Book review #3: Please Kill Me

After some pretty tough words about hardcore (where did that come from?) I've decided to hold back a little and give a fairly unbiased review about my third summer reading choice:

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. Telling the entire story of a genre of music can very easily get out of hand. I suppose that's why Please Kill Me seems to focus specifically on the New York and Detroit punk movements from the late 1960s through the 70s. That means key groups: The Modern Lovers, The Clash, The Damned and the Sex Pistols are overlooked or sidelined for the most part (thankfully John Lydon's autobiography/punk memoir Rotten fills in the Sex Pistol gaps nicely). If you want the total history of punk, you'll still have some reading to do, but the books does an excellent job covering these 7 key groups: Velvet Underground, the MC5, The Stooges, Patti Smith Group, the New York Dolls, the Dead Boys and the Ramones.

Admittedly, I was most intrigued by the early chapters about the proto-punk bands (the Velvets, Stooges and MC5). Beyond that, Richard Hell turns out the most interesting interviews (his first band Television is mentioned briefly, followed by his brief involvement with the New York Dolls spin-off The Heartbreakers). Hell comes off as the original punk -- he lived the life, dressed the part long before anyone and wrote "Blank Generation" (the idea of which was rewritten by the Sex Pistols as "Pretty Vacant"). He's also one of the few people who escapes the a-hole or junkie or slut category that nearly everyone else in the book falls victim to at some point. Well, he almost escapes being an a-hole.

There's a lot to like about Please Kill Me. I totally bought into the interview format and the intertwining stories. But eventually, it starts to get tiresome. You can tell punk fizzled out by 1979 (coinsiding with the death of Sid Vicious), but the book still drags on over a decade later, through the depressing, drugged-out lives of its main characters. It finally ends in 1992 with the deaths of New York Dolls/Heartbreakers guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan.

Hmmm....how do I bring up this next part? OK, I'm just gonna say it: The book starts getting a little creepy when it begins romanticizing heroin addicts. It's true! Thunders, Nolan and Dee Dee Ramone are the focal points of the story and the book lingers on them well past their prime. I guess because their lives were so messed up, it makes for a more interesting read? Possibly? I have no idea. I just felt like there must be so much more to talk about, why fixate on this? I never thought punk and heroin were so synonymous, but apparently that's not necessarily the case. Eh. Just something I noticed.

There's also some typical "what is punk" nonsense that I'm not even going to get into. None of this takes away from Please Kill Me being a great read. It's an involving book. If you don't mind checking an index every five minutes to see who's talking and can get past some of the occasional shady undertones, you'll get an intensely detailed picture of the music and the people of punk, from the crazyass people who were there.

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