Sunday, April 14, 2013

England Before Thatcher: The NotMakingThisUp Book Review of Richard Hell’s “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp”


 Richard Hell—look him up, kids—aspired to be a writer, became one of the originals of the 1970s New York punk scene, and is now a writer.
 And he is a very good writer if  “I Dreamed…” is any indication.  In fact, it’s probably the best rock and roll memoir you can find out there—and we here at NotMakingThisUp read them all (he’s not kidding—ed.)
 By way of comparison, Gregg Allman’s recent “My Cross to Bear” is one of those as-told-to memoirs whose primary focus is on the hair-raising amount of drug intake that ruined him (not to mention graphic details concerning the other aspect of rock and roll that goes hand-in-hand with drugs, if you get our drift—ed.)
 Tommy Iommi’s two-year-old “Iron Man” is a more thoughtfully written account of the hard work (and mystical experience during a car wreck) that helped create Black Sabbath, but without the literary drive of Hell’s work.  
 And Clive Davis’ brand new autobiography is interesting enough (hey, Aerosmith wrote a song about him) but annoyingly self-congratulatory what with all the time he spends talking about how many acts he discovered who made it big in the music business (before they all seemed to die of drug and alcohol abuse—ed.).
 Unlike those three authors, Hell’s approach in “I Dreamed…” is to tell his story with straightforward prose, without self-pity or self-congratulation, but with enough self-knowledge that you trust him, as in this early, offhand observation:
 I probably peaked as a human in the sixth grade.  I was golden without conceit.
 Most remarkably, Hell writes in such a way that—unlike most rock memoirs—you want to read the whole thing, from start to finish, and not just skip around to pick out the good bits (“Where did Tommy meet Ozzi?” for example, or “How did Gregg write ‘Whipping Post’?” or, perhaps the most crucial question of all:  “Why didn’t Clive want the Kinks to release ‘Come Dancing’ for crying out loud?”)
 Hell saw a lot in his fast life—toured with the Sex Pistols, became fast friends with Dee Dee Ramone—and, heroin junkie though he was, he remembers enough to make the storytelling worthwhile, as when he describes the night Johnny Thunders (look him up, kids) gave Hell “the most perceptive take on professional rock and roll I’d ever heard”:
 He compared it to prizefighting—young nowhere kids busting their skulls in service to a fantasy of the big-time while businesspeople dole out to them promises and little tokens, raking it in on the youths’ showings until the kids fall out, sooner, than later, broke and brain-dead, everything burned.”
 There is more here, and it is much better told by Hell himself (we were trying to work that in somehow—ed.)  So buy this book, and read it from beginning to end.  
 While Richard Hell and the Voidoids will never replace the Arctic Monkeys as the house band of this virtual column, as rock memoirs go, this is as good as they come.
 Oh—about that Margaret Thatcher reference in the title.  Any time somebody tries to tell you how Margaret Thatcher ruined a wonderful, egalitarian little island called England, have them read this book for Hell’s account of what he found when he went to England in the pre-Thatcher mid-1970s, for a tour with the Sex Pistols:
 England made a bad impression.  It seemed defeated and ashamed.  Its more privileged youth manifested this in continuous cynical, self-deprecating irony.  Older people were still fixated, amazingly, on World War II, which was apparently the most recent moment in which they could take any pride.  Everyone still seemed psychologically crushed by the collapse of the empire fifty years before.
 Physically, it was more of the same.  The streets of the East Village were burnt out and lawless, but they were Joyland compared to the death row oppressiveness of urban Britain...
 For food there was fried potatoes, and potatoes and beans, and potatoes and eggs, and meat-potato pies and boiled potatoes.
 The country was in even worse economic shape than New York City, without New York’s cultural compensation.  The lives of the working-class kids were especially miserable.  There were no jobs for them and nothing to look forward to and nothing to do but beat each other up at soccer games.
 So get this book.  And when you read (or watch) about Margaret Thatcher and how she ruined England, remember you’re reading (or watching) somebody who wasn’t around back then, like Richard Hell. 


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8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ah yes. The Blank Generation (I have the LP).

Thanks Jeff.

Joe Keller said...

Good review...will get the book.

James Fearnley of the Pogues came out last year with "Here Comes Everybody"...outstanding memoir, beautifully written.

Jeff Matthews said...

Thanks Joe.

Unknown said...

Worth nothing that North Sea oil also started ramping up production just before she came to power as well.

The strong pound caused a property boom, slump in manufacturing and rise of the City. Were these changes oil or Thatcherism? I suspect both. (granted, deregulation certainly helped the City grow and monetarism caused the pound's value to increase).

I think we all tend to overplay the role of people and underplay economics in big political shifts like this. For example, the USSR liberalized and then broke up after the oil price crashed in the mid 80s. The Soviets had built its economy around cheap energy and using money from exports to bribe the population. That policy couldn't continue once the oil bonanza ended.

Jeff Matthews said...

Another rear-view mirror it-wasn't-really-Maggie look from "Unknown," who either wasn't there or forgot what it was like before Thatcher: it was night and day after she cut taxes, de-nationalized and turned "The City" into a global financial powerhouse.

JM

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, interesting how a white collar blog would talk about the rise of "The City" but not the blue collar jobs annihilated in the process. They were too far from the city to care then, so why care now, eh? We'll just go ahead and ignore the whole Ireland issue too.

As far as giving or not giving her credit, here is a good comic addressing the question quite eloquently:
http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2947#comic

Anonymous said...

Oh great! Another person bleating the loss of 'blue collar jobs'! The truth seems to have been forgotten.

By the early 1970s, there were great swathes of British industry which were nationalised, that is, owned by the government but effectively controlled by a small cadre of union bosses. Those clowns ran the nationalised industries into the ground, to the point that they simply couldn't compete with imported products. Enormous subsidies were paid into those industries year after year, by a succession of spineless politicians, all for the dubious benefit of keeping up production of things which consumers didn't want to buy.

Thatcher acted to end that nonsense.

Moreover, it would have happened sooner or later, even had Thatcher never been in power.

Unknown said...

Watching the coverage of Thatcher's death and funeral, my college kids latched on to the (most of) media's portrayal of her as the ruthless, uncaring, job destroying Iron Lady. Having been to Britain a couple of times, they couldn't relate to what it was like in the 70's(or what New York was like then). That night, to show them what they would have become without Thatcher, I showed them A Clockwork Orange. Their reaction was- really? Really.