Rock memoirs tend to fall into one of two categories: 1) the self-aggrandizement of a misfit whose life is a tsunami of drugs, sex, and fame. 2) the acrimonious account of every poor business decision and artistic compromise, where the plot is lost in an endless harangue of anyone the author cares to scold.
Richard Hell’s memoir is closer in spirit to the former, albeit a more philosophical than say Vince Neil’s memoir. True, huge swathes of the manuscript read like a laundry list of sexual conquests and a delusory second-hand existence, but the book’s tone is of a fond recollection for a beloved friend. In this case, friends and associates who helped create the myth of Richard Hell.
Hell, dropped out of high school, moved from Kentucky to New York on a whim to write poetry and founded a poetry magazine before he picked up a bass. His foil at this time was Tom Verlaine, arguably the era’s most literate guitar god, and together they would form Television; the nascent murmur of punk rock was set in motion. (Television would go on to critical acclaim but little else, although the Hell-less Marquee Moon album from 1977 is a stone cold classic).
Hell’s musical proclivities come across as diffident, sporadic, and unfocused. But when he did commit to music he made some magic: in the nascent version of Television, with the Heartbreakers (not Tom Petty’s band but these guys) and the Voidoids. Hell just may be the first icon in rock or punk about whom it can be truthfully said felt no desire to be an Elvis manqué.
While none of his records charted, they are as foundational to the punk zeitgeist as the debuts by The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash. Hell’s music unleashed the soul of a wicked poet, with a thrashing beat, reggae-like rhythms and a loose, carnal fury. “Blank Generation” and “Love Comes in Spurts”, stand as diamonds in the roughs of rock music, as essential as “Tutti Frutti” and “Satisfaction”. All along, Hell never misrepresented himself the way so many punk posers did: as the answer, as the voice and face of the generation, or as the sentient being who through the power of his guitar would change the world: “Being a rock and roll musician was like being a pimp. It was about making young girls want to pay money to be near you.”
Hell writes with no bitterness about his place in the annals of punk. In Tramp, he rubs shoulders with the subculture of the era from New York to London, weaving a mosaic of sex and drug addiction, the ill-fitting drapery of semi-fame, with the flair of a guttersnipe poet. For those of us who missed the seedy 70s underbelly of New York’s Bowery region, Hell is vivid and unflinching in his details, as well his long-distance memory. (Commendable in any rock memoir.)
He is modest of his musicianship saying he “was a singer … who, for convenience, played the songs’ bass lines.” And concludes his story by saying, “I didn’t want to write about a person though time, but about time through a person.”