Please Kill Me! Interview with Legs McNeil

Contributing writer Helen Wilson tracks down the O.P. (original punk), Legs McNeil, co-founder of Punk magazine and author of Please Kill Me: The Oral History of Punk Rock. Legs and Helen discuss the OP’s tormenting of Lester Bangs, the misplaced accusation of racism in the original punk scene, and the similarities between punk and porn.

Interview with Legs McNeil

June 2002

I was born in 1975, the same year as Punk magazine, and so I guess I’m too young to really understand anything about punk rock. My first awareness of music happened in the 80s, when all that was left of punk was reflected in “corporate rock.” As part of a recent need to know about the music and the culture that underpins much of the music I love, I recently read Please Kill Me, the comprehensive oral history of punk constructed by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain.

Reading a direct account of what happened in the early days of punk through the voices of those who were there, I felt a sense of the culture and what it was really about that I hadn’t experienced before. These things I knew about on an intellectual level, of course, but I didn’t really understand them, and maybe as a child of the 80s and 90s I can’t possible get what it was all about. I was struck by how experiencing those original punk bands, the Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges, the New York Dolls, people were blown out of their fuckin’ minds; it was totally radical in comparison to what had come before.

I recently learned that Punk magazine had been re-launched after a quarter-century hiatus. And I thought, why now? What could Punk offer us in the new millennium except a novelty from an era long gone that people like me can hardly appreciate any deeper than on a removed intellectual level? And what Punk was, was anything but intellectual.

I personally don’t give a shit who first came up with the term “punk,” whether it was Legs McNeil or Lester Bangs or Dave Marsh, but I think that what the guys in NY did was sell the lifestyle and the music that came with it to a lot of people. Anyway, I got the opportunity to talk to Legs McNeil, who is America’s quintessential punk. He’s a guy that a lot of people have a lot of strong feelings about, but I think even if you disagree with what he has to say, we can all agree that he played an important role in the birth of punk and is an icon of what punk is in its rawest form. So, I present here what he had to say about that original punk scene, some of the characters who were a part of it, how punk rock affected him personally and how it has impacted our culture more broadly.

He talked at great length about the early days of Punk and his close friendship with co-founder and intellectual backbone of the magazine John Holmstrom:

Legs:

I got all the pussy and all the drugs, and John was always working. I remember coming back from CBGBs with Joey [Ramone], and John was all hunched over his desk. John taught me how to write…I didn’t finish high school, and he was a really good teacher. And he was good to argue with. He did get pissed at me, but we were really close, I used to hide out from the cops at John’s place. John had all the Lenny Bruce albums, and all the old Chuck Berry albums, I made him mad because I didn’t put the records back in the sleeves. We were really close, we laughed a lot.

I don’t know anything about music. John turned me on to the Velvet Underground, etc…John knew much more about music, I just liked the attitude. I was the feral child, you know what I mean? John got As, I was thrown out of high school.

GLONO:

After it’s short run from 1975 to 1979, Punk magazine was put to rest until a 25th Anniversary issue was published last year, and Holmstrom and team are now raising funds to continue publication for a few more years. When asked about the revival of Punk, Legs stated:

Legs:

I didn’t have anything to do with it, John asked me to write some stuff, but I didn’t have anything to do with it. John did High Times, and then he just wanted to have some fun. But I was kind of glad he brought it back. I don’t know what’s in it though. It was always John’s baby.

GLONO: What would you say to those who say you’ve unfairly claimed the term “punk?”

Legs:

Lester [Bangs] had used the term, but I didn’t even read Creem, I didn’t wanna be a rock critic, I thought they were nerdy guys who didn’t get laid.

No one called anything “punk” because of Dave Marsh, no one used the word until we, until I, named Punk magazine. And I was the first “resident punk.” But that stuff doesn’t really interest me, nobody called anything punk because of Dave Marsh. Dave Marsh is an untalented fat man who couldn’t get laid if…It’s like Playboy magazine, people used the word before they named the magazine.

GLONO:

Legs’ talked about Bangs’ portrayal of the Punk guys as racist as a mis-representation of his and John’s fuckin’ around with him:

Legs:

We only used the term “nigger” in front of Lester, like he would start going on about John Coltrane, and I would say “John Coltrane is a nigger,” just cause I knew it would piss him off, and suddenly we got labeled racist. You can’t have a conversation about race in this country.

GLONO:

He went on to talk about his love-hate relationship with Bangs and Creem:

Legs:

Lester had a lot of problems. He grew up a 7th Day Adventist, and replaced that with rock and roll. He was always talking at you, like a preacher. I brought Lester to see the Ramones, we would drag him out of the house kicking and screaming. He was a real curmudgeon, and it got boring, so we started saying things to piss him off, and we would break into his house and steal beer. And we did a lot more to him than that…He had a band called Berlin, he was horrible, looked like a big bear, he had no stage presence, like a big bear lurching across the stage. I was playing the maracas and like crawling around between his legs. I look over and see Chris Stein [of Blondie] had something in his hand, and it was a pickle. He threw it at me and hit me right in the nuts, and I went down. [he laughs, and I laugh] But Lester was really pissed at me because it was a serious night for him. But Lester was bad…he wasn’t a rock star. I was like, “let’s go pick up chics, let’s get laid” and Lester was like, “How can you talk about women like that?”… “cause I’m 19.” It was like being with somebody’s father. But I liked Lester anyway. He really could write about rock and roll. He got a lot of things wrong, he was too politically correct, but I liked him. Creem magazine was responsible for turning a lot of people on to Iggy and the MC5. Lester turned a lot of people on to a lot of stuff. I think John even read about the Dictators in Creem. Lester got bitter though. If I still had to write about rock and roll, I would be bitter. He took rock and roll as a religion, I think it really came from that 7th Day Adventist stuff, and he really believed rock and roll would change everything.

GLONO:

How has your perspective changed over the past 27 years?

Legs:

It’s like if for the rest of your life everybody wanted to talk about your high school graduating class. I’m forever known as this cartoon character, I’ve covered wars in El Salvador, but I’ll always be known as the punk guy.

GLONO:

Despite trying to convince me that he knows nothing about music (and he didn’t convince me), he humored me by answering my barrage of questions about punk rock…

Why do you think American punk is better than British punk?

Legs:

[long pause] I don’t know…it was more boring here, more angst here, and you had nothing but Donnie and Marie. The English rock scene has always been more vital, I mean England has two weekly rock magazines. And the punk scene here was virtually ignored for years.

GLONO:

Do you think punk music even exists today?

Legs:

Sure I do. 13-year-old kids can start a punk band, and it’s as valid as anything I ever did. I don’t have to like it, but that doesn’t make it invalid. The great thing about punk is that it gave people more room – before you could only be a hippie or a jock, but now you can go out and experiment, you know dye your hair green. I mean the Talking Heads were as different from Television, were as different from Patti Smith, etc. But the only thing I had ever heard when I named the magazine was the Dictator’s album. Punk was just everything we liked, part Mad magazine, part Creem. We merged bad TV, rock and roll, comics, and that weird music of the New York Dolls, etc. And then it became a catch phrase.

GLONO:

Is there anything around today that would blow anyone away, like say Iggy and the Stooges did in the 70s?

Legs:

If there is, I haven’t heard it. John gets stuff that’s good. It’s harder to get stuff out there because of MTV, etc., everything is bought up…like in Josie and the Pussycats “Orange is the new pink.”

GLONO:

Has the “mall-ification” of punk completely dilluted the music?

Legs:

It takes really damaged people to make good rock and roll, the best rock musicians are the most fucked up, look at Kurt Cobain. But when rock and roll became a viable career, all these square guys got into it. Like Rolling Stone never has rock stars on the cover any more, they’ve got actors, because all the rock stars are boring. Everybody now is playing for all the other 13-year-old kids, it’s about hair and fashion, but it’s always been like that. What really appealed to me about punk was that the lyrics were so good, like it could have been literature.

GLONO:

And he said later that he always thought the music they were listening to and what they were doing with Punk were very commercial, “I thought the Ramones were the next Beatles, I couldn’t believe they couldn’t sell albums.”

What bands do you listen to now?

Legs:

I’ve been listening to a band called Broadcast from England…Do you mean new stuff?…I had to write about music for a living, and it became a drag, and it’s been nice to discover it again. When I worked at Spin, I had to write about stuff I didn’t like, like Gene Loves Jezebel. Who wants to write about Gene Loves Jezebel? And Bobby kept putting Bon Jovi on the cover. So I mainly wrote the stuff about crime and war. I don’t know anything about music. Please Kill Me isn’t about music. I’ve always liked crime more, I was more of a criminal. I was more of a punk. John wasn’t a punk, he was good student. But John liked causing trouble, too. He wanted to cause real trouble.

GLONO:

We talked about his well-known book, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, published in 1996:

Legs:

Writing Please Kill Me was really cathartic because it was emotionally what is was like to be there. There were a lot of parts that should have been in there that weren’t – like the Cramps, but we couldn’t find those guys, don’t know where they hang out, where are those guys? And we had to stop somewhere.

In Please Kill Me, there is no narrator so the reader is forced to judge for himself. I love the passage where I make fun of myself, “I thought a punk was someone who took it up the ass…” Who wants to be that guy? Dave Marsh can be that guy…but no one called it “punk” because of his review.

GLONO:

I asked about my personal favorite passage in Please Kill Me, where Duncan Hannah quotes Danny Fields saying, “All musicians are assholes”, and he explained how this passage was really the crux of the book:

Legs:

It was true. They ARE great, and they’re human beings too, they have failings just like everyone else. What the book shows is that everyone was really great and they could also be jerks. That’s what makes the book not like your usual rock and roll book. That’s what I don’t like about most rock and roll books is that they’re written by fans and so they lionize them, but I wanna read about ‘em being creepy.

GLONO:

Were you surprised by the success of the book?

Legs:

I didn’t think the book would sell. It just kind of exploded, and then everybody had something to say about it and something to say about me. It sells even better now than when it came out. It was nice that it was word of mouth. It’s the ultimate bathroom book, it’s the kind of thing you see in someone’s bathroom, pick it up, and then you can’t put it down…it’s very accessible. But people criticized us because they said we just “cut and pasted.”

GLONO:

Legs said that despite being part of what was going on at the time, he ran into a few surprises putting together the book, like the story line of Danny Fields, ultimately bringing Nico to LA, and Nico ending up living in the Stooges’ attic making brownies for Ron and Scotty Asheton… But, he said, “I always like it when my preconceived notions are shattered.”

What do you think about the role of women in punk rock, thinking about groupie Sable Starr on the one hand and rocker Patti Smith on the other?

Legs:

It was interesting at that time, the only thing you could be was a groupie, and then you had Tina Weymouth and Patti Smith and others who said, “I wanna be on stage.” And there were other things going on at that time, the gay movement, women’s liberation, the end of Vietnam…women had choices, they could either be a groupie and fuck every guy or play bass in a band. Neither one was right or wrong. Now they would say Sable Starr was acting out, she had issues, but then it wasn’t so politically correct.

GLONO:

We talked about Patti Smith, the negative perceptions associated with her portrayal in Please Kill Me, and how she didn’t embody typical feminine ideals but was also sexy.

Legs:

People said it wasn’t balanced about Patti Smith, that there were more bad things said about her than other people. But I went through and counted the passages, and there were equal bad things said about everybody. It’s because she’s a woman. If Patti spits on stage, she’s a cunt, if a guy does, it’s cool.

GLONO:

And he talked about another female rocker representing many of the same ideals:

Legs:

Everybody talks about Patti Smith, but Debbie Harry…she hung out at CBGBs too. I remember her giving people rides in her Mustang. She could hold her own with anybody. She was sharp.

GLONO:

What do you think about Courtney Love?

Legs:

I like that record Live Through This. But I’m glad I don’t know her, I don’t like to meet rock musicians. There’s probably good and bad, there’s truth to everything. I’m sure she’s just as fucked up as everyone else. I was surprised by her new album, people say she didn’t write it, didn’t want to give her credit for it, but it’s got her name on it…I don’t know…It’s too easy to demonize her, seems like a cheap shot. I don’t believe most of it, I don’t believe she murdered her husband. The album was quite good, one of the better albums lately. And she did a good job in that movie about Larry Flint.

GLONO:

Legs has retired from writing about music for the moment. His latest project was a Court TV program documenting the pornography industry in America, and he is putting together a book telling the story of pornography, in the same way Please Kill Me did for punk rock. Titled The Other Hollywood, he says he is supposed to give Harper Collins a final copy September 1, 2002. He is currently working on an excerpt for Vanity Fair describing an undercover FBI investigation of the pornography industry in Miami that happened between 1977 and 1980. I asked what led him from writing about punk rock to writing about the porn industry, and he said:

Legs:

Once I finished Please Kill Me, I felt I had captured New York in the 70s, and NY had turned into a place I didn’t like. Pornography is a story that describes America Post WWII. Like Please Kill Me doesn’t have any music in it, the Other Hollywood doesn’t have any porn, the stories are much more interesting.

GLONO:

What was it like writing about a culture of which you were an outsider, vs. Please Kill Me, where you were a part of it?

Legs:

I wanted to immerse myself in a world where I was a complete outsider. I had to get them to trust me, convince them that I was doing something interesting. Quoting Walter Kendrick, from Secret Museum, a history of porn through-out the ages: “Porn doesn’t describe a thing, it’s an argument” – like race, everybody has an opinion but nobody really knows what it is.

GLONO:

Legs pontificated a little on pornography, what it means, and it’s inherent problems:

Legs:

The problem with pornography is that it’s a lie. Real relationships have real problems. And pornography isn’t sexy. Pornography isn’t sexy for women, and its not really for guys either or they wouldn’t turn it off as soon as they came, but guys are more visually stimulated. The problem with me and pornography is that I don’t really think the girl wants to fuck the guy.

GLONO:

You mean the girl doesn’t really wanna fuck the pizza guy?

Legs:

No. But we hold pornography to higher standards than other things, most television is crap, most books are crap, most films are crap. And there are some really incredible porn films.

GLONO:

Like what?

Legs:

Andrew Blake’s “House of Dreams,” the Dirty Debutantes series, the Barely Legal series.

GLONO:

Do you think there are any similarities between pornography and punk rock?

Legs:

Yeah, it’s the same kind of pseudo star world, people do recognize these people. Ron Jeremy was on the Simpsons, and Joey Ramone was on the Simpsons. I like writing about desperation and desperate people, and I like writing stories that haven’t been told before.

GLONO:

So what’s his next story? Legs said he didn’t know.

7 thoughts on “Please Kill Me! Interview with Legs McNeil”

  1. I have to agree. I find the Dirty Debutantes series and the Barely Legal series to be consistantly two of the most watchable lines of porn films. It’s almost like they put out a new Debutantes tape everytime I go to rent a movie.That’s cool.

  2. Nice job, Helen! I like how frank this interview is. It gives a new angle on Lester Bangs– that he was more politically correct than the other guys, and the line about him being like somebody’s father. So maybe the portrayal in Almost Famous was bang-on. Also, Legs saying it takes really damaged people to make good rock and roll. That’s a romantic view but I think it’s true. I mean not always, ya know, but reading about people like Mark Eitzel and Paul Westerberg, these guys are major depressives who have battled demons all their lives. I know, they’re not “punk,” but to me the word punk and the attitudes surrounding it have sometimes created a reverse snobbery. I guess that’s an oft-made point so I won’t go on about it.

  3. Nice article..I’m currently reading Please Kill Me so I kind of zoned in on it when i saw “Legs McNeil Interview” amongst the other stories. He’s a very very interesting person, but I also think someone should cover Gillian McCain. After all, she wrote Please Kill Me as well, you just don’t see the women’s perspective much; not to bitch but Legs nailed it when he said that Debbie Harry could hold her own as good as anyone else and if a guy spits it’s cool but when Patti Smith does it she’s being a cunt. It’s not really Legs that is giving Patti the bad stigma, there’s some real assholes who are interviewed. But that’s why the book is so great. Go pick it up.

  4. dear mr mcneil. if thats ur real name. myspace lied to me and said u were 52!! but im watching u, u are 32!!!

    U CANT HIDE THE TRUTH!!! LIERRRRR but i still love ur books except the porn…my homie dog G karla does not approve of it.

    good day

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