Punk’d by Memory

Punk’d by Memory

Richard Hell left behind the idea of self-cultivation as an art form—that discerning judgment constitutes who we are or can be at our best. He also warned of how so much revolt can form a narcissistic prison.

Richard Hell

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography
by Richard Hell
Ecco, 2013, 304 pp.

I turned sick, back in the 1980s, every time older peace movement activists glowed about their music. Oh, the Grateful Dead, oh man, Hendrix and Joplin, and oh, the Airplane, and yes, the Doors, you know them, they’re still played on the radio… Their eyes swooned, harking back to doped memories. That music was beautiful, my elders would explain, expecting my youthful confirmation.

But no matter what, the baby boomer counterculture and its music bounced off me. None of it matched my anger during the Reagan years. “Peace and love” and “everybody get together” and the two fingers shot up and the psychedelic colors—all that felt dated. I remember two reactions back then, one explicit, the other secret: I celebrated the sound and attitude of punk rock bubbling up from garages and basements across America and wished, without saying it, that one day, I could turn the tables. I could tout the virtues of my own counterculture and get nostalgic and watery eyed about what that music meant to me. Like the boomers portrayed in the movie The Big Chill, I could say I had experienced something that transcended the commercial pabulum pumped from corporate music venues.

My time has come. The punk rock explosion of the 1970s and 1980s is now as much a historical artifact as acid rock. We can get a sense of the movement’s outlines and forms, and perhaps something of its meaning, in retrospect. And a good place to start is one of those figures often called a “godfather” of punk, Richard Hell, the man who left us with classic songs like “Blank Generation” (a sort of anthem for the bleak 1970s, akin to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of the bleak 1990s). A man who—and this will surprise many readers—was driven by “intellectual ambitions” (one of his fondest memories is an evening spent with Susan Sontag). Call him a punk-thinker or street-intellectual.

Just consider his background: no, he wasn’t born Richard Hell but Richard Meyers, in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949. His father was an academic psychologist with a degree from Columbia University, and his mother obtained a Ph.D. in literature later in life. Meyers had a strange relationship with academe, remembering the buildings where his father carried out experiments and the classrooms with “chair desks facing the blackboards” as “a humble paradise.” But he never went to college and was more of a cut-up in school, an avid reader but not a good student. Hell became an autodidact, a man who found himself drawn to jobs in used bookstores, temples of intellect now dying (specifically, for Hell, it was the Gotham Book Mart, now deceased). He discovered poets who had as much passion as intellect or precision—less T.S. Eliot and more Dylan Thomas and William Carlos Williams. He was drawn to poetry that was earthy and expressive and that didn’t always take itself seriously.

His “career” in music, for lack of a better term, grew from his friendship with Tom Verlaine (born Thomas Miller). Hell met Verlaine at Sanford School, a private school he attended as a last resort after screwing up in public schools too often. The two became little budding Jack Kerouacs, splitting from the school and hitting the road to try to get to Florida, but instead getting caught and getting nowhere. Hell was the first to leave for New York City, taking a room close to Washington Square Park and then eventually settling near the East Village.

When Verlaine joined Hell in New York City, they bonded via poetry. They loved the “surrealist” kind that “wasn’t purely irrational, but was based in conscious thoughts and feelings and perceptions, while still acknowledging that experience precedes thought, precedes any organization, and is funny.” But poetry had strictures, and the two turned to music. When Verlaine taught Hell how to play bass guitar, bang, you got music history. First the Neon Boys and then one of the best bands of 1970s New York punk, Television. There are those who think that 1974—when Television played gigs at the Bowery club CBGB with Patti Smith—is the year punk rock originated (I disagree, but this isn’t the place to settle that score). Hell and Verlaine became Nietzschean partners: Hell all Dionysian, Verlaine more Apollonian. Hell jumped around on stage and seemed dazed behind his dark glasses; Verlaine stood and picked at his guitar with precision. Their music contained multitudes.

Hell attended the March 1967 Central Park “Be-In,” standing on the margins and looking in as people danced with bells. He scoffed at the “dubious underlying idea” of “unity” and the dream of “universal kindness and generosity.”

Hell’s Bildungsroman story— I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp could have been titled the “making of a punk”—is intriguing for showing just how much he came of age during the heyday of the 1960s counterculture. He recalls attending the March 1967 Central Park “Be-In,” standing on the margins and looking in as people danced with bells. He scoffed at the “dubious underlying idea” of “unity” and the dream of “universal kindness and generosity.” Indeed, his own expression signified a negation of that elder counterculture. To those who sang “All You Need is Love,” Hell would offer the more telling “Love Comes in Spurts,” a punk classic. Nor did he truck much with the politics of that era. He got himself a “psychological deferral” to get out Vietnam, but he explained that he “didn’t feel effectual, but like a particle that was being slapped around among all the others. The adult, administered world was comprehensible psychologically, but it operated in another dimension, was something that took place on the other side of the screen.” All of which constituted “something to escape.” One thing he did share with the counterculture of yore was a desire to drop out and do drugs—especially the more dangerous kind, heroin.

The elder counterculture stared him in the face, and Hell became self-conscious about the newness and self-invention that attended this bigger-than-him thing called punk. I was slightly shocked at how conscious he was. He came to his famous spiky haircut, or so he claims, “by analysis.” Everything about his style “was deliberately calculated,” including his “pegged black jeans” and his torn shirts held together with safety pins. And yet: Hell combined this self-conscious style with a feeling of charmed authenticity. “We were ourselves as performers, not just a show business act, even though our stage appearances were violent and drunken and crazed.” So punk became both elitist—self-demarcating—and populist. After all, his self-knowing style was “easy to do for nothing,” since it was acquired “from thrift shops and work-clothes purveyors.” Just as his knowledge came from dusty bookstores, his look came from the Salvation Army (before the style was boutiqued to death). There was also the luck of timing, seeing as “it cost almost nothing to live in New York” during the 1970s. That sentence right there proves that Hell’s moment has passed.

Hell swirled around in ideas, loving New Wave movies, particularly Godard’s, and hearing his pseudo-manager Terry Ork talk up the Situationist International writings of Guy Debord. There was also the man who wanted to be his manager, Malcolm McLaren, later the Svengali of the Sex Pistols, who talked about “the society of the spectacle” and a revolution of everyday life, ideas stemming from the heady days of May 1968 in Paris (later, when the Sex Pistols broke big in 1977, Hell felt cheated because the band had failed “to acknowledge how much they’d gotten from New York and me”). Whatever the case, ideas lurked in strange corners during the 1970s.

The biggest or most famous ideas-man of this scene was Lester Bangs, who gets almost a complete chapter in Hell’s autobiography (admittedly, the chapters are pleasingly short and concise, as is Hell’s writing). Bangs too was an autodidact who dropped out of college to start writing for music magazines in the late 1960s, first Rolling Stone and then the much better Creem, published in Detroit. Bangs developed a remarkable sense of rock and roll history (he also knew jazz). He saw punk coming out of a forgotten musical tradition that included the Fugs, the Godz, and other hippie Lower East Side experimentation in the late 1960s, plus the grungy garage rock of England before the Beatles became famous and appropriated the acid rock style of San Francisco. (If you want to get a sense of what Bangs was referring to here, play the Troggs’s “Wild Thing” or “Louie Louie.”) Punk also grew from anger at the sappy and sentimental countercultural residues still lingering around in the early 1970s. In one of his best essays, Lester Bangs explained why “James Taylor” was “Marked for Death.”

Bangs moved to New York City in 1976. He championed Richard Hell’s new band at the time, the Voidoids (who formed after Hell left Television and then the Heartbreakers). Bangs was a testy kind of man, especially when loaded with alcohol and cough syrup, which he was most the time, and he confronted Richard Hell in an interview about punk being nothing more than self-hatred. Hell claims that Lester Bangs “wanted to portray me as childishly negative.”

And if there’s one question that runs through his autobiography that deserves some serious attention, it’s this: was punk rock, in its rejection of the peace and love of the prior counterculture, nihilistic and devoid of meaning? Hell struggles with this, although he believes his song “Blank Generation” pronounces that his cohort can make of itself what it chooses (my favorite line from the song: “It’s such a gamble when you get a face”). But of course, “blank” can mean nothingness—the essence of nihilism (another good line from the song: “I can take it or leave it each time”). Even if the song is about choice of fate over dissolution into nothingness, it’s still about cynicism or, perhaps better stated, realism. “The Blank Generation,” Hell opines, came from “the Vietnam War, the inevitable failure of the flower children, the exposed corruption and venality of the politicians, the sleaziness of patriotism, the flood of drugs, and the overwhelming media data flow of the late sixties and early seventies.” And it fit America’s history for Hell. “Americans love winners,” Hell writes, “all the more if they lied and cheated and coerced to get to the top. People admire mobsters like Joe Gallo or John Gotti—or con men like P.T. Barnum or Colonel Tom Parker…” A nation of hucksters is Richard Hell’s America. There is no ground to protect from lechery, no values other than those we choose to make our own.

None of that is reassuring, but there’s one bit of relief I found in reading Hell’s book: the fact that punk blankness and Richard Hell’s stare from beneath his sunglasses don’t offer anything we’d call “cool” or “hip” today. For sure, there are those—like New York Times critic John Leland—for whom Richard Hell is the pinnacle of contemporary hip coolness, a demigod for those inhabiting Brooklyn today (during the 1980s Hell wrote for the hipster publication, East Village Eye, strung to the gills on dope). But in Hell’s own words, he is “not cool. I’m cranky under pressure…I get obsessed with women, I usually want to be liked, and I’m not especially street smart.” Punk was more about nervousness, disenchantment, unease, or alienation than a rigid thing called cool.

But for Richard Hell, it was also about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Much of his story bogs down in the rock star trope: stories about the girls, the drugs, the gigs, the groupies, the drugs, the gigs, the hanging with other rock stars (or shooting drugs with other rock stars, like Dee Dee Ramone). The poor soul actually dated Nancy Spungen, future girlfriend of the perpetual fuck-up rock star Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. For the fans of gossip, fine (yes, he dishes on how Kathy Acker “wanted me to slap her while I fucked her in the ass”), but it doesn’t help us understand what this was all about, if it was about anything. The drugs make the book’s tales less interesting and less trustworthy. Heroin addicts are, to quote Johnny Rotten, “boooorrrrring.”

But at least there’s an honesty here. There is no romance, no recurrence of the hokum spoke by gurus of the 1960s counterculture who claimed LSD could open new forms of consciousness that would explode our contemporary reality and get us into a better position to ward off the planet’s ills. Heroin is more blatant: obliterate consciousness, get the nod. Heroin was truly a tune out, and a drop out, as it was for Hell. And at times, Hell recognizes his story threatens to degenerate as drugs move to the fore. He admits being “embarrassed” by his “self-regard and self-centeredness” and how he was “full of myself.” That tamps down the rock star memoir feel, but only to a certain extent. It’s when he’s talking about his own intellectual explorations before he’s become a routinized and strung-out performer that his story sings the most.

Richard Hell feels like an unspoken godfather to a movement that didn’t end when he quit playing music, that pushed forward, eventually to break big in the 1990s with Nirvana and the Nirvana clone bands who followed suit. Hell left something behind, for sure, besides this often wonderful autobiography. He left behind the desire that young kids had to seek out a counterculture of realism: one that burns with anger at the absurdity of our contemporary institutional order, one that rejects the boredom of so much life, that seeks out a sense of creativity often found only in the dirty margins of society. Hell left behind the idea of self-cultivation as an art form—that discerning judgment (what’s often misnamed “cool” and “hip”) constitutes who we are or can be at our best. He also warned of how so much revolt can form a narcissistic prison. And still, outside that prison, there’s a world of blankness, in this case of choice and experimentation.

Kevin Mattson serves on the editorial board of Dissent. During the 1980s, he played in bands on the margins of the D.C. punk scene before turning to political activism and writing. His latest book is Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the “Rocking, Socking” Election of 1952.

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