Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil at the Ace Hotel. Photos by the author.
“And whenever I tried to put on the records I liked, everybody thought I was so adolescent. You know, immature and freaky. But I was thinking, ‘Why?’ Just because I like good music? Just because I’m trying to turn you on to good rock and roll? I’m trying to get through to you and you think I’m flaky? Well, I think you’re bourgeois, and I don’t like you. Bye.”
—Bebe Buell, Please Kill Me
The first time I met Legs McNeil, earlier this year, a cigarette was hanging from his mouth as he scrawled with a slim pink highlighter the words “I’m God!” into my well-worn copy of his book, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.
To be fair, I prompted the inscription. He did a reading at a gallery in the East Village and was standing outside afterward having a smoke, informally signing some books. “Your book is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a bible,” I said when I walked up to him, shaking his hand. “Thank you.” He laughed and flicked ash onto the sidewalk. Easing his cigarette into his mouth, he took my withered and beloved book into his hands, and flipped open to the title page, pink pen poised at the ready. “Well, if this is your bible,” he said, “then I must be God!”
Please Kill Me made its way into my life 13 years ago, when I was 14. I used to hang out at a record store in South Florida, where I’m from, and at one point the store clerks decided to take me under their wing. One of the clerks, Chris, ripped out a tiny slip of paper from behind the counter. He wrote the words “Please Kill Me” on it and handed it to me. “Go to the bookstore and get that book,” he said. Music nerd in training that I was, I did as I was bidden without question. And so I entered the world of punk from its very beginning, told by the people who lived it.
Legs McNeil—who I would find out was one of the founders of Punk magazine, from which the music genre got its name—and Gillian McCain, a New York-based poet, had assembled an oral history of the genre, interviewing hundreds of people involved in its development, from artists to photographers to band managers to groupies to, most importantly, musicians. It starts in the mid-1960s with the birth of the Velvet Underground in New York, gives a taste of Detroit and the musicians who would become MC5 and the Stooges/Iggy Pop, then comes back to New York for the emergence of the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Television, and more. The book follows the lives and the deaths, the dreams and misfortunes, of the people who made the music (or were just around the music) that would, arguably, define a generation.