Wednesday, May 25, 2011

When Punk Rock Was Dangerous: A Review of “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk”

Reading “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk” is like living through a time I wasn’t alive to see. The early punk scene has always fascinated me, ever since I spun my father’s Ramones, Stooges, Clash and Sex Pistols records when I was twelve. When I discovered punk, I fell in love with it. I felt the music and the movement were created just for me. It was such an intense connection. Punk became not just a kind of music, but a prism through which I saw the world in a different way. Its pioneers, history, ethics and attitude made a tremendous impact on me as a teenager, an impact I am still feeling today. And this has to be the best book I’ve read on the subject.

“Please Kill Me,” named after a bulls eye T-shirt that Richard Hell wore on the Lower East Side, is a voyeuristic journey of sex, drugs, rock & roll and self-destruction. Reading it is like getting drunk and punched in the face at CBGBs. You get all the good, and all the bad. All the rock, and all the puke and piss. Seriously, insanity lives in between the covers of this book. There are no introductions, no back story, no footnotes. “Please Kill Me” is just rockers, groupies and artists talking about the old days. All you get are their names: Alan Vega, Nico, Lou Reed, Dee Dee Ramone, Malcom McLaren. And the rest is just the transcript of these recorded conversations. So the words spat onto the pages are raw and dense. It’s gritty stuff. And there’s something in this book to offend everyone.

Much of the book focuses on the New York rock and roll scene in the late 60s and early 70s, probably because that’s what the book’s editor Legs McNeil knows best. He was editor of Punk Magazine and a permanent resident of New York rock chaos. I say rock and roll because, to be honest, I feel the title of this book is a bit misleading. This isn’t a book about the history of punk. Sure, some punk bands are featured, but a large portion of the book is spent recalling the drug-fueled escapades of bands like the Velvet Underground, MC5, Iggy and the Stooges and others. I guess some people call these bands punk, but I view them as a kind of bridge between sixties rock and roll and the explosion of punk in the late 70s and early 80s. There’s some really great stuff in here about the Clash and the Sex Pistols. But this book stops right at the beginning of the LA hardcore punk scene, the emergence of New York hardcore and the British punk bands that would go on to define the punk ethic: Sham 69, the Cockney Rejects, Crass, etc. Instead, more time is given to earlier pre-punk bands like the Doors and MC5. It’s still fascinating, even if it’s a bit odd that a book on punk starts in 1967.

The content of this book is a product of Legs McNeil’s belief that punk was a strictly regional phenomenon. It was a bunch of New York junkies, vagabonds and provocateurs who all knew each other and did whatever they wanted to. He claims, even by quoting himself in the book, that “punk” is dead. (I hate it the phrase “punk is dead.” Heres my take on that shit.) It was a small cadre of chaotic New York musicians and fans, and as soon as it wasn’t that, it was dead. He also believes the Sex Pistols played a major role in killing it.

First of all, McNeil’s definition of punk is far too narrow. It wasn’t something he invented, and it isn’t his, even if he did play a part in coining the term as it related to music. Art forms are not items to be possessed and controlled. And, unfortunately, McNeil is too self-absorbed in his own place in the punk narrative to realize that punk was so much more than him and his friends getting wasted and breaking things. A lot of the New York punks quoted here decried the Sex Pistols as being opportunistic nihilist jerks (which they most certainly were). But they didn’t single-handedly destroy punk. The Pistols don’t deserve that much credit. They were a bunch of talentless, attention-seeking wimps who enjoyed causing a fuss and getting on the front page. McNeil and others in the New York scene seem to defend media stunts by Iggy and the Stooges, the New York Dolls and Patti Smith but then denounce the Sex Pistols for doing the exact same thing. So, even while this book contains interviews with dozens of people, it is essentially a one-sided view of punk rock, a view from New York’s Lower East Side. And McNeil is no unbiased source, that’s for sure.

So, I think of this book as the story of punk’s early foundations. Of course, this is all just academic shit. Point is: the book is awesome. And if it tried to encompass the entirety of early punk rock, it would fail miserably anyway.

It’s fascinating to hear the way musicians speak, as they are so focused on rhythm and pacing and tone in their art. So the flow of the prose, combined with this hardcore, no-bullshit language, is incredible to read. It’s been superbly edited, so the individual transcripts blend together to form an integrated whole, but McNeil hasn’t cleaned up the language or sentence structure. Junkies talk like junkies and artists talk like artists. While this book is nothing more than a collection of recorded confessions, it does have a narrative arc to it. And that’s due to the editing. So, technically speaking, this book must’ve taken an ass-load of work. But it’s really pulled together well.

One overarching theme in this book is the drug-like, addictive, dangerous aspects of roll and roll. It can easily turn from chaotic fun to overdose and death. There’s always the danger that rockers and their crews would take the ride too far. “At that time, people still seemed indestructible,” writes Legs McNeil of a time when Patti Smith fell off a stage during a show and broke a vertebrae. “There was a cartoon quality to everyone’s life.” Well, not forever.

As one punk rocker says, “The streets are tough, aren’t they?” Interesting and hilarious, “Please Kill Me” is also tragic. Many of the people in these pages are talented, beautiful, funny, caring and artistic. But so many of them throw it all away. There are so many tragic deaths recounted in this book: Johnny Thunders, Nancy Spungen, Sid Vicious and others. The one that hits me the most is Dee Dee Ramone’s girlfriend, Connie. She was a prostitute and a drug addict and her relationship with Dee Dee was epic for its violence and chaos. But by the way Dee Dee talks about her, it’s obvious that he loved her. He was just too messed up to love her properly. Connie, for her part, tried so hard to make a home for Dee Dee. And then she ends up overdosed and dead in a doorway in some East Village dump. It’s so senselessly tragic. As the punk scene in New York gets bogged down in drugs, violence, broken hearts, the book begins to read like a Shakespearean tragedy. Some parts are so heartbreaking they’re tough to get through.

Patti Smith is really intriguing in this book, and I’m glad that she’s one of the main characters. She comes off as a freak among freaks, which is what she was, and is, I guess. She watched guys as they slept and kind of stalked some of them. It seems like when she wanted something (rock status, a guy, and eventually marriage) she went out and got it. She also seemed more driven than the other characters in this scene. Maybe that’s because she was probably the only one in the Village not shooting heroin or speed or snorting coke. She was definitely an individual: masturbating on stage, reciting poetry, emitting sounds like a street preacher, dressing herself up as a prophet. She’s a really fascinating figure, and this book does a great job of showing her for who she really is.

The latter parts of the book deal more with the Ramones, which is great. The more I read about the Ramones, the better. Joey Ramone isn’t humble about the place of the Ramones’ first album in rock and roll history. “It kicked off punk rock and started the whole thing - as well as us.” Thing is, he’s right. The Ramones’ first album is one of the best ever made. They didn’t really know it at the time, but they were making history in 1975 and 1976. And anyone who loves any kind of punk rock, or rock and roll at all, absolutely has to love that first album. It doesn’t get better than that. And when other punk bands set out to do their own thing, they knew it could never be as good as the Ramones. I love Black Flag. They’re not The Ramones. I love Bad Religion. They’re not the Ramones. I love the Sex Pistols. They’re not the Ramones. God, the Ramones are the greatest band ever, period. It’s true, and this book is further proof of that.

It’s really interesting to track punk from the Ramones in the streets of New York to England. Reading this book is a real reminder of how the Ramones weren’t really accepted in the U.S. outside of New York. Later, yes, in California and pretty much the rest of the country, but not initially. The Ramones went to London because they felt the scene there was ready for them. And in England, the kids were paying attention. Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were there. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were there. And when the English kids see what the Ramones are doing, they take it and run with it. Bands sprout up all over the place. “I felt like what we had done as a joke in New York had been taken for real in England by a younger and more violent audience,” says one New York punk about the 1976-1977 punk explosion in England.

Then there’s the Clash, who show up at a Ramones show in London acting like tools and poseurs. They weren’t punk, they were “acting punk,” as the Ramones describe it. And it’s so true. I like the Clash, but they could never be the Ramones. And they knew it. The Clash knew they were ripping off punk, reggae, dub and left-wing politics. They knew they were going to be big, but they also knew they were covering up their real identities. They were, after all, just upper-middle class egotists. They might have played punk music, but they were not punks. And the Sex Pistols weren’t much different. Harder and more extreme, yes, but they were also a bunch of poseurs. When the New York bands met Johnny Rotten, they thought he “was an awful little poseur – phony, social climbing – you know, just a little twerp… He wasn’t rock and roll at all. He was just an opportunist.” And while Sid Vicious wins more friends in the New York scene, he wasn’t as tough as he pretended to be. He was a lost child, a boy who latched onto women for attention, protection and love. Sid’s innocence, and his loss of innocence, is chronicled by Nancy Spungen, the woman he would be accused of murdering (but never tried). The story of Sid and Nancy is well-known, but in this book it’s told by all of the people around, and it adds a really human touch to what was otherwise a pop culture celebrity destruction fest. It’s amazing, but reading this book, I really feel like Sid loved Nancy. Of course, he was as screwed up as Dee Dee Ramone. The discussion also focuses on Sid’s alleged murder, and how there was no real evidence that he actually did it.

There’s a ton in here about The Dead Boys, a group of chaotic dudes transplanted from Cleveland right as punk was exploding in New York. I know of the band, but, to be honest, I haven’t listened to much of their stuff. This book makes me think I should go back and give their records a spin.

As a Jersey boy and someone who has lived in New York for several years, this book is a trip back in time to a New York I never knew but always wanted to. Going to CBGBs to see Sham 69, Rancid, Sick of it All, Agnostic Front, T.S.O.L. and others, I always longed for the heydays of punk in the late 1970s. I wanted to live what the people in this book lived. Well, this book is as close as I will get.

What a powerful read.

No comments:

Post a Comment