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Book Review: Please Kill Me – Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of PunkPlease Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

An oral history of the punk movement, Please Kill Me is a gossipy, entertaining read but one with a small scope and stories that’ve circulated for years.

The thing about punk rock is how ingrained it’s become in music culture, which is kind of surprising when you think about it’s origin as backlash to more pompous forms of 70s rock.

After all, back in the mid 70s, bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer could sell out Madison Square Garden and were featured on TV specials like California Jam. This was a band that didn’t have a guitar and played covers of classical standards like Pictures at an Exhibition! It wasn’t exactly the greatest time for rock, really.

Punk was kind of a reaction to that; it was simple, loud, aggressive music. But it went deeper, with influences ranging from Chuck Berry to The Velvet Underground to The Stooges. And it wasn’t just a reaction, it was often musicians finding their own styles and then co-mingling with other, like minded musicians and sharing influences. After all, punk only really became punk after bands like The Ramones, Blondie and Television started playing at CBGB’s.

Please Kill Me starts with the influences but generally sticks to New York City and even then, generally to a handful of bands: Iggy Pop, The Ramones, The Heartbreakers, Television and a few others. By no means is it complete: there’s scarcely a mention of Talking Heads, for example. And other cities almost barely get into the picture: there’s nothing about the scene in Toronto, Boston or Los Angeles.

And really, it seemed like most of the stories here followed the same general format: some male musician got really loaded on booze or heroin and made an ass out of themselves, usually in public. The characters and setting change, but the story’s the same, be it with Iggy Pop, Sid Vicious or Stiv Bators. There’s a lot of behaving badly; maybe when I was 15 I’d have read this and thought they were cool, self-destructive people but now? I just see them and get kind of sad.

Because at it’s heart, this is a tragic, almost mournful book. There were a handful of geniuses involved in punk and a bunch of talented musicians. But, by and large, they all burned out and faded away without leaving too much behind. It’s really kind of sad.

Take Johnny Thunders, for example. Here was a hell of a guitarist and someone who could write a pretty good song when he set his mind to it. And, as is noted in the book, bands throughout the 80s and beyond made tons of money by aping his style, both in clothing and on the fretboard. But what did Thunders leave behind? A good New York Dolls album and a couple of memorable singles: “You Can’t Wrap Your Arms Around A Memory,” and “Chinese Rocks,” which he didn’t even write.

Indeed, Iggy Pop looms large in these pages, both as a character and as an influence. When he came into the picture, there wasn’t really anyone like him: Iggy was dangerous, in your face and captivating. But he also was addicted to, well, whatever you had on hand and probably almost died more times than anyone can bother to count. And the thing about him is, people tried to be him. They did as much smack, drank as much booze and lived as hard as he did. Iggy was lucky; he’s still alive. Many of his followers featured from this book aren’t.

At the same time, some people were able to leap out from the fringes and into the mainstream thanks to punk. Take Patti Smith, for example: in only a few years, she went from performing in front of small crowds at St. Mark’s church to selling out stadiums in Europe, while still generally sticking to the same material. (But then again, Patti was a shark; there’s more than a few stories here about her poaching talented musicians from other groups for her own! David Bowie would be proud!)

Still, for music nerds and people generally interested in the history of punk, there’s plenty to chew on. There are stories about the Dolls playing at the Mercer Arts Center, fascinating looks into the early days of CBGB’s and many legendary bands and, most interesting of all, a look at how a jokey, almost goofy scene in New York took on a life of it’s own, becoming political and tapping into a cultural vein in England.

He’s not as prominent as many of the other people here, but Malcolm McLaren stands out as the most important figure here. Without him, it’s likely punk would’ve come and gone like so many other scenes; the way he was able to take a scene and tie it into England’s culture essentially changed the way punk was perceived; it was a stance and a style, not a genre. The bands come and go, but the look and attitude McLaren worked to promote have outlived even him.

There are other histories of punk that generally cover the same ground. But Please Kill Me has a loose, rambling and gossipy vibe to it that other books lack. It’s fun, it’s opinionated and even if the same stories are available elsewhere – Phil Stongman’s Pretty Vacant or Victor Bockris’ Transformer come to mind – a bunch of the stories here were new to me.

Rating: 6/10