Interview: Legs McNeil
As a fixture of the original New York Punk Scene, there’s very little that Legs McNeil hasn’t borne witness to (twice). Best known for co-founding the original PUNK magazine with John Holmstrom and his best-selling oral history of punk Please Kill Me (with Gillian McCain), his latest project is Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose, which has been described as the authentic Go Ask Alice. Collide called Legs at home to get the lowdown on 40 years of punk, porn and prose. We spoke merely days after the death of Tommy Ramone and it was obviously still pretty fresh…
How have things been for you since the news broke?
Crazy, you know. When someone dies everyone just calls me.
With Tommy’s recent passing and no Ramones left, do you think it maybe signposts the end of an era in some sense?
Well, I think it was the end of an era a long time ago, y’know? Well, the era never started, which was what was so great about it. I mean, the Ramones are gone but they’ve been gone for a long time.
At the genesis of that era, prior to you starting PUNK magazine, what was the prevailing mood? Who or what was the driving force behind its inception?
Well, it was like now - everything was crap! It was time to do something new and exciting.
Alongside the sense of excitement and the possibility of it all, a lot of it actually sounds like it was very grim.
It was pretty grim. I mean, we were all starving. No one had any money, but you could do whatever you wanted.
What do you think the cornerstone legacies of that initial movement were?
Well, I think we broke the mould. There was only two ways to be before then: a hippie or a jock. But punk happened at the same time as all these other revolutions were happening. The gay revolution was happening, the women’s revolution was happening, the anti-war revolution finally ended. Up until then it had been very, very constricting because it was very fashionable to be politically correct and act a certain way. There were certain things that were kind of dictated to you growing up in the 60’s and the 70’s.
Punk smashed all the rules and started all over again, which was good and bad. You had gay people being friends with straight people, and all this great communication happening. You really interacted with people and didn’t judge them. Everyone was interesting and fascinating and delightful, and there were all these great ideas being circulated. It was wonderful to be able to start over and say “This is what we want, this is what we like, and this is what we don’t like”.
And, of course, the music was great. Punk was like a two to four year span where the music just busted out and it was really great. And then the crap came back. The crap always comes back.
Any kind of period like that, it seems to happen so quickly and is so condensed that it seems to echo for a very long time. The commoditisation of punk has been well documented, but what do you think about the way the original movement has been packaged and resold by the media?
Does any of the spirit of the great rock and roll from the 60’s or late 50’s remain? Nope, but the music does. You can’t tell me that ‘Judy is a Punk’ hasn’t lasted. I think in the end, that’s all that remains, and that’s what excites people to do it again. People are trying, but everybody is so interconnected and internet-oriented that whatever it’s gonna be is gonna be completely different. I think there will be a period again when people will start making really great music – it just seems to come in spurts.
You’re probably most well-known (at least amongst my contemporaries) for the book Please Kill Me. While I was re-reading it, I was struck by what a massive undertaking it must have been to compile it all. Was it a labour of love? And what did you hope to achieve by putting it all together?
Well for me, I was very depressed and I wanted to fall back in love with writing. I’d always done magazine pieces and felt they could have been better if I spent more time on them... you know what it’s like when you’re writing stuff on deadline. I had worked in magazines for almost 20 years at that point, so I really wanted to fall in love with it again because music journalism had become like porn. It was all about which rock star is on the cover. It was just kind of meaningless and I wanted to give it some meaning again. Please Kill Me was a complete labour of love because no one we wrote about sold any albums.
The Ramones have become almost more of a graphic design now than a band. The t-shirt seems to have become more iconic than the music. Does that make you sad?
Well, y’know, a lot of things make me sad. It makes me sad that people have to struggle so hard and don’t get anywhere, and that the people who did these amazing, incredible, brave, heroic things don’t usually get the credit for it. Life makes me sad!
Is that partly why you write? In order to document these peoples’ struggles? Did you ever think that you would become such a torchbearer for this whole genre and movement?
No. Being a torchbearer wasn’t my intention. I think I did it because I wanted to get laid! I didn’t think I would live this long so there was no ‘Oh, I’ll become the guy who explains these scenes to everyone’. That was not in my mind at all. I was just writing to entertain and inform. Like Bob Dylan said, “I’m a song and dance man”.
You mentioned that the writing was becoming like porn. More recently your book The Other Hollywood documented that particular industry. Aside from its most practical application (an aid to cranking it), do you see any real merit or artistic worth in pornography?
Oh sure! It gets us off!
What inspired you to want to document the story of that industry and its players? Was it similar to what drew you to want to document the punk movement?
Very similar. I had worked on a porn movie in 1974 and I was kind of wondering what had happened since then. I didn’t realise then that I was in it at the very beginning. The modern porn industry started in 1972 with Deep Throat, although that was an awful movie.
Everybody wants to believe in the fantasy of porn, but the fantasy is really so paper thin as to be almost transparent. Peering behind that veil did you find an overriding theme as to what attracted people to work in that industry? Is it a desire for money? Attention? Daddy issues?
Oh, it’s definitely all those things. But what I was struck with was how many of the performers came from normal backgrounds and just liked sex. I dated a lot of porn stars while I was doing the book and they were very delightful people.
Is there any other scene, phenomenon or set of human behaviour you’d like to document in a similar fashion?
Well we’re working on the 60’s right now, which I think is kind of fascinating because like punk and porn, there’s this romanticised image of what it was and then there’s the reality, which is really quite a bit more interesting than the romanticised version.
Is it going to be another oral history?
Yeah, I just interviewed Lauren Schwartz, the guy who gave Brian Wilson LSD for the first time and it was fascinating. I get to talk to all these people who were there.
Was there anything you discovered whilst researching or interviewing that truly shocked you or are you a bit blasé’ towards it all now?
Oh no, I’m always shocked! I have these standard preconceived notions of what went on and then I find out that’s not what went on at all. What went on was often more exciting than I ever realised. I’m constantly shocked and amazed - I think that’s why I keep doing it.
What particular elements are you exploring? I find it an interesting period because you had this weird collision of influences that had never appeared in the same place before. You had eastern mysticism making its way to the west, you had the introduction of synthetic LSD and you had the invention of guitar effects pedals and larger amplifiers, and all of these things seemed to coalesce into altering people’s perceptions and guiding the aesthetics of the counter-culture.
What’s fascinating to me is how these things happen around the world simultaneously. Like punk was happening in England, Australia and America at the same time. All these people were saying “You know what? All this stuff is crap and I wanna do something different!”.
I’m fascinated that everyone was taking acid at the same time and having these same revelations. The Byrds put out Mr Tambourine Man which caused Dylan to go electric, which opened up this whole wave that was kind of similar to punk. I hated most of it growing up, but now I find out that most of the people I thought were hippies were thugs! They were punks basically pretending to be nice guys who were into all this love and peace shit, when really they were just trying to fuck anything that moved.
I guess that’s reflected in guys like the MC5.
Even The Byrds and Stephen Stills, they were all thugs. It’s more fun when people behave badly, ‘cos who wants to read a fuckin’ book about everyone being nice?
Dear Nobody is an interesting project which obviously touches on drugs and addiction which were a huge part of the punk scene. What drew you to wanting to document the travails of Mary Rose and how did her diaries come to your attention?
I’m friends with my post master and his daughter was over borrowing a book. I asked her what she was reading and she told me she was reading these great journals. I was kind of fascinated by seeing them, so I got a hold of them and I sent them to Gillian and she loved them too. It took us about two years to edit them because there was a limited amount of material.
I’m one of the generations that had to read Go Ask Alice in high school, and for those of us who were doing a lot of speed and acid at the time, obviously our experiences didn’t tally with what was in the book.
Exactly, I was so pissed off! I’ve spent my whole life looking for the real Go Ask Alice and I think I found it in Dear Nobody, but that’s up to the public to decide. I still remember asking everyone if they had ever heard anyone using the slang they used in that book and they all said no. It wasn’t until the 80’s that I found out it was invented by an Avon editor, but I kind of knew intuitively that it was a fraud.
Back onto music, for myself, I really enjoyed what Punk gave birth to and evolved into, it spawned such a range of splinter scenes that themselves burned briefly and brightly.
What we learn out of all that is that scenes cannot be mass movements, because when they become mass movements they’re severely compromised. America is so big the original intent gets lost. So what do you do? You start another movement. You start another scene, and people will get out of it what they get out of it. It always becomes commodified, you gotta expect that.
Do you find that depressing?
I don’t think it’s depressing because for a few years there is something else to listen to besides the crap! There is something else to read and to think about, and people really alter their lives and the way they live because of some of these ideas. That’s wonderful and fabulous.
People think punk should have changed the world and the hippies should have changed the world when in fact they did, just not in the obvious ways you’d think about.
You know, kids are going out tonight, and they’re gonna get drunk and they’re gonna get high on drugs and they’re gonna listen to some band that is gonna change their life and they’re gonna go home and fuck their brains out and they’re gonna have a really good time and do something incredible. And that will continue to happen forever.