City Paper is not for tourists
Did you hear the one about the punk rocker who shot smack using water he siphoned from a vomit-filled toilet, caught the clap from a hooker/stripper/dominatrix/groupie he screwed in an alley, and then was stabbed with a broken bottle by his jealousy-maddened girlfriend, also a hooker/stripper/ groupie? Would you like to?
If so, then Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk is the book for you. Compiled from interviews with some 200 musicians and scenemakers, this Edie-style anecdotal chronicle details more than the average reader might want to know about the sex-and-drugs lifestyle of the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, the Heartbreakers, and their various hangers-on. As for rock ’n’ roll, there’s not so much about that, but then the music never seemed to matter a lot to Eddie “Legs” McNeil, the former “resident punk” of Punk magazine and the compiler, with poet Gillian McCain, of this volume.
McNeil embodied the beer-sex-and-TV aesthetic of the Dictators, the first band to express on record the early-’70s rock-fanzine culture that helped shape punk. To the Punk brain trust, the music was not supposed to be arty, political, or British, and as it became all those things McNeil decided “punk wasn’t ours anymore.” Now that he has a chance to set things straight, McNeil is still flogging the same agenda he had 20 years ago: that he coined the term “punk,” that art music sucks, and that America invented punk rock. To make absolutely certain that these points aren’t missed, McNeil even includes himself as one of the book’s more prominent voices.
To a certain extent, Please Kill Me provides McNeil with his revenge. He documents how Malcolm McLaren devised the Sex Pistols from elements he purloined from the New York Dolls (whom he briefly managed) and Richard Hell. He also shows how the Pistols’ anarchic behavior and early demise upstaged American punk and further intimidated an already-skittish U.S. music industry. “I always say when the music moves from the music section to the front page of the newspaper, you’re in trouble,” comments the ever-charming Danny Fields, who was the Ramones’ manager when the Pistols imploded.
But of course McNeil didn’t name the music “punk.” That term was already widely used in the early ’70s by Creem magazine and fanzine writers, including Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, and Greg Shaw. It was applied to mid-’60s garage bands like the Standells, the Count Five, and the Shadows of Knight—whose albums were being eagerly retrieved from bargain bins by subculturalists who couldn’t abide the wimpy American folk-rock and pompous British art-rock then ascendant— as well as to more self-consciously primitive bands like the Stooges and the MC5. Please Kill Me as much as concedes this point by beginning in 1967 with the Velvet Underground and giving extensive coverage to such pre-CBGB’s phenomena as the Stooges, the MC5, the New York Dolls, and the Doors. (The latter are included mostly because of Jim Morrison’s flirtation with Nico and because Fields, one of the book’s stalwarts, worked for Elektra during the “Light My Fire” days.)
Never mentioned are two equally influential early-’70s bands, Big Star and the Modern Lovers, that McNeil apparently considers insufficiently punky. Perhaps that’s because they weren’t from New York, the center of the book’s universe, but exnBig Star singer/songwriter Alex Chilton moved to New York in the mid-’70s and played CBGB’s frequently; his bassist, Chris Stamey, then formed the dB’s, perhaps the finest of the next generation of New York bands, but one that goes unheralded here.
Clearly geography isn’t the authors’ only criterion. Plenty of other significant made-in-New York bands get the brushoff: Talking Heads are barely acknowledged, and Television is featured only because 1.) Tom Verlaine slept with Patti Smith and 2.) Richard Hell and Richard Lloyd were both big-time sluts and junkies. Though the authors follow their heroes into the ’80s and ’90s with reports on the deaths of Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, Stiv Bators, and Nico, they snub artier types who came to prominence in the late ’70s and early ’80s, including Lydia Lunch, Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth, and Arto Lindsay. The Contortions figure only because they were managed by Anya Phillips, one of the book’s dominatrix/groupie monsters (and another fatality).
Please Kill Me offers many dubious interpretations, but only a few outright errors: Terry Reid’s name is misspelled, John Cale is incorrectly credited with producing Nico’s Chelsea Girl, and the Stooges are said to have played Constitution Hall. (It was actually the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, which is even weirder.) These are more than balanced by a wealth of scabrous gossip, including drone composer La Monte Young’s mid-’60s status as “the best drug connection in New York” and Richard Lloyd’s career as a male hustler (mirroring the similar but better-known exploits of Jim Carroll and Dee Dee Ramone, who slept with both Sire Records President Seymour Stein and his wife, Linda, according to an interview with the latter).
If sex overwhelms music in this history, that has something to do with who’s doing most of the talking: A lot of McNeil and McCain’s most-quoted witnesses are either groupies or gay-male music-biz executives and entrepreneurs like Danny Fields and Terry Ork. Perhaps because they were so focused on their calling, the groupies seem to have particularly vivid memories; ex-druggie Steven Tyler may not remember much of what happened in the ’70s, but the mothers of his daughters Liv and Mia (Bebe Buell and Cyrinda Foxe, respectively) are quite precise.
What’s striking is the relative lack of smart people. I’ve had occasion to interview a lot of musicians connected to the punk scene, and can testify that Tom Verlaine, Tommy Ramone, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, and David Johansen — to name only a few of the notables this book slights—are intelligent and thoughtful. Please Kill Me, however, prefers those who were charismatic, tormented, but at best infantile. Concentrating on the likes of Johnny Thunders, Dee Dee Ramone, Cheetah Chrome, and Anya Phillips, the book makes the New York punk scene look like what the mainstream press at the time said it was: a freak show. They say that history is written by the victors, but this chronicle was dictated by the losers.CP