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.
SV: This seems like a drastically male story. Was the movement really like that? In Richard Hell's new novel, he says that the women on the club scene are basically there to be abused. Was that your sense of it?
LM: I liked the women I slept with. And so did Richard, for all his posturing. ... The nice thing about it was, if you wanted to live out your prostitute fantasy you could. If you wanted to live out your rock-star fantasy you could. When you're dealing in fantasies and living your life in this way, you choose the role you want to play. Women didn't have to choose the role of the prostitute. I think that comes out clear.
GM: [Demons singer] Eliot Kidd says in the book, "Ours was the first scene where men and women were friends."
LM: It was debauched in a sense, but by mutual consent. Everybody wanted to be depraved together. That's why you went there. It wasn't a bad thing. The way you're speaking is that depravity is this bad thing. You didn't end up on the Bowery unless you wanted to be depraved.
SV: In some ways, it's such an innocent story. That's one thing I like about the parts concerning your magazine. It sounds like such an innocent group-art project.
LM: For all the depravity, it really was an innocent scene. Richard Hell kind of says that about heroin. He says, "Gee, you'd have to be shooting dope for like a month to get a habit."
GM: [melodramatically] So innocent -- but then it catches up with you.
SV: People who were in the right place at the right time always get asked this question: When things were getting started, did you really have a sense of how special it was, honestly?
LM: Yes. From the minute. From the second.
SV: What was the minute? What was the second?
LM: The Ramones.
SV: What was that like?
LM: It was like walking into the Cavern Club in 1962. It really was. You just knew it.
SV: Can you hear that in those first records now?
LM: Yes. Sure. Listen to "53rd and Third." It's the most chilling song ever written.
SV: Describe walking in and you hear the Ramones for the first time.
LM: It was like standing under Niagara Falls. The music just went right through you. It was like, "Yes, I'm here, I'm home." It's like Danny Fields, when he sees Iggy for the first time, he says, "It was the music I've been waiting to hear all my life." And then we talked to them and they were like us. They read comic books and they drank beer and they weren't hippies. They didn't have that kind of devalued love and peace notion, nor were they pretending to have. And that was so refreshing.
SV: This was interesting to me, that you subscribed to a clipping service tracing the word "punk." It's something [avant-garde artist and publisher] Dick Higgins told me they did with the word "happening," watching that word kind of blossom and then be bastardized. Was there a point where it was, like, deluge?
LM: The Sex Pistols tour. After that, it was nothing American.
SV: The book couldn't have come out at a better time. It seems like this summer is revenge of the punkers.
LM: Yeah, we predicted that three years ago. We knew that everybody was going to be back and that the Sex Pistols would reform, and Patti. We hired them! We got a demographic survey together and we fed them pizzas and beer!
GM: It's pure coincidence and synchronicity.
SV: Do you really think it's just coincidence?
LM: No, I think people are just nostalgic for depravity after 15 years of people talking about their issues and whining about everything and slacker culture and Prozac Nation. This book is the antidote to Prozac Nation. I think people are just fed up. It's tedious. It doesn't allow for anyone to move. ... I guess people are more ashamed of themselves now. And that's so sad.
McNeil and McCain will talk about their book Thursday, July 25, at 7 p.m. at the Booksmith, 1644 Haight, S.F.; call 863-8688.