When Gillian McCain was in high school she took an aptitude quiz that told her she should consider a career in “writing with a sociological bent, especially about fringe groups.” A decade or so later, she teamed up with writer and editor Legs McNeil for their seminal history of New York’s ’70s punk scene, Please Kill Me. Score one for the quiz, right?
Filled with uproarious vignettes about Iggy Pop shaving his eyebrows and instantly regretting it, or Cheetah Chrome insisting to the cops that he really does have pants on (if spandex tights count), the on-the-ground account of punk and its stars has endured. The book was released 20 years ago, but like the scene it documented, Please Kill Me’s impact is still felt now. While Please Kill Me can’t claim to be the first oral history (its authors say Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s Edie: An American Biography was an inspiration for the project), it did lay groundwork for the still-booming genre.
The book’s continuing influence—and the fact that it is still in print, or even made it into print in the first place—is a bit of a surprise to its co-author. When asked whether the publisher had any clue what they were signing up for by agreeing to publish the uncensored stories of New York’s punks, McCain simply laughs: “No, no, no.”
Please Kill Me, which is marking its 20th anniversary with a speaking tour, was born when Roderick Edward McNeil, better known as Legs—who helped give the punk scene its name as Punk Magazine’s “resident punk”—decided to write a biography of Dee Dee Ramone. “He wanted to do an oral history,” explains McCain over the phone from the Museum of Modern Art. She had been introduced to McNeil by their friend, poet Maggie Estep, and they had an instant rapport. “He was going over and interviewing people who knew Dee Dee…you know, he’s talking about MC5, The Stooges, and Jim Morrison, and I was like, ‘Legs, it’s just so disappointing that you can only do the Ramones, because this is such a huge story!’ Then Dee Dee got a little hard to get along with, and Legs said, ‘Do this book with me.'”