Seeing the wonderful Susan Seidelman film Smithereens (1982) piqued an interest in Richard Hell, who is oft credited for launching the punk rock scene in NYC, and in particular at CBGB. Hell basically plays a much less successful version of himself in the film. I finished reading his 2013 autobiography, I Dreamed I was a Clean Tramp a few days ago.
Hell helped found the seminal band Television (original called the Neon Boys) with Tom Verlaine, but the two didn’t see eye to eye and he left the same week that Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders quit the short-lived New York Dolls. The three formed the band the Heartbreakers (not to be confused with Tom Petty’s far more famous group) and soon thereafter, Walter Lure joined as the second guitarist. During Hell’s stint with the band, they recorded four demos and one live album that wasn’t released until 1991. In early 1976, Hell quit the Heartbreakers and fronted Richard Hell and the Voidoids, another short-lived band with Robert Quine, Ivan Julian and Marc Bell. Their first album Blank Generation was released in 1977 on Sire Records and they followed up with Destiny Street in 1982 on Red Star Records.
Some of the timeline of Hell’s memoir overlapped with my coming of age trips to NYC when I was in art school at RISD. I stayed with my older sister who lived in various tenements apartments in the West Village and Soho before it was gentrified. I really didn’t frequent the East Village back then (Hell’s haunts), although I did spend a lot of time on the Lower East Side. The exception was a laughable off-off Broadway production of No Exit at the Royal Playhouse at 219 Second Avenue. I wasn’t the music club type, so sadly I never went to CBGB and I didn’t even like Patti Smith’s music back in the day, much less hard core punk bands. While hardly as eloquent, well written, poignant or humble as Patti Smith’s incredibly touching Just Kids, this book evoked a flood of fond memories of my trips to NYC between September 1976 and April 1980.
As is always the case with me, one thing leads to another and Hell’s mention of the East Village Eye led to my spending several hours on their website, perusing PDFs of complete issues from May 1979 to January 1987. Hell wrote a column for them called Slum Journal, while Cookie Mueller wrote a column called Ask Dr. Mueller. Cookie starred in John Water’s Pink Flamingos and had a clever cameo in Smithereens as a porn actress in a faux X-rated movie. Cookie was photographed by Nan Goldin and credited for catapulting her to fame…and was among Hell’s countless lovers.
A Quasi Book Review and My Thoughts
While there are some heartfelt and brilliant passages in this book, these were colored by Hell’s enormous ego and erratic writing. I am a professional writer, although not a novelist. I was shaking my head at his lazy grammar, propensity for overusing commas, and incomplete and incredibly long sentences. Of course, I wonder if this was on purpose since he relishes being an indifferent rebel. But what bothered me the most was his need to emphasize the size of his many girlfriends’ breasts, effectively reducing their worth to that attribute alone—what a misogynist! Here are just two examples:
“She was skinny, though she had a perfectly ample ass, and her breasts were minuscule and she was embarrassed and self-conscious about them. I wrote odes to her breasts, which were essentially slightly swollen nipples.” (Anne)
“She had a gold tooth, cheerful attitude, and luscious luscious large snow-white tits and blond pubic hair.” (Liva)
It’s obvious from his memoir that Hell thought he was the greatest lover on earth. He did sustain relationships with some interesting people, including Claes Oldenberg’s first wife Patty Mucha and the now famous lighting designer Anne Militello, as well as having countless flings. He recounted an S&M ménage à trois with Jackson Pollock’s mistress Ruth Kligman and Richard Lloyd, although Lloyd remembered this differently.
It troubled me that Hell included a topless photo of his former lover Lizzy Mercier Descloux (1956-2004) who was a talented French musician, singer, songwriter, composer, actress, writer, and painter who Patti Smith befriended in 1977. Even worse, he recounted how he screwed Lizzy over by screwing other women in Michel Esteban’s Paris apartment (including Esteban’s girlfriend) while the two of them were in South Africa recording music. Lizzy and Hell had made plans to get married when she returned from the trip, but she knew all about his wretched betrayal and that spelled the end of their relationship. And he had the unmitigated gall to criticize Patti for not being there for Lizzy when she was dying of colon cancer in Corsica.
He had a love-hate relationship and huge falling out with Verlaine, his former best friend and Television bandmate. I read that Verlaine was difficult and demanding, but after reading this book, I can’t imagine Hell was a piece of cake, especially all those years that he was a heroin junkie. The glowing tributes that were published when Verlaine died in January 2023 reflected his significant influence on many great musicians. You’d think by the time Hell ran into Verlaine, presumably in the mid-2000s at a book store, he would be able to restrain his contempt a little more.
“His teeth looked brown and broken in the night light, even worse than mine (he still smokes), and his face was porous and expanded and his hair coarse gray.”
I also didn’t appreciate that he felt compelled to slam far more successful and talented musicians than himself. In addition to Verlaine, he shared some choice thoughts about David Bowie, Blondie, the Ramones, Lou Reed and Patti Smith (sour grapes, no doubt). In Patti Smith’s case, his negativity was likely compounded by the fact that she slept with Verlaine and not him.
Instead of celebrating or reflecting on the significance of CBGB, he described The Ramones as “a kind of novelty act,” said that Blondie’s music was “primarily an excuse to look at their stunningly pretty singer,” and dismissed the Patti Smith Group as “generic and undistinguished.” Throughout the book, he sings his own praises as a more interesting and historically important band, not to mention a gifted writer.
I love Patti Smith and consider her a true Renaissance woman—a talented poet, songwriter, and novelist whose brilliance has stood the test of personal tragedies and time. I didn’t realize Hell published her first book and that she wrote a glowing review of an early Television performance at CBGB in 1974. Nevertheless, he had to dwell on her physical appearance and put her down several times in this book, much to my dismay.
“She was a natural-born sex waif and a pretty-assed comedian. She’d step out with her hand on her tight-cocked hip, all casual, if in-your-face, and jack out mind and body gush, giggling at herself like a five-year-old, under her deep-set eyes and her coal-black shag, begging to be fucked, skinny as a rod, massive tits… ”
“At CBGB my accomplishments were known and I was a leader of the new sensibility. “Patti was the only other writer/performer/conceptualist /bandleader who rivaled me in that way. She was more charismatic than me and a better performer and drew bigger crowds, but she was also full of shit in many ways, and a hypocritical, pandering diva, and her band was generic and mediocre.”
Hell is self-deprecating here and there and admits some faults (blaming most on his drug addiction), but this book is peppered with such braggadocio, it overshadows his moments of humility. Regardless of my criticism, I enjoyed reading this multilayered portrait of a seminal time in NYC history. It was a more innocent time when punk music was born and dreams of fame came to fruition for high-school dropouts and vagabonds, including those with limited musical ability, but cutting-edge ideas and boundless creativity—like Hell.
Epilogue: Hell still lives in the East Village walkup tenement at 437 E. 12th Street he has occupied since 1974, with his current girlfriend, the novelist Katherine Faw. Can’t say I blame him since his pad is rent controlled and monthly rent is likely less than dinner at a nice restaurant! Allen Ginsberg and his longtime partner Peter Orlovsky lived in this building. Hell will be 74-years-old on October 2, 2023.