I wish I’d had this book back then! It would have made my final paper for the class MUCH more interesting…
Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain – Please Kill Me – The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996/1997)
Decades later, I’m still a huge fan of punk music, particularly the first wave bands from the mid to late 1970s, and this book covers many of those groups in EXCRUCIATING detail. Where documentaries like Don Letts' 2004 masterpiece PUNK: ATTITUDE focus on the SOUND and STYLE of punk, this book is more of a TRUE CONFESSIONS type of affair and is built around stories of “behind the scenes” shenanigans. McNeil was one of the founders of PUNK Magazine, which helped define what punk actually was (as well as giving the movement its name), so he was REALLY THERE, and he and McCain have pieced this collection together by pouring through hundreds of hours of interviews with many of the key players in the punk scene, in addition to some other sources (listed at the back of the book.)
Starting in the 1960s with the Velvet Underground and Warhol’s Factory crowd, and moving into the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, Patti Smith, and so on, this book goes DEEP into the personal lives of the founders and early stars of punk---and it’s absolutely disgusting. Truly yucky to behold. Drugs, violence, prostitution, mental illness, obsession, back-stabbing, V.D., and moral degradation are on full display from page one until the end of the book. No punches are pulled, no egos are spared, no disgusting scene is left undescribed, in all of its body-fluid soaked detail. This book is absolutely NOT for the faint of heart.
Honestly, what this book covers is dark---almost TOO dark. I listen to songs like “Blank Generation” (by Richard Hell and the Voidoids) or “See No Evil” (by Television) or “Sleeping with the T.V. On” (by The Dictators) or “Jet Boy” (by The New York Dolls) and I think of nothing but fun times, happy memories, and really great tunes. These songs have always represented happiness and joy for me, but NOW, I’m going to have visions of these bloody bar fights and egomaniacs shooting drugs and people dying all over the place, when I hear some of my favorite music, all thanks to this book. And I get it, TRAGEDY is way more exciting than sunshine and daisies. I suppose these stories are mostly true, that this book represents an accurate portrayal of what life in the early punk scene in New York was really like, but all I can say is: I’m glad I wasn’t there.
Interestingly, the original ending of this book was a description of Jerry Nolan, legendary drummer for The New York Dolls and later The Heartbreakers, laying on his deathbed in a hospital, floating in and out of consciousness and surrounded by crying friends. It was sad and heart wrenching, especially as it came so shortly after descriptions of the deaths of Stiv Bators, Johnny Thunders, Sid Vicious, Lester Bangs…all these musicians and classic personalities. Luckily, I never read the original version of the book, and this edition (published by Penguin), has an additional 22 pages of material and ends on a much more positive note delivered by Wayne Kramer (of the MC5 and, interestingly, the 80’s funk-rock band, Was (Not Was)!) I’m glad McNeil and McCain added the new material so that the narrative no longer ends on such a desolate, heartbreaking scene. The origins of punk may have been pretty debauched, but the overall legacy of the era isn’t the dead bodies, it’s the GREAT music. Also, for people like me, who aren’t bothered by stories of ghosts or vampires or monstrous ancient gods (imaginary scares), but who are a bit too squeamish to enjoy REAL LIFE horrors, like sickness or needle drugs or human degradation, it’s good to let us off with at least a slight, tiny hint of hope and positivity.
Overall, the book is a thorough and “uncensored” look at the ugly, sickening, and depraved origins of punk, and will be of interest to anyone wondering how this movement got up and started moving (and then slumped over and threw up before getting up again…and again…and…) In addition, anyone who loves true-crime or stories of sleaze and debauchery will find a lot to chew on here. The book is engaging and easy to follow, but certainly NOT for the easily disturbed or morally conservative---you peeps won’t even make it past the first paragraph!
---Richard F. Yates