MANY INSIST that Richard Hell invented punk, including Richard Hell himself—not so much the music, although his hands are pretty dirty in that regard. Rather, the New York musician and writer is more or less responsible for kick-starting punk fashion in the early '70s: spiked hair, ripped clothes, safety pins. (Visiting Englishman Malcolm McLaren took note of Hell's fashion innovations and passed them onto a band he managed, a new group called the Sex Pistols.)
Hell's autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, is a superb read, largely because Hell doesn't shy away from claiming his achievements. It's a bold, arrogant book that details his Kentucky childhood, the death of his father, his troubled adolescence, and his years as a broke poet in Manhattan, back when it was possible to be a broke poet in Manhattan. Hell came to music late, and was never a driven musician; he approached the bass guitar on a conceptual rather than musical level, imagining the groups he formed with co-conspirator Tom Verlaine—the Neon Boys and the seminal Television—more as art projects than rock bands. Nevertheless, he wrote the undeniably classic "Blank Generation"; he formed the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids after splitting from Television; he rubbed shoulders with everyone from Dee Dee Ramone to Lester Bangs to the New York Dolls. The man's punk cred is obscenely high.
Hell's young adult life was consumed with art, drugs, and sex, and naturally these topics make for very interesting reading. Encounters with groupies and heroin are depicted truthfully and unglamorously; he's critical of his own discography to a refreshing degree. Hell once wrote a great song called "Love Comes in Spurts," and sometimes Tramp feels like it comes in spurts as well. The turbo-speed narrative becomes splintered and choppy—particularly during Hell's latter years of spiraling drug addiction—but Hell's writing is never less than elegant. He's thoughtful and reflective, cruel when he needs to be, and brutally honest about his own shortcomings. Like the best punk rock, Tramp is brief, energetic, and unsentimental.
Hell appropriately ends his book in 1984, when he simultaneously quit both music and drugs after becoming unable to separate the two. This shotgun concision makes Tramp a vital document of the downtown New York art scene of the early to mid-'70s that birthed American punk rock—CBGB, the Ramones, Blondie—but it's more than that. It's a terrific study of how disillusionment and frustration can birth great, explosive art.