Book Report: Please Kill Me

I read a lot of books, I might as well try to pass along a few things.

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Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk
by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
20th Anniversary Edition, originally published 1996

I have always been a fan of punk music, but for me it was about experiencing the music rather than the history.  I think that we all have encountered that music snob who is always looking down their nose at others for not knowing the most obscure bands or the detailed evolution of music, and I never wanted to be that guy.  I suppose that in my own snobbish way I looked down on a lot of early punk bands because they lacked the defined style that came once the genre was established.  The Clash have always been one of my favorite bands, but I really never spent time exploring any of the other bands of their era.  As I get further removed from my own punk rock days I find myself less interested in new bands and more interested in the bands that came before my era. This book was one of my first forays into the history of punk, and I doubt that it will be my last.

I came to this book through an interview with the authors on WTF with Marc Maron, and it was such a good interview that I needed to immediately purchase the book and then store it on my shelf for several months.  Once I finally got around to reading it I had trouble making it through the first few chapters.  The authors assume a base level of knowledge that I did not posses, but eventually through using the glossary cast list and Wikipedia I was able to wrap my mind around the insanely large cast of characters.  We like to think of the start of a musical period as a clean origin, the Beatles coming to America, or the launch of MTV, but the punk scene grew out of an avant garde art scene and it took a meandering path picking up momentum as it went.  It didn’t even have a name, it was just a change in they type of music being played until assuming the mantle from Punk! Magazine in the late 70s.

Part of the reason why the book was so hard to get into was it’s writing style.  It is an oral history and the words come directly from interviews with the subjects of the book.  It would spend a paragraph quoting an interviewee, then another paragraph quoting another’s feelings on the same subject providing a rounded narration through the eyes of the scene rather than a single viewpoint.  This fabulous cast of characters included musicians, artists, groupies, drag queens, music producers, label executives, managers, roadies, and bar owners who each had their own history and stories that made the book seem almost as disjointed and disparate as early punk music was.  The stories ranged from sweet to gross, detailing relationships, drug use, sexual experimentation, jail terms, commercial failures, deaths, and the general disorder and disarray that punk came to symbolize.  The benefit of the disjointed oral history was that if something was too much for me or too boring I would just need to wait a few pages and it would change to a different topic and a whole new viewpoint.

I had always viewed the old school punk scene as an exciting but gross period in time.  Starting to listen to music in the sanitized world of Good Charlotte pop punk and Hot Topic fashion I always looked down at the gutter punk world.  Even as I evolved and got into darker and more underground punk I was always attracted to the music and the attitude rather than the lifestyle.  Maybe it is because I am a clear and admitted poseur, but I find nothing appealing about squatter housing and shared needles.  It is shocking to read through the list of characters in the revised 20th anniversary edition and see how many of them are dead.  Overdoses, murders, hepatitis, suicide, AIDs, and various ailments of hard living decimated this group.  A majority would have been in their late 50s or 60’s, but many of them never made it that far.  It is sad to look at their fate, an entire generation of musical icons dead and gone with nothing but their legacy remaining.

This book did nothing but reinforce the fact that the early punk scene is something fun to look at but wouldn’t have been my cup of tea.  Once I got used to the choppy flow I was able to get into the story, piece together the events, and discover a whole new world that existed beyond the scope of the few main characters that I knew.  I have recently found myself listening to a lot of music from that period and feeling a whole new connection to a lot of bands that I wouldn’t have know beforehand.  It challenged my view of the narrative that we have been fed that certain types of music spring fully formed into the world and showed me that no matter how revolutionary an idea may be there is a slow creep of ideas and sounds that allow a revolution to start.  It also reinforced my view that heroin is bad.

You should read it if: You are curious about the roots of punk rock, or are interested in the idea of New York in the 70’s.

You shouldn’t bother if: You don’t have enough imagination to piece together a story of unseen and unknown characters with little information.

Biggest regret about this book: That I never went to CGBG’s or saw any of these bands perform live.

This book inspired me to: Listen to more early punk, think about other narratives of this era (i.e. thinking about reading We Got The Neutron Bomb and the photo biography of the Clash that has been my coffee table book for years), and rewatch HBO’s Vinyl which fictionalized this period in the NYC music video.

My Final Take: It was a worthwhile read, but probably not something that I will revisit.  It opened my eyes to a different world, and my ears to a more raw sound.  Hard to get into, but then hard to put down.  3.5 stars.

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A Moment of Clarity: The Sobruary Effect

For the past few years I have participated in a tradition that I called Sobruary.  During those 28 (potentially 29) days I would take a break from alcohol and try to find some balance in my life.  I sold it to myself as a way to kill my tolerance, test my resolve, work my way through some issues, kickstart my spring fitness goals, and reassess what really matters to me.  It was a successful event for the past 3 years, but I have gotten to the point where I have outgrown it.  Even though I am not participating in Sobruary this year I still feel the need to write about it as I have done in the past.

Sobruary grew out of need, and was one of the trials that I feel put me on the right path.  During the winter of 2013/14 I was dealing with a lot of personal problems and tragedy and was feeling depressed.  I wasn’t happy with how things were going in my personal life, or at my new job, and how the world was unfolding around me, plus dealing with the loss of some people who I felt close to.  I was also really getting into the world of craft beer and would celebrate that by coming home from work and drinking 5 Heady Toppers by myself in my living room on a work night just because I could.  After going on a vacation where I spent far too much time bouncing between being too drunk to function and too hung over to function I felt the need for a change.  And Sobruary was born.

It was a huge challenge, but it put me on the right path, and I don’t think that it is a coincidence that over the next year I started working out, performing comedy, and writing more consistently.  Sobruary gave me that moment of clarity that many addicts talk about, where they realize what they are doing to themselves and how they can change it.  To be clear I am not an alcoholic, I have no physical or mental dependency, but I do have a bit of a social dependency where I feel much more comfortable with a drink in my hand.  This is in probably due to how I was raised, the people that I surround myself with, and my own personal preferences and social anxieties.  I rarely “need” a drink, but I often “want” a drink, and using a period of abstinence like Sobruary makes it clear that it is a choice, and if allowed me to identify the other choices that I make.

The next two years were actually harder than the first Sobruary.  I had less conviction in the mission.  I knew that it worked and was beneficial, but because I wasn’t in such a dark place personally I didn’t feel that sense of urgency that I had felt the first time.  I was also performing during those years so I was around much more temptation.  I have the utmost respect for the comics I work with who are in recovery, spending night after night in bars surrounded by temptation is a huge challenge when things are going well, but if you are having a bad day or have just bombed it feels impossible.  By this point I was also getting a lot of pushback from some of my friends who didn’t see the point in my social experiment.  If alcohol is a focal point for many of your relationships, it is hard to overcome that when you aren’t drinking.  This really put things in perspective for me about how I reacted and interacted with friends who have entered recovery or tried moving toward a sober lifestyle.  These conflicts gave me some great insights and have helped shape the decision that I made a few weeks ago that I would not be participating in Sobruary.

Right now I my relationship with alcohol is probably the healthiest it has ever been.  I drink, and I drink often, but I very rarely drink to excess.  I have cut down on the obsession about finding the rarest or hardest to find beer and stepped away from the need to “Catch ’em all.”  Drinking is part of the experience, and that experience no longer feels mandatory.  If I feel like having a beer or visiting a brewery I do it, if I don’t then I don’t feel bad about it.  I stopped shipping or “muleing” beer for all but my closest friends, and even then it is not trades, but sharing with people I care about.  I still am on a first name basis with a dozen or so Burlington bartenders, and a few places they know exactly what I am going to order, and it sure is fun to watch them squirm and make the mental switch when I order an herbal tea.

The biggest realization that I had was that I can only remember having one hang over in the past year.  Think about that, 365 days, 5 or 6 alcohol centric vacations, and the one hangover that I can remember is from a day when I went out right after work and hadn’t eaten all day before putting a dozen beers in my face.  The vacations were the biggest test, because they show that I finally found out my limits and figured out when to call it quits instead of pushing on and continue to drink past the point that needed to.  When I was in Gatlinburg last month I was the 2nd person awake both days because I felt tired and knew my limits before going to bed.  There is something to be said about waking up without an alarm refreshed and well rested without a hangover while everybody else was busy riding the struggle bus.  I also finished that trip by taking home only a few beers, not trying to get rare things, but applying an abundance mindset that no beer is the end all and be all. Recently I have even been thinking about quitting Untappd because I don’t feel like it adds much value.  I don’t enjoy pulling myself away from real life to enter things into my phone, or feeling guilty it I forget to do it, or feeling jealousy when my friends are enjoying something that I can’t have.  It isn’t healthy for me and I will probably be taking a break for a bit and deciding if it is something that I want to keep pursuing.

I am far from perfect, and I realize that while I am pretty healthy with my alcohol consumption now things will probably change.  Sobruary was a great way to explore my relationship with alcohol, and exploration of self is one of my favorite things, it even spread to a few other friends and created a bit of a community.  Some time in the future I will most likely get back on that wagon and try Sobruary again, but at this time it isn’t something that I really need.  The important thing is that I have done a fearless and searching moral inventory and found out just what works for me.