Bargain Basement Book Review: Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

There is a danger sometimes in knowing too much about the musicians who create the music you love. Sometimes it is better to have that haze of mystery that surrounds performer from fan in case when the haze is pierced you find out that, well your hero is an asshole. This is a bit of the problem I had when reading Please Kill Me – The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain.

Please Kill Me tracks the inception of the punk movement from Andy Warhol’s band of artistic misfits and sycophants and the Velvet Underground on to Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5. We then move on to the birth and death of the New York Dolls, the huge influence of the Ramones (especially in London)as well as the London scene, the inception of Punk Magazine, the importance of CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City and a whole bunch more. The story is told through the voices of those who experienced this musical revolution first hand and it is fascinating to see various stories told from a number of different perspectives.

At one point Legs McNeil, one of the founders of Punk Magazine is quoted as defining punk as a “wonderful vital force that was articulated by the music (and) was really about corrupting every form – 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, 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.”

The thing is that I always looked at punk from a musical perspective. The thing that attracted me to it was how it stripped rock and roll bare and returned it to its 3:00 minute roots. That was what always attracted me to bands like The Ramones and the Sex Pistols. I mean hell if I could play “Problems” on rhythm guitar in a band then anybody could and that was cool to me. I didn’t need a double neck guitar, twenty five Marshall stacks and fourteen pedals.

Yet while fascinating from a rock and roll history perspective after you set down this hefty tome you are left marveling at the fact that so many people managed to survive the experience. I mean if you are looking for tales of sex, drugs (especially drugs!) and rock and roll you have come to the right place as this book literally drips of the stuff. I continually shook my head in almost stunned disbelief at the absolute primal urge that drugs infused into these people ultimately destroying them totally. Was this as a result of the scene or in spite of it? I don’t know but watching the sad descent of somebody like Johnny Thunders or Stiv Bators or Sid Vicious certainly was more depressing than inspiring. While they may have been making rock and roll history they were slowly killing themselves at the same time, definitely not the way to build a sustainable movement. The section talking about the aborted supergroup Whores of Babylon that would have featured Stiv Bators, Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone is almost comical if it wasn’t so sad. You just knew that most of these guys would not survive the decade.

Overall I did enjoy the book and I must say carting it around airports while I was reading it made for some pretty interesting conversations with both total strangers and security personnel. An excellent though sordid look into a doomed period of rock and roll, Please Kill Me is a worthy addition to your rock book library and might very well encourage you to dig out that old Television or Ramones album and for that it is well worth the time.

Later
Mark