Needles and Pins

A conversation with the authors of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

Legs McNeil was a founder of Punk magazine; Gillian McCain is the program coordinator of the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in New York City. Since their new book, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, tells (mostly New York) punk's story entirely through interviews with scenesters like the Ramones, Richard Hell, and Patti Smith, it seemed fitting to talk about the book out loud with its authors.

Sarah Vowell: Legs, since you are the person who coined the movement "punk," could you talk about the genealogy of the term?

Legs McNeil: When I was growing up, on the cop shows like Kojak, when they caught the bad guys, they always called them a punk. Because they couldn't call them a motherfucker.

SV: How proprietary are you about the word? In the book, there's a little bit of a sense that you are.

LM: I'm not proprietary, I just wanted to get the story straight. The thing about punk is that the story's never been told, until we told it in this book.

SV: [doubtfully] Really. You think so? Then how do you feel about the way the word has been used in the culture? Because it's everywhere now, obviously.

LM: I wish you could copyright a generic term.
Gillian McCain: I think for the average person the idea of punk is what happened in Britain. You know, safety pins, mohawks.

SV: Let's talk about the form of the book and why you chose an oral history in particular.

LM: Because the story seemed to dictate it. If you're describing a scene, which is what we're doing, it seems the more voices you have, the better, so people will get a complete understanding. And we also loved the Edie book [the oral history on the short life of Warhol starlet Edie Sedgwick]. That was a big influence.

GM: We start with the Velvets and the Factory, sort of where Edie left off.
LM: I also think the more baser forms of culture make the best oral histories. People use more slang. People talk better.

SV: Now, it's called the "uncensored oral history," but publishers have pretty tight-assed lawyers. Are the outtakes of this book the really juicy, scandalous, libelous opinions?

LM: How much more libelous can you get with Lou Reed wanting to shit on somebody's face?

SV: Speaking of Lou, he says, "Rock 'n' roll is so great, people should start dying for it." When you started the project, did you know that it was going to be such a drug parable?

LM: I knew there was going to be a lot of drugs in it. I didn't know how many. You put it all together and you see the reality of it. And everybody who's in the book, we're going, "Wow. We really were fucked up."

GM: But also, the title came quite early: Please Kill Me.
LM: Gillian came up with the title.
GM: Well, from Richard [Hell]'s T-shirt.

SV: That whole myth -- the Please Kill Me thing -- is kind of debunked. You leave it where it lays. [Photographer] Bob Gruen says the first time he ever saw Hell, he walked in wearing it. And then Richard Hell says, "No, I was too afraid to." And Richard Lloyd says, "I wore it." So, what do you think?

GM: That's memory. That's history.
LM: It's left up to the reader. One of those guys was wearing it. It doesn't really matter does it? If it was Richard Hell or Richard Lloyd?

SV: Richard Hell, to me, is a more mythic, fascinating figure.
LM: That's because you just don't know Richard Lloyd.
GM: Richard Hell was the guy who made the shirt. That's definite.

SV: Legs, these were your friends. It must have been in some ways a painful process to chart their path to the grave.

LM: I don't know. I have a Leaving Las Vegas attitude towards it. I think everybody gets what they want. Johnny [Thunders] was in Hazelden [a chemical dependency clinic] twice. He had his shot. We've all been to detox. It's not very pleasant. Some people don't want it and other people want it. If you don't want it, you're going to die.

SV: Actually, I really like the, for better or worse, honesty of the book. And there isn't any moralizing, it's just, "Here's how we lived. Take it or leave it."

LM: Gillian always said, "God! If anyone does dope after this book ...."
GM: Your fate was sealed.
LM: The people I envy on the street are bums, lying in their own vomit, saying, "Gimme a dollar, you fuck!"

SV: You envy them?
LM: Yeah. They know how to drink right. If you're going to drink, that's the way to do it, as far as I'm concerned. I don't want to have to sip white wine at an outdoor cafe, I want to get obliterated.

SV: You're going to love California. ... English punk is treated highly unkindly by just about everyone. Why is that? Was it because of competition?

LM: Yes. Competition. We were jealous. For all those trite, stupid, obvious emotions. They did it really, really well. The Sex Pistols' album was great. And that's what made it even worse! Come on -- we'd been doing this stuff for years and nobody cared. It was purely jealousy. They stole our thunder.

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