In the beginning, there was Legs McNeil. He lived in 1970s New York, otherwise known as hell. To him, it was heaven. He started a magazine called Punk with a couple of friends. The name symbolized what they loved about their favorite musicians. It meant "drunk, obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, funny, ironic, and things that appealed to the darker side," he and Gillian McCain explain in their 1996 book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.
For many punks, Please Kill Me is a bible of sorts. It's read and reread, studied and quoted. It turns respectable rock fans into music-history junkies. McNeil will read from it at Mickey's Tavern this Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 8 p.m. He'll also share selections from a new memoir, Girl With the Most Cake. I asked him about both before his trip to Madison.
Isthmus: What's the new book about?
McNeil: It's about my five-month affair with the love of my life, and it's also about Punk magazine. I was in the middle of doing my porn book, The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Industry, and a TV show at the same time, so I'd fly her in to wherever I was. She'd just flown home and told me her leg hurt. Then I lost touch with her for a day. She was admitted to the hospital, and I couldn't find her. They amputated her leg, and she didn't survive. She died within 48 hours. It sent me spiraling for 10 years. I was on Valium or Xanax all the time, and my therapist said I should write about what happened, so I did. I thought if I had to be honest about her, I should also be honest about myself. It turned out she was a junkie, but she didn't look like it. I don't think of her that way.
When does it come out?
Probably next year. I'm gonna read part of it and see what kind of reaction it gets.
Why'd you decide to revisit Please Kill Me on this tour?
You gotta do your greatest hits, right? "Free Bird"! No one really cares about a new book until it comes out. And reading Please Kill Me is a lot of fun. Shannon, my girlfriend, was a lot of fun, too. It reminds me of her.
When I read Please Kill Me, it feels a bit like watching a documentary film. Sometimes it seems like the interviewees are speaking directly to me, or like I'm eavesdropping on them at a diner. Did you set out to create this effect, or did it just sort of happen?
Well, you want it to look like it just sort of happened. It's like doing sculpture. You've gotta keep carving and carving and carving. You can't let anyone see the work that goes into it. ... We only used between 1% and 5% of the interviews we had. It's gotta be like a Ramones song, like it's always existed just the way it is. ... Now it seems like everybody's doing an oral history, so it's nice to be the gold standard.
What were some of your influences at the time?
I was very influenced by the gang books of the '60s. The characters found religion in the last two chapters, but I just wanted to read about them being in gangs. And Last Exit to Brooklyn, which reads like a machine gun being fired at you.
The interview excerpts are arranged in a way that makes it seem like your subjects are having a conversation with one another. Did you tend to interview groups, or were these mostly one-on-one interviews?
I interviewed each of them alone.
Did you have any concerns about creating a narrative in this way?
No concerns at all. I could tell where [the story] was going to go. It's a very instinctive and intuitive book. In the '90s, when we were putting it together, it seemed like the punk scene had been this dream and that it was vanishing very quickly. I was like, "Did that really happen? Was it as great as I thought it was?" ... I was curious to see how other people would respond to those questions.
Of all the people you interviewed, who surprised you the most?
I was friends with most of the people in the book, so there weren't too many surprises, but Gillian says Iggy [Pop] was her favorite interview because he was so smart. ... I think Kathy Asheton was really revealing. She gave a stellar interview. I love those people that really connect things. ... She was one of those people who showed how the baton was passed, and that's one thing we wanted the book to do.
At the end of Please Kill Me, you note that some very different people banded together during the early days of punk -- geniuses and idiots, poets and illiterates. Do you think music history will have another moment like this?
Not anytime soon. I think it will be be completely different. Now everyone's texting and Facebooking. This was a time when there weren't cell phones or even cash machines. Really, it was old times, before technology came in and supposedly made our lives easier. I mean, it's nice communicating with 17,000 people at once, but I don't think I'd want to be a kid now. There are all these rules. If I did what I did back then, I'd be in jail. So would everyone else from Please Kill Me. Those were the days.