I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp

Steve Danziger in Open Letters Monthly:

HellTramp-198x300Richard Hell changed the world with a t-shirt and a haircut. The legend goes that Malcolm McLaren, hanging around New York after managing the New York Dolls in their waning days, saw Hell, his hair chopped and spiky, wearing a torn t-shirt with “Please Kill Me” scrawled on it. McLaren, who knew an icon for ruined youth when he saw one, returned to England, and one day in 1976, Chris Stein of Blondie showed Hell a picture in a European rock magazine:

Everybody in the band had short, hacked-up hair and torn clothes and there were safety pins and shredded suit jackets and wacked-out T-shirts and contorted defiant facial expressions. The lead singer had changed this name to something ugly…. I thought, “This thing is really breaking out.”

The band was the Sex Pistols, the “thing” was Punk, and in any history of the music written since, Hell has as much claim to starting the movement as anyone else. He’s that breed of celebrity revered in certain sub-cultures and utterly unknown otherwise, but for those whose lives were changed by the punk/new wave movement in mid-1970s New York City, he’s a bit of a legend. In a five year period, he defined the look and attitude for a new international youth culture, was instrumental in turning the Bowery dive bar CBGB’s into a breeding ground for groups like Television, Talking Heads, Patti Smith Group, and the Ramones, and with his band the Voidoids, produced Blank Generation, one of the seminal, and most enduring, albums of the new wave zeitgeist. Then, alas, came heroin. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is Hell’s memoir of his rise and fall, an eccentric testament to the powers and limitations of self-invention, and like his career, a hodgepodge of singular achievement and dwindled potential.

More here.