVISION, that BLONDIE was lackluster and an excuse for people to gawk at DEBBIE HARRY and that THE RAMONES were a one trick pony, a surf rock band on speed. i found it very interesting that he felt such animosity for SMITH given that she seemingly had such similar literary ambitions as himself, these barbs almost come off as projection, but interesting nonetheless.
throughout his memoir makes repeated note of reasons why he never gained commercial success, those being his band(s) lack of a repeated streamlined sound or core identity brought on by his literary aspirations. he also recognizes his aloofness in interviews that came off as conceited and self-absorbed, whereas the next generation played the game. in many memoirs it is common to see people become jaded and jealous of those they influenced to greater fame and notoriety. HELL here, to his credit, heaps praise on the SEX PISTOLS for taking his sense of fashion, worldview and aesthetics and fine-tuning them for maximum impact. it seemed he was living vicariously through their nihilism and unguarded critique of BRITAIN's rigid social class system and conservative government.
this memoir was a little dry in places as HELL has a tendency to lose the plot in places and give expert descriptions of people and places that have no real value narratively, but when he does share his opinions on the scene, both its origins and legacy as a means of setting the record for posterity, those moments are golden. the book closes in 1984 when he sought treatment for his heroin dependency and quit music to begin his writing career.
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