Music & Nightlife

Punk insider tells the music’s real story

Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry in New York in 1977
Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry in New York in 1977

Punk may be middle-aged and a commercial music genre, but the raging, risk-taking 70's New York scene where it started was a million miles from tame, a place and time where sex and drugs and rock and roll (as the song goes) - and rebellion and sometimes nihilism - were the stuff of life.

Author Legs McNeil knows - he was there. McNeil, 61, helped start Punk Magazine in 1975, and was an insider and chronicler of the emergence of Iggy Pop, the Ramones, Blondie, Television, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and the rest of the scene that changed the music industry and, some believe, culture. He and co-author Gillian McCain interviewed several hundred people to chronicle it all in "Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk," their influential 1996 book which Rolling Stone recently listed as #10 in its list of the 100 greatest music books.

The Herald talked to McNeil, who'll make his first Miami appearance Sunday at Swampspace, the Design District headquarters of funky underground art cool, whose host/owners Min and Oliver Sanchez have their own serious NYC punk/new wave art credentials. (Books and Books is co-sponsoring.)

McNeil will read from "Please Kill Me,” with its tales of who slept with who, who did what drugs, who raged, who wrote the songs, who got famous and who died. And generally tell the story of a musical era that was (in the words of a 1996 New York Times review by the brilliant rock critic Robert Christgau) "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... 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."

- How'd you come to write the book?

McNeil - Deedee [Ramone] came to me, he wanted me to edit his book, and I suggested we do it as an oral history. I was friends with Gillian, a poet from the East Village. We'd been talking about oral history, and why don't more people do these, they're so good, and also the poetry of spoken word, the way people actually speak. When the Deedee book fell through she said this is so much bigger than Deedee, and we just commenced to do it. I had a lot of contacts and interviews from the Punk magazine days. Plust it was only 12 years or so from the time that punk fell apart, and no one really cared. I think the only time you can do an oral history is when no one cares, or else you'll have too much infighting. We could never have done it now because everyone has rewritten their history.

- tell me about the punk scene then.

McNeil - It really was about 200 people, drunks and [screwups] and whores and junkies who created something out of nothing. That's what's so magical. These people with no hope in hell of succeeding got this music out there and it changed the world. It's hysterically funny and horrifying at the same time.

- do you think they really wanted commercial success?

McNeil - Oh yes very much so, but on their own terms - which was good rock and roll. You gotta remember that at this time Donny and Marie was the biggest act in show business. So to do a song like "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" was really revolutionary. It still is.

You gotta remember it's set in a rock and roll context. But the lifestyle was much more structured than you'd think. You had to go to rehearsal, you had to go do something, whatever it was. Debbie [Harry] even said "you know Legs, the thing is we always had to be somewhere, that night or that day, some photo shoot or even something we invented ourselves. Believe it or not there was a real work ethic in all that chaos."

- why'd you do it as an oral history?

McNeil - I wanted the book to be emotionally compatible with what I had experienced. We wanted to do a book that actually was punk. We only wanted talk to people who were in the room when something happened. We didn't want opinions.

- Do you think punk had an effect?

McNeil - I think it changed the world. It had this attitude. People were tired of mainstream [crap]. You'll always have the mainstream stuff, Beyonce, American Idol. But there's a big thriving alternative music scene now because of what we started. L.A. picked up on it, though there's not much of that in the book. So many bands were influenced by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols and The Clash. They inspired people to just pick up a guitar and do it.

There was a viable music industry then that needed new acts and stuff to sell. Rock is like porn - it's always next, what's the next thing. Now because the record industry imploded on itself and got too greedy, people are just putting out stuff themselves.

- What are you working on now?

McNeil - I'm in the middle of 69, the oral history of the great American nightmare. It's the Charlie Manson and family story told through the rock and roll angle, which is probably the only way you can tell it.

- do you think the current political climate, with all the Trump protests and anger, will inspire a new punk movement?

McNeil - I think it could but in a completely different context. There's so much technology, there's so many more options now.

I don't think the effects are being felt by anyone except immigrants right now. No one is being drafted to Vietnam to be killed yet. I grew up with Nixon as president, just hating him. This does not feel as bad as Nixon. I also think that whenever America goes forward progressively, it's one step forward two steps back. All the great human rights stuff we experienced during Obama we're now having a reaction to. That's why Trump was elected.

If you go

What: Legs McNeil reading from “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk”

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Swampspace, 3940 No. Miami Ave., Miami

Info: free, facebook.com/swampspace

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