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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