August 2013

Dmitry Samarov

nonfiction

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography by Richard Hell and Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas by Eric Fischl

When accomplished and acclaimed people sit down to reflect on their lives, it can't be easy for them not to come off as if they reinvented the wheel (whether they did or not). Being a boaster is profoundly unattractive, no matter whether your claims are backed by fact or not. The challenge in getting through Richard Hell's and Eric Fischl's memoirs is to wade past the puffery and backpatting to the stuff that makes them worthy of remembering in the first place: their work.

Richard Hell (né Meyers) ran away from home and helped invent punk rock. Along the way he bedded untold numbers of women and developed a healthy heroin addiction. I love all the bands that he was involved with (Television, The Heartbreakers, Richard Hell and the Voidoids) but what gets me most about his story is that he knew when it was time to walk away. We live in an era where every band that ever was seems to have reunited. Every group wants to relive and reenact their peak moments rather than actually taking the trouble to make new ones. It's very hard not to succumb to it. About ten years ago, when Hell's first band, Television, played a reunion gig in Chicago, I went. I've probably listened to Marquee Moon more than any other record but was too young to see the band in its original, living incarnation. I got what I wanted out of the experience but there's no doubt that it was augmented and enhanced by the fifteen years of listening to that record. If I focused too closely up at Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd on the stage of the Metro, the illusion most likely would've been shattered. Hell insists over and over again in his book that rock-and-roll is a young man's game. There's an immediacy, an in-the-momentness to it that a reunion -- no matter how well-intentioned -- can never capture. Hell recognized this and walked away.

Since quitting music in 1984 he has focused on writing, publishing poetry and novels, and living in the same Lower East Side apartment he moved into in his rockstar days. At times the prose in his memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, sags under the weight of "meaningful" words, culled no doubt from his decades of composing poetic stanzas and couplets. Summing up key moments in one's life is a difficult job and flowery words aren't always a help. The parts of the book I found most compelling are when he just describes things as they happened rather than trying to draw conclusions or insist on the import of this or that event. Hell crossed paths with enough interesting people in the art and music spheres not to need any extra emphasis or proof of the significance of his role in the culture of the '70s. The passages I liked least were ones where he settles old scores. There's a bitter, sour-grapes tinge to the way he relates parting ways with Television's Tom Verlaine and not becoming The Sex Pistols (while inspiring much of what they popularized.) Using your book to repay decades-old slights seems unnecessary and small-minded, but perhaps he's just one of those people that won't let things go. Fortunately there are more than enough compelling anecdotes to keep a reader's interest. Occasionally Hell is even generous to those that had wronged him, like in this sweet passage about running into Verlaine after years of not communicating with him at all:

When Tom spoke to me there outside that bookstore, it was forty-two years ago, 1969, and he was nineteen years old; we both were. His misshapen, larded flesh somehow just emphasized the purity of the spirit inside. He made a bunch of beautiful recordings too. Who gives a fuck about the worldly achievers, the succeeders at conventional ambitions?

Eric Fischl was one of the art stars of the '80s. Along with Julian Schnabel and David Salle, he brought big, personal, and messy feelings back to painting after the austere solipsism of much of the artwork done in the '60s and '70s. His rise coincided with the ugly materialism championed and celebrated in the Reagan era and documented it as well, in its own way. The group of artists he was lumped in with were dubbed the Neo-Expressionists, a label Fischl rails against understandably; no creative person likes being put in a box. I was always intrigued by the subject matter of his work, if underwhelmed at times by its execution. Fischl was in art school at a time when skills like drawing were sneered at, and it shows. He spent years teaching himself the rudiments his teachers thought it unnecessary to bother with.

In painting, style and substance are related simultaneously, so when one of the two is lacking the communication can become staticky and unclear. What Fischl shows: masturbating boys, rich white people sunning themselves, and tourist's views of other cultures all resonate because they come from lived moments. They reflect suburban, buttoned-up, and repressed America's hopes and fears a bit like David Lynch's films do. They both reach for the nightmares inherent inside all dreams.

Unlike Hell, Fischl is not a natural writer and has a co-author, Michael Stone, to help tell his story in Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas. He has also asked many of his famous and important friends to contribute testimonials. It's odd to be told over and over again what a master storyteller and wicked wit he is when there's so little evidence of either in this book. I'm glad Fischl gets to be best friends with Steve Martin but don't really need Martin's words added to emphasize what a terrific guy Fischl is. I'm reading his book, which means I find him fascinating enough to want to know more about. No celebrity infomercials necessary.

The best parts of the book are those in which he straightforwardly relates what it was like to be in art school in the late '60s and at the center of the absurd art boom of the '80s. I can't recall a book that used I and me and my quite as many times as this one does. It's difficult to avoid those words in a first-person narrative, of course, but I found myself actually counting them up while stumbling over his 300-page minefield. After a time a memoir's source and point of view should be implicit, shouldn't it?

Fischl was as key a figure of his era as Hell was of his. The charms of both their books outweigh the faults if you're interested in the time and subject matter they cover. If you're not familiar with the work of these men though, I don't know whether this is the place to be introduced to them. When we love the music and paintings we're much more willing to forgive the arrogance, pettiness, and insecurities of their makers.

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography by Richard Hell
Ecco
ISBN: 978-0062190833
304 pages

Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone
Crown
ISBN: 978-0770435578
368 pages