The movies and TV you need to watch, the music you need to hear, the books and comics you need to read, the games you need to play — The Playboy Library is an ongoing series that offers the 21st century man the pop ammunition to carry himself as a gentleman of culture. Never obvious, always essential.
Wanna get into punk rock? Follow these easy steps:
- Listen to the music.
- Read Please Kill Me.
- Listen to the music some more.
First published in 1996, this oral history has been dubbed the punk bible, and deservedly so. Authors Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain trace the genre back to its roots and debunk several misconceptions in the process, namely that punk peaked in the late ‘70s and originated with outrageous Brits like the Sex Pistols. (In fact, musician Gyda Gash says after 1977 punk’s “glory days were over.”)
Please Kill Me is a New York-centric work, which makes sense since McNeil witnessed the city’s burgeoning scene firsthand. In the mid-‘70s McNeil cofounded the seminal Punk magazine, and in Please Kill Me, he says he coined the term:
“The word ‘punk’ seemed to sum up the thread that connected everything we liked – drunk, obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, funny, ironic, and things that appealed to the darker side.”
Please Kill Me features interviews with nearly every important punk figure alive today (Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, David Johansen, Deborah Harry) and several we’ve lost since its publication, like Lou Reed, the Stooges’ Scott Asheton, writer Jim Carroll and the original members of the Ramones.
Rather than starting at CBGB as some punk histories do, the book opens in the mid-‘60s, when Andy Warhol’s Factory and his house band, the Velvet Underground, were attracting national attention. It then motors over to Detroit to track the rise of influential bands like the MC5 and the Stooges, who helped jumpstart the scene.
“Iggy was the first time I ever saw what was to become my rock ‘n’ roll,” says Leee Childers, a photographer who worked with Warhol and befriended a wave of punk icons. (He passed away last year.)
Whether they reference the Velvets or the Stooges or Patti Smith, Please Kill Me is chock full of these “This band changed my life!” kinds of statements. McNeil calls an early Ramones set “the best 18 minutes of rock ‘n’ roll that I had ever heard.” Johansen discusses the impact of his own group, the New York Dolls:
“People who saw the Dolls said, ‘Hell, anybody can do this.’ … Because basically we were these kids from New York City who spit and fart in public, were raunchy and just debunked everything.”
Of course, on the flip side of the success stories are extreme tales of sex, drugs and tragedy. Some have argued Please Kill Me devotes more time to these salacious anecdotes than the songs, but I’m not sure how a true punk history could be recorded without them. (Besides, isn’t writing about music like dancing about architecture anyway?)
The authors integrate firsthand accounts of record deals and landmark shows with amusing side notes about how, say, the Dead Boys’ Stiv Bators once received oral sex onstage, Iggy Pop vomited during a set or Sid Vicious defecated on … oh, you get the picture.
So yes, Please Kill Me readers walk away with a wealth of trivia to share at their less-than-punk dinner parties. I’ll admit before I read the book I didn’t know how Iggy Pop got his name or how the Ramones got together. (Says Joey: “One day I got a phone call and Johnny and Dee Dee asked me if I wanted to join their band. I said, ‘Yeah.’”)
But more importantly, this is a work that demands its audience take notes and, quite frankly, put down the damn book and go hear the tunes. McNeil and McCain don’t ignore the heavy hitters, but they also give lesser-known acts their due. Maybe the Dictators, the Demons and the Heartbreakers didn’t move as many records as Blondie, but that doesn’t diminish their importance.
Passages that do discuss the music are some of the book’s most eloquent. Musician Eliot Kidd offers a concise description of the sound:
“What a lot of people would have to understand is we were all at the age where we had grown up with pop radio: Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry… So it wasn’t that the music was new, it was a return to the three-minute song.”
Performance artist Penny Arcade notes Patti Smith “wanted to look like Keith Richards, smoke like Jeanne Moreau, walk like Bob Dylan and write like Arthur Rimbaud.” Writer John Sinclair’s way of describing Iggy Pop’s dance moves — “like Waiting for Godot meets the ballet” — is a head-scratcher, though you’ve gotta admit it’s a quotable one.
Like its subject matter, Please Kill Me moves fast and hard, up through the deaths of Bators and the Dolls’ Johnny Thunders in the early ‘90s. Sure enough, plenty of journalists have lined up to complete the timeline and have published stacks of musical oral histories in the decades since.
Today, Please Kill Me lives on in print and digitally. An updated e-book became available earlier this year, and McNeil and other writers share punk news, interviews and perspectives almost daily at pleasekillme.com.
Near the end of the book, McNeil defines the punk philosophy that linked so many different-sounding artists:
“It was about advocating kids to not wait to be told what to do, but make life up for themselves, it was about trying to get people to use their imaginations again, it was about not being perfect, it was about saying it was okay to be amateurish and funny, that real creativity came out of making a mess, it was about working with what you got in front of you and turning everything embarrassing, awful, and stupid in your life to your advantage.”
Some argue punk is dead, but others may deem it very much alive in an era where individuals can (and do) prevail over record companies, radio executives and other greedy fingers.
Then there’s the third group that just wants us to shut up, flip the record and leave the room. And that’s cool, too.
Whitney Matheson (@whitneymatheson) is a pop-culture writer based in Tennessee.