gillian mccain is the punk poet behind the craziest history book ever written
As seminal punk saga 'Please Kill Me' gets a 20th anniversary rerelease, we speak to co-author Gillian McCain about why the antiestablishment genre deserves to be preserved just like any other piece of history.
andy warhol, lou reed, and danny fields at max’s kansas city. photo by bob gruen.
As punk music celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, many people are questioning whether the antiestablishment subculture should really be commemorated with museum exhibitions and Grade II historical listing statuses. Recently, Joseph Corré, son of punk pioneers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, announced that he would instead be celebrating the anniversary by burning his $7 million collection of punk memorabilia in protest. Voting "yes" for preserving punk as a historical relic is the seminal "uncensored oral history" of the genre's roots titled Please Kill Me. The book was written by Punk magazine co-founder Legs McNeil and poet/historian Gillian McCain, nearly 20 years after the first Ramones album dropped. Please Kill Me is objectively the best book on punk ever written. It's compiled from decades of interviews with the legendary figures who took punk from a dingy back room of CBGB in the last years of Andy Warhol's NYC reign, all the way to the other side of the Atlantic.
While Legs was physically present for the wild ride, Gillian's contribution to the book is often ignored. Whatever the reason (Gillian puts it down to Legs being more famous rather than punk's history of ignoring women, though it's arguably a bit of both) the co-authors are still close friends and collaborators. Recently, they compiled a book patchworked together from the raw diaries of troubled teenager Mary Rose, which Legs found in a closet at a friend's house in Pennsylvania. After a Please Kill Me reading at NYC's Ace Hotel last week, i-D talked to Gillian about the book's lasting impact, the complex clockwork of teen girls' minds, and her insane collection of found paparazzi photos. The photos used in this story are previously unpublished images from the new 20th anniversary edition of Please Kill Me.
How did you and Legs first meet?
We met through the late poet Maggie Estep and just became fast friends. He had started working on what would have been the biography of Dee Dee Ramone, because he liked the book Edie so much he decided to do it in oral history form. He was going to interview Danny Fields and the interviews were getting transcribed and I was getting up early for work to read them because it was so fascinating. Danny was not just the Ramones, he was MC5, he was the Stooges, he was Warhol. So I kept going, "That's so sad, you don't know any of these stories because it's just about the Ramones." Then Dee Dee started to get really difficult and so I said to Legs, "I think the book has always been a lot bigger than just the Ramones." He said, "Okay, you want to do it with me?" He had already been working on the book for a fair amount of time before I jumped on board.
How many of these interviews did he already have recorded?
He had a few from the Spin days and some from the Punk magazine days, but I'd say 90 percent were all interviews either he did or I did, or we did together in the 90s.
You hadn't been born when the first interview takes place. How did you first become interested in punk?
I had older brothers and sisters — a lot older — they went away to college and to Europe, and I don't know why but they would always bring back records and leave them at Dad and Mom's house. It was wonderful because back then it was all LPs, and as a kid you just get engrossed with the photos on the covers. I just went from listening to Led Zeppelin and Carly Simon to Sex Pistols and Velvet Underground. I'd have my earphones on and my parents would be in the other room, and that's basically how I spent [my time] from age 12 onwards.
You're the same age as Joseph Corré, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's son, who recently said he was going to burn all of his punk memorabilia. What was your response to that?
I really hate to hear about any historical documents getting destroyed. I find it quite upsetting. I don't think he ended up doing it, did he?
He said he was going to do it this year because it's punk's 40th anniversary. Why do you think people don't think punk should be preserved like any other piece of history?
I think punk was kind of an apparition. What's so interesting about punk is that it's still not retro. It started in the mid 70s or early 70s, but when you hear it it sounds totally current. I saw some kids when I went to a gig at the Roundhouse when I was in London — kids with mohawks and Agnostic Front on the back of their leather jackets — they still didn't look retro. It's so weird. It's still rebellion.
The book really captures the humor of punk. It feels like that is sometimes forgotten, and people end up taking it more seriously than it took itself.
Yeah. Someone asked Legs and I what preconception of punk bugged us the most, and I think I said that people think it's humorless. It's totally not. The Ramones were hilarious.
It's also funny when people talk about selling out, because the Ramones wanted to sell out so badly. They were kids and they wanted to make money.
Yeah, it's true. And I think we show that in Please Kill Me. Who doesn't want to make money doing what they love? How do you judge that? You've got to live. I love hearing Stooges songs and Ramones songs on commercials — I don't think that's selling out. And it still sounds so current. I think it's great.
Does it ever make you annoyed that people associate the book with Legs rather than both of you?
Once in awhile. Sometimes I find it funny, and if I'm in a bad mood I find it annoying. I think it's more about fame than sexism. He's the face, right? He was there and I wasn't.
Tell me about your massive collection of found photos, including the paparazzi ones you found on eBay.
Yeah, that was a find. I think they were taken by a guy who did this book called Starstruck. I don't know if he had thrown these photos away or whatever, but I had only heard of about 20 percent of the people. A lot of the photos had the people's names on the back. A lot of them were Broadway actors, I think. I have thousands of found photos. I have an intern come in once a week and catalog them. I've been collecting them for about 20 years.
You and Legs also worked together on Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose, which is like the true version of Go Ask Alice, the controversial "diary" of a troubled teenage girl. How did you find this teenage girl's diaries?
Legs was in a small town in Pennsylvania, and a friend of his daughter told him about these journals he was reading about her best friend's late sister. They were hidden in the closet and she and her friend were sneaking in and reading them, because the mother had them hidden. Legs was like, "I'd love to read them. Apparently Mary Rose had been a fan of Please Kill Me, so her mother let Legs look at them. He photocopied some of them and sent them to me, and we just went crazy for them. It was just so good. The mom gave us permission to do it. It was really hard, because it wasn't just diaries. It was journals, it was short stories, it was poems, it was drawings. We had to get the timeline of her life for those two years and make it into a narrative. But it's all 100 percent her words, and she was an amazing writer. You can just tell how angry she is, for a lot of different reasons. Her mother told us that she handed in an assignment once, and the teacher accused her of plagiarism because it was too good. So they locked her in a room and gave her a subject matter, and she had to write 10 pages. Then she came out and they read it and they were like, "Okay, you didn't plagiarize that." She was furious.
I remember reading something about the five most fake lines from Go Ask Alice. It's funny because everyone remembers being a teenager and what they would and wouldn't write.
Yeah, it's totally fake. Legs always says he was just so perturbed about that. He was always looking for the real Go Ask Alice. But you read it, and it's just shit teenagers would not say. The Mary Rose book is really heavy and filled with adult content. Initially our agent sent it to both adult and young adult publishers, so we didn't know which way it was going to go. What I like reading online is that so many adults are into it, and it's opening up conversation between them and their teenager. That makes me really happy.
Text Hannah Ongley
Photos courtesy of Grove Atlantic