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