WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Writer and "resident punk" Legs McNeil came to D.C. to set the record straight on, among other things, the New York punk scene: The Ramones were not cuddly, they were psychopaths. Massive amounts of sex flowed freely. And the smack and other drugs, in still more massive amounts, flowed even more freely.
"It was great," said McNeil without a second thought.
Wayne Kramer, former guitarist for the MC5, came with McNeil to Olsson's
Books and Music on Friday Sept. 12 to do a reading in celebration of the paperback edition of McNeil's punk tome, Please Kill Me (1996). Kramer, who was a key source for the book, had a different record to set straight, and he did it, as is only fitting, with his guitar. Opening up the event with solo renditions of his songs "Revolution in Apt. 29" and "No Easy Way" out, Kramer anticipated the stories ahead -- replete with substance use and naive militancy -- as if to say, "Yeah, that's how it was, but I'm not stuck in those times."
Compiled by McNeil with Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me features
finely interwoven accounts of the 1970s scene in N.Y.C., taken from more than
500 hours of interviews. While the book expectedly extols the period's
energy, it also recounts a wealth of episodes of desperate living. As
Kramer read his own recollections from the book, his ever-examining face
demonstrated his ability to live with his past and his present. Meanwhile, McNeil -- co-founder of Punk magazine and the man generally acknowledged
with applying the term "punk rock" to the mid-'70s New York scene bands -- did more reveling in the past than
distancing from it, and, in the process, shined some firsthand light on
what is, for many younger music fans, an almost mythical time.
At times the author 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," McNeil said during a question and answer
session. "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, he said. "These guys were fucking nuts."
For the reading, McNeil wisely chose 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. While Kramer's readings
were insightful as living first-hand accounts, McNeil's performance was
enjoyable because the chief interviewer animatedly re-enacted the memories of his subjects, from radical activist Abbie Hoffman to MC5 guru John Sinclair to king misfit Iggy Pop.
He 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 storytelling and comic timing.
During the Q&A, 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, he injected his own recollections into
the discussion of punk's beginnings to set straight misconceptions and
underscore ugly realities.
Hence McNeil's distinction between the real, TV-tossing,
knife-wielding Ramones with the manufactured the Sex Pistols. It's
in that longing for the real in punk (as it is 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." [Sat., Sept. 20,
1997, 9 a.m. PST]