Feature GillianMcCain-Legs McNeil*

Published on January 23rd, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann


Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain Share Punk Excerpts and Ideas

When veteran journalist and music critic Legs McNeil started interviewing old friends and colleagues from his days in the Bowery in Manhattan for a book on punk rock, he didn’t expect to spend the next four years conducting interviews, locating MIA players, and piecing together excerpts and quotes. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, published in 1997, was a labor of love, but he’s damn glad he and his co-author Gillian McCain completed the work.

“We found out why people don’t do oral histories: it’s because they’re really, really hard,” McNeil says. “Everyone thinks they’re really easy, but it’s labor-intensive and very expensive. We did more than 200 interviews for Please Kill Me, so the transcribing bills piled up.”

Presented as an oral history with quotes after quotes, Please Kill Me presents one raw and gritty account after another. Most of the individuals quoted in the book were actively involved in New York City’s bustling music community in the late 1970s. All of them had direct connection to the punk subculture, one way or another.


“When we sat down to do Please Kill Me, we didn’t want to do a book that was about punk rock; we wanted to do a book that was punk rock,” he continues. “I think we succeeded. Gillian and I really loved the Edie: An American Biography book by George Plimpton and Jean Stein. We though, ‘Wow, why doesn’t anyone ever use this format? This book is so tight and great, it reads like novel.'”

Please Kill Me examines both the positive and ugly sides of early punk culture, and it assesses the abrasive and raw sounds of punk music. Interviewees speak openly about the camaraderie between punk musicians, the wild behavior of the fans, and the dirty fun and rebellious mischief of those who were there

“Dee Dee [Ramone, the late bassist of the Ramones] was the one who first came to me with an idea about writing a book about punk rock or something he did or something,” McNeil says. “That was the genesis. Being involved with the CBGBs scene and Punk magazine and all of that, I thought there was an even bigger story to tell. So much had happened, and I wondered if we could put all of that stuff into one book. It was fun, and it was a real challenge.”

Some chapters in Please Kill Me touch on outrageous antics, drug abuse, serious addictions, and personal tragedies within the CBGBs scene and the New York City punk community. Themes of rebellion, disillusionment, and idealism are prevalent. Strung together, the statements and observations create an underlying timeline that connects the original punk artists to the punk-minded pioneers in the rock underground during the late 1960s and early ’70s.

“It starts with the Velvets, and then Danny Fields [a key journalist and band manager] goes out and signs Iggy, the Stooges, and the MC5 to Sire, and then John Cale goes out and produces the Stooges, and Nico goes out and lives at the Stooges’ fun house in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And so on,” McNeil says. “It really does all connect behind the scenes, you know? There was a thin spine to it. Fields seemed to be the connection. He’d work with the Doors and then he worked with all these bands and later managed the Ramones [a passage in Please Kill Me describes Fields as “forever the coolest guy in the room”]. Wayne Kramer from the MC5 was there in the beginning, and then he later played with Johnny Thunders, and it goes on and on.”

The musical family trees surrounding punk rock bands often branch off in weird directions. Some bands came and went in a flash. Others rotated members, stopped and restarted, or kept morphing into new variations. It’s tricky to document much of it. And it was tricky for McNeil and McCain to approach some people about their experiences in the punk movement because, inevitably, there were those who felt bitter or resentful about one thing or another. Inconsistencies between people’s accounts only enhance the big picture, though.

“The contradictions are terrific,” McNeil says. “One person says that this happened, and another person says that this other thing was what happened. You get that a lot.”


Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil (provided)

Looking back at his work as a writer and editor for national magazines (Spin, Nerve) and author, McNeil is glad he was at some of the right places at the right times. He also feels like the timing for his work on Please Kill Me was ideal.

“The great thing about doing a punk book in the ’90s was that no one gave a shit about punk, you now?” he says. “Everyone was very free to talk and offer their opinions. It wasn’t such a big deal as we made the book. I think we did at just the right time. I felt like I started realizing how great of scene it was. It had started dissipating in my mind as the ’90s got shittier and shittier … and who thought things could get shittier than the ’80s? It was fun to go back a talk to everybody. They were all friends. I also wondered if the girls were going the change their stories, since they weren’t politically correct, but they didn’t.”

McNeil looks forward to reading passages from Please Kill Me and some of his more recent works (including his forthcoming Live Through This) during a visit to Charleston next week. He and McCain, currently the the Program Coordinator for the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church in New York City, are set for a seated reading and post-gig meet-and-greet at the Tin Roof on Mon. Jan. 28. Traveling around the U.S. to conduct readings has become an enjoyable new habit for the two authors.

“We have some favorite chapters that we read, so we just say, ‘Hey, what do you want to read tonight?'” McNeil says. “We usually read it out loud a bit before we go in, just so we get our mouths around the words and don’t fuck up during the reading,” McNeil says. “Reading out loud is actually really important, and it was great to do when we started editing Please Kill Me. You catch things you wouldn’t catch by just reading it to yourself on the page.

“I rarely deal with angry people or hecklers at these kind of events,” McNeil adds. “Everyone’s usually very nice and positive, no matter if I’m reading from Please Kill Me or my new books. It’s a friendly exchange. I’m an old guy, three years short of 60, so if anyone comes up and says, ‘Hey, I’m a bigger punk than you,” I say, ‘That’s fine.” I don’t care. But people usually seem to be pretty nice and hoping to turn you on to new stuff. When I meet people, we talk and I tell them what I like and they tell me what they like. I think people who’ve read my stuff consider me to be like an old friend to them rather than a lecturer or whatever. It’s very nice and very touching.”

Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain will read from Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and other works at the Tin Roof in West Ashley 7-10:30 p.m. on Mon. Jan. 28. Admission is $6. Visit pleasekillme.squarespace.com and reverbnation.com/venue/tinroofwashley for more.

Top photo by Tom Hearn.




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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.

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