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Author Tue May 07 2013
Richard Hell, the punk rock pioneer and author, read from his new autobiography Thursday night at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. The book, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, begins with Hell's (born Richard Meyers) childhood in Kentucky, and later, relocates to New York to focus on his work as a poet, bass player, and singer with bands like the Neon Boys, Television, the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids.
The cozy bookstore was packed and the café's wine offerings were selling briskly. Hell's book seemed to be flying off the counter, too, at the end of the program, when the author signed books for a long line of fans. He also signed the cover of my copy of Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk, right over his photo. And for the person ahead of me, he signed the jacket of a pristine vinyl copy of the Voidoids' 1977 album Blank Generation, which features a photo of Hell, shirtless, with the words "You make me _______" written across his chest.
As a musician, Hell was highly influential but never made or sold many albums; nor did he play to tens of thousands of fans in giant arenas. But he influenced many. His band Television, for instance, was the first punk band to play at the legendary rock club CBGB and the performance inspired its owner to program more rock bands.
Hell retired from music in 1984 and has focused on his writing ever since. He has written five other books, including two novels, essay collections, and criticism for several magazines, like film writing for BlackBook.
The quality of his writing was in evidence in the lyrical and moving passages he read from the new book. On the thrill of making a band's first sounds: "The power and beauty of it was unimaginable until then. It can't be overstated, that initial rush of realizing, of experiencing, what's possible as you're standing there in the rehearsal room with your guitars and the mikes turned on and when you make a move this physical information comes pouring out and you can do or say anything with it. It was like having magic powers." He also wrote this: "All through this book I've had to search for different ways to say "thrill," "exhilaration," and "ecstatic" to communicate particular experiences.... What it felt like to first be creating electrically amplified songs. It was like being born."
Hell read other passages about playing at CBGB and working with the late Peter Laughner and critic Lester Bangs.
After the readings, he answered questions about his music, his influences and other musicians he knew and worked with. The first questioner, no doubt considering Hell's early reputation for heavy drug use and the punk lifestyle, apologized for the frivolous question and asked, "How the hell do you still look so good?" He did look good, wearing a leather jacket, open-necked shirt, and fashionably scruffy beard.
In response to other questions, he discussed his interest in author Nathanael West; and guitarist Robert Quine, his band mate in the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids, who he called the best musician in rock and roll history. He compared US with UK punk musicians. He said he thought generally US punkers were more likely to be interested in ideas in their lyrics.
Hell helped create the punk look of spiky hair, safety pins and shredded shirts, which will be represented in an exhibit of punk garments and punk-influenced couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, opening May 9. He wrote the preface for the exhibition catalog.
Asked what he thought about the exhibit, he said, "I don't know what it will be like but I'm sure I'll be completely humiliated." About the punk look, Hell said, "We just wanted to be noticed," and later added, "I tried to figure out how I could make myself look the way I felt."
Punk has been defined as "making up life for yourself." (That's usually credited to Legs McNeil, coeditor of Please Kill Me.) It's a sort of all-American attitude that allows for reinvention of the self. Richard Meyers moved from Lexington, KY to Manhattan, wrote poetry, turned himself into Richard Hell, became a punk rock and fashion icon, wrote successful songs such as "Blank Generation," then dropped out of music, left the drug culture, and became a successful writer.