Welcome To Hell: A Conversation With New York's First Punk
“It’s treating what was a whole view of the world that had substance to it as a kind of Halloween costume." Richard Hell talks the Met show, running away, and his new memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.
Richard Hell is telling me about eating glass in the 1970s. Although Hell, who co-founded Television and fronted Richard Hell and the Voidoids, is widely considered one of the first arbiters of punk music and culture, this isn't some daredevil boast on the level of Iggy Pop's famous chest-slashing or Sid Vicious' standard performative self-abuse. Rather, we're discussing an accidental surprise in a dish he was served at Veselka, a 24-hour diner in the East Village that has doubled as something of a home front for artists in the city for decades. "One time I went in there and ordered coleslaw and there was broken glass in it. I took a bite and was like, 'What's this crunchy stuff?'"
"I'm sure you've ingested worse," I say. He laughs. "Oh, you think?" Hell, like many of his contemporaries in the '70s music scene of downtown New York, sustained a long-term addiction to heroin during his time as a musician. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he lived to tell the tale, and has done so in the excellent new memoir I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.
He is also one of the central figures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition, where his music and image are heavily featured. While Hell is credited as one of the pioneering architects of the punk sound, his prominent inclusion of the Met's punk fashion show is also the result of his being the first musician to spike his hair and tear, safety-pin, and write on his clothes, which created an aesthetic that continues to signify "punk" throughout the ongoing mutation of the genre's actual sound. "I finally went to the show yesterday," Hell tells me nearly two weeks after its opening. He brandishes a small stack of merchandise with portraits of a younger version of himself on it. "You see, I have a refrigerator magnet."
Hell is sitting on the squat couch in the East Village tenement apartment where he's lived since 1975. "It's treating what was a whole view of the world that had substance to it as a kind of Halloween costume. It doesn't really provoke much. It's just irrelevant."
He's excited to point out artworks on the walls of his book-crowded living room as a small cat pokes around our feet. They're beautiful pieces, sure, but I'm still taking in Hell himself. At 63, he's still as handsomely rumpled as he is in the photos of him taken in his youth, although he's replaced his trademark ripped-and-pinned clothing with a halfway-open collared shirt and plain black pants. He reaches to show me the essay he contributed to the exhibition catalogue for the Met show and continues. "They were in a hopeless position. The guy [ostensibly Andrew Bolton, the curator of the show] was in over his head. It's not entirely his fault. He comes from this whole other world where the highest value is being chic. That's the opposite of what we were doing. He kept being pulled in different directions to figure out how to reconcile and it just ends up being completely superficial. I cringed all the way through it, or just got irritated or annoyed."
"My first reaction was that it was like a wax museum presentation of a Broadway musical of punk. It had the same relationship to punk that Grease has to Larry Clark's Tulsa. It didn't do justice to any of the reality of what was behind the original clothes and what their message was. But, like I said, that wasn't their intention. It was being turned into silly clothes. Appropriation can be interesting, but this was just superficial riffing on what we were doing and what they could respond to, and it was so limited. It was false. It was stupid."
Despite blanching at the Met's translation of punk culture, he has little misty-eyed nostalgia for the era he believes they're misinterpreting, or for the grittier New York that spawned it. "It's all happened in this natural kind of process that I've been present for, so it just feels normal," he says. "I'm not really too sentimental about it. You do hear a lot of mourning [from other longtime New Yorkers]. It can be wrenching in a lot of ways, but if you want old, you can go to Europe. I prefer to live in New York, where that's the sort of identity — everything gets replaced."
When I ask him if there's anything he misses from his days as the king of CBGB, he doesn't trot out bawdily recounted anecdotes about drugs, celebrities, or women (and he has plenty of these, as you know if you've read the book). Instead, he reflects on youth. "There was a lot that was gruesome in my life then, so I don't have any regrets. What was central to anything sweet about that time, for me, is that it was when I was young. There's something about when you're young that you don't have at any other point in your life, and that's a sort of openness to everything. No bad habits yet. No ruts in your thinking."
He closes his eyes and continues. "You're having so many experiences for the first time. You will never have that intensity again. The first time you do anything is the most powerful (but there are exceptions). The consciousness that you have when you're young, you don't have it at any other point in your life. You don't know how to place it in context. The whole world is fresh."
I'm startled and touched by the answer, and when, with a raw throat, I ask him when he thinks that goes away, I have an emotional stake in the answer. "You try to maintain it as much as you can. For me, it's also this concept of running away, too, in the sense that you're looking for situations for yourself where everything is new again. It's a way to maintain a freedom from habit that makes everything feel stale."
For Hell, a man who has lived in the same apartment for nearly 40 years, I imagine it can be quite hard to reconcile the impulse to run away with reality. But he says maintaining a sense of excitement about life has more to do with trying to keep one's mind open to the world than it does with a constant need for external stimulation. "You form an opinion and then your opinions become kind of crutches for yourself. There's perceptions. You assume that you know what something is like because you've formed this opinion about it and that's not really mentally healthy."
Hell's book is a stark, intently detailed history of his life, and I ask him if writing it was, in part, a reaction to his life being subject to this brand of external editorializing for so long. "It was mostly for myself. Sure, there was an element of wanting to put things in a context that is true to me, when I saw things put in a context that was untrue or unfair or something. It was mostly because I just wanted to have everything that I have known and done and seen in an object that might hold some meaning."
I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is far from Hell's first written work, though. After quitting music in the 1980s, he began a long and diverse career as a writer, publishing nonfiction and journalism in publications such as Spin and GQ as well as fiction, most notably his 2007 novel Go Now.
But his first story came far before these, or the ones he told with Television and the Voidoids, or any of his other creative pursuits in New York, as I see firsthand after asking him about the experience of being his own biographer. "I'm in a better position than other autobiographers might be because I kept journals. And my mother is fanatical about never throwing anything away, so she had all these papers from when I was a kid." I know this from the pages of Tramp, whose title is taken from a small book, made of construction paper and crayon and bound with tape, that Hell found in one of her boxes.
He asks me, "Do you want to see it?" and of course I do, are you kidding me? He places The Runaway Boy, written by Richard Meyers, age 8, in 1957, in my lap. I start to cry a little.
After noting the bindles on the cover, we turn to the opening chapter, "My First Plans." Hell includes the text in full in his memoir, but here's a brief synopsis: It's a retelling of what happened when a 7-year-old Hell and two of his school friends tried to run away from home. They planned to meet at a cave at midnight with supplies they gathered from their homes, but Hell was caught by his father, who found his stash of food and clothes. After hearing about his son's plans, as the second chapter, "A Surprise!" details, Hell's dad didn't punish him, but instead unexpectedly agreed to drive him to the cave and let him go if his friends were there. They weren't, but young Hell was more taken with his father's gesture than disappointed, so he went to bed happily: As the last line of the story says, "I dreamed I was a very clean tramp!" It's meaningful not only because it definitively augurs the beginning of a life spent romanticizing escape and adventure, but also because it's one of Hell's most concrete memories of his father, who died a few weeks after this runaway attempt. As an adult, Hell was convinced that the actual story took place, but no one else in his family remembered it until he found this in his mother's house not so very long ago; for decades, the dream was his alone. I try not to crease its pages.
Since Hell is a person who seems to believe very fervently in mutability, in terms of mind and culture and life in general, writing this more recent memoir must have been an enormous effort. To write something down, after all, is to fix it in place — an action that seems antithetical to a self-professed "tramp" whose life has been characterized by longing to start fresh over and over again. I ask if the idea of making his past, and the people and events in it, into a finite document was worrisome to him in this way. "Yes, you're right. There's definitely a danger. Just like we were saying about opinions, once you start describing something in a certain way, it almost forces it into this shape permanently. That was something really delicate in the writing. That's something you have to be conscious of when you're working on the book that you want to describe the things you're describing with as much depth as you can bring to them because, by putting these experiences in this book, you're probably dooming yourself to forever looking at them in that way." I misunderstand, slightly: "Is it that you're making yourself accountable to that memory of things forever?"
"It's not even making yourself accountable — it's just you've then engraved it into your brain. You're not going to be able to go back and see it outside of those words, that description, in the future. In the epilogue to the book, when I performed this complete turnaround with [Television co-founder] Tom Verlaine, who had been kind of a villain in a way, it's described with a lot of respect and admiration. Until that point in the book, the conclusion is that I hate him. In the epilogue, that gets flipped. I think part of the reason I did that was also to make the point that everything in the book could be written differently."
It's interesting to me that he brings up Verlaine, his former best friend and artistic collaborator for years, before I do; I had thought I would have to be delicate in asking about him. Hell left Television in 1975 after tension with Verlaine became untenable, and the two have remained famously estranged since. In the epilogue that Hell describes above, they meet by chance outside of a bookstore, and although they exchange just a few words before parting ways, the experience is a heady and powerful one: "When Tom spoke to me there outside the bookstore, it was 42 years ago, 1969, and he was 19 years old; we both were. His misshapen, larded, worn flesh somehow just emphasized the purity of the spirit inside. He made a bunch of beautiful recordings too. Who gives a fuck about the worldly achievers, the succeeders at conventional ambitions?"
I might as well ask, so I do: "Have you heard from Verlaine about the book?" Hell doesn't hesitate in his answer. "No, and I won't. He's not the kind of guy that reacts to what other people say about him. I don't really think about how other people I wrote about in the book respond to it, except when I was writing about people I'm still in touch with or have any kind of friendly relationship with — they matter to me. All the girls that I describe as having any kind of relationship with that I was able to reach, I sent what I wrote before I published, or if I didn't know how to reach them, I'd change the name. One person was mad, but she said it was OK. I didn't want to take any chances, so I changed her name, and another person wanted her name changed. The other five or six were fine."
Hell talks about sex — a lot, and with a lot of women — in his book, and, as with everything else he covers, often goes into extreme detail when describing his erotic experiences. I tell him it certainly seemed like there were more than "five or six" lovers discussed in its pages. "Well, a lot of them are dead, so," he says. I sit up slightly straighter, embarrassed at my insensitivity, but then he breaks into a grin. "The women I was involved with are important to me. My life with the women whom I've known is really central to who I am. It would have been really false not to describe what went on between us…and often it was mostly sex!"
This, this funny little off-color aside, embodies the most important thing I've learned about Hell — that he's uninterested in anything false, or careful, or petty, even on the most minute levels. When he told me about finding ground glass on his tongue at Veselka, I asked him why he eventually went back. "Anyone can make a mistake," he said. "Be large."
And what happens when he feels like making a great escape these days?
"I have my means. I run away inside myself now."