City Lights Bookstore
Monday, March 25, 2013
Better than: Everything else happening in North Beach last night.
The walls of City Lights Bookstore are littered with relics of past literary events, and it's difficult to scan the posters without feeling nostalgic. But the iconic bookstore and publisher still hosts incredible readings, and remains a beacon for the written word in North Beach. Last night, storied New York City punk musician, poet, and author Richard Hell appeared at City Lights to read from his new autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. Eager attendees completely filled the store. Some indignant latecomers even stood outside the window to gesture and leave notes on the glass.
We were led up a steep, rickety staircase to an improvised office overlooking the main floor to watch the proceedings. City Lights event director Peter Maravelis introduced Hell with a provocative declaration that "decadence has gotten a bad wrap these days," and placed punk in the greater lineage of avant-garde art since the 19th Century. Then, he explained the "feedback loop" between San Francisco's legendary punk venue Mabuhay Gardens and City Lights to give context for Hell's appearance. In loose flannel and blue jeans, Hell hunched over the podium and emphatically read from I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, pausing occasionally for effect and adding short comic asides. He is a performer, after all.
Maravelis' introduction was particularly apt regarding decadence, since Hell read from several particularly gritty passages of his autobiography. In fact, he explained a long-standing affinity for San Francisco as an emblem of S&M and drag -- quite a compliment from a New Yorker. "To me, San Francisco is where sex is everywhere," Hell said. After a digression about his first S&M experience in the loft of a meth dealer, Hell even mentioned "fucking Kathy Acker in the ass," but praised the feminist writer as well.
Sensational tidbits aside, Hell's first reading selection recalled the incredible empowerment he felt when he first began playing with electric instruments. Hell performed with Tom Verlaine in Television and Neon Boys, as well as Johnny Thunders' post-New York Dolls group The Heartbreakers, before forming his own Richard Hell & the Voidoids. His prose is lyrical with vivid descriptors that carry rich emotion and propulsive action. His selection described early musical endeavors as profoundly liberating, especially in the nascent period before "habit takes the edge off," an allusion to the diminishing high imparted by consistent drug use. (Which his story grapples with as well.) Of course, after the passage about musical liberation, he quickly smirked at the audience and added, "that lasted about six weeks." It's apparent what propelled Hell towards writing professionally in the '80s.
Also relevant to Marvelis' initial introduction, Hell contrasted first-wave UK punk with his own interest in art and literature. As he stated, "I wanted to reconcile the physical and intellectual." He cited the Sex Pistols' bassist Sid Vicious as an example of willful anti-intellectuality in punk, while New York's early punk scene was relatively literate. Hell strived to represent punk's duality in his own work and succeeded. He recalled that "playing rock 'n' roll was like being a pimp," and described the power dynamic between punk musicians and female hangers-on at CBGBs. With equal zest and charisma, though, Hell referenced Dylan Thomas and chronicled his own life as a poet and modern dandy. He was a visceral frontman communicating primal ferocity who evolved into an iconoclastic writer captivating both in person and print.
Noteworthy attendee: From our elevated vantage point, we found none other than Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore watching as well. Moore and Hell were in fact bandmates in the short-lived early '90s group Dim Stars.