On Tuesday night, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain — authors of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk — read, spoke, and answered questions from a good audience at The Bay Street Theatre on the second floor of Club One here in Savannah.
Before I move on, I suggest you take the title of this post seriously: it’s uncensored. The Google ads might disappear because of F bomb appearances. Fair warning.
If you don’t know about McNeil or McCain or their work, slide on over to the Please Kill Me website.
The evening got rolling with McNeil reading from his apparently-just-completed and soon-to-be-published book about a brief, intense love affair more than ten years ago with a young woman who appeared at one of his readings.
Unbeknownst to McNeil until just before her death, she was a heroin addict — she died after injecting black tar heroin that led to an infection and a sudden amputation during which she died.
McNeil began the story this way: “When I got out of my last rehab . . .”
But this wasn’t drug or alcohol rehab — the 50-something McNeil has been sober for years. This was a rehab years after the fact to try to deal with the lasting trauma of his girlfriend’s death. After taking the audience through a little background, he read the opening of the book.
I was struck by a number of things: how much the emotional landscape of our youth stays with us as we get older, by the ways in which the older and more famous McNeil obsessed about the young woman as if she were the star. I also couldn’t help wondering if there wasn’t something about her addiction that attracted him even if he didn’t know about it.
McNeil and McCain read jointly from Please Kill Me — alternating the voices for a brief section of Please Kill Me. And yes, in case you were wondering, David Bowie is (or was) bisexual.
The authors noted that they used only a tiny percentage of their recorded interviews for the final text. So we might one day get a flood of new detail about seminal cultural figures like Iggy Pop and the Ramones.
Jim Reed of Knocked Out Loaded Concerts asked a question about Patti Smith and her refusal to participate in McNeil’s book. “Legs, I’m a wife and a mother now,” Smith apparently said, which took McNeil on an interesting tangent about Just Kids, Smith’s National Book Award-winning chronicle of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. McNeil was clear that Smith leaving out so many details of Mapplethorpe’s sexual exploits amounted to a kind of untruth.
I asked about anything that truly shocked the authors when they were doing the interviews.
“Everything,” McNeil said — but I’m not really convinced of that. McCain then recalled an incident that really shocked her. They were interviewing Bebe Buell — the former model and Playmate — when Buell’s teenage daughter, Liv Tyler, wandered into the room in the skimpiest of underwear. In a book filled with so much casual sex and voracious drug use, that’s a curious detail to find shocking. In any world, there are moments for propriety.
I asked about the upcoming movie CBGB and relay a couple of McNeil’s thoughts in my City Talk column tomorrow. But I didn’t quote one gem about how tough and sometimes unlikable club owner Hilly Kristal’s daughter Lisa was. “We all applauded the night that Hell’s Angel decked her,” he said.
Life at CBGB was apparently relentlessly seedy and fun — at least in the punk era. (The club closed a number of years ago and is now a John Varvatos store.) Asked about times that stood out, McNeil said that all the nights were fun in those days — and he noted the routine oral sex he got from a waitress in CBGB’s iconic phone booth (see it here).
But McNeil drew an interesting distinction between the licentiousness of that era and today’s culture of hooking up: Back then, he said, “You really liked the people you were fucking.”
The Ramones was McNeil’s favorite band of the CBGB era, he said after I asked. And why?
“Because they were so fucking good.”
McNeil said that he still listens mainly to the bands from that era — The Ramones, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The Dead Boys.
In somehow typical punk fashion, McCain and McNeil had sold out of books at earlier stops on their reading tour. So I thought I’d at least by a Please Kill Me t-shirt, but they didn’t have any men’s sizes left that were any bigger than medium.
But the evening wasn’t about sales — it was about memory, what we value, what we don’t, what we’ve done, and what we wish we’d done.