Legs McNeil And Gillian McCain Bring The Origins Of Punk Right To Your Fingertips
Punk pioneer Legs McNeil, and author and poet Gillian McCain are the masterminds behind Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History Of Punk, a book that is largely regarded as the first and most comprehensive written piece on punk history. Please Kill Me is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a re-release and a series of readings (well, more like parties with music, alcohol, and Michael Des Barres hosting). BUST spent some time with Legs and Gillian and talked about the book, the evolution of punk, and how the show Vinyl got it all wrong.
This book was originally supposed to be just on Dee Dee Ramone. How did you make the decision to expand it?
L: Gillian kept saying it was bigger than that. I was like no, then I go and I interview Danny Fields.
G: Dee Dee was getting hard to get along with.
L: What happened? I thought Dee Dee just kind of lost interest.
G: No, he was just getting a little crazy. He interviewed Danny Fields for days and days, and Danny would talk about the MC5 and the Stooges and I was like, “Oh my God, this book’s about Dee Dee, this can’t go in there.”
L: And so we just made it. There were so many great stories, as the book proved to be. When you start a chapter with “Ronny and Scotty Asheton hung out in front of Discount Records spitting on cars,” I mean, you got me, you know?
How did you decide to write this together?
G: We met through the late poet Maggie Estep. He was living on 1st Avenue and Saint Marks, and I started working at the Poetry Project at Saint Marks Church, so he’d come over.
L: And embarrass her.
G: He’d embarrass me. “Come out and smoke, come out and smoke.” Uh, I’m working?
L: I’d go, “I am too, I’m on deadline.” I was always on deadline.
What were your individual roles? What was your writing process?
G: He was the architect.
L: She put in the windows, the bathroom, the plumbing, the electricity…
G: Oh, I don’t know. You did all that. I did the window treatments. I did the rugs.
L: She was great because there was one part where Duncan Hannah goes to the Deauville Film Festival, she goes, “This has to go in,” and I think, “There’s no way this is fucking going in,” and then I realize before everything goes to shit, there’s one chapter where everybody has to live out their rock ‘n’ roll fantasy, whatever it is, and Duncan goes to Deauville Film Festival, and then everything falls apart. There was that moment where everybody had to live out their fantasy. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be complete. You have to have the cum shot, so to speak. The wet shot, the money shot.
When did you start compiling information for this book, and what was your organizational process like?
L: I’d rough it out, send it to Gillian, and I’d go, “This is it,” and she’d go, “Eh, it’s okay.” There’s one thing about Gillian, she makes everything so classy. You make even Lou Reed asking Duncan Hannah if he wants to shit on a plate for him kind of classy.
G: And how do I do that?
L: I don’t know. I can’t figure it out, but you do it. She makes it acceptable even when it’s really gross. I don’t know how we work together but however it is, it’s really good.
Was anyone reluctant to talk?
L: Yeah, Patti Smith. [Legs recently wrote a piece on Vice talking about Smith’s reaction when he approached her at her brother’s funeral]. A lot of people didn’t like [the piece]. You go to a funeral and ask her for an interview? I went to reconnect with her, to talk it out and see if we could talk about it later, ya know? People are so dumb. Gillian didn’t like it. She thought I was mean.
K: It’s honest.
L: I think she’s sick of my honesty. That’s a great Dee Dee shot [points to a framed photo]. I want that one. It would look great on my wall. You know what Dee Dee’s favorite comic book was? Enemy Ace. Just a little bit of trivia for ya.
How did you avoid getting rehearsed stories?
L: No one cared about punk in the early ’90s. No one gave a shit. So I was like hey, do you want to come out, and no one was…
K: Was it natural?
L: Yes, very, very, very.
G: I don’t think everybody had been interviewed incessantly.
L: No one cared.
G: It’s kind of weird to read interviews now, and those people are using the stories that they told us years ago.
What were some memorable conversations you had?
G: There was a part of Iggy Pop’s life that hadn’t really been written a lot about.
L: So I went in and I said, “Okay, you go with Ronny and Scotty Asheton to the field house at the University of Michigan to see The Doors, you have your student ID card, because Ronny and Scotty don’t, so you get in, and take it from there.” And then he goes, “Jim Morrison, he had some good hair, let me tell you.” And then he went into this whole rap about his hair. Iggy was so good. It’s real magic.
G: Wayne Kramer made a big impression on me. He was so professional, he was so forthcoming, he was calm, and I think that was one of the first interviews we did together maybe?
L: Jeff Magnum was great.
G: Yeah, I didn’t interview him with you.
L: I can’t remember which, because it always seems like you were there.
G: But it was weird, because the part in the book where Jeff Magnum is, and there’s people running around the roof and Cream’s album is melting in my oven, is so funny, but I listen to it on the tape, and it’s not funny at all. It’s so weird.
What does punk mean today?
L: The same thing. Well, it’s making money now. It didn’t used to make any money for a long time, you know. It’s kind of become a right of passage for a lot of kids. Some 15-year-old kids in some suburban garage outside of Denver with green hair, screaming, “Fuck you, fuck you.” They don’t ask that we like it. They’re just saying fuck you!
G: And it doesn’t seem retro.
L: It seems current.
G: We were having lunch with a bunch of people one day. It was like we all agreed punk rock got us through high school.
L: Budweiser got me through high school.
G: Yea, punk rock wasn’t invented yet.
L: When I was a kid, you could either be a hippie or a jock. It was kind of like McDonalds/Burger King. It just seemed like, wait a minute, people are a lot more complicated and interesting to just have these two. Let’s make it bigger, ya know? That’s what my feeling was. To make it bigger. I think we succeeded.
What’s your take on the riot grrrl movement?
L: Pissed off women playing rock n’ roll is great. Come on?
G: It’s fantastic.
What misconceptions do people have on punk that frustrate you?
G: That it’s always angry.
L: That it wasn’t smart. It was stupid. The Ramones singing, “We’re a happy family.” That’s irony. “Sitting here in Queens/Eating refried beans/We’re in all the magazines/We ain’t got no friends/Our troubles never end/Daddy likes men!” And they used to always say “Danny.” I mean that was funny! And it was time to put some humor back.
How has white, male-dominated punk changed over time?
L: Well, girls will kick their ass if they’re too much of assholes.
If you could start from scratch and write it all over again, what would you do differently?
G: No, I don’t think so. I mean, we regretted that there wasn’t more Blondie. We totally glossed over Talking Heads and…
L: It had to be cut so tight. It was kind of giving the illusion, more of, the scene.
G: It wasn’t a history-of.
L: And creating our emotional reality following something, like Iggy and the main characters.
What new things can we expect from the 20th anniversary of Please Kill Me and the Ace Hotel events?
L: Lots and lots of partying and sex and drugs.
G: One of the special things about the book is it now has James Williamson from the Stooges in it, because my husband interviewed him. So we cut in the interview, and I think it really fleshes out the Stooges part.
L: It really explains a lot.
G: it’s very good. And then with 40 new photos.
L: And we also have an afterword that we wrote together.
What was it like revisiting the book?
G: I was happy to say that none of it mortified me. There are ways it could be improved. It was great to be able to have more pictures. I mean, we actually have a picture of Arthur Kane and his arm in a cast. Shit like that, that’s really fun.
I see you were very happy Vinyl got canceled. What did Vinyl get wrong?
L: Everything. I’ve never seen anyone take coke and ahhhhh! [Mimics sniffing a line and jumping with eyes bulging.] If anyone ever did that, everyone would go, ”You’re a fucking asshole.“ Mobsters were the politest guys because they were tainted with organized crime, so they were very, very gentlemanly, especially around rock n’ roll.
G: It was just terrible. It was a travesty.
Has this book ever been optioned for a film?
G: We had an option for 10 years. And then we said…
L: No, fuck you, we saw the script and we said fuck you.
G: They were shocked.
L: Yeah, they were very shocked.
G: Every couple years, I’d go over the contracts and just see ways they were putting language into the contract that I could just see them making the money and not paying us.
[This article originally appeared on July 22, 2016, on the groundbreaking, original women’s lifestyle magazine and website: BUST, which is published six times a year by Debbie Stoller and Laurie Henzel. You can find the link to the article’s original URL here.]
Cover photo credit: BUST Magazine: Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain Interview.