An Oral History of Punk
April 26, 2000
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain (Grove/Atlantic, 1996)The last word on who started it, eyewitness accounts, fuck 'n' tells, scene reports, and rumors finally laid bare by the people that were there -- it's all in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.As the authors detail, punk's origins may not have been pretty, but nonetheless necessary. What passed for rock in the early '70s was like flaccid masturbation -- completely useless. Folk and disco were driving people to extremes. Boredom and frustration spawned the Blank Generation. From the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, MC5, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Television, David Bowie, Jim Carroll, and the Ramones came a new sound that made history.As McNeil, a rock journalist who coined the term "punk" and poet Gillian McCain explain, the music's origins came from a tight little community with roots in the Theater of the Absurd, poetry, music, film, and art meshed to create a movement that tweaked people's sense of reality. It snarled, spat, and didn't care if other people got it or if it would sell. From Iggy Pop's self-mutilation, to Patti Smith's re-interpretation of classic lit, to Richard Hell's definition of sexy, these artists' drive to create something different secured punk's place in popular culture. The punk bands broke the gender barrier and the socio-political boundaries of the feel-good-groovy Me Generation and put a bullet squarely in the forehead of that insipid yellow-smiley-happy-face. All was not well, and unlike the filthy hippies before them, they knew things had to be destroyed before they could be rebuilt. Please Kill Me documents it all with the same blistering fury that spawned it.With the self-destruct mechanism built in, it could only last as long as it did.This six-part book carefully reconstructs the scene as it unfolded. Starting in New York at Max's Kansas City, heading north to Detroit, west to Los Angeles and coming full circle back to the Big City. Legs and Gillian interviewed everyone while it was going down and those interviews are now reprinted and updated with 20/20 hindsight added for perspective. The beginning of the beginning was Warhol's art movement and his investment in The Velvet Underground. Lou Reed, being a canny hustler, exploited the pop guru for all he was worth. The New York Dolls were inspired by Reed's Velvets but wanted to take it further. They asked the question -- what makes a man -- and gave birth to glitter rock, clearing up once and for all, that David Bowie copied them, not the other way around.The book also gives the industry perspective from music-scene makers who were having a hard time selling this volatile stuff to radio and the insipid record companies who's idea of rock was Linda Rodstandt and Shawn Cassidy. Finally, someone sets the record straight on the British -- Malcolm MacLaren tried and failed to exploit the New York Dolls but he was inspired. He went back home and found a bunch of bored bourgeois wanna-be's and created the Sex Pistols. The rest as they say is history, but at least Legs and Gillian tell it like it was>, not like marketing from EMI wishes it was.Punk's legacy? Now you can't walk down the street without looking at some kid with technicolor hair, multiple face piercings, tattoos, wearing "the latest gear." It's practically normal. In fact, it's the mall fashion rage, what with mom hiking around in Doc Martins these days.As a poet schooled in punk, every time I see these mindless fashion-robos I want to beat them over their follow-the-leader, lack-of-original-thought skulls with this book. So buy Please Kill Me, use it as a bludgeoning tool, and maybe your victims will go out and buy it and hit someone else over the head with it. Start a new trend -- intelligence by assault. Sort of a tribute to the people that started it.