In 1957, an 8-year-old Kentucky kid named Richard Meyers wrote a story for a school project and titled it “Runaway Boy.” It precociously chronicles the night he tried to run away from home, only to be discovered and escorted away from the house by his father—who died of a heart attack not long after. Meyers marvels at the fact that his dad didn’t punish him, but instead accompanied him on his uneventful adventure. At the end of the booklet, the boy is safely back in bed, dreaming that he “was a very clean tramp!” Meyers grew up to become the punk musician and icon Richard Hell. At heart, though, he’s always been a runaway. He recounts his childhood bonding moment with his father near the start of his autobiography, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp. It sets the tone for Hell’s subsequent epic, one full of literary ambition, musical restlessness, and abandonment—of which he’s been both recipient and instigator.
After Hell dropped out of high school in the mid-’60s as a drug-abusing delinquent, writing called to him. He moved to New York to become a poet, and he was well on that track before diving into the burgeoning CBGB music scene in the early ’70s. Clean Tramp details these transitions unevenly, veering from lyrical ruminations on teenage sex and soul-crushing suburbia to diving into the squalid maelstrom of the New York scene Hell helped create—one that also nurtured Blondie, Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Patti Smith. There, Hell co-founded the legendary bands Television and The Heartbreakers before forming Richard Hell And The Voidoids. With spiky hair, ripped clothes, safety pins, and songs full of nervy, nerdy aggression, he quickly became an icon, inspiring everyone from Sex Pistols to Sonic Youth.
As Hell notes, The Voidoids’ subversive aim was to strike a balance between intellectual complexity and jagged punk, a tricky approach perfected in the band’s 1977 debut, Blank Generation. (In Clean Tramp, Hell says he prefers the band’s decent but shaky 1982 follow-up, Destiny Street, for reasons as perverse as many he maintains throughout the book). His writing is equally eccentric and erratic. What begins as a poignant, multidimensional memoir full of sharp angles and dreamlike prose turns into a more conventional rock confessional, a catalog of drug addiction, generous groupies, band squabbles, token film roles, and poor business decisions. Things came to a head in the early ’80s, when Hell broke up The Voidoids and came to a major realization: Nihilism alone isn’t enough to sustain an artist, let alone a human being.
Then—as he did with his music career—he cuts the book short, just as he’s about to get clean and embark on a full-time writing career. It’s a final act of subversion (or self-sabotage) in a memoir full of them. Hell explains this decision in the final chapter, reasoning that the writing life pales in comparison, excitement-wise, with that of a punk star. It’s refreshingly self-deprecating, but also frustrating; in spite of what he says, his music didn’t end with The Voidoids’ breakup. The most glaring omissions are Dim Stars (his excellent, early-’90s collaboration with Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth) and his ill-advised yet intriguing remake of Destiny Street in 2009 (with ace guitarists Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell). Yet he ends the book on one of the strongest notes imaginable—a recent, heart-rending run-in with his former best friend and Television bandmate Tom Verlaine. In Hell’s hands, it’s a perfectly delivered anecdote that drives home the brilliance and shortcomings of the lives that precede it. As one of his most famous songs so spasmodically states, “Love comes in spurts.” And in Clean Tramp, so does Hell’s sensitive, sordid, bittersweet story.