'Please Kill Me,' 20 Years Later

Authors Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain reflect on writing one of the most important rock books ever.

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Jul 29 2016, 1:45pm

"And whenever I tried to put on the records I liked, everybody thought I was so adolescent. You know, immature and freaky.

But I was thinking, 'Why?' Just because I like good music? Just because I'm trying to turn you on to good rock and roll? I'm trying to get through to you and you think I'm flaky? Well, I think you're bourgeois, and I don't like you. Bye."
—Bebe Buell, Please Kill Me

The first time I met Legs McNeil, earlier this year, a cigarette was hanging from his mouth as he scrawled with a slim pink highlighter the words “I'm God!” into my well-worn copy of his book, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.

To be fair, I prompted the inscription. He did a reading at a gallery in the East Village and was standing outside afterward having a smoke, informally signing some books.

"Your book is the closest thing I've ever had to a bible," I said when I walked up to him, shaking his hand. "Thank you."

He laughed and flicked ash onto the sidewalk. Easing his cigarette into his mouth, he took my withered and beloved book into his hands, and flipped open to the title page, pink pen poised at the ready. "Well, if this is your bible," he said, "then I must be God!"

Please Kill Me made its way into my life 13 years ago, when I was 14. I used to hang out at a record store in South Florida, where I'm from, and at one point the store clerks decided to take me under their wing. One of the clerks, Chris, ripped out a tiny slip of paper from behind the counter. He wrote the words “Please Kill Me” on it and handed it to me. "Go to the bookstore and get that book," he said. Music nerd in training that I was, I did as I was bidden without question.

And so I entered the world of punk from its very beginning, told by the people who lived it. Legs McNeil—who I would find out was one of the founders of Punk magazine, from which the music genre got its name—and Gillian McCain, a New York-based poet, had assembled an oral history of the genre, interviewing hundreds of people involved in its development, from artists to photographers to band managers to groupies to, most importantly, musicians. It starts in the mid-1960s with the birth of the Velvet Underground in New York, gives a taste of Detroit and the musicians who would become MC5 and the Stooges/Iggy Pop, then comes back to New York for the emergence of the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Television, and more. The book follows the lives and the deaths, the dreams and misfortunes, of the people who made the music (or were just around the music) that would, arguably, define a generation.

For the anal-retentive overachiever that I was, Please Kill Me became an escape. Suddenly, with this book, I wasn't walking the halls of my high school, batting away mosquitoes in the dead of a humid South Florida October while crying about my grades yet again: I was on the sidewalk of legendary punk venue CBGB on the Bowery in New York, having a cigarette before I went back inside to see the Ramones play, where the bottom of Johnny's black leather jacket would inevitably crunch against his guitar. I was listening to Patti Smith recite her poetry at St. Marks Church alongside music by Lenny Kaye, bringing the audience to its knees with her Rimbaud-inspired verses. I was someone else, I was somewhere else, amongst creative people who designed the lives they wanted to live which, at that point, I never felt I could do. The book was for me what punk was for everyone who was involved in it: a way out.

Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil at the Ace Hotel. Photos by the author.

The second time I meet Legs McNeil, it is at Gillian McCain's home in Chelsea. I hope he doesn't remember me, the tiny-voiced fangirl from outside the gallery, and thankfully he doesn't. He, Gillian, and I sit in her library. In a denim jacket and striped shirt, Legs sits next to me, one ripped pant leg crossed over the other. Gillian, in bright red glasses, cornflower blonde bangs resting gently on her forehead, is on a couch across from me.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Please Kill Me, which McNeil and McCain are celebrating with a 20th anniversary edition of the book. It features 22 extra pages of previously excluded interviews and photographs. They will also be on a book tour across the country and have independently produced a two-hour audio documentary, Please Kill Me: Voices from the Archives, which uses both the original interview recordings that went into the book and music from its interviewees, like Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, the Ramones, and more. It's being played on public radio stations around the country in two parts, The Pioneers of Punk and The Punk Invasion.

But interestingly, when McNeil and McCain began working on the book in the early 90s, punk was only about ten years in the past, barely history at all. The book idea started because Dee Dee Ramone came to McNeil right after leaving the Ramones, wanting to do a book about his experiences. McNeil began interviewing Dee Dee for it, but McCain, who had met McNeil through a mutual friend, suggested the book could be so much bigger than just the one Ramone. They began interviewing subjects for what would become an oral history, several hundred voices telling the longer story of punk. "When we interviewed these people, no one cared about them," McNeil says. McCain affirms: "People didn't think the book would necessarily come out!"

But after working on the book for four years, come out it did, and with a bang. When the book was first published in 1996, it was hailed as "an immensely entertaining portrait of a bohemia" by famed music critic Robert Christgau in The New York Times Book Review, it was excerpted in Vanity Fair, and it was named a top ten book of the year by Time Out New York and the New York Daily News. "I think it was shocking to everybody," McNeil says. "You have to go in and get stories when no one cares about it." Then suddenly everyone did care.

Please Kill Me is now published in at least 12 other countries, including Russia, Japan, France, and China. It's considered one of the best and most important music books of all time, the first to document the punk era, this era that is now continually of interest. It seems like every year a new fashion magazine is making a “Guide to Patti Smith's Style” or a cultural publication is publishing forgotten images from CBGB. Audience investment seems constant and unfailing, as if people will always love punk, will always want to be a part of that world, and Please Kill Me is one of the easiest ways to get there.

"I think we created a world," McNeil says. Because there's nothing punk about a dawdling, boring history. "We didn't want the book to be about punk, we wanted the book to be punk," he says. "There's a difference, you know? And that was really important. We didn't want to do, like, "The punk scene started in…" It's just like, 'we're just gonna hang out in front of Discount Records spitting on cars.'" Everyone feels so close and their experiences are so vibrant that you feel like you're living them, too. It's a wonderful place to get lost if you're looking to escape your own life for a while.

"I think what makes the book resonate is that it's about a bunch of people who had absolutely nothing creat[ing] something," McNeil says. In turn, people who feel like they have nothing can pick it up and somehow feel their luck change. McNeil and McCain are not unaccustomed to hearing people say, "This book changed my life," and "This was better than 12 months of therapy," though they're not really sure why.

McCain asks me what I think makes people attach so closely to the book: "Do you think it's the actual content or the characters? What is it that's changing people's lives? Things seem possible?"

I think about my copy of Please Kill Me at home, its ripping cover and yellowed pages, passages of text highlighted or underlined in various hues over the years. I remember the record store friends I made through reading it. For a moment I have trouble forcing out words, but eventually I manage.

"Maybe it just made people feel less alone."

Elyssa Goodman is on Twitter - @MissManhattanNY

Please Kill Me tour dates:

July 30 - Palm Springs, CA -Ace Hotel & Swim Club

August 1 - Los Angeles, CA - Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles

August 8 - Portland, OR - Ace Hotel Portland