Richard Hell: Defining the Look of Punk

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By Silke Tudor

In 1974, the band Television had a weekly "residency" at a skuzzy biker bar called CBGBs, and Patti Smith wrote one of their first reviews. After rhapsodizing about Tom Verlaine's swanlike neck, she turned to Richard Hell -- his look, his moves, his attitude: "If Hell loses balance he'll lay out and play bass flat on his back. No hesitation. Wrong note so what." That was it. For Malcolm McLaren, Hell was the embodiment of disaffection and disgust amid the lingering hippie haze.

When McLaren returned to London, the Sex Pistols emerged looking like a certain East Side rocker -- short hair, torn T-shirt, wrong note so what. It was no secret. In the Met's upcoming exhibit, "PUNK: Chaos to Couture," the first gallery, the first minutes of punk, will be aptly represented by Hell, the man who identified the "Blank Generation." The album by Richard Hell and the Voidoids that bears that name stands as one of early punk's most soulful, literate, and brazen pieces of ire. But Hell split the music scene a few years later to write novels. So, in our opinion, his autobiography is long overdue. Like his songs, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is more poetic and compelling than your typical rock memoir. He invokes love and catastrophe -- drugs, women, bands -- without apology or malice, reminding us how New York smelled, how punk rock felt, and where the music lives in a well-turned phrase.
Hell reads at 7 p.m. at City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., S.F. Admission is free; call 362-8193 or visit citylights.com.

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