A Lesson in Punk from Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk was the first published work of its kind, and, despite a shelf life of close to twenty years, remains the ultimate guide to punk rock. The book’s co-authors, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, are responsible for pushing the genre to the forefront of the industry and inspired several authors of the 21st century to jump in the oral history bandwagon.
Legs and Gillian are fresh off the release of their latest collaborative work Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose, which has been dubbed “a rare, no-holds-barred documentation of an American teenager’s life” by Publishers Weekly. They stopped by Rough Trade NYC in Brooklyn last Sunday to host a reading of excerpts from both books, followed by a Q&A session with the audience. Brooklyn Radio sat down with the authors and Scott Gorenstein, Jonathan Marder VP, to discuss the process behind putting together an oral history, new projects, and even learned about one of Gillian’s dirty little secrets.
How did you two meet?
Gillian: We met through a mutual friend, and we became fast friends. I was working at the Poetry Project, and he lived nearby, so he’d come by and visit a lot and make a ruckus during our readings and embarrass me.
Legs: And I’m still embarrassing her.
How many years later?
Gillian: Almost twenty-five years.
Well, at least you’re consistent. Who initially came up with the idea for Please Kill Me?
Legs: Dee Dee Ramone had come to me and wanted to do a book, and I said, “Hey, why don’t we do it as an oral history?” And I started interviewing people. I was interviewing Danny Fields and Gillian, we were good friends and I was showing her the transcripts, and she kept saying, “This is much bigger than Dee Dee. Much bigger.” And she was right.
Gillian: And then Dee Dee kind of started to misbehave, and I said to Legs, “Well, the book’s bigger than the Ramones anyway.” And he was like, “Okay, you wanna do it?” And I knew I’d be reading every single thing. I knew I’d be jealous if I didn’t do this book because it’s kind of my dream book.
Legs: And the sin that Gillian will burn in Hell for is that she was never a big Ramones fan.
Gillian: That’s my big bad secret. My dirty little secret.
Well, it’s out now. How do you think being fans of the genre aided in the success of the book?
Gillian: I don’t think it would have even occurred to us to do it if we hadn’t been fans. The fact that he knew everyone, and everyone knew him definitely got us in.
What was your original plan for the book, and did it change along the way?
Legs: We only had one agenda and that was that punk started in America. When you’re doing an oral history like this, you kind of got to follow the people. And they turn you onto other people, and you get all this…you’ve got to get massive amounts of interviews….
Gillian: And the story unravels through the interviews. It’s not like you’re interviewing people like “I want this. I want that.” You’re figuring out the story as you interview people.
Legs: You know, like The Stooges stuff – we had no idea, and I kept having to go back to Ann Arbor. Remember, I kept having to take that train and climb up that hill?
Legs: Yeah, in the snow.
Were there any obstacles that you remember encountering during the process?
Legs: I’d send you over to [Cafe] Mogador when I had some girl come up.
Gillian: Yeah he was “dating” a lot. And he lived in a studio apartment, so he was really rude.
Which were your favorite interviews?
Legs: I have a tendency to fall in love with everyone. So do you.
Gillian: Yeah, I do like almost everyone.
Legs: We try to see the world from the interviewee’s kind of…you know, and what emotions they’re having because when you’re doing oral history, you can’t tell anybody anything. You have to actually walk them through it, which is really what’s so great about an oral history. The immediacy. You really feel like you’re standing at this great, hip cocktail party, and people are telling you all these great stories. The immediacy is what really attracted, I think, both of us.
Gillian: Yeah, and the more interviews you’ve done, and you’ve talked about what you want to put in the book. So, then one person will be talking about some incident, and I’ll look at Legs, and he’ll look at me and be like, “Oh, man. We can cut that right underneath—”
Legs: Yeah. Oh, yeah. We don’t use any notes either. Whenever a person stops talking that we’re interviewing, we both want to jump in with the same question at the same moment.
Legs: Yeah, usually. It’s really kind of weird.
So, you didn’t go in with prepared questions? It was all just off the cuff?
Legs: Never prepared questions.
Gillian: I mean, you’ve got in your head what you want to talk about.
Legs: I think that also makes it more interesting because you can kind of meander, and in those tangents…
Please Kill Me has been labeled the number one punk bestseller of all time. How do you feel the book has stayed relevant since its release almost twenty years ago?
Legs: Well, for me. I like when I pick it up, and it doesn’t suck. You know? One thing, at Spin, [to Gillian] I don’t know about you and the Poetry Project doing Milk and all that stuff. The time – it always could have been a little better. My stories, I don’t know if you felt, you know, the time pressure. So, to be able to stretch out and take four or five years or whatever we took and do it right really felt like—
Legs: I was making up.
Gillian: Yeah, that was my fear that there’d just be one chapter or something after it’s published, and I’d be like, “Oh, if only we had another two weeks.”
Legs: Yeah. We were exhausted at the end of it.
Gillian, how do you think your background in poetry affected your approach to the book?
Legs: I know exactly the answer to that.
You can answer.
Legs: Gillian’s love of words kind of completely….if you notice everybody’s voice in Please Kill Me, you know who’s speaking from the way they’re talking, and Gillian always maintains the integrity of the voices. It’s really kind of beautiful. When I’m cutting, you know, you’re changing tenses. You’re changing pronouns. And Gillian always goes back and sees what I did, and then goes back and—
Gillian: When Legs is cutting the book, it’s like building blocks. You just want to get it there. And so, sometimes he flattens things out, and I go back. We both really like slang.
Legs: Slang is just so great, you know.
Where were you working at the time?
Legs: I had left Spin. I had done this magazine for the people who publish High Times called Nerve, and that went under. I was kind of depressed. I was going through a divorce. I wanted to fall back in love with writing.
Gillian: He had been working on articles for Details.
Legs: Oh, yeah. That’s right.
Your latest collaboration Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose has already garnered some great reviews. How was the journey with this work like that of Please Kill Me? How was it different?
Gillian: Well, we were dealing with someone who was deceased – their words. I remember, the week before Please Kill Me came out, I couldn’t sleep because I thought, “Oh, so and so is going to hate me.” Obviously, we didn’t have to worry about that with Mary Rose. Her mother had read the manuscript, so we knew she accepted it. It was just material. It wasn’t people we had to deal with.
Legs: You keep saying six hundred, five hundred, four hundred. How many pages is the original manuscript?
Gillian: I think there’s five hundred.
Legs: So, we had a limited amount to work from, and we also had to timeline it and go back.
Gillian: They weren’t dated journals. They were just entries.
Legs: We really had to put it in the best kind of narrative chronological order.
What else are you two working on at moment?
Legs: Sixty-nine – spelled out.
Gillian: Tentatively called Sixty-nine: An Oral History. It’s Southern California, 1965-1970, from The Beach Boys to Helter Skelter.
Ah, The Beach Boys were my first concert.
At Saratoga racetrack.
Legs: How were they?
Amazing. America opened for them.
Legs: Oh really? So, you were on the dessert on a horse with no name. It felt good to be out of the rain. In the dessert, you can remember your name.
Yes you can.
Legs: ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain. That’s probably the worst lyric in the world. And the best lyric in the world? Alice Cooper. We can’t even think of a word that rhymes.
Gillian: At one of the interviews yesterday, they had I’m Eighteen playing right before I came on. I thought that was perfect. You could see Mary Rose digging that song. Air guitar.
Is there anything else you would like to add or promote?
Legs: The new book is kind of….I think we should call it A Cultural Oral History of the Manson Family ‘cause it’s the Manson family, but it’s how they fit into the whole music scene. Basically, what we have to do is recreate the 60s.
Gillian: Yeah, we’ve got to really talk about whether we want Manson in the title or not. Jonathan doesn’t think we should have Manson in the title. I mean, there’s so much you can do with book design to show what the book’s about. I mean, does Manson have to be in the title? We’ll see.
But yeah, I think it should say Cultural Oral History. But you know, we’re trying to do as many interviews as we can. Obviously, people are getting older. We interviewed Bruce Johnston over the phone. The sixth Beach Boy. He was really great. It’s a cool project. Pretty overwhelming.
Legs: Yeah, really overwhelming, especially when you haven’t spent a week at home. More than week since April 1.
Gillian: Because I’ve been researching this topic for twenty years.
Legs: Obsessing over it.
Gillian: It was just a hobby. So, I still have boxes of notes. I was like a Manson geek.