The Definitive U.S. Punk Bible

The Definitive U.S. Punk Bible
Reviewer: 2bitmonkey
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Please Kill Me:
The Uncensored Oral History of Punk
488 pages
Reprint edition
April 13, 2006
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

The phenomenon known as punk is scrutinized, eulogized, and idealized by the people who were there and who made it happen.

I don’t normally enjoy oral histories, but two of the greatest books I’ve read in the past year were long, detailed oral histories. One was Loose Balls, Terry Pluto’s oral history of the zany American Basketball Association. The other was Please Kill Me. It got me thinking about what the ABA and the punk scene have in common. Both are made up of stories that are so crazy that if you didn’t hear it from the participants themselves you almost wouldn’t believe them. Both have a colorful and strange cast of characters. And, most obviously, both existed only for a few years in the mid to late 1970s. What a wonderful and crazy time to have lived through, and the oral history is the closest that a person like me could possibly hope to live through it. And who better to (co-)author it than “Legs” McNeil, one of the three original founders of Punk magazine, whose job for the magazine was “Resident Punk.” McNeil needed a real writer – one who knew punk music – and that’s where co-author Gillian McCain came in. As McCain explained in an interview, explaining her role in the book-writing process:

Legs is good on structure and I’m good with details and the poetry. He would structure it, and we would say, ‘We need something to link Lou Reed, to The Voidoids to Sylvia Reed [nee Klein] to Lou Reed. So I’m going through interviews, going through interviews, and then I found a thing where [Robert] Quine’s talking to Lou Reed, and he’s friends with Sylvia Klein. It just links. He’d be structuring and I’d be reading over the interviews reminding us what we had, and then cleaning up and editing.

There probably wasn’t one single person with enough first-hand experience about the scene and skilled enough as a writer to paint the picture that Please Kill Me does. But in combining the efforts of McNeil and McCain, that person was formed, and the results are extraordinary. The book does the obvious in delivering wild stories – some real, some likely apocryphal. Critically, it touches upon each and every character from the era – from the most obvious and important like the Ramones, to minor groupies and hangers-on – which elevates the book from a mere history of the bands to a portrait of the scene. Of course you can’t talk about punk rock without talking about Dee Dee Ramone, but McNeil and McCain realized that you can’t do it without talking about people like Danny Fields and Bebe Buell either. More than the stories though, and more than the characters, I came away from Please Kill Me with a full understanding of the evolution of punk rock. The prologue acknowledges pre-punk (the Doors) and then discusses in detail the man and band that were the godfathers of punk, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. It’s a perfect metaphor for what the Velvet Underground were: the prologue to punk rock. Music, after all, (even punk music) is an evolutionary process more than a revolutionary one. You can trace a line from everything that followed in the New York City punk scene back to the Velvets, which the authors do over the next four parts of the book, covering the years 1967-1977: the Velvets begat Detroit’s MC5, who led to Iggy and the Stooges, then Patti Smith (more person and poetry than musician), then the New York Dolls, David Bowie, back to Patti (phase two – Patti as musician with the Patti Smith Group), Television, the Ramones, the Dead Boys, the Heartbreakers, a visit overseas from the Sex Pistols, the Dictators, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and finally Blondie, after which things went in a variety of directions, notably mainstream, new wave, post-punk and indie/alternative. By 1978 punk rock was all but dead, and Part 5 (and some of part 4, which covers 1976-77) deals with the sudden collapse of the scene. Patti Smith breaking her neck and back. Handsome Dick Manitoba (of the Dictators) and Wayne County had a bloody brawl at CBGB’s. Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan became heroin addicts. The Sex Pistols imploded. Nancy Spungen was killed. Sid Vicious died. With interviews from dozens of people who saw it all as the scene rose up and burned up in what seems to be almost overnight, the authors of Please Kill Me take the reader on a living, breathing trip through the American punk scene (with its heart in NYC) that has never and never will be surpassed.


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