Founding Father of Punk, Richard Hell, Pulls No Punches in His Autobiography

by David Hershkovits / photographed by Rebecca Smeyne
Talking about "punk" doesn't interest Richard Hell, the man variously credited with coming up with the look, sound and anthem ("Blank Generation") that defined a movement and moment now celebrated at, of all places, the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But he's stuck with it, like it or not. Punk is Hell's legacy. He created the movement's style, consisting of chopped hair, torn T-shirts and safety pins (which was eventually exported back to the U.K. by Malcolm McLaren for the Sex Pistols); founded seminal punk groups like Television and Richard Hell and the Voidoids; and, most recently, wrote a book about it all. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography takes us through the turbulent life and times of a young man who ran away from his Delaware boarding school with his buddy and future music collaborator Tom Verlaine to come of age in the squalor of New York City in the '70s (where anything could, and did, happen). There's no soft focus here: The good, bad and ugly are all held up to the light where everything is revealed in sharp relief. For those still enamored of pre-sanitized New York, CBGB, the bands, the fashion and the freedom, this is a must-read.

David Hershkovits: Congratulations, your book has gotten such favorable reviews. Are you surprised at the response?

Richard Hell:
Well, it sure is impressive. You get how memoirs are so popular. The same thing happened to Patti Smith -- it was by far the biggest success she had with any work. The other books I did, there'd be three or four reviews and a few readings but yeah, this one picked up a lot of attention.

DH: I notice you called it a "memoir."

I didn't call it a "memoir." It just makes me understand why memoirs are so popular, because people will treat this as being "a rock 'n' roll memoir," which isn't how I conceived of it.

DH: You've written several novels before this. Was there something that drove you to do an autobiography?

When I finished my last novel, I was kicking around where I wanted to go with the next book. It was going to be a kind of oblique self-portrait, a series of accounts of various times I ran away.

DH: Is that mentally running away or physically?

Well, that was part of it, figuring out how far I was going to take the concept. The power of the exhilaration of putting your old way of life behind, and going somewhere where everything is unfamiliar and you start all over again, does cover a lot of ground. It doesn't have to be just restricted to the classic running away from home. It can be doing something like when I left rock 'n' roll and started all over again as a writer. Even a love affair. I didn't want to get too rarefied, too precious with it. I wanted to keep it pretty much to radical huge change, like when you literally run away, as I have a history of doing. I'd also been preoccupied ever since my 40s, which is 20 years now, with trying to figure out what it meant to not be young anymore. That happens to people, right? That ever happen to you?

DH: Oh yeah, especially if you're an artist or creative in that way, that can be all-consuming. It's a big, big subject.

I wanted to get a grip on it. It was something that I'd been curious about for a while. Trying to understand how I'd spent the years of my life when I was trying to make sense of things and make sense of myself. That's what really goes on when you're young. It's all this trial and error of figuring out how your ideal images of what you can be, and what the world is like, jibe with what's really feasible.

DH: Therapists talk about the "other me," the one that you imagine you could have been if you'd done certain things differently. Of course that person doesn't exist.

For me, that's kind of an interesting thing to bring up, because that was central to the way I approached things for as long as I can remember -- I didn't want to have any regrets. I set no limits to what I would try. Because I didn't want to ever have another me to get wistful about. So I feel like I really did exploit and explore and attempt.

DH: Even what you're describing as your decision to live life to the fullest and have no regrets -- it's not just about you. It turns out that other people, a whole world of other people in some ways, responded to that same impulse of yours through your music.

One part of the reason I went into rock 'n' roll from writing poetry was because I did want to speak to the whole world. You can do that with rock 'n' roll. It's a popular art that happens on a mass cultural scale, whereas not many people read poetry. And when I made that shift, it was really deliberate and conscious. Because in rock 'n' roll it's about your appearance and what you say in interviews and what the posters look like, what your haircut is. There's this huge range and to me it was more the whole package that interested me, taking advantage of all those means. It was like being a movie director, taking into account all the ways that a band has to present what it wants to say.

DH: You did all those jobs that are now handled by 10 different people: the stylist, the manager, the PR person. You were looking at it from all those angles at once.

I was more of an independent filmmaker. Like for instance the Sex Pistols, they were an organization. They had a clothing designer and a graphic artist; a strategist, Malcolm McLaren; a couple of people writing the songs. They were more like an organization. I was more independent.

DH: McLaren had been involved with the New York Dolls and then went back home and reconstituted it over there as the Sex Pistols.

Well, he didn't reconstitute it, he really elaborated on it and added a lot of ingredients. But as he described many times himself, he was inspired by what he saw here and took those ideas back.

DH: And you don't fault him for any of that. You respected him and you felt like he was a cool guy.

I liked him a lot.

DH: One of the reasons your book is so powerful is that you don't hold back your opinions about a lot of the people that you worked with and knew and were very close with, like Tom Verlaine for example. Was that a hard thing to do?

Yeah. A lot of motivation with the book was to see what had happened. No point in writing it if I wasn't going to describe what happened. But I'm also equally admiring of most of the people with whom I might have some problems. I don't stint on expressing what I respect and admire about them. There are a few exceptions, like people I just had business relationships with who I thought were creeps.

DH: I think of your book as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. So let's look at each of those things. Sex. That's a big part of your book.

I'm pretty self-indulgent.

DH: Drugs. You became addicted yet it was so much a part of your creative process.

Drugs damaged it, degraded it, interfered with it. You have much less focus and much less initiative in regard to your work when you're a junkie, for sure.

DH: Did you know that then, or is this something you came to know later?

I knew that then.

DH: Rock 'n' roll. Did you really love it or was it more a medium for communicating, like you were saying?

I did love it. But, you know, I think rock 'n' roll in some ways is more limited because it has to do with youth. That doesn't mean you can't still love good rock 'n' roll once you're an adult. I mean you can still be youthful in the way that rock 'n' roll requires for many years past your teenage years.

DH: Now that the Costume Institute is doing this big show on punk, how does that make you feel?

To me it's just like, "Well that will be useful, maybe I can get paid more next time." It doesn't really have any bearing on my life except it might make my stock more valuable.

DH: Could we talk a little bit about the East Village and how things have changed?

Well, to me, my apartment is in the East Village and it hasn't really changed except in the way that I wanted it to. But it's weird to see all these young kids who give you the idea that they're actually disappointed and feel cheated that they weren't able to hang out at CBGB.

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