Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Please Kill Me: the Uncensored Oral History of Punk - Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain (1997)

I first read Please Kill Me about 9 or 10 years ago, right after I graduated college.  I decided to read it again when I finished my last couple books quickly and the newest one hadn't arrived at the library yet.  I am very glad I did this, and it seems really cliche at this point and non-prestigious, but I must anoint this yet another one of the Best Books reviewed on Flying Houses.  This book is not perfect--it's maybe 50-100 pages too long, but once you start to get wrapped up in the characters, you would probably go on another 200.  I mean, this book never got boring to me.  There were some parts that just aren't as well told as others, but there is so much detail and vulnerability in these pages that no reader can encounter this text without becoming unmoved.  Not everybody is into punk rock music, but everybody should read this book.  Most people like some kind of music, and this book hits on most genres anyways.

There are a lot of similarities to Lexicon Devil (also on the Best Books list), and perhaps one could accuse me of being a sucker for the oral history genre.  I mean, I also really liked Rant.  But it's more than the format, or the concept of a book devoid of exposition, operating purely on dialogue.  The genre just tends to elevate storytelling to a higher level, accentuating unique details from shared memories and sensory impressions.  More obviously, none of these books are PC.  They describe experiences that never should have been allowed to happen.  Please Kill Me positively revels in this material.

Still, it's not an endorsement of a dissolute lifestyle, and focuses a little bit more on the music than Lexicon Devil.  Now this may be because the Germs were a terrible band who seemed to actively avoid improving their chops.  But the other book this calls to mind is Our Band Could Be Your Life.  Where Please Kill Me leaves off (late 70's/early 80's), Our Band Could Be Your Life pretty much picks up.  The format is different, but the attitude is similar.  OBCBYL feels a little bit more academic, and is probably not as engaging a read because once you finish the story of each band, you're done.  I think ultimately what makes Please Kill Me so special is the power of its story.

The story starts in 1965 with Lou Reed and ends in 1992 with the death of Jerry Nolan.  The interviews that comprise this "oral history" seem to have started in the late 70's with Punk magazine and wrapped up with more comprehensive, authoritative, and "sober" interviews in 1994 and 1995.

Before moving on, I want to note that this book is ripe for a re-issue, with new material.  The final section of the book (the epilogue) is titled "Nevermind: 1980-1992."  Now, when this book was published in 1997, one of the most fucked up periods of popular music was ascendant, and few would anticipate the backlash to that era, or the revival of the so-called "CBGB scene."  Almost all of the artists in Please Kill Me made "comebacks" (to varying levels of success), and many others have died.  To recognize such occurrences, I would include a "post-epilogue" and title it "Cashing In: 2003-2015."  Apparently, a 20th anniversary edition will be released next year, so my predictions are not far off.

The book starts off on an impossibly high note with its material on the Velvet Underground.  Straight out of the gates, it is immediately apparent that nobody is trying to maintain a squeaky-clean PR image.  Lou Reed is basically at the center of the depravity.  There are PLENTY of juicy excerpts that I could include here, but I will leave them to be sought out by discerning readers.  Instead, I will try to focus on the historical import of the artists described.

Now, most people will say punk rock started with the Ramones.  Some say the Stooges.  Others say the Sex Pistols.  The authors contend that they invented the term themselves.  Sometimes I say that the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" is the real beginning of punk rock.  But truly, honestly, the Velvet Underground embodied everything that came to define the genre (except the faster tempos):

"Lou Reed: Andy Warhol told me that what we were doing with the music was the same thing he was doing with painting and movies and writing--i.e., not kidding around.  To my mind, nobody in music was doing anything that even approximated the real thing, with the exception of us.  We were doing a specific thing that was very, very real.  It wasn't slick or a lie in any conceivable way, which was the only way we could work with him.  Because the first thing I liked about Andy was that he was very real." (7)

Danny Fields makes his first appearance here, and describes how he convinced Lou Reed and John Cale to cut "the Exploding Plastic Inevitable" from their live show (which was a kind of S&M performance with lights and film projections) and to leave Andy Warhol for a better manager, to "make it" as a band.  Fields is practically a non-stop presence throughout the book and tells many of the best stories--though the reader tends to wonder if some of these stories are more "legend" than "fact."  Actually, there are several points in the book where the speaker (or interviewee) draws a distinction between the story everyone hears and the reality that happened.  One of them is the famed meeting of Jim Morrison with Nico and Andy Warhol, indelibly portrayed by Crispin Glover in The Doors:

"Danny Fields: I've never had any respect for Oliver Stone, but after seeing his version of the Morrison/Nico meeting in the Doors movie--'Hello, I am Nico, would you like to go to bed with me?'--the reality of it couldn't have been more different.
What really happened was that I met Morrison at the Elektra office in Los Angeles and he followed me back to the Castle in his rented car.  Morrison walked into the kitchen and Nico was there and they stood and circled each other.
Then they stared at the floor and didn't say a word to each other.  They were both too poetic to say anything.  It was a very boring, poetic, silent thing that was going on between them.  They formed a mystical bond immediately--I think Morrison pulled Nico's hair and then he proceeded to get extremely drunk and I fed him whatever was left of my drugs that Edie Sedgwick hadn't stolen." (29)

Right after this early section about the Velvet Underground with passing references to the Doors, the Stooges are introduced.  Now, the Stooges are one of the major elements of this book, and almost all of the anecdotes about them are mind-boggling.  I particularly appreciate the story of Iggy Pop's first experience with weed:

"Iggy Pop:...I realized that these guys were way over my head, and that what they were doing was so natural to them that it was ridiculous for me to make a studious copy of it, which is what most white blues bands did.
Then one night, I smoked a joint.  I'd always wanted to take drugs, but I'd never been able to because the only drug I knew about was marijuana and I was a really bad asthmatic.  Before that, I wasn't interested in drugs, or getting drunk, either.  I just wanted to play and get something going, that was all I cared about.  But this girl, Vivian, who had given me the ride to Chicago, left me with a little grass.
So one night I went down by the sewage treatment plant by the Loop, where the river is entirely industrialized.  It's all concrete banks and effluvia by the Marina Towers.  So I smoked this joint and then it hit me.
I thought, What you gotta do is play your own simple blues.  I could describe my experience based on the way those guys are describing theirs...
So that's what I did.  I appropriated a lot of their vocal forms, and also their turns of phrase--either heard or misheard or twisted from blues songs.  So 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' is probably my mishearing of 'Baby Please Don't Go.'" (38-39)

The MC5 are also introduced around this section.  Together, these two bands (along with the Dead Boys, who come along towards the end) comprise the entirety of bands based outside of New York City.  While this is a book about the origins of punk rock, it is also a vivid portrait of NYC in the 70's.  The material on MC5, I can take or leave.  I've tried listening to them, and just can't really get into it.  The music just sounds more dated to me, for some reason.

The New York Dolls come next.  Now, I actually saw the Stooges and the New York Dolls for the first time on the same day, at Little Steven's Underground Garage Festival on Randall's Island in August of 2003 (maybe '04, I can't remember).  Syl Sylvain had just died, and the New York Dolls were the third to last band.  They seemed a bit like a nostalgia act, but David Johansen was energetic and enthused and the crowd loved them.  The Strokes then played next, a very efficient, no-frills, solid set.  The Stooges closed, and to date remains one of the best performances I have seen.  Mike Watt was on bass, but both Asheton brothers were in, and Iggy (then in his mid-50's) seemed as potent as ever.

Really I'm skipping around though.  There's a section before the New York Dolls that introduces Patti Smith.  The material on Patti Smith in this book is essential.  It might as well be Patti Smith's book.  After I finished it again, I watched a performance from the Primavera Sound Festival in May 2015, and while I was slightly let down when I saw her at Lollapalooza in 2005, she seemed like she has tapped into a more powerful energy of late.  Her rendition of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" (despite screwing up the words) is an emotionally devastating experience that should make you cry in the most beautiful way.

There are several "hearts" of this book, and Patti Smith is one of them (Iggy is another).  The success of her memoir Just Kids has fueled a late-career renaissance, and I hope to read and review that book in the near future on this site.

Jim Carroll, another one of the several characters in this story that recently passed away, is introduced near this point.  So is David Bowie:

"Cyrinda Foxe: David Bowie and his wife Angela had a very open marriage.  They were sleeping with anybody they felt like sleeping with.  David and Angela and I had a menage a trois for about five minutes, but then I made her leave because David and I were gonna play.  Angela was fucking David's black bodyguard, and David and I used to get down on all fours and peek in their keyhole and watch them fuck.  I was sort of like a new toy for David on the Ziggy Stardust tour.  But while we were in San Francisco, David asked me, 'Are you in love with me?'
I said, 'No.'  I wasn't about to say, 'Yes!' I was still tripping around.  I had no flies on me then.  No salt on my tail.  I didn't want to get tied down.  Besides, Tony DeFries wanted everybody to be this Bowie thing.  I didn't want to cut my hair like that.  So I wasn't impressed with them.  I mean, okay, I get to go on a plane and go somewhere, but that's all I thought it was.  So when David Bowie asked if I was in love with him, and I told him no, he left me there." (134)

Soon after, Patti Smith and Television take center stage.  At this point, Richard Hell was still in the band, and perhaps because of his "literary" background tells some of the best stories.  This one explains the book's title:

"Richard Lloyd: Richard Hell had designed a T-shirt for himself that said Please Kill Me, but he wouldn't wear it.  I was like, 'I'll wear it.'  So I wore it when we played upstairs at Max's Kansas City, and afterwards these kids came up to me.  These fans gave me this really psychotic look--they looked as deep into my eyes as they possibly could--and said, 'Are you serious?'
Then they said, 'If that's what you want, we'll be glad to oblige because we're such big fans!' They were just looking at me, with that wild-eyed look, and I thought, I'm not wearing this shirt again." (173)

The Ramones come into the picture, and are introduced by their infamous song about street hustling, "53rd and 3rd," with background history supplied by Jim Carroll.  There is also an interesting story about the song "Chinese Rocks," which sheds light on one of the lines to the song ("Is Dee Dee home?"):

"Richard Hell: Dee Dee called me one day and said, 'I wrote a song that the Ramones won't do.'  He said, 'It's not finished.  How about I come over and show it to you and we can finish it if you like it?'  So I believe he brought an acoustic guitar over.  And I had my bass.  Basically the song was done, but he just didn't have another verse.  I wrote two lines.  That's all.  It was basically Dee Dee's song, though I think the lyrics, the verses I wrote, were good.
Dee Dee Ramone: The reason I wrote that song was out of spite for Richard Hell, because he told me he was gonna write a song better than Lou Reed's 'Heroin,' so I went home and wrote 'Chinese Rocks.'
I wrote it by myself, in Debbie Harry's apartment on First Avenue and First Street.  Then Richard Hell put that line in it, so I gave him some credit." (213-214)

After this, the story jumps over to England briefly and covers the Sex Pistols.  There is one story that made me smile (anybody that has run with a crew of "punks" should be able to relate):

"Bob Gruen:...I didn't see Johnny with a girl until the last night.  He left the last show with some girl who was backstage.  It was kind of a surprise, because from the first minute I met him, Johnny didn't seem to ever like anything.
He just seemed to be in a really bad mood from day one.  You know, everything sucked.  He was so cynical and sarcastic about everything that he would always point out the derogatory aspect of everything.  That's why I was so surprised when I saw him leave the Winterland gig with a girl on his arm and half a smile on his face.  It was the most human thing I ever saw, because it was something so out of character to see him enjoy a moment of life." (331)

The book ends with a few interesting stories: Phil Spector's production of the Ramones album End of the Century, the deaths of Sid & Nancy, Nico and Johnny Thunders, and a lot of stuff about the Dead Boys...I could quote more (obviously the Phil Spector anecdotes are priceless)--but I've gone on long enough in this review and it's time to wrap it up.  I want to include one final quote that I found very punk, and certainly pertinent one month after the blockbuster SCOTUS decision:

"Legs McNeil: Gay liberation had really exploded.  Homosexual culture had really taken over--Donna Summer, disco, it was so boring.  Suddenly in New York, it was cool to be gay, but it just seemed to be about suburbanites who sucked cock and went to discos.  I mean, come on, 'Disco, Disco Duck?' I don't think so.
So we said, 'No, being gay doesn't make you cool.  Being cool makes you cool, whether you're gay or straight.'  People didn't like that too much.  So they called us homophobic.  And of course, being the obnoxious people we were, we said, 'Fuck you, you faggots.'
Mass movements are always so un-hip  That's what was great about punk.  It was an antimovement, because there was knowledge there from the very beginning that with mass appeal comes all those tedious folks who need to be told what to think.  Hip can never be a mass movement.  And culturally, the gay liberation movement and all the rest of the movements were the beginning of political correctness, which was just fascism to us.  Real fascism, more rules.
But as far as being homophobic, that was ludicrous, because everyone we hung out with was gay.  No one had a problem with that, you know, fine, fuck whoever you want.  I mean Arturo would regale me with these great sex stories.  I'd be going, 'Wow, what happened then?'
What was great about the scene was that people's curiosity seemed stronger than their fear.  The time was rife with genuine exploration, but not in a trendy mass-movement way.  And I was always fascinated by how anyone made it through the day, what they really did when the lights were out, to keep their sanity, or lose it." (275)

In short, if you read this book, not only will you understand me better, but you will also understand yourself better.  How you react to some of the more salacious stuff can act as a barometer of the types of art you appreciate.  I always prefer the real, the raw, and the honest truth: psychological realism.  It seems that most all of the artists on display in this "bible" think along similar lines, and I can only state that they have been powerful influences.

No comments: