Punk rock — and, in this context, we're talking about early punk, CBGB in its heyday, leather jackets and broken bottles and dope — is so much more than begging to be someone's dog or wanting to be sedated or never minding the bullocks.
As for what punk was truly about, you'll find it in the 430 pages that make up Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.
McNeil, the co-founder of Punk magazine and a former editor at Spin, and poet McCain published the book in 1996. It starts with the Velvet Underground selling blood for cash in 1965 and ends with the death of the New York Dolls' Jerry Nolan in 1992. Using new and archival interviews, McNeil and McCain offer candid accounts of the dirtiest dirt: DeeDee Ramone's relationship with a prostitute named Connie, the debate on whether or not Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen, and all the other shit-talking that went on during the peak of the scene whose effects are still rippling their way through popular culture. (We've interviewed Charleston bands who've cited the book as inspiration.)
When we got McNeil on the phone last week, he was taking a reprieve from writing his next book, a memoir called Live Through This (yes, it's named after a Hole song). Along with McCain, he'll be reading from Please Kill Me, as well as the new work, at the Tin Roof on Monday.
City Paper: What is it like putting together an oral history, especially as someone who also does more traditional writing?
Legs McNeil: There are different phases of it, because in the beginning you don't really know what your story is, even if you have a through line. OK, the Velvets star it, and then John Cale hooks up with the Stooges, and Nico goes to live with Iggy in Ann Arbor, that's a connecting point, and John Cale's producing the stuff, and there's the Stooges and the MC5, so that works — you're kind of doing a shotgun approach, trying to get anything you can get. But you've got to interview people for five to 10 hours, because you want to get the best stuff. [Oral histories] are really, really expensive to do them right, because you really need a lot of material.
Then sort of in the middle, you kind of know where you're going. And it was funny, because when somebody would say something, Gillian and I would look at each other and we'd know exactly where it was going in the book. It can be a lot of fun, but it's really, really confusing. I could never have done Please Kill Me drunk; that was the one good thing about getting sober.
Also, I remember one of the Ramones chapters, I did everything right. I did everything the way it should have been, and it was so boring. It was so boring, it was like, wait a minute, I did everything right. Why does this suck? That's the worst thing about writing. You can do everything right and it can still suck. You've got to have that little magic in there. And then with the Ramones chapter, I said wait a minute, what about Connie [the prostitute and Ramones groupie whose affair with DeeDee impacted the band]? And that became everyone's favorite chapter.
CP: How do you edit all these hours of interviews down into 400 pages?
LM: We'd read over the interviews and then whatever you remember from it is what you use. I think we only used between 2 and 5 percent of all the interviews we did. That's how much stuff you're using. Because you really need the cream, especially if you're going to do an oral history like Please Kill Me where every page is thrilling. You really need great, genuine stories to make it keep flowing. But it's also interesting what else you use that you didn't think you were going to use.
CP: What's it like reading for crowds who weren't even alive when this stuff was going on, but they're still obsessed with this book?
LM: I think what Please Kill Me does is that it's kind of the ultimate fantasy book, because everyone's doing whatever the fuck they want. And it was that really special time in New York City, when no one wanted to be there. It was the end of white flight, so it was like this giant movie set that people had abandoned. And all us drunken-junkie-alcoholic-fucked-up kids were like, wow, this is great, let's play over here ... I think it really was that time period when you really could live out your fantasies. Of course, we know what happens when there's unrestricted, no rules. People end up dying. But I think there's something in the book for everyone to go, wow, that would be so cool if I could do this ... I think kids are like: I want to do that too.
CP: What is Live Through This about?
LM: I had an affair with a girl I met on a book tour in 2000, and we fell madly in love and were going to get married and live happily ever after, except that she was still shooting dope and she didn't tell me and I was an idiot and didn't know. She got infected with necrotizing fasciitis, which is flesh eating bacteria, and her leg was amputated and she didn't survive the operation. It was this five-month affair that left me incapacitated and with lots of anxiety, and I also didn't deal with my childhood at all. I had my leg cut off too — I was born lopsided with my right side two inches larger than the other. They did a femoral shortening in 1971 and cut off my leg and reattached it, cut off two inches off the femur. So I had all this shit that I hadn't dealt with.
In November 2011, I went to a trauma rehab and I started dealing with it. My trauma therapist said, what is therapy but putting your life into a narrative, and what do you do but write? Why don't you just put this in a narrative? So I did. When I got out of there, I started writing it in March, and I'm just finishing it now. I've got two sections to rewrite and I'll be done, so I just thought, hey, let's see if anyone likes it.
CP: How are your audiences at readings, who are expecting to hear dirt on the punk scene, reacting to the new book?
LM: They seem to love it. I always thought people just want to get close to me because they think I'm best friends with Iggy and stuff like that, and they just want to hear about Iggy and DeeDee and Sid Vicious. But I was astounded. It was kind of life changing when I went on a tour of the Midwest this past fall and some of the kids said, wow, I like this better than Please Kill Me. Because I always thought who cares about me and my dead girlfriend? That was my thinking. But apparently they like it. Since I've done this, so many people said their first love died of a heroin overdose. I've run into so many people who have had similar experiences that I've thought maybe someone will get something out of it. Although I don't really write to help other people, it would be nice if someone related to it. I guess they relate to it.
CP: What is it like writing about a self-centered topic instead of documenting what other people have gone through?
LM: It's probably the hardest thing I've ever written. Because No. 1, I don't like talking about myself. I'd rather talk about your story and ask you questions. And also to sit here and deal with it and not get angry, just to actually have the feelings, whatever I was feeling when I was writing this ... I was sobbing three or four times a day. But I'm glad I did it, because it seems like I've been released from it. I had been taking Xanax and Valium for 10 years. I quit drinking in 1988 and never picked up a drink again, but I had such bad anxiety and tantrums and I didn't know why I was doing things. It was bizarre, the hangover from someone very close to you suddenly dying in a really brutal, brutal way, and you're doing things that you don't know why you're doing them. It's been an interesting journey.
CP: Has bringing Live Through This out to the public as you're writing it impacted the editing process?
LM: No, I was just shocked that they liked it. I can't get over it. Are they lying to me? ... Gillian and I always do an oral edit on stuff, and when we did Please Kill Me, we read it out loud for three days before we handed it in, and you can really catch sentences that don't quite work so well. It's really a good thing to do. So we read everything out loud, it seems to help. Maybe because you just catch things, you know?
CP: Do you consciously choose music venues like the Tin Roof to host your readings?
LM: I prefer to read in bars and nightclubs where people are drunk and stuff. They've got to be feeling good. Because when you go to a bookstore it's so quiet. There's usually older people in bookstores. I want to read to the kids and people who enjoy this stuff. And I think if you really want to test something you've written out, you've got to read in a bar, because if you can hold and get people laughing and having fun, you've really done something. It's really kind of a test to see if it holds up. And so far it has.