"Alternative music sucks," said Iggy Pop in a recent interview in Details. "Blows dead dogs. I hate alternative music. I hate alternative people. They can all kiss my ass. Let's go have a big steak and fuck without a rubber and do some heroin afterward!"
The Ig's deliberately anti-PC life-loving rant is being read to me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, who do so with palpable glee and implicit approval. The same aggressive, go-for-broke hedonism fills the pages of their raucous new book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. At once sprawling and coherent, the book traces the development of the lifestyle, attitude, and music that came to be known as punk, from the dawn of the Velvet Underground to the death of Johnny Thunders.
McNeil, a former editor at Spin and Nerve, and McCain, a poet and onetime director of the Poetry Project at Saint Mark's Church (where Patti Smith gave her first poetry readings), conducted hundreds of revealing, in-depth interviews with rockers, managers, groupies, love interests, and anyone else who was part of the ragtag scene; then they colorfully stitched the pieces together to form a dense web of loosely chronological recollections. Traipsing through the sometimes-overlapping, addiction-filled worlds of the Velvets, MC5, Stooges, New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Ramones, Television, Blondie, Dead Boys, and the book's villains, the Sex Pistols--who, as the handiwork of Svengali Malcolm McLaren, reduced punk to fashion--the book opens the window to a time when the "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" ethos existed in its most unadulterated form.
McNeil inadvertently named the scene and the music in 1975 by using the word "punk" for the name of the New York-based magazine he founded with John Holmstrom, now the publisher of High Times. As recalled in the book, Punk was concerned with "television reruns, drinking beer, getting laid, cheeseburgers, comics, B-movies, and weird rock 'n' roll."
"It's really startling when you assemble all this stuff and realize how fucked up we all were," says McNeil. "There was a lot of, "Oh, really, you were doing dope over there--I was throwing up over here.' Richard Hell called me up recently and said, "God, Legs, it's so tabloid.' He paused and said, "But I was there--it was so tabloid."' Indeed, the book is crammed with stories of casual sex and routine alcohol and drug abuse. "It's pretty accurate," McNeil says.
Though packed with entertaining gossip--several witnesses weigh in on a Stooges gig in New York when Iggy puked onstage and later claimed, "It was very professional. I don't think I hit anyone"--the book's ultimate accomplishment is sharply framing a crucial artistic period and mind-set. McNeil has little but derision for punk's legacy. "We're kind of shocked that people care now, because no one cared the first time. I didn't like slacker culture, and that's one of the reasons I did the book. Everybody seemed so whiny and full of shit. We are the antidote to the Prozac nation."
While many of the book's characters undeniably had problems--30 percent of the cast is now dead--they shared a sense of enthusiasm and general enjoyment of life that McNeil sees as differentiating the original punk scene from today's alternative ranks. "People today seem so bitter," says McNeil. "The thing about CBGB was that anybody who wanted to hang out there could be part of the scene, it's just that not a whole lot of people wanted to hang out there." Likewise, McNeil insists, "the book is really accessible, you're invited in. It's not like we're cooler than you."
McNeil and McCain will read from Please Kill Me at 7 PM on Wednesday at Tower Records, 2301 N. Clark. Call 477-5994.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain by Asako.