The Voidoids' Richard Hell on blowjobs as the ultimate compliment
by Lizzie Plaugic
My favorite part of Richard Hell’s new memoir, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, is the epilogue. In it, Hell describes one night over the course of his writing the book, in which he sees his ex-Television bandmate Tom Verlaine rummaging through the dollar bins in a used bookstore. There's no outright reconciliation of their dissipated friendship, but there's a mental shift. And (from Hell's perspective, at least) we see the relationship take on a new (or newly recognized) form.
This is what is most interesting about Hell’s memoir: the crux of the narrative comes not from Hell himself, but from his interactions with people who drift in and out of his life. It is the bandmates, the groupies, Theresa Stern (a pseudonymous poet created by Hell and Verlaine) and even a brief appearance by Allen Ginsberg that create the story. Though Hell told me he’s not trying to force his experiences into any kind of context, he agrees the context is inextricable. I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is a memoir that can stand on its own as a work of prose: it’s witty, often dark and self-effacing, while at the same time an admission of vanity and pretension. Here’s our interview.
In the book you said when you started making music you were “in your element” and that you thought you could do it in a way nobody had ever done before. When you were writing before you started playing music, did you feel out of your element?
I did feel more tentative as a writer, though at the same time, that was part of what freed me up to start making music. I was struggling with the writing, but it was for a few reasons. I’d arrived at a point where I felt I was coming into my own on a certain level, and I had figured out ways to write that pretty much fulfilled my intentions.
But at the same time, I also felt really isolated and it was frustrating, because I wanted to have an effect. [Laughs] I wanted to have an effect on the whole world. I wanted to have an effect on culture. It sounds really pretentious to say that, but it’s true. When the possibilities of rock and roll dawned on me, I just immediately saw this thing that I’d never really grasped before: That I could use all my chops as a writer and at the same time, there were all these forms of communication that people actually responded to on a mass basis that was really thrilling. I would still be a writer, as a songwriter, though it’s very different. I wasn’t entirely abandoning my identity as a writer to become a songwriter, you know what I’m saying?
I was intrigued by your characterization of your friendship with Tom Verlaine. You say it was “one of the most meaningful” you’ve ever had, but in many ways you didn’t even like each other. Do you think there’s something appealing about fostering deep connections with people you don’t really like?
[Laughs] No, it’s not something that I sought. That’s just the kind of relationship that I had with Verlaine. And like I said in the book, it’s not that unusual in relationships between young artists. There’s a little bit of rivalry going on, and when your interest is making art, it’s kind of an eccentric interest, and it’s hard to find someone who’s on the same wavelength as you. And when you do connect with someone that you have enough in common with in that way, it’s really valuable, and inspiring and important. But that one way, in terms of being compatible as artists, that’s so valuable and rare that it draws you together whether or not you really have much else in common. That’s the way it looks to me.
So do you think that because of your dynamic, the ultimate dissolution of your friendship with Verlaine was kind of inevitable?
I have no idea. I’m kind of a fatalist about everything. I think that everything is science. So in that sense, yes. Whatever happened, had to happen the way it happened. But that doesn’t mean you’re aware of it when it’s going on.
In a sense, your book is kind of organized in terms of various women you’ve dated. Often it seems like they serve as a turning point or an introduction to a new period of your life.
I was more or less being chronological. The girlfriend moments are just consistent with the chronological pattern. But you’re right, they were very important in my life, and there were a few cases where my relationships with women had a profound effect and did change things for me, so that’s true. But I didn’t see them as being any exception to the progress of the book.
It just seems to me like sometimes there’s more momentum put on your romantic relationships than even your musical relationships.
Well, I don’t quite see it that way, I think it just reflects the course of my experience. It wasn’t something that I planned in advance, I just thought of my own emotions and memories. I think if you counted the pages you would see just as much focus on men as there is on women.
Well I was thinking not so much a content imbalance, but imbalance on the temporal movement of the memoir. More structurally. Time doesn’t seem to shift until a woman enters the picture.
I’m interested in what you’re saying, but I don’t quite understand it. Maybe you should write a review of my book for me? I’d like to know more about exactly what you mean and look at the book through that filter.
Maybe I will. At one point in the book you talk about how there are a lot of myths, or stories floating around from the Television/Heartbreakers era. You say that you want to get “the most accurate idea of the way things are.” Was this your motivation for writing a memoir?
Well, in a sense, though it wasn’t about accuracy in order to correct perceptions or false anecdotes that had floated into the mythology. It was more for my own purposes just to be as accurate as I could in describing my own experiences, because I wanted to see what it would look like when it was all put down in one place, in one form, to just get a picture of the shape my life has taken, for my own satisfaction. You know? Because I wondered what it all added up to. It was a bigger scale for me, and it was more personal and about more than just accurate journalism. It was me trying to understand what I’d seen and who I was, and what happened to me. It wasn’t counter-stories for public record; it was a whole other realm. And of course, as it was going on, I was conscious of something being mistaken information that was put out, I would correct it.
So would you say this was an opportunity to sort of map out your own life with the advantage of hindsight?
Well, I didn’t reflect on it, I just described it. In fact, in the first draft of the book, I did reflect a fair amount, it was 400 pages, rather than the 300 that got published. And most of what I took out was my reflections. I just wanted to describe things as I experienced them, I didn’t want to analyze and meditate on what had happened. Though there’s still a little bit of that left—it’s kind of a regrettable tendency that I have, to analyze my own experience and perceptions.
Well I think that’s kind of an unavoidable tendency, especially when writing a memoir. You can’t take self-reflection out of the equation altogether.
No, you can’t. And I was aware of that. Most of my intention was to just accept what was inevitable: that I am writing it from age 63, so I’m gonna have some kind of take on it—that’s unavoidable. But what I wanted to do as much as possible, was keep it pretty point-blank in its descriptions of what happened, rather than force it into some kind of context. I didn’t want to talk about it from here, I wanted to put myself back there.
In that vein, how do you think the memoir would have differed if you had written it when you were, say 30?
That’s an interesting question. I kept notebooks and I gave a lot of interviews during the period when I was making music and so a lot of that can be kind of checked. 30 was towards the end of my music career, and I was pretty demoralized; I was a drug addict, but I also had a lot of ideas and intentions about what I wanted to be saying in the work I was doing. And so probably what I would’ve written at that time would have reflected that.
In the course of gathering materials to help me write the book, I got boxes and boxes of stuff from my mother. And my sister also sent me a bunch of letters I had written her. And there was this one letter from my sister when I was a teenager still—17 or 18—when I first came to New York. And it was really eerie to read this letter because I literally did not recognize myself. If someone had shown me the letter without telling me I wrote it, I would never have guessed. And I kind of touch on this in the book, when I talk about running away from school with Tom [Verlaine] and I say I don’t know if I can really put myself back in that frame of mind.
In the book you say Sable Starr once said she would give you a blow job any time you wanted, and you called it “just about the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me." Are you saying an offer of “anytime blowjobs” is the ultimate compliment?
Some kind of an altruistic act or a giant sacrifice?
Why do you think that?
I don’t really have anything to add. It would be an interesting subject for an essay. Laughs. You planted a good idea in my head. I’m not gonna answer that question right now, but I appreciate you asking it.
Well if you end up writing an essay about it, let me know.
Ok I will.