Richard Hell is punk rock's patient zero.
Born Richard Meyers in Lexington, Ky., in 1949, he ran away to New York at age 17, where he traded poetry for a bass guitar, spiked his hair and safety-pinned his clothes, and helped father a subculture. His signature song, 1977's "Blank Generation," captured both the thrilling independence and fatalistic ambivalence of the era in one strutting, nervy anthem, and his personal style—which Malcolm McLaren famously took back to England and transposed onto the Sex Pistols—gave punk its look. Maybe the Ramones' three-chord rush set punk's sonic template more than Hell's electrocuted Dylanisms, and maybe his peers, including Patti Smith and Johnny Thunders, get more credit, but make no mistake: When you see kids on the street with crazy hair and tattered leather jackets, Hell is part of their genome, whether they know it or not.
I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, Hell's new autobiography, is a brutally honest account of a life spent in a constant state of escape. Willamette Week spoke to Hell about seeking redemption through literature, his retirement from music, and the chances of ever seeing him and his former bandmate-turned-persona non grata, Television's Tom Verlaine, out on the reunion circuit.
WW: Why an autobiography?
Richard Hell: Well, it was convenient. It was time to write another book, and it's always hard to figure out what to write next. When you pass a certain age, when you're out of your youth, I think it's pretty universal that you start assessing what it all added up to. And it's too complicated to do it in your head. It's like a really elaborate math problem or something. You can't get a grip on it just in one leap in your head. So that was part of my motivation. I wanted to take a look at it, I wanted to turn it into something that was outside of me that I could kind of hold up in different lights and make sense of it. So there was that. And as I say, it was convenient. It eliminated the need to come up with a story.
In the epilogue, you write, "It's by writing a book like this one that I am redeemed at all." What did you mean by that?
For me, as a writer, a musician, an artist, that's the only way I have to justify being alive. I'm trying to make something interesting. I'm a big mess, I'm confused, insecure, all that said I'm also egotistical. Part of the impulse to make works does come from that desire to have some meaningful result from your existence. I think that's what I meant about redeemed. For me, my life really hardly exists except to the extent that I can make interesting works. Writing the book had that handy function. Any book I write is an attempt to do something of interest so I'm not just a total waste. But when the book is also a description of your life…it has that added value of doubly redeeming because it's your life that gets turned into being materially useful.
You were a junkie for many years. How could you trust your memory and not get involved in self-mythology?
When you take on the task of doing an autobiography or a memoir, telling your life story in any way, that's an obvious first consideration. You're in danger of doing it for self-serving purposes. Anyone who sits down to write something like that, you have to be aware that's an issue to some degree, and I was super aware of it. I'm sure there are people who will interpret the book otherwise and interpret my motives differently, but frankly, I think I'm more self-critical to a fault than self-aggrandizing. I have to be careful not be too hard on myself, is how it feels to me.
As far as actually being accurate: For one thing, to the extent that your mind is clouded because you're using narcotics, you're conscious of that. It just means there's less experience recounted. I mean, the heavy addiction period of my book all gets compressed into like a chapter even though it went on for many years, because I was aware that the main thing going on was the daily slog of copping and nodding. So that wasn't an issue. Also, I'm lucky as an autiobiographer, because I have a lot of background confirmation. Not only did I keep journals since I was 17, for all that period I was doing interviews all the time. There were stories being written about me. There are all these ways of confirming what I remember, more than for most people who write an autobiography. And I was really scrupulous about getting details right.
On the other hand, it's all true that when you write a book that tries to describe events, if it's going to be effective at all, it has to be specific and you have to give details. On every page, there's going to be something that can't be confirmed. I can say this happened on that street. I have to trust my memory, because there's no way of being absolutely sure I have that right.
The title of book comes from a short story you wrote as a child fictionalizing an actual event involving your father. Why does that memory mean so much to you?
I was aware from early on that a running theme, so to speak, would be about running away. In fact, years ago, at least a decade, I've had this sort of vague, not exactly intention but idea and possibility of doing my version of a self-portrait, which would just be descriptions of runaways I'd undertaken. So that was always in my mind as something I felt was part of my makeup, the composition of me, was this desire to go somewhere else and be a stranger and have everything be new again. And that was probably the most vivid example, except maybe for running away from school the week I turned 17. Of all the runaways, the one you're talking about that happened when I was 7, is the one that has the most magic for me. And just the way that happened, that it also spoke to memory, was useful. And it was really strange how the story as a kid ended. Where did that come from? I have no idea what that little kid meant. What did he mean? It was just this mysterious moment, and it immediately hit me that it'd be an appropriate title for the book.
There's a lot of dead people in this book. How did you survive?
It's pure luck. It could've easily happened to me. There was once or twice when I OD'ed and woke up in a hospital. And of course, the first thing I asked when I woke up is, man, where do I get more of that? But it doesn't have any particular meaning to me. It could've been me. It's not like I'm any different from having survived. It's a roll of the dice.
You retired from music in 1984 and, unlike a lot of your peers, have stayed retired. Is it wrong to assume you didn't care enough about music to continue making it?
There's something to that. But the part I like about being in a band and being a musician and having a band is making the record. If all there was to having a band was to make a record every 18 months, I would've made a record every 18 months and loved it. It's all the other stuff. I don't like to tour, I don't like the responsibility of keeping all the mouths fed, I don't like the promotional applications, I don't like dealing with the record companies. There's a hell of a lot more to having a band than making records. Then again, I get so much satisfaction from writing. It definitely fulfills a lot of what I would be getting from making records.
To an extent, you're right. At the same time, whenever something does arise where I get to play again—I did make one record, I took one month out of retirement in 1992 with Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley and Don Fleming, and we just made up a record in two weeks and recorded it in two weeks, from scratch. That was a blast. And I also did this Destiny Street Repaired which entailed going in and re-singing all these songs and putting new guitar solos on them and mixing that, and that was really a pleasure, too. I love that part. Sometimes I get angry and a little bitter, thinking, "Somebody out there should value me enough to allow me to do that every 18 months, because there's all these great songs that donât exist.â
What was the most difficult thing about writing this book?
The only thing I kind of regretted is that my memory isn't of the type—I don't know if anybody's is, I guess some people's are, but a lot of people fake it—where I can really recreate a scene, like a conversation. That's why fiction is a better way of honestly writing about experience than nonfiction is, because in fiction, you can just make it up, and it can be as real as what actually happened. In nonfiction, you can't do that. Some people do just make stuff up, but for me, that wasn't an option. Part of my conception of the book would stick to what went on, so I couldn't do something like that.
Did you learn anything about yourself through writing this book?
A hell of a lot. That was part of the purpose. But you never know for sure. I feel really good and strong about how completely and well it describes a life, being mine. At the same time, I'm actually capable of getting really demoralized. That only happened for a few instances—where I go, "Oh, fuck, it's all lies." Depending on what you're going through at a given moment, what you feel like and what's happening to you, everything in the past looks different. It's fluid. In a book like mine, you do your best to take that into account and include that in the book. Nevertheless, once you've written the book, not only have you turned it all into something final when nobody's life actually is final, it looks different to everyone who looks at it. It even looks different to the person whose life is being described, depending on what mood they're in.
Are you content with your legacy?
Legacy? I don't have a legacy. I just try to stay interested every day. It's ongoing. There's never, like, OK, I'm ready to die now. And it's true, with a book like that, part of the reason you do it is because you feel there's unfinished business, but for me, there's still more business.
Do you regret anything you wrote about Tom Verlaine?
We are who we are. You can't be 19 again. What happened when we were 19 had to do with our being 19. I don't really have any regrets about anything I wrote in the book. I could've written other things, but I tried to be as faithful to my reality as I could be, and that was my object. If it had to do with how I worried about what other people thought of it, there'd be no point in doing it. That's part of the reason I stop at 1984. It gets too delicate the closer you get to the present to be really frank about what's going on.
So I guess we'll never get the Tom and Richard Reconciliation Tour?
That's not even funny.
SEE IT: Richard Hell is at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Saturday, March 23. 4 pm. Free.