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Inventing Punk

PLEASE KILL ME
The Uncensored Oral History of Punk
By Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
Grove Press

Punk was a musical movement that reacted against the pastoral sentimentality, expressionistic excess, and superstar bloat of '60s rock with short, fast, hard, acerbic songs. It was also a subculture that scornfully rejected the political idealism and Californian flower-power silliness of hippie myth. Both strands first surfaced not in Great Britain, where punk became a cause celebre as of late 1976, but in the lower Manhattan of the early '70s. Please Kill Me concentrates on the second. Constructed entirely of excerpted interviews with several hundred principals, this is an immensely entertaining portrait of a bohemia. It bills itself as "uncensored" because it never stints on dish, cheerfully laying out what the nosy want to know--including, by my rough count, 100 sexual liaisons and 30 individually identified heroin users, with cameos for a panoply of alcoholic beverages and just about every mind-altering substance then known. Sex and drugs and rock and roll--always a potent combo.

If this description makes you sniff, skip Please Kill Me, as well as the dozen or two excellent-to-epochal albums that are the direct legacy of a scene whose influence is now ascendent. All are probably too cheap for your blood. As a devotee of these musical works who got married and gave up pot before the punk era even began, I didn't find the sleazy connections the authors hammer home altogether comforting myself. And I was fascinated nonetheless. In part the book's appeal is sheer voyeurism. But having witnessed Dee Dee Ramone pounding his bass at dozens of shows, cried out at Richard Lloyd's string-punishing solos with Television, and learned to hear Richard Hell's zigzagging Blank Generation as a triumph of the life-force, I found these tales of unholy madness and drug-fueled abandon all too thought-provoking.

Scene-sucking photographer-manager Leee Black Childers can sum up an early Iggy Pop sighting easily enough: "It was so sexual, so outrageous, it was so un-allowed! To me, that's what rock and roll should always come down to--the un-allowed." But if you believe rock and roll is bigger than this humongous cliche, you have to wonder how such rich music can proceed from such mean and messy lives. You have to wonder how it came to be that three of your favorite musicians were notorious heroin addicts expert at trading their small-time celebrity and personal charm for a quick fix.

Basically, McNeil and McCain go along with Childers. I attribute their know-nothing bias to McNeil, who has been pumping some version of it since his tour of duty as "Resident Punk" at the short-lived but justly influential Punk magazine, which he named. What he didn't name but would like us to think he did was punk rock, a term that had long been floating around rock criticism--especially at the Detroit-based Creem, one of many non-Punk publications whose impact on the scene Please Kill Me minimizes by virtual omission.

Even more than most oral histories, Please Kill Me imposes arguments on its materials. McNeil hates the idea that his bohemia was homophobic, and on this he is fairly convincing--gay men were clearly numerous and taken for granted in bands and behind the scenes, and a famous brawl involving the transvestite rocker Wayne County ends up looking like his fault. The defense of punk's flirtation with Nazi imagery is also plausible. More difficult to credit is the suggestion that this almost entirely white scene wasn't at least as racist as any other, especially after Punk magazine's founding genius, John Holmstrom, climaxes the presentation with a pronunciamento worthy of David Duke: "I always thought, if you're black and you want to be hip you're a Black Panther. . . . And you carry a gun. That's what I thought was cool. And if you're white, you're like us. You don't try to be black."

Probably because Please Kill Me has no use for artistic transcendence, certain visionaries--including Television's self-consciously poetic Tom Verlaine, drummer-theoretician Tommy Ramone, and David Byrne of Talking Heads, who is slagged by McNeil for his "yuppie whine"--are virtually absent, while the members of the Dead Boys, who have devoted their lives to the pathetic illusion that they were unsuccessful only because they were un-allowed, mouth on for pages. But most of the interviewees are engaging talkers, as the likes of the late drummer Jerry Nolan and the irrepressible poet-rocker-mystic-comedian Patti Smith proved long ago in material skillfully recycled here. And quite a few in-crowd obscurities finally get their due as masters of improvised narrative and analysis--such as hyperintelligent guitarist Bob Quine, unjudgmental participant-observer Mary Harron, mistress to the stars Bebe Buell, and urbane scenemaster Danny Fields, the Warhol Factory hand and teenmag editor who ended up managing the Stooges and the Ramones and getting this gossipfest dedicated to him.

As Please Kill Me would have it, punk's dissolute utopia wasn't killed solely by substance abuse, about which it grows properly grave by the close, or by the quest for fame among dull suburban teens and other people Legs McNeil doesn't like. There were also those English posers convincing the world that they had invented punk rock. I agree that punk crystallized in New York, but it's myopic boosterism to imply that the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and their progeny weren't as momentous and valid as our bands. Moreover, Fields's reasonable complaint that the instant onslaught of the Pistols "had nothing to do with anything musical" leaves open the question of just exactly what kind of music punk rock was. But for an answer you'll have to resort to Clinton Heylin's stodgier and stupider but more serious From the Velvets to the Voidoids, which quotes the principals on very little else. Please Kill Me's lowbrow narrative strategy can only offer fatuous assertions to the effect that punk "was just rock & roll. We weren't taking the music anywhere new."

In fact, punk was so new that its formal ideas remain fruitful to this day. It distilled from the heedless drive and abrasive electric guitars of the "just rock & roll" of the '50s and '60s a bravely imagined popular response--angry, hilarious, incisive, any two, all three, and more--to post-industrial desperation. That desperation was enough to drive some of its creators to self-destruction. Others merely bulled or romped or joked or muddled or suffered through. But every one was possessed by a musical intuition. And the product of that intuition was and remains an antidote to desperation for all of us with ears to hear it.

New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1996