Please Kill Me – The Uncensored Oral History of Punk
Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
With apologies to junkies past and present, fuck me, junkies are tiresome. Nevermind that the majority of the most creative talents of the punk generation were hooked on something, and that the junk might have had some bearing on the work that is their legacy, most of the people that made up the punk scene of New York in the 70s were strung out, misogynistic, assholes with a Nazi fetish. And I say that in the nicest way possible.
The origins of “punk” notwithstanding – we’ll hand the coining of the term to the Punk Magazine crew (channelling William Burroughs) although I love the story of Marlene Dietrich using the word to describe Johnny Thunders – and the argument about which side of the pond birthed the “movement” also being irrelevant, the scene back in the day was barely able to stand upright, let alone have their shit together enough to actually be rebelling against anything.
Please Kill Me, the 1996 oral history by Punk Magazine’s Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain documents the progression of the New York scene from The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol to the deaths of Stiv Bators and Johnny Thunders, documenting, along the way, the creation and break-up of bands and relationships, all told via snippets of interviews, strung together both chronologically and by topic. Imagine a documentary with interview clips of people laced throughout and it makes more sense.
The problem with this format is two-fold – interview quotes are not necessarily in context – the book pulls quotes by various people that fit the immediate topic, and people talk a lot of shit when they don’t think they’re going to be quoted for some other reason, far off in the future. They also selectively omit a lot of shit when they do know they’re on the record. Plus personal perspective, he said/she said, self-promotion and the fog of substance abuse means that while such a history might be uncensored, it’s probably also not especially accurate when you get down to the finer details.
Having said that, Please Kill Me is most definitely the best primer available when it comes to the birth and evolution of the New York punk/post-punk music scene. From the New York Dolls to the Ramones to the Dead Boys, McNeil and McCain provide a thorough history of the scene. If you want to know the awful truth of in-fighting, girl stealing and song-writing back in the day, this covers it all.
Unfortunately, it also covers a lot of the drug dealing, groupie-raping and violence that will make your rock heroes seem not so heroic. A lot of the interviews, especially as the bands reach some success, are about scoring, addiction and the fallout from addiction. Or who got what venereal disease from whom.
For a lot of the players, the stories have such sad endings. Please Kill Me is full of comments slagging off Nancy Spungen, for example (although the commentary directed towards most of the groupies of the scene is pretty misogynistic at best… sure it was different times, but again, these are your rock gods, people), a character who, to be fair, probably annoyed a lot of people, but who was also known to be mentally ill. The undertone of scene bitchiness isn’t surprising, but it’s still incredibly sad to look back and see how Spungen and other women were treated, or how they had to behave to survive.
My copy of Please Kill Me is a 10th anniversary edition, updated at each pressing so the “cast of characters” list at the back is current (Malcolm McLaren’s listing includes his year of death in 2010). McNeil and McGill are planning a 20th anniversary edition this year, and it will be interesting to see if the work remains intact or is tightened up to be more politically sensitive. For instance, the references to Nazi paraphernalia are a weird theme throughout the book (was it a normal thing in the early 70s to hang a swastika flag in your home?), while obviously acceptable to some degree at the time, at least within that particular scene, are considered extremely offensive today.
Please Kill Me is worth a read, documenting, as it does, an incredibly important part of music history. Just don’t expect everyone to be on their best behaviour, or for the events and actions it covers to sit easily in the modern psyche. Would it be a better read if everyone wasn’t fucked up on something… probably yeah, but it’s also possible that rock music as we know it today might not exist. The junkies and their constant need to score can be tedious, but whether that destruction (both self and external) is ultimately worth it is hard to say.
For the true fans – Please Kill Me, like punk, never died – the website is updated daily with original stories and exploits and related weirdness from around the Internet.
This article originally appeared on Still Weird Zine