IF YOU’VE READ it, you probably remember exactly where you were when you first encountered Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. I first came across the book as a 16-year-old kid in a small town in southwestern Colorado. I’d recently discovered punk, and went about putting safety pins in my clothes and calling myself a punk, but for all I knew, punk rock began and ended with the Sex Pistols. When I found Please Kill Me on the shelf of the local bookstore, I bought it without question, expecting mohawks and mosh pits. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Please Kill Me begins in 1965 with the Velvet Underground, then continues through such unsung punk luminaries as MC5, the Stooges, Television, and Dead Boys, among others. As advertised, the book is a collection of direct quotations from musicians, managers, club owners, record executives, lovers, groupies, and anyone else who was around the scene and lived long enough to tell their story. The culmination of hundreds of interviews conducted by authors Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me isn’t your typical rock history book, but an extended conversation with some of the most influential (and depraved) characters in rock ’n’ roll.
“I love the immediacy of it, that you’re right there with the guy, right in the room,” McNeil tells me on the phone from Pennsylvania. “It’s like him telling you the story, and they’re great stories, you know? They’re really funny, and they’re really human.”
Please Kill Me was first published in 1996, when most people’s experiences of punk were limited to Green Day and whatever else we saw on MTV. It was a shock and a thrill to read about Lou Reed’s lady-chasing, the cross-dressing New York Dolls, Jim Carroll and Dee Dee Ramone’s street hustling, and excessive drug use by all and sundry. Much more than a book about lowlifes behaving badly, Please Kill Me is a document of a unique and important era in American rock history.
“It’s not just people who are into punk or even people who are into rock,” co-author McCain says on the phone from New York. “Somehow, someone recommends it and they love it.... It’s a great book, even if you’ve never heard of any of the people in it.”
One particular figure looms larger than the rest, and the authors make it clear they consider him the hero of Please Kill Me.
“Iggy [Pop] was just so much fun, and he was so articulate, so present and funny and intelligent,” McCain says. “He was probably my favorite, and probably the one I was most nervous about, too.”
“Iggy is one of those guys that’s going to be legendary forever,” McNeil adds. “When I first met Alice Cooper, he said, ‘Everyone thought we were the best, but the real guys out there were Iggy and the Stooges. We were pretending, you know, they were actually it.’”
Please Kill Me went on to be named a Top 10 Book of the Year by Time Out and Daily News , was translated into more than a dozen languages, and remains one of the most influential rock books ever. To celebrate the release of the 20th anniversary edition, McNeil and McCain are touring Ace Hotels throughout the country, where they’ll read from the book, show photos, and play audio selections from the original interviews. The new edition features 40 new photos and an afterword by the authors, “Narrative Oral History Defined,” with advice on how to conduct an oral history of your own. McNeil and McCain also recently recorded a two-hour show for public radio, “Voices from the Archives,” featuring even more recordings from their interviews.
Perhaps the most enduringly shocking thing about Please Kill Me is the level of access the authors were given by their subjects. Virtually nothing is held back, no matter how nefarious.
“I don’t think people would have talked as openly and freely as they did,” McNeil explains. “I don’t think anyone thought the book was coming out.”