Richard Hell on Donkey Breasts, Poo Paper and Why the Beatles Were Terrible
Photo: Roberta Bayley/Redferns

Photo: Roberta Bayley/Redferns

Here’s something that’s not often said about rock star memoirs: “Wow, that was really well written.” Which isn’t a complaint. Most rock stars with a track record worthy of a memoir are lucky to remember their own names anymore. Nobody picked up Keith Richard’s Life or Mötley Crüe: The Dirt for the wordplay or literary symbolism. They just want to know about Mick Jagger’s penis or Tommy Lee’s lack of personal hygiene. For those stories alone, we’re grateful, even if they sometimes read like they were written by a gorilla who’d just learned sign language.

Richard Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is a very different animal. It’s got tales of cartoonish excess and sexual tomfoolery, and it follows the perfunctory rock junkie narrative arc — “guy meets drugs, guy does way too many drugs, guy stops using drugs just shy of offing himself.” But unlike other books in its genre, the prose crackles with creativity and wit that would be entertaining even if you don’t know (or care) who Richard Hell is. His descriptions of female sexual anatomy could be its own Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He compares a girlfriend’s lady business to “a squeaky rubber duck,” and another’s breasts to “twin Eeyores.” He has unromantic memories of the ’70s punk scene in New York (“the first thing I noticed [about CBGB] is that it smelled like dogshit”) and over-romantic memories of his ridiculous sex escapades (“My introduction to the real, complex pleasures of slave ownership began on a hot summer night in 1979, at the loft of my crystal meth dealer.”)

For those unfamiliar, Richard Hell was the guy who invented punk music, or at least the uniform (spiky hair, torn clothes held together with safety pins, snarl) that everyone associates with punk music. He played bass and sometimes sang for seminal punk bands like Television, the Heartbreakers (with Johnny Thunders, not fucking Tom Petty), and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He gave the world “Blank Generation,” a song you should be forced to listen to before you’re allowed to buy anything by Green Day. Back in 1977, Time magazine predicted he’d become “the Mick Jagger of punk.” At around the same time, the Village Voice called him a “no-talent” with an “oily rubber voice constantly on the verge of hysteria.” Depending on who you believe, he either exceeded expectations, or didn’t come close.

I called Hell to talk about his new book. He sounded like he’d just woken up, a little frazzled and gruff. But after reading Clean Tramp, it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t always sound like that.

Rock memoirs don’t typically get a lot of respect. But I’m not sure if you’d even call your book a memoir.

I wouldn’t. To me it’s an autobiography. And it’s not necessarily a rock autobiography either. I spent maybe 10 years as a musician out of the 34 years covered in the book. I don’t pick up a guitar until 100 pages in, the first third of the book. But I know it’s inevitable that the music parts are going to get all the attention.

My point is, you pick up a nonfiction book by a punk icon, you expect to walk away saying “Oh my god, that dude did a lot of drugs,” not “Oh my god, that guy knows his way around a metaphor.”

You don’t expect a certain quality of writing?

You don’t. And your book is quite good.

Not everybody agrees with you. Some people say it’s badly written.

Like who?

Well it’s funny actually. I got reviewed in the New York Times twice. I got a daily review and then a Sunday book section review. In the first review, the guy nodded perfunctorily to my capabilities as a writer. It’s at least in a different class from books by musicians with no writing experience. But then he also pulled out a passage to demonstrate my weaknesses as a writer. It’s the part when I’m 17 and I came to New York on my own, and I described my girlfriend at the time as “a sad, hysterical girl with red capillaries on her nose and cheekbones, and large breasts that looked like twin Eeyores.”

What? A weakness? That may be my favorite sentence in the whole goddamn book.

Thank you. Frankly, I thought it was brilliant. But he thought he was making fun of me. Then a review comes out in Book Forum, and the writer cited that exact same sentence as an example of how cool my writing is.

Reviews matter to you?

They absolutely do. And like any writer, I’m never satisfied. I’m probably a worse case as far as that goes. I cannot get enough adulation. And I don’t think the critics have given me my due, for the most part. Except Luc Sante. He’s a really great prose stylist. There’s a blurb by him on the back of my book, where he says that I “wield prose keen as a diamond knife, sharpened by the light of the moon.” [Laughs.] I want everybody to equal that. I want to hear that from every fucking reviewer.

Can we go back to the breasts like twin Eeyores?

[Laughs.] Sure, yeah.

That’s just such an amazing simile. Did you have it in your back pocket, just waiting for an opportunity to use it? Or were you at your desk, thinking about your ex-girlfriend’s breasts, and all of a sudden it hits you? “Of course, the donkey from Winnie the Pooh! Nailed it.”

It just came to me. You just try to bring stuff alive on the page. You reach down and see what common experience equivalent you can use to make it vivid.

And you decided on a children’s classic.

The Book Forum review actually suggested that people Google Eeyore if they were unfamiliar. I read that and decided to follow his advice. Because when I wrote it, it was all from the memories and imagery in my head. So I Googled it and brought up all these pictures of Eeyores. I’m telling you, I was right on the mark. Her breasts looked exactly like twin Eeyores.

You’ve written fiction and non-fiction. Do you have a preference?

I just like writing books. I basically regard myself as a novelist. The next book I write will be a novel, I’m 99% sure. I have a couple of ideas I’m kicking around. But I also like doing non-fiction, even though it’s a little more difficult.

Richard Hell and Elvis Costello, being badasses at CBGBs. Photo: Roberta Bayley/Redferns

Richard Hell and Elvis Costello, being badasses at CBGBs. Photo: Roberta Bayley/Redferns

Because you’re expected to tell the truth?

Yes, but that’s just part of what’s interesting about it. Talking about your own experience and what you’ve observed is easier in fiction, because you don’t have those constraints. With non-fiction, I’m really scrupulous. I’ve always been neurotically serious that way. I’ve read so many non-fiction books, and if it covers any area where I have any knowledge whatsoever, I can spot so much casual misinformation. And by writers that I really admire.

Well, memories can be fallible.

Yeah, and when I write non-fiction it’s inevitable that I make a few mistakes. On every page you’re saying ten things that are specific, and sometimes you’ll get some of it wrong, or you’ll have to trust your memory, which as you say is unreliable. I just don’t like it when writers distort facts to serve their own interests. I think that’s usually what happens. People put things in a light that makes them look the best.

There was one moment in the book, almost a throwaway, that I can’t stop thinking about. It’s the late ’70s, and you’re self-publishing a magazine called Genesis: Grasp. You get a contribution from a sculptor named Joel Fisher.

[Laughs.]

You want to finish this for me?

He was an artist who was interested in paper. Paper was his medium; not drawing on paper, just paper itself. He would exhibit these pieces of paper, where you’d look at it and it’d have an interesting texture and that would be the work. When I was doing a magazine, I realized it would be easy to include Joel’s original artwork. We could just staple in a tiny scrap of paper in every issue. This was around the time he was creating paper in his digestive system.

He’d eat paper.

Right. He would go for a few days eating nothing but paper, and then make a fresh sheet out of what came from his butt.

That story just makes me so happy.

[Laughs.] Does it? Why?

I don’t know. Maybe with print being a dying medium, and everybody getting their information online these days, a magazine with butt paper just seems so … quaint.

I guess it does.

There’ll never be anything like that anymore. Nobody’s ever going to touch paper and realize too late, “Oh crap, this came out of a person!”

Well, maybe the account of Joel will inspire some people to make homemade paper.

You gave up on music in 1984. Did you think it was a career dead end, or did you just have nothing left to say?

I had plenty more to say. I’d love to be writing more songs. Sometimes I get wistful about all the songs that didn’t get written, because I didn’t have a benefactor who’d give me $50,000 to make a record. At the same time, I’d gotten pretty fed up and disillusioned with the music business years before I actually stopped.

Like how long?

After my first album came out, within six months of that, I pretty much felt like I had lost interest and was ready to move on. But by then I was a junkie. I was just kind of useless. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I crawled on for whatever number of years, five or six, before I finally cut music out. It’s not like I had some obsessive fascination with songs, or I was driven to play guitar or anything like that.

Music was just something to do?

It was. It was something new and interesting. I got a record contract three years after I’d picked up a guitar, and I went through three bands kinda quickly. I accomplished what I set out to do, and I also found that I didn’t like the lifestyle.

You wrote in Clean Tramp that being a rock frontman “takes indestructible certainty of one’s own irresistibility.” Did you lose some of that certainty?

I don’t know that I lost it as much as realized it was becoming a problem. Because it develops slowly. Some people come to the rock lifestyle with that pure confidence and pleasure in exhibitionism. But if you don’t have that, it slowly overtakes you and starts to effect your conception of yourself. Keith Richards had this great observation about what it’s like. He said at first you feel like a god onstage. And then after awhile you still think you’re a god in the limousine. And then you still think you’re a god back at the hotel. Until one day, you’re just completely convinced you’re a god. That’s what happened to me.

It must’ve been a shock to make the transition to writer. Not many writers are made to feel like gods.

That’s true.

I just read something you wrote about Lester Bangs for the Village Voice a decade ago. Comparing yourself to writers, and rock critics specifically, you said “my life is more fun than theirs.”

[Laughs.] Yeah.

Having spent some time on the other side of the wall, as a writer, do you still believe that’s true?

Well, the life of a rock critic is pretty nasty. There’s not many rewards for being a rock critic. You don’t have to be a rock star to have a better life than a critic. You can be a professional bowler and have a better life than a rock critic. But a writer in general? [Long pause.] I don’t know. One life is about excess and being loved by strangers and doing drugs for free and never sleeping. The other is all solitude and coffee and obscurity. Honestly, giving up that life of excess and being loved by strangers and drugs, it was a complete relief. And I feel very lucky, because I made it work. I still get record royalties, so I have a little supplement. But my needs aren’t great or many, and basically I write my own ticket. I have no regrets about leaving the life of a rock musician for the life of a writer. It was in my nature.

I have a question about “Blank Generation.”

The song or the album?

The song. I listened to it a lot when I was younger, and I always kinda assumed it was about nihilism. That ultimate punk expression of “Fuck it, nothing means anything, we’re all screwed.” But now, as I get older, I wonder if I was misreading it. Maybe it was meant to be more hopeful. How far off was I?

Well, the whole thrust of it is to leave room for whatever interpretation you want to make. But yeah, your first analysis was correct.

Richard Hell

Photo: Getty Images

The world’s fucked?

Yeah. But I also intended it to include this whole notion of self-invention as an alternative. It’s a piece of work that makes its own world, just like every piece of work does. Anything I say about it is limiting. It speaks for itself.

When you were writing it, were you in a happy place?

No. Not at all. It was a reaction against all the insipid smiley faces leftover from the ’60s, for sure.

Like the Beatles?

Yeah. I can’t listen to their music. I never could. I don’t like that shit at all.

In Clean Tramp you wrote that the Beatles “homogenized and corrupted everything.” You compare them to the Academy Awards, “glitzy but dull.” Do you honestly hate their music, or just the fame that surrounded them?

The music is terrible.

But what if they’d been some obscure band that never made it? What if they put out little indie records and had a small cult following? Would you have liked them then?

I don’t know. It’s a funny thing, because I do like the Everly Brothers. I do like Buddy Holly. The Beatles named themselves after Buddy Holly’s band, basically.

The Crickets.

Yeah, the Crickets. All those guys were just doing pop songs with pretty harmonies. But the Beatles, I don’t know, they always struck me as being saccharine. They did watered-down versions of really great numbers. If you had access to Little Richard records, why would you want to hear the Beatles doing “Long Tall Sally”? Then they became really serious, self-important social commenters, and they were out of their depth. It was stupid. Like that “Day in the Life” nonsense.

I read the news today, oh boy!

Oh god, it’s just so awful. The huge productions they gave to that stuff, it was wrongheaded. It wasn’t clever, and it wasn’t interesting. People give them too much credit. They never cut to the heart of things.

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is out now on ECCO Books

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