Legs McNeil reads books about punks, but not the kind you’d expect. “I don’t read rock ’n’ roll books,” says the co-author of the best rock ’n’ roll book of the last 20 years, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. “What I was really influenced by were these gang books in high school, like Run Baby Run and The Cross and the Switchblade. They always found Jesus in the end; you never read the last two chapters. You just wanted to read about the gang stuff.”
McNeil also writes books about punks. Please Kill Me is his most famous; in it, he and co-author Gillian McCain let the most important figures in punk rock—from Iggy Pop to the Ramones to Malcolm McLaren to Patti Smith—tell the definitive history of the music in their own words. Please Kill Me’s success set off a landslide of imitators, but as the 20th anniversary edition of the book is released this month, no one has been able to replicate its deft balancing act between journalistic integrity and mosh-pit attitude.
Like a lot of future punks, he grew up in small-town suburbia, hated school and dreamed of bigger things. Escaping from central Connecticut to New York City as a teenager, he hooked up with fellow malcontents John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn. When he came up with the name Punk for the magazine the trio started together in 1975, he was also giving the CBGB’s scene they covered an identity to rally around. By 1979, punk rock was the epitome of cool, which, in true contrarian fashion, prompted McNeil to quit the magazine. He went on to what he calls his “grown-up job” as editor of Spin magazine, and then founded Nerve magazine.
Please Kill Me began coming together after Dee Dee Ramone asked McNeil to help him write his autobiography. McNeil was already thinking about making it an oral history when he met McCain, who was working for the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, and she convinced him that the story he should be telling was far bigger than just Dee Dee. The autobiography didn’t work out, and McNeil and McCain put together their punk epic instead.
Their partnership was strained by the time Please Kill Me was a best-seller, however—“Gillian hated me, understandably,” says McNeil—and he moved on to trace the story of an entirely different set of punks in The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry, with co-authors Jennifer Osborne and Peter Pavia. That project took almost a decade, finally coming out in 2006. A few years later, he and McCain finally reunited for Dear Nobody: The Real Life Diary of Mary Rose, a collection of a teenager’s journal entries that came out in 2014. Besides putting together the new edition of Please Kill Me, he and McCain are also working on a new oral history,’69, about the L.A. rock scene in the 1960s.
In conversation, McNeil is gracious and polite—and hilariously obscene. As this interview reveals, four decades into his career as a punk, he still suffers no fools, believes passionately in oral history as the future of storytelling, and worships the Ramones.
In Please Kill Me, you talk about how you were laughed at for four years for calling music “punk,” and then suddenly the word was everywhere. But what made you use it in the first place?
Well, I was born with one leg two inches longer than the other, so I couldn’t stand up straight. I always slouched. And I was very, very skinny, and I was a wise guy, you know? So everyone my whole life always called me a punk: “You know what you are? You’re nothing but a punk.” It wasn’t that hard of a word to come up with. And it’d been used on TV and stuff—the word was kind of floating around. There were so many great cop shows at that time, like Kojak. Instead of “You cocksucker motherfucking asshole”—which is what the cops usually said to you, but you couldn’t say that on TV—they would say “you dirty punk.” It was TV’s way of calling you all the bad words.
Does it surprise you how much people romanticize that first-wave era, when you were at Punk magazine? Every punk rock scene since has been trying to recreate it in one way or another.
I think what happened was, here was a bunch of people who had absolutely nothing, and they created something. I think that was what was so romantic and so genius about it. A bunch of junkies and whores and drunks and fuck-ups actually made this thing happen. And let me tell you, everybody was fucking crazy.
What exactly did being the “resident punk” at Punk entail?
There was a lot of shit to do, believe it or not. It looks like we just showed up, but there was kind of a lot of planning. There were some very, very talented people around that you could utilize. Plus, to me, CBGB’s—all those people looked like fucking stars! Look at Richard Hell and Debbie Harry. It was like, “We should make a fucking movie. We can’t afford to, so we’ll make it on paper.”
Talking in Please Kill Me about one of the early Ramones shows, you said “they came out and played the best 18 minutes of rock and roll I ever heard.” What was it about that show?
It was real. And you hadn’t seen that in years. It was fucking real. You gotta remember, these were the days of Donnie and Marie, and everybody who was in show business being so fake. And here were these guys being like us. They were fucking fighting! It was real! “Fuck you!” “No, fuck you!” I mean, that’s great, you know? I was like, “Yeah, I’m in!” And the music was so powerful and so stripped down.
That’s funny, since now people watch the End of the Century documentary and say, “Oh, it’s so sad the Ramones didn’t get along in real life.”
They fought, yet they came out and played one of the best sets ever. And it was like, “That fight must have been a good one!” ’Cause they were so angry with each other, and it’s kind of like “Yeah, c’mon, let’s celebrate everything that’s shitty about us.” Like make-up sex.
You and Gillian write in the new edition of Please Kill Me about how much you were influenced by Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s 1982 oral history Edie: American Girl. What was it about that book that affected you so much?
The immediacy. The immediacy just sucked you in. I’ve always loved hearing guys tell great stories, and it was fucking amazing. That’s the one we bow down to. They invented this form in front of your eyes, and you saw how they were doing it. I’m a big history buff, so I wish someone had done the oral history of, you know, Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb. Of everything. I think in a hundred years, non-fiction books will all kind of be oral histories, once people learn how to edit them and get some control over them. As more come out, it’ll keep redefining them.
The Ramones taught me more about writing than anybody. Make it short and fucking simple.
And yet, almost all of the oral histories that have come out since Please Kill Me have also been about punk music.
Well, that just shows you America’s limited imagination. One guy does something, and everybody follows him. And they all wonder why their book isn’t as good as Please Kill Me.
The book you and Gillian are working on now is about L.A. rock in the ’60s. What drew you to that scene?
You really could write a record and make a demo of it, and within a month have it on the radio. That’s what we were all copying—that model, you know, that ethic. We all thought that’s what was going to happen; we were living the ’60s dream, ’cause that’s what we had grown up on. Of course, the world had changed by then. We were so dumb.
But now you and Gillian are putting out your own record?
I think we’re putting out a double album. We just did this radio show and we used clips from the original interviews. It’s really fun. Our archives are just so fucking expansive; we have everybody on tape. So we’re going to have [rock photographer] Bob Gruen talking about seeing the New York Dolls, and then go into the song. It’s Iggy, it’s the Asheton brothers, it’s the Ramones, it’s everybody. We have everybody talking about this stuff.
That’s maybe the only more direct way to tell the punk story than an oral history book.
Yeah. I hate rock writers. I don’t want to hear some guy talking about what they think the album means. I want to hear [Stooges guitarist] James Williamson talking about how Iggy couldn’t mix Raw Power and they had to take it to Bowie, and Iggy talking about losing perspective. That’s what interests me.
You told me before that when you and Gillian were shopping Please Kill Me around, publishers didn’t get it at all. What made you so sure it was going to work?
It seemed to me to be pretty obvious. I think I was very fortunate. I was 19 when we started Punk magazine. I’m 60 now—who ever thought I’d live to be fucking 60? But at Punk, Holmstrom would really throw things back at you, like, “Okay, then you do it.” And then you’d have to put your money where your mouth was. So I think I was very fortunate to early on have done some things that worked out. It gave me some confidence to keep working that way.
What didn’t publishers like about the oral history format?
No one even knew what an oral history was. I mean, they’re so stupid. But that’s been the problem every time I’ve tried to do something. When I did the porn book, everybody said, “No, no, you can’t do that.” And I said, “Fuck you,” you know?
Why did you want to do an oral history of porn?
I wanted to do porn because there was a great line in this book The Secret Museum, in one of the introductions. I went looking for it in the new edition and it’s not there. But [author Walter Kendrick] said, “When people mention porn, it’s not a thing, it’s an argument.” I thought that was so terrific. And I said, there’s never been an honest book on the porn industry, just laying it out. I think The Other Hollywood failed in a lot of ways, partly because of me. It’s like a good rough draft. It didn’t flow the way Please Kill Me did. I had a girlfriend who died, it was really one of the worst periods of my life. I was contractually obliged, so I got it in. But I’ve been re-editing it.
It came out in the mid-2000s, around the time there was suddenly this mainstream porn chic, especially all the documentaries like Inside Deep Throat and The Legend of Ron Jeremy and the infamous Channel 4 series The Dark Side of Porn.
Everybody’s making a documentary now. It used to be if you were making a documentary, it was usually about a pretty cool subject. Now everybody’s making a documentary about their arm, you know? It’s like, what the fuck are you doing? I was doing my book years before porn kind of broke. Judith Regan bought my porn book first, and then she bought Jenna Jameson’s. Jenna Jameson’s was ready to go before mine; that came out and was a big hit.
What’s it like working with Gillian?
Gillian’s always so great, because she has such an expansive mind. She’s kind of the best partner I could have ever had, you know? Plus, she always makes things classy, and I don’t know how she does it. That scene where Duncan Hannah, the painter and the head of the Television fan club, talks about Lou Reed asking him to shit on a plate—she even made that classy. Gillian can make the most disgusting, horrible things classy when you read them. It’s an amazing talent.
Who’s the most punk person you ever met? It had to be Iggy, right?
Yeah. Definitely. ’Cause Iggy was making this shit up as he went along, I think that’s what’s great. And it was so fucking good. “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “Raw Power,” “Dirt,” “1969.” They sound like they were made last week. And “No Fun,” you know, Ron Asheton begins the guitar solo like he can’t play guitar, and by the end of it he’s like fucking Hendrix. I like that stuff that you can see kind of coalesce in front of your eyes.
Like Patti Smith’s “Land.” I have no idea what is supposed to be happening in that song, but somehow it all comes together into this incredible thing.
I know. It comes together in front of your eyes. Every time Lou and Patti opened their mouths, it was like, they can’t sing. And then they’d hit their notes. It was drama just listening to them. Even though you knew they hit their notes every time, you wanted to hear them hit their notes again. ’Cause they sound like they can’t sing, and then they could fucking sing amazing. That’s what was so cool.
If someone gives you an anecdote for an oral history, would you rather have it be as true as it can be, or the best story it can be?
True. Because I think true is the best story. I also think the way people say stuff, you can tell if they’re bullshitting you. Especially when you get the transcripts. You can tell when they’re being authentic. And the whole punk scene was pretty authentic. It was just guys trying to make a living. There really was a work ethic, and I think that was passed down from Andy Warhol. When I interviewed Debbie Harry, she said “Legs, all I remember is we were always marching somewhere.” Not in the demonstration sense. We always had to be somewhere, and do something, and it was something we made up ourselves.
Who’s your biggest influence as a writer?
The Ramones taught me more about writing than anybody. Make it short and fucking simple. “I don’t wanna walk around with you/I don’t wanna walk around with you/I don’t wanna walk around with you/So why you wanna walk around with me?” It doesn’t get much better than that.