Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Grove Press; August 9, 2016; 512 pgs; $17; 978-0-8021-2536-1)
Please Kill Me weaves together interviews from a who’s who of punk and those from many lesser-known key figures to create a flowing narrative that details the rise and fall of the punk movement in New York City. What this book is: an origin story of the punk movement told through the people who were on the scene. What this book isn’t: An encyclopedia of punk rock. You won’t find too much on the London scene that isn’t from a New Yorker’s perspective and you definitely won’t find anything on the West Coast punk scene, either.
Please Kill Me traces punk’s roots all the way back to the Warhol factory scene with The Velvet Underground and Nico. In fact, Nico is posited as punk’s Typhoid Mary and her tryst with Iggy Pop in Ann Arbor a catalyst for The Stooges, whose inevitable descent upon New York City continued the music’s spread. The band’s raw sound and savage stage shows inspired the likes of Patti Smith and Alan Vega, and Dee Dee Ramone to make music of their own that challenged themselves as performers and challenged audiences. Before long, artists, musicians, drag queens, and everyone in between began mingling in places like Max’s Kansas City and eventually, CBGB’s.
Inspired by Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s oral history of Warhol Factory Superstar, Edie Sedgwick, Edie: American Girl, Please Kill Me was initially conceived as Dee Dee Ramone’s autobiography. However, upon listening to the interview transcripts of others close to Dee Dee for McNeil’s initial project, it was clear to friend and future coauthor Gillian McCain that there was a larger story to be told at the heart of Dee Dee’s book. McNeil urged McCain to join the project and Please Kill Me was born.
20 years ago, The New York Times’ Robert Christgau criticized Please Kill Me for not exploring the technical side of the music, but I just don’t see those elements fitting into a book like this. I think a more technical look at the music would be jarring in what is clearly an exploration the evolution of punk within the larger context of an artistic period in history. In fact, I think one of the most impressive aspects of this book is just how deep it explores the interconnectedness of the punk scene with the New York Art World (Warhol, Duncan Hannah, along with photographers Bob Gruen, Marcia Resnick, and Robert Mapplethorpe) the counterculture revolutionaries of the hippie movement (John Sinclair and the MC5), Hollywood groupie set (Lori Maddox, Sable Starr, Bebe Buell), the poetry scene at St. Mark’s Church (Gerard Malanga, Jim Carroll, Ed Friedman), and John Vaccaro’s Theater of the Ridiculous with Times square dancers, prostitutes, and hustlers. Some of whom were one and the same.
Iggy Pop shares his sharp and hilarious perspective while his fellow Stooges and MC5’s Wayne Kramer share plenty of Iggy’s own candid misadventures. Not to mention, the dirt on his life-long bromance with David Bowie. We also meet Danny Fields, a fascinating central figure in his own right. This man had to be such a thrilling interview subject as he mixed with the Warhol crowd, worked as “company freak” at Elektra records discovering The Doors, the MC5, The Stooges, and also managed The Ramones. On a side note, I still need to watch his documentary, Danny Says. Speaking of The Ramones, there’s lots of fun stuff in here from those guys, too.
Christgau also criticized the book for showing a regional bias and for trivializing the contributions of the Sex Pistols and The Clash. I think these criticisms are only a testament to the book’s unflinching candor. It is an uncensored oral history and the people expressing these views are not without their own biases and blind spots. Of course, a large part of what makes punk so enduring is how personal this music has become to its fans. Conversely, getting the real story of how punk started and spread despite mainstream indifference makes it that much easier to understand how the music eventually splintered off into so many different regional flavors.
Please Kill Me is an engaging and juicy read. It’s not a traditional music book, as it doesn’t spend much time in the studio although Iggy and The Stooges do touch briefly on their influences and early musical experiments. I think this book succeeds at examining the birth and evolution of the New York Punk scene (along with its inevitable decay) within a larger historical sense while also shedding light on what the New York guys were doing and thinking at the time. It’s not an all-encompassing punk guide but a great starting point for anyone interested in the music since there’s plenty of meat on the bone (The Stooges, The New York Dolls, The Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, to name a few) along with tons of lesser-known bands to feast your ears on.
I would invite Robert Christgau to revisit Please Kill Me to see if his initial impressions of the book still hold true, especially with all the other punk books that have hit shelves within the past 20 years. At the very least, he could to check out the updated info, the new bonus pics and the afterword by the authors on how to write an oral history based on Jean Stein and Ed Plimpton’s approach to Edie: American Girl and American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy. Please Kill Me is also credited for reviving the oral history genre as new oral histories documenting everything from TV shows and films to Homestar Runner. 20 years later, Please Kill Me is the gift that keeps on giving.
Shanley, Michael “A conversation with Gillian McCain, co-author of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk”, pghcitypaper.com, 13 Jul. 2016, web
Christgau, Robert “All the Young Punks”, nytimes.com, 28, Jul. 1996, web
Hughes, William “Read This: An oral history of Homestar Runner doubles as a history of the internet“, avclub.com, 25 Jan. 2017, web