The name of wistful French writer Marcel Proust doesn’t usually come up in conversations about punk. But it does if you’re talking to Richard Hell, one of the pioneers of the punk movement’s sound and style, and the author of an unsparing new autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.
Before abandoning his music career in the 1980s to become a journalist and novelist, Hell was at the centre of a tiny but eventually world-famous rock ’n’ roll subculture that formed in the mid ’70s at CBGB, a ragged little club in New York City’s Bowery neighbourhood. This scene had a boldly cerebral side to it, despite the pretend-dumb lyrics of house bands like the Ramones. The poetry and visual art surging through Manhattan at the time were as crucial as any show of fury to acts like the Patti Smith Group and Talking Heads, as well as to the angular, groundbreaking groups that Hell cofounded, among them Television and the Voidoids.
So it was only natural that when Hell, now 63, set out to write an account of his first three-and-a-half decades, he was aiming far beyond the airport-standard rock tell-all. Sex and drugs permeate Tramp, but the book’s core, says the author, has to do with the nature of time and memory.
“If something comes back to mind, if something triggers a memory or somebody asks you a question about the past and you try to remember and be accurate in the way you describe it, it’s all just little moments—it’s just these tiny splinters of stuff that has happened,” the genial Hell explains to the Georgia Straight in a phone call from his New York home. “And I was curious to see, when you put all that together, what it looked like.”
Citing Proust’s towering novel In Search of Lost Time (“This is really going to sound pretentious, but it won’t be the first time,” he says with a laugh), Hell describes how art has the power to fuse these loose pieces of the past into something that has not only shape but meaning.
“Time really isn’t about ‘This follows from this follows from this follows from this’ in a sequence where it’s separate moments—you really are your whole self at once, but you can’t hold it,” he says. “Your own access to it is really limited. But if you’re an artist and you make a book that attempts to be as fulsome as possible, in a way then you can have your whole life at once….And for me, writing the autobiography was an attempt to do that, to get out of the frustration of just being caught in whatever mindset you’re in at a given moment, but be able to have everything that had ever happened to you and everything you ever knew and everything you are in one object.”
There’s artifice here in the deepest sense, then, but Hell wants to make sure that none of the story told in Tramp—beginning with his Kentucky childhood and ending in 1984, when he left behind both music and a grinding heroin habit—is mistaken for fiction. “I did a ton of research and I confirmed everything that was possible to confirm,” he says of the five-year writing process, pointing out that the book’s lack of dialogue stems from his determination to avoid anything he couldn’t verify in his own journals or the records of others. “I wasn’t able to have any conversations in the book, because I wasn’t going to fake them.”
Likewise, he bridles for a moment when it’s suggested that his work as an artist includes the ’70s creation of a persona called Richard Hell (formerly Richard Meyers), decked out in the torn thrift-shop clothing and jagged haircut that bands like the Sex Pistols would later copy, right down to the last safety pin.
“I kind of take issue with that,” he says. “It’s put that way sometimes, but that’s not how I see it. It’s not like inventing a persona. It’s going inside yourself and putting it on the outside. You’re not becoming something you aren’t. You’re finding the way to make yourself consistent and to live out your most satisfying or deepest sense of who you are. It’s not falsifying, it’s not like wearing a mask. It’s not like presenting some invented being. It’s just trying to escape being moulded by convention and other people’s ideas of how people should be, but rather be who you really are.”
Still, authenticity always bleeds into myth in the history of rock ’n’ roll. And few places in that history have attained the mythical status of the now-defunct CBGB, whose lettered awning hangs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There’s even a movie about the club due out this year, with Alan Rickman as owner Hilly Kristal and soap star Evan Alex Cole in the role of Richard Hell. The man himself is less than thrilled with the tribute, however.
“Well, to me the movie is bad news,” Hell says flatly. “The movie has a really weird, warped foundation, in that it’s being done by Hilly’s daughter, who really wasn’t there much. I mean, she’s the person who owns the rights to CBGB, so she supplies the information for the making of this movie.…She really had no part. Eventually, after a year or two, she would be there fairly often, but she didn’t get it. So I’m kind of dreading what that movie’s going to be.”
Even so, Hell sees it as part of the latest cycle of public interest in the revolutionary scene he once helped build, a scene whose meaning continues to evolve. “That era and especially downtown New York at that time—but also Britain—have kind of supplanted the Beats for being the sort of counterculture, youth culture, art movement, underground, alternative set of values et cetera that fascinate everybody and inspire people,” he notes. “It’s pretty wild to see that happen. It took a while. It took 20, 30 years.…You know, it’s hard for me to understand, because I don’t really have much of that kind of inclination to, like, be a fan and get caught up. It’s hard for me to say. I mean, I can understand people thinking it must have been exciting—it was exciting.”