Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk
Grove Press, New York
This book is a fantastic read. It tells the story of the forefathers, birth and downfall of the first wave (and probably the only pure wave) of punk in the form of a nearly chronological collection of interviews from the people who made the scene themselves. The Tale begins with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and moves right through Detroit with Iggy and Wayne Kramer, New York’s scene surrounding Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs, the image-stealing Brits, and ends with…well, you know…everyone dying from their excesses.
The book is compiled by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil, one of the founders of the Punk Zine that lent its name to the movement, thanks largely to a media campaign to promote the release of said zine. The book contains over four hundred pages of material and is almost impossible to put down. I read it from front to back in a matter of days.
The interviews are unabashedly honest and no one is spared the criticism of his or her friends (or enemies), although it is evident everyone involved loved one another on a variety of different levels. Some of the stories are downright tearjerkers and will really move an emotionally invested reader. I’ve spent just over a decade and a half in this scene (and about five years prior to that in the metal scene that sprung up from the ashes of punk’s first wave), tracking down records by these groups, reading everything I can find, and I’m a bit of a scholar on the subject as a result, but no other source material I’ve read has left me so informed or moved.
One can read about these punk icons elsewhere, learn what they contributed, where they came from and where they ended up, but nothing else I’ve read draws the reader in so completely and tells the stories in such a humanizing way. My favorite passage is the tale of roadie and tough guy Michael Sticca taking on a gang of five thugs to save Johnny Blitz’s life; however, no tale is more indicative of my remarks or as heartbreaking (fittingly) as that of the death of Johnny Thunders, founding member of the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers, two of the greatest punk bands of yesterday or today.
My only complaint, and the reason for a one point deduction, is that the book jumps around some and is unclear about the timing of events. The book is divided into sections based on time periods spanning several years, but within those timeframes the reader is left to piece together a more precise timeframe of events. This minor annoyance is, unfortunately, at its worse toward the final chapters, when things begin unraveling for the protagonists. With no clear description given as to when the events took place it seems as if things unraveled quickly, while the reality is things took the better part of a decade to fall to pieces. It was a slow and painful downfall for punk, and thanks to a terrific job by Legs McNeil, Gillian McCain, and the brutal honesty of the interviewees, the reader feels like they are right there in the moment. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.