Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil wrote the quintessential oral history of punk. They popularized an underrated form of writing and used it to tell the story of an era through the people who actually lived it. It was an infamous time in music that personified the very essence of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and forever lay the blueprint for countless other musicians to follow.
From poet to punk historian, Gillian McCain has become an icon through her ability to tell the stories that need to be told. Over twenty years after “Please Kill Me: the Uncensored Oral History of Punk,” McCain reflects on her career and why the world needs more oral histories.
Before you wrote Please Kill Me, your career began in poetry. What drew you to writing poetry?
I kind of fell into poetry cause I had a boyfriend who dumped me, and he thought he was quite a poet, and I just wanted to get back at him. So I started writing poems, and I just got into it. I moved to New York and got involved with the Poetry Project, got some encouragement and started studying under this poet Larry Fagin. I love it, but I don’t consider myself a poet. I consider myself a writer.
How did you get involved with Please Kill Me?
Legs was working on a book with Dee Dee Ramone, and it just became unmanageable. The whole time I’d been saying to him this book is so much bigger than the Ramones. You were at that scene. This should be a oral history of that whole scene. I’d been reading all the interviews he’d been doing and encouraging him, so when he wanted to do it with me I didn’t hesitate at all.
Did you know what you were getting yourself into?
I knew it was gonna be really hard because of the scope of it. And I knew Legs well enough to know he’s not the easiest person in the world. I think I knew it was gonna be really hard, but I didn’t realize it was gonna be as hard as it was. We did the book before the internet so it wasn’t like we could go put someone’s name in Facebook and maybe find them. We had to like really find them.
From Vaseline bars to Rikers Island, and all the sex and drugs in between, why did you think people felt free to be so candid with you?
If people didn’t know Legs, they knew of him or people who knew him and knew he’s been in that scene so he knew what was going on. So there was a familiarity there. Then I think it was a good mixture with me, who wasn’t in that scene. Because in an oral history you have to get people to say everything, even stuff they’ve said a hundred times before. So then they can tell things to me like I’m a beginner.
Legs was serious that no one thought the book was gonna come out. Punk hadn’t had a resurgence then. We’re good interviewers together. We don’t take questions in. It’s very conversational and we’re open to the story. We don’t come in with an agenda for the story. We’re learning what the story is through every interview. If someone else starts talking about the same event, you’re like “oh ok this is very important.”
There were so many incidents recounted in this book that most people might not know about, like Valerie Solanas shooting Andy Warhol.
You should read Edie. Because the book we were most inspired by was this book about Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. And it was an oral history. We just both loved that book. That kind of bonded our friendship. We just couldn’t understand why people didn’t do more oral histories. Just to jump back, what was so great was our book kind of begins in Edie world and then takes off into the future. So you could almost see them as continuations. At this point we both had the same publishers of the book, so that’s really cool.
How did publishers react to the book?
Well, I had to go through a legal read. I think there was only one or two things we had to take out. We had a meeting early on and the editor said all this sex stuff is superfluous and we should take it out, this groupie stuff. And Legs just like banged his hands on the table, was like,“That is not going out of the book.” I mean, it was such an important part of the story.
Would there be rock and roll without sex and drugs?
Good question. I don’t think there would be. When you think about Elvis, it was all about sex. Unfortunately the drugs didn’t work well for him.
What kind of affect did writing a book of this magnitude have on you?
It was incredible to meet all those people. I felt like I was born ten years too late, so I got to live kind of vicariously through the scene that I was so fascinated by. So that felt really good. And I always wanted to be in a rock band, but I had no talent. So this kind of took the place, I kinda made an album. And then we went on a book tour, which was like a rock tour. So I got a lot out of my system.
But I was really exhausted after. It took me a couple years to recover. My mother died right when I started, and then my brother died six months after the book came out. So it was just like, those three things, I just didn’t get much done for about a decade. I was just recovering.
How did you manage to get through writing this book after going through such a devastating loss?
It was great, after my mom died, to have something to just throw myself into. I was still kind of numb that it was almost good. I was a little bit of a roboton. So I was just like, gotta do this, gotta do that. I’m glad I had a big project.
You got to interview some of the most iconic women in rock history like Debbie Harry and Patti Smith. What was it like for women in such a male dominated scene?
Well I think it’s hard in any industry. What Legs has said, and a lot of the men said, it was kinda the first time that they know of where men and women were really just friends. Like they just hung out. And also, you could have sex with someone kind of casually and then just become really great buddies with them. I just felt that Patti Smith and Debbie Harry are so iconic and they broke a lot of barriers, but I’m sure it was really hard for them. Especially Debbie Harry cause she just became famous all over the world so quickly, and she was such a beauty. I think she just, from what I’ve heard, just got completely overwhelmed.
Who was your favorite person to interview?
Iggy! He’s such a good interviewer and he’s so much more attractive in person. He’s just smart and witty and funny. He was definitely one of my faves. We did him near the end because we wanted to be able to go into the interview and just have him feel like we knew the whole story.
How did you handle the people who weren’t as pleasant to interview?
Well, we’re lucky that within oral history there’s just so many people to interview, and you just kinda get through the interview. I interviewed this guy Al Aronowitz, who introduced Bob Dylan to the Beatles. He’d been a rock journalist. He was older, he was probably in his late 70’s, and I had him do a reading at the Poetry Project. He was such a gentleman. Then he came over to my apartment and he was just like crude, swearing all the time. I just couldn’t believe it. So afterwards Legs was like how’s the interview, and I was like it was just awful. But then we got it transcribed and then it’s like this is unbelievable! If you read the first chapter, he’s in there. His crudeness really just makes the chapter rock. So you can think an interview is really bad and then you look at it later and then it’s pretty good.
Why was it important for you to tell the story of this era in music?
I felt like it’d been kind of ignored. There had been one really great book that had come out called England Dreaming which was mainly about the Sex Pistols, and I love that book. But Legs and I both agreed that punk had started in New York, not England, so we wanted to get that story straight. For me personally, because I have no talent in music, the next best thing would be to write a great rock book, right?
I think punk was just kind of ignored and then once our book came out, about the same time all this synergy happened; Sex Pistols got back together, Patti Smith came out of hiding. I mean, it was such an important part of rock and roll history.
Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose was a book you’d written straight from the pages of Mary Rose’s journal, a teen who lived a tragic life and sadly passed away from cystic fibrosis. How did her friend approach you about these journal entries?
Well, we found out later that she had kind of thought it out. She really hoped that we’d do the book. But Legs had just asked her what are you reading, and she just kind of tossed in casually about Mary Rose’s journals. So Legs was like’ oh that sounds great.’ Her mother let us read them. I just read like ten pages and I knew I had to do this as a book. It was so important, this girl would’ve been such a great writer, and she had such a shit life. It just made me really happy it came out.
She wrote these right before social media. If there’d been social media, there’ be no book.
69 is the title of your latest project, an oral history which documents the music scene on Los Angeles’s famous Sunset Blvd. Where are you now in the process of writing this book?
It kind of starts between ’65 and goes to ’70. The part we just finished is kind of surf music merging into the Birds and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Then you’ve got Terry Melcher, who’s Doris Day’s son, who’s producing the Birds and Paul Revere. He moves into this house in Benedict Canyon, the house that the Manson murders happened in. So it’s like all these threads of these different six degrees of separation. So it’s not just about music, it’s about the counter culture.
We’ve been working on it on and off for ten years and before that I was just working on it, but I didn’t know. You know when you just get obsessed with something, so you’re reading everything, but I didn’t know eventually I’d be doing a book about it. So for me it’s been more like twenty years working on it.
You’ve had so much success with Please Kill Me. Over twenty years since it’s original release, what do you think makes it as relevant today as it was two decades ago?
It’s just amazing. I just think it’s inspiring to younger people who read it. I’ve met a lot of people who say I moved to New York cause of that book. I think it just seems like famous can just kinda happen in weird ways and organically. Look, for example when the Ramones started out, they wanted to be a Bay City Rollers cover band basically. But they couldn’t play the songs. So that’s how their songs came out of things.
The book makes things seem possible.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Oral history and poetry. I feel like we’ve really popularized, I wouldn’t say this if other people hadn’t said it, the oral history form. Cause before Edie, not a lot of people were doing this. People were doing oral history, but it was more as things to put in college archives for historians to use. But not many people were taking just pure oral history and making a narrative out of it. So I’m very proud of that.
Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil have done what few others have done and set the bar for the way oral history should be written. Every page takes you deeper and deeper into the fabric of someone else’s existence, freezing a moment of time and making it relatable. We get to live vicariously through our icons and experience their life through their words. McCain and McNeil have succeeded in bridging the gap between the past and the present, ensuring that the stories we need to hear never go untold.