The oral history book — which gathers numerous voices to tell one story, usually of a pivotal time in pop culture — remains one of the most compelling forms of nonfiction. It's particularly illuminating when it comes to music. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, is widely regarded as one of the most revealing and well-done examples of the genre. It's been published in 15 languages since its release in 1996 and continues to inspire rebellious music lovers to this day.
Next year, Please Kill Me will be republished in a 20th-anniversary edition by Grove Atlantic. The duo also edited and released Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose, which posthumously gathered the writings of the troubled young woman, while McNeil co-authored The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry and I Slept With Joey Ramone, the latter with Joey's brother Mickey Leigh. Both authors have written for a variety of music outlets, including Vice, Spin and Nerve, and maintained a blog based on the book, PleaseKillMe.com.
Some of McNeil's accomplishments — particularly his seminal zine with John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn called Punk — were dramatized on the big screen in CBGB, the 2013 film about the legendary nightclub. The movie flopped and got a lot wrong, according to those who were there, so the book stands as the best-regarded and most accurate chronicle of that influential time.
McNeil and McCain are revisiting their provocative oral history formula to take on an entirely new locale and genre that may surprise some. The pair have been in Los Angeles the past few months, residing in a home just off the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, as they gather stories for the new project. We recently turned the tables and made them give us some oral history about themselves, as well as revealing some details about their latest collaboration.
Tell me about your new project.
Legs McNeil: It’s called Sixty-Nine, An Oral History.
Clever. When will it come out?
Gillian McCain: We're hoping to have it done in two years. We’re halfway along.
So you’re here in Los Angeles for the next few months to do interviews for it? Who are you covering?
LM: Yes. The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Birds, Paul Revere & the Raiders.
What’s the genre you’re focusing on?
GM: Southern California rock from the late '60s.
LM: Monterey Pop–type stuff.
Why did you guys feel this era deserved exploring?
LM: I always loved Paul Revere & the Raiders. They wore Revolutionary War outfits and the music was so good.
GM: It was such a tumultuous time. The book’s a lot about the counterculture, not just rock & roll.
Politics? Societal mores?
GM: Yeah, LSD, Black Panthers, Watts Riots. … In this music scene, there’s like six degrees of separation to everything. So were using that as a bounce-off.
And you’re using the Strip as the hub for it all?
LM: The late '60s on the Sunset Strip.
People think of you, Legs, as a very New York City figure. So it’s interesting that your next big project is West Coast–based. I know you did the porn book based here. But where music’s concerned, people think of New York and, of course, the word “punk,” which you’re credited with coining via Punk magazine.
LM: Well, I thought all these people here were all peace and love, but they’re a bunch of ambitious thugs. They’re really punks, too.
Are people surprised when they hear you're doing a Summer of Love '60s book?
LM: We haven’t really talked about this project much yet. But it’s probably more about class. There’s this kind of children of the privileged versus not-privileged thing, and this new book shows that.
Who have you interviewed so far?
LM: A bunch of people. Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys, Debra Tate (Sharon's sister), Ned Doheny, Billy Hinsche of Desi & Billy with Desi Arnaz Jr., one of the great groups of the '60s.
GM: People who may not be recognizable to the average person but were there for these pivotal moments of music. That’s my favorite part of doing an oral history. With the stars, everyone’s watching them. They’re not really witnessing things.
LM: We want to talk to the people around the artists. There’s always somebody in the room … with Elvis, The Beatles, always somebody in the room besides them. Observing what’s going on.
Thanks to Please Kill Me you’re considered oral history experts.
LM: It’s the best-selling punk book of all time.
Other than speaking to insiders, what are the important elements of an oral history?
LM: Get the details from the people who were there that others might not know. Please Kill Me, there’s Iggy and everyone else important, but there’s also these other people filling in and telling us what Iggy did when he came off the stage and sneaked in the bathroom.
Where do you even begin to home in on what people are going to talk about? There’s surely so much information. Do you just sit there and tape them for hours?
LM: You sit there and tape them for hours, but we’re getting to the point where we look at each other and we know we got something and know what to ask.
GM: Also, you’re using other interviews as background, so you know what you want to get. “Billy said that you did this”… and maybe the subject says, “He’s full of shit.” Then we do follow-up interviews.
Why has Please Kill Me resonated?
LM: It’s like you’re at this cocktail party where everyone is telling great stories. Every line is designed to take you back. It’s a hook.
GM: Legs is brilliant at structure.
LM: And Gillian’s responsible for keeping the integrity of the voice. It’s so important. You’ve got to be able to connect with the person, someone like Danny Fields, who has a lot of stories.
GM: I find the biggest flaw of all these post–Please Kill Me oral histories is that they’ve watered down the voice … like you’ll read a whole oral history on grunge and there’s not one swear word.
Does that happen in editing?
LM: Yeah. If a person says 400 “ya knows,” you’ve got to edit some, but you have to keep their voice. It’s about rhythm…
GM: We really do let people talk and talk and talk. … They might be going off in another direction but maybe they need to remember stuff. I look at it as, we’re going to sell these archives someday. … Maybe others will go back and hear a story they’re interested in, even if we weren’t for our project.
It must be nice to have that luxury. In an interview like this, we constantly have to get the subject back on track. So who’s on your wish list to interview still?
GM: Of course we’d love to talk to David Crosby, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, Steven Stills. Although again, the stars are not as interesting as the people who know them. The stars have been interviewed so many times.
But don’t publishers and readers want the stars? Like Please Kill Me with Iggy.
LM: But we had done our research so well with Iggy. We only needed a couple hours with him. We had gotten everyone around Iggy. I walked in, we sat down and I said, “OK, you went to see The Doors for the first time at the University of Michigan campus, you had your student ID. … You walk in. Go.”
And Iggy picked it up from there. He said, “I walked in and Jim Morrison. Boy, he had some good hair going.” What he said about his ringlets … his recollection of the moment. It was beautiful. So you’re letting people know we know everything about you. So we’re always looking for the people that connect people.
LM: Kathy Asheton, sister of Ron and Scotty. She went out with Fred Smith from The MC5. That’s what made MC5 and The Stooges kind of brother bands.
Or like Pamela Des Barres? She was obviously connected to a lot of people from the era.
GM: Yes, we spoke with her and Miss Mercy.
You gotta get the girls in there. They connect a lot of people in the music world. So are you conscious of getting juicy stories? Sexy stories?
GM: It’s always racy on its own.
LM: No. We just ask the questions. Who were you fucking? Were you getting girls? The stories just come.
When people think of salaciousness on the Strip, they think of Led Zeppelin’s antics at the Hyatt House. You got any of that? Or is that later?
LM: Well the stories that we’ve gotten from the '60s are so good. They really illustrate what happened in this time period. The music and the culture became inseparable. Music guides everything, from '65. … It was such a fantastic year in the history of music. The Turtles, Sonny & Cher, The Byrds. Love, The Doors. The riot at Pandora's Box. Then Steven Stills writes “For What It's Worth”….
As we’re talking about this music and this era, the one thing that keeps coming back to me is — all this hippie-dippie music was the antithesis to punk. Wasn’t it? Weren’t you guys from the punk era looking for an alternative to this stuff?
LM: Of course we were, but we still all grew up on it. The Stones. The Beatles, c'mon.
GM: What we’re gathering from our research is that it wasn’t all peace and love.
But the aesthetics were so different. Isn’t it ironic that you’re doing this book now?
LM: I love the music of '65.
But did you then? Or did you hide that fact? You don’t want to like the music your parents like. But at some point you grow up and you look back and ask, what were we really rebelling against? Right?
LM: Yes! We all did! But c'mon, The Ramones covered [The Searchers'] “Needles and Pins,” for chrissake. The fucking Sex Pistols did “Stepping Stone” by The Monkees. Joey was one of my best friends and we used to listen to this stuff. But yes, when you’re doing something new, you want to kill the past.
Which reminds me — the CBGB movie. There was a scene where the guy playing you didn’t want someone in the Punk zine because they were too popular. Who was that again?
LM: I couldn’t watch it all the way through.
GM: Was it Lou Reed?
I think it was.
LM: No, no, I loved The Velvet Underground. Still do. I mean Lou was a dick, right. But that was his persona.
GM: But you weren’t excited to meet Lou, were you?
LM: I was more into The Ramones. I wanted to hang out with The Ramones. They were my people. I didn’t want to hang out with Lou. But he loved Holmstrom. I came out of a blackout at Clive Davis' 50th birthday party at some uptown restaurant with Diana Ross, Lou Reed and KISS at the table. And I was pulling Holstrom’s shirt, saying let's leave and go downtown and pick up girls. I was 19 years old. I wanted to drink and get girls. I didn't want to hang out with these old people. Diana Ross was about a thousand [years old] then. Now she’s probably about 2,000.
The word punk. What did it mean and what does it mean now?
LM: I think it’s great that it's kind of this undefinable thing that everybody knows.
GM: It still symbolizes rebellion.
What did it mean to you?
LM: I’d like to hear what Gillian thinks. She was younger when we started the book. You had all these expectations about it, right?
GM: I was born in '66. I had older brothers and sisters and I would obsessively go through their records. I was listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash and Carly Simon, but also to The Dead Boys and Blondie. I grew up in a small town, so I’d often go by the record cover. I remember I wouldn’t listen to Patti Smith’s Horses because I thought she was a hippie.
LM: I just reviewed Johnny Rotten’s book. He did the same thing … bought the albums for the covers. That's kind of the thing we have to capture. LPs and singles were so important.
We all remember the first record we ever bought. Mine was DEVO, Freedom of Choice. What was yours?
LM: Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow.” I hate the song now, but Donovan’s great. What’s great about this '60s music, and I’d forgotten, is the way it captured the exuberance. I think that’s what this book has to capture. The exuberance … before everything goes to shit.
GM: Like it always does.
The beginning and end of “an era” usually happens pretty dramatically and is never forgotten. The era of Please Kill Me was so influential and important, as was the time period in your new book. The hip-hop revolution had a similar impact. But there’s nothing like that that I can see right now. You?
LM: It’ll happen. Once some kids get some ideas, they’ll start something.
What about L.A. punk versus New York punk. People seem to view the New York as not better but maybe more influential.
LM: It was just different. Talk to Keith Morris. I’ve talked to him in depth and I think the guys here were having just as much fun. When you’re doing something and you know it's good and you have that energy. I don’t think it matters where you are.
I know we had a great scene here. But I feel like the CBGBs scene gets more romanticized for punk rock. And I think it might deserve it.
LM: Well, with the new book we’re going to show something similar. We're going to do the impossible. We're going to make L.A. cool.
That’s because this project has helped you realize that it always was.
LM: Well, yes, and I think this book is going to be 10 times better than Please Kill Me.
GM: And one thing is for sure, L.A. is way cooler than New York right now.