Punk Pioneers Tell It Like It Was (Sing It Like It Is)

Wayne Kramer appropriately opens reading of Please Kill Me with a few new punk tunes.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- How appropriate it was for former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer to preface his reading with Legs McNeil of Please Kill Me with renditions of new songs such as "Revolution in Apt. 29" and "No Easy Way Out."

The two men came to Olsson's Books & Music in Washington D.C. last Friday to celebrate the recent paperback edition of Please Kill Me. The book itself is a celebration of sorts.

Compiled by McNeil with Gillian McCain, it features finely interwoven accounts of the 1970s New York punk scene, taken from more than 500 hours of interviews. At the same time it extols the period's energy, it also recounts a wealth of episodes of desperate living. Thus by performing "Apt. 29" (a stinging indictment of radical chic) and "No Easy Way Out" (a grateful redemption song), Kramer did not distance himself from the old days so much as he updated the audience of 40 people on where he is now.

For his part, McNeil -- co-founder of Punk magazine and the generally acknowledged coiner of the term "punk rock" -- did more reveling than distancing, and, in the process, shined some firsthand light on what is, for many younger music fans, an almost mythical time.

At times McNeil was somewhat humorous when he tried to be serious, as when

he contrasted the current "cutesy" image of the Ramones with the group's

less than cuddly beginnings.

"People hated the Ramones," he said. "I thought they were like the Beatles. And the Ramones thought they were the Beatles too. It's just that no one else did... But the Ramones were all psychopaths. They were the real thing. Johnny threw TV sets off buildings onto people's heads in Queens; Dee Dee was a male hustler; Joey had been hospitalized for schizophrenia. These guys were fucking nuts."

McNeil wisely chose to read from a background chapter that detailed the

MC5's birth as well as the band's legendary appearance at the disastrous

1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Kramer naturally read his

own recollections from the book, while McNeil assumed the chapter's other

voices.

McNeil's performance was enjoyable not simply because the chief

interviewer animatedly re-enacted the memories of his subjects, from radical activist Abbie Hoffman to John Sinclair to king Misfit Iggy Pop; his reading also helped fans to appreciate how painstaking a job it was to cull the appropriate passages from the question and answer sessions, seamlessly editing them to create a smooth, engaging narrative. Section-closing sentences such as the one in which Pop assesses the import of the MC5 -- "So they were a decent bunch of guys -- a nice bunch of guys to have around to blow up your local CIA recruiting office" -- are evidence of McNeil's fine sense of both

storytelling and comic timing.

Following their reading, McNeil and Kramer solicited questions from the

audience. McNeil briefly discussed several upcoming projects, including a

collaboration with Kramer on the guitarist's biography, a film of Please

Kill Me, and histories of Pepsi and porn (working title: Please

Blow Me).

More interestingly, McNeil injected his own recollections into the discussion of punk's beginnings to set straight misconceptions and underscore ugly realities.

It's in that longing for the real in punk (as with hip-hop),

however, that McNeil could be scary in his wistful recounting. Asked

whether he thought the New York scene was defined by destruction, McNeil

danced around the question with queries of his own.

He then added, "I think it's hard to believe how much drugs and how much sex was going on. And that's why we did the book -- to say to you guys, 'You missed it.' It was great." [Wed., Sept. 17, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]