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Reviews of Music Autobiographies from a Punk and a Turtle

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The book itself drips with a repellent, gorgeous honesty. Hell is offhandedly brutal to some of his longtime cohorts, randomly kind to others, and though he details some less-than-admirable actions, seems at some points to think he invented sliced bread—the false humility of the junkie’s massive ego. (And yes, his junk years are explored, but it’s the least interesting part of Clean Tramp.)

Hell is quite good on his male friendships, drawing clean-edged, sensitive, distinct portraits of each man. Women’s breasts, hair, or the sex acts he has with them get that same level of attentive clarity (at one point he recalls—from 1967—“a sad, hysterical girl with red capillaries on her nose and cheekbones, and large breasts that looked like twin Eeyores”) but the women themselves seem interchangeable, not quite human.

Hell and his fellow ’70s punk icon, the ethereal Patti Smith, had the same influences (French Symbolist poets: Lautréamont, Verlaine, Rimbaud), the same aspirations (poet/rock star), came out of the same tiny intersection of time and place (junk-infused 1970s Lower East Side), yet in her recent memoir Just Kids, Smith gets it across in half the pages with twice the beauty and grace and suffusing soul. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is earthy, with a few flashes of sublimity ... a better portrait of an era than of a man or a self. — Jessica Bryce Young

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