Saturday, April 12, 2008

Punk Rock Bookshself #2: Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain (1996)

Is Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk the best book ever written on punk rock? Sometimes it seems so, as it has the same vibrant energy, adolescent street-smart/smart-ass poses and grit of all those great 1970s American punk (and not-so-punk) albums like Marquee Moon, Fun House, Rocket to Russia, Blank Generation, or Plastic Letters. You won't find this approach in England's Dreaming. The book's basically a how-to for living fast and dying young and leaving behind that beautiful corpse.

Detailing the rise of (mainly) New York’s underground rock scene in the early and mid 1970s, author Legs McNeil knows whereof which he speaks. As a co-founder of Punk magazine in 1976, he was there for everything, and saw it all. Years later he interviewed the wasted and wounded, the survivors and the just barely-still-there, about their recollections of those dangerous days, and collated them all into this burning tome. One’s shelf of music books is incomplete without it; I would even say if one is not a fan of the artists involved. (I mean, I’ve never listened to a Led Zeppelin album on purpose in my life, but even I have a copy of Hammer of the Gods).

And yet virtually none of the artists Please Kill Me celebrates have been within spitting distance of a Billboard Hot 100 chart, or had paparazzi chase them down at an LA or NYC nightclub, or become a national icon. The two that did achieve such heights—Blondie and the Talking Heads—cleaned up the spit and the spray paint of CBGB for mass consumption. Of course now you can get your Ramones with your cell phone commercials, but once upon a time, the single “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” sent radio DJs and record company execs into paroxysms of fear and disgust.

But the fact that these musicians never achieved mass acceptance doesn't mean they didn't live rock'n'roll to its limits. They did it all. And I mean all: these people, almost to a one, are seriously fucked-up misfits who could do nothing but make a singular and passionate music that created an entirely new teenage subculture. It satisfies more than adequately the reader’s desire for impolite behavior like vast drug abuse, inappropriate sexual hijinks, and tiny t-shirts; it has a myriad of folks giving the finger to society, flaunting its rules and codes by being drunk, high, both, or neither but writing lyrics like “I’m a Nazi schatze/I fight for the Fatherland/I’m a Nazi, baby, I’m a Nazi, yes I am” or “I need a fix and a kiss.” You get a cast of characters sleazier and more desperate, and with probably similar hairstyles and clothes, as found in a Dickensian stable of scoundrels and pickpockets.

In the form of an oral history—a style that can be annoying, and isn’t really “written” so much as it is edited—Kill Me is leaps and bounds more exciting than a previous CBGB history, This Ain’t No Disco, from the late 1980s. That book has many of the same stories but here, you can actually feel the grit and the grime. But don't forget, it wasn't all Bowery beasts. Can you imagine the collective shiver that went up and down everyone's spines when Debbie Harry walked into the place?

The famous nightclub Max’s Kansas City (which has its own version of Please Kill Me, 1998’s High on Rebellion) had the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and other raucous luminaries grace its stage before the soon-to-be-famous CBGB stole a bit of its thunder. The book starts off detailing the darkness at the heart of the Velvets and their arty, atonal, S&M-besotted approach that virtually single-handed created a new kind of musical attitude. Sometimes I forget that Velvet Underground & Nico was released the same year as Sgt. Pepper and the Doors' first album (Lou Reed might've hated Morrison, but we all know where Iggy worshiped).

More stories come thick and fast, told in the voices of the participants and the guilty. Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone; Johnny Thunders and David Johansen; Richard Hell and Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Wayne Kramer and Lou Reed. Then there is the Warhol contingent, the artistes, transvestites and glamour queens; various band managers like Malcolm McLaren, Linda Stein and Danny Fields (when is that guy writing his book?); photographers and filmmakers; and countless hangers-on and groupies and girlfriends and wanna-bes. Stories criss-cross, get tangled, get contradicted. Perhaps the most harrowing tale in a book filled with close calls is the one in which Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz ends up nearly stabbed to death by a street gang. The guy he was trying to protect, Blondie roadie Michael Sticca, ends up in Riker's Island for a night or two. Yikes.

One might want to read this in small doses. The obnoxiousness factor is high, as is the exaggerated sense of self-importance. One can only listen to some sideliner talk about how fabulous it all was, how fabulous and decadent, before you want to say: Okay, now *who* did you fuck again, Iggy Pop or Dee Dee Ramone? Stories about Stiv Bators’ drunkenness or Johnny Thunders’ desperate junkie manipulations begin to get exhausting. Upon my first reading of this I realized that I really wouldn't want to hang out with my heroes. That's a bitter realization. I did, however, like how Steven Tyler turns up at Thunders’ funeral, wailing, "It could have been ME!" Dammit, I thought, why wasn't it?

When this book came out in hardcover from Grove Press (home to punk sympathizers like William Burroughs) in 1996, it was one of the very few widely-published works on punk rock. Bold move. 1996 was years before any of the Ramones had died, before you could hear Blondie in every other TV commercial, before Iggy sold you sea cruises, long before the New York Dolls reformed, before Hot Topic invaded shopping malls, and of course a decade before legendary rock club CBGB made front page news by closing down. Today Ramones t-shirts are de rigueur for stylin' like you're downtown, when you're really from Canada.

What signaled the end? Well, Sid Vicious’s death in Greenwich Village for one. Various characters ripping each other off so they have to leave for Europe. The Ramones in LA filming Rock’n’Roll High School and recording End of the Century with Phil Spector. Dissolution of various "super groups" conceived of while in impossibly altered states of consciousness. Patti Smith marries MC5's Fred “Sonic” Smith to be a housewife. Number-one hits and enormous worldwide success for Blondie.

Please Kill Me, despite, and because of, its excesses is a pleasure pure and simple: hearing about these people talk about the youthful thrill of throwing off the shackles of normal life and embracing the not-yet-clichéd lifestyle of the punk demimonde is charming and inspiring. The freedom to create something almost entirely new is a rare event in pop culture, and Please Kill Me is a celebration of that. Despite the dark shadows of commercial indifference, heroin addiction, sexual perversions, band break-ups, and even death, the spark shines on through, 30 years on.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Punk Rock Bookshelf #1: England's Dreaming by Jon Savage (1992)

It was 1992. With my good friend Charles—cynical, contemptuous, mocking, fearless, derisive Charles—I was idly checking out the hardcover new releases in the Borders Books 35 minutes from home. And I think we saw the graffiti’d book jacket at the same time: its somewhat unwieldy title, England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond. I picked it up, fairly excited; all the books I had on punk were cheap, small university press paperbacks or glorified photo books from Omnibus Press imported from England, but I’d never seen one so lavish in cloth and from a real publisher. Charles looked over my shoulder as I opened it to read the flap, but what caught Charles’s skeptical eye was nothing more than the book’s price: $27.50. Imagine! I will never forget Charles’s withering, sneering response: “The swindle continues.”

The swindle continues. A perfectly played reference to the ill-fated Sex Pistols 1980 movie The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. A remark worthy of John Lydon himself, filled with irony and condescension and maybe just a little admiration. Ironic, because punk was supposed to be cheap and disposable, but actually was complex and meaningful; condescending because how stupid were the public to shell out even more money for something so contrived; and admiring because goddammit, why hadn't I thought of that first?!

Author Jon Savage goes deeper than any writer on British punk ever has or ever probably will. First he examines the British pop/youth cultural movements after World War II, like the Mods and the skins and the Teddy Boys, before coming to that shop impresario Malcolm McLaren ran called SEX at 430 King's Road. We get some myth-destroying insights into the origins of McLaren's relationships with the burgeoning soon-to-be-kings the Sex Pistols; he correctly points out that it originally was 18-year-old guitarist Steve Jones' band.

Savage debunks the notion that the Pistols were—as is a popular perception today—the *NSync of their day, a manufactured boy-band with about the same depth and relevance. McLaren was great at hindsight, saying "Oh, I meant that to happen" when really it was all out of control. Quite a bit of the book deals with the utter contempt and frustration with which Johnny Rotten and later Sid Vicious felt towards this Faginesque character.

Prescient enough to have kept his teenage journal , Savage quotes from it to present us with impressionistic, first-hand glimpses of those long-ago days of London in the mid-to-late-70s:

30.10.76: I go see my first proper punk group. I know what it's going to be like: I've been waiting for years, and this year most of all: something to match the explosions in my head. The group are called the Clash; everybody I talk to says they're the best.... Within ten seconds I'm transfixed; within thirty, changed forever.

23.11.76...fascism here won't be like in Germany. It'll be English: ratty, mean, pinched, hand in glove with Thatcher as mother sadist over all her whimpering public schoolboys.

25.12.76: A party... in the kitchen downstairs, members of the Damned, the Clash and the Sex Pistols sit around a large table.... Halfway through the evening, the Heartbreakers arrive, and install themselves in a tight corner near the telephone, which Johnny Thunders uses to make hour-long calls to the US. Not collect.

Savage covers the nascent punk scene in surrounding towns, such as the Buzzcocks in Manchester; the difficulty in getting clubs to book the bands; the sudden liberation (but not quite) young women felt, resulting in "stars" such as Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, and the Slits; the sometimes manufactured, sometimes quite real, competition between the Pistols and their rivals the Clash; the Pistols utterly disastrous tour of Southern America in 1978; the fashion, the art, the impact the movement had on the rigidly structured British class system. His account of the Jubilee summer (1977 was the 25th year of Queen Elizabeth's reign), and the attendant boat ride up the Thames when the Sex Pistols performed the incendiary "God Save the Queen," their inflammatory anti-royalty statement just as the boat passed Parliament, makes you realize that punk rock gave new meaning to "civil disobedience." Or, rather, just made it a hell of a lot more fun. Plus its hair looked fantastic.

And what of the tragedy at the heart of the original explosion of punk, the self-immolation of the notoriously doomed Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, still celebrated today in t-shirts and dolls and homemade Youtube videos? Savage is tender:

What happened next will always be a blur. In an account given by Vicious shortly before his death, he woke up from a Tuinol stupor in the light of the morning to find a trail of blood leading from a soaked bed to the bathroom.... he found Nancy lying under the sink with a hunting knife sticking in her side... Vicious went into complete shock--from which he would barely recover for the rest of his life. As the realization of what had occurred sank in, he panicked totally: the only person had ever cared for him was dead, by his knife, and he couldn't remember a thing.

What really put England's Dreaming on the literary map, and has drawn accusations of pretension and puffery, is how Savage links punk rock and major artistic trends of the 20th century. Sometimes I agree that this comes off as intellectual posing, and yet in my thoughtful moments I think Savage is quite right to link McLaren's chaotic yet half-formed ideas with anti-art art movements Dada, Surrealism, and Situationism.

Tattered, caustic icon Johnny Rotten is compared to the young French poet Arthur Rimbaud; the Clash wore Army fatigues splattered with brightly colored paint à la Jackson Pollock; Subway Sect and other dreary bands created music that seemed defiantly anti-music, almost musique concrète; and one cannot deny the primitive, art brut beauty of Xeroxed 'zines like Snffin' Glue, the flyers for shows and the record sleeves of hundreds of forgotten bands, all ransom-note graphics and ripped-up newspapers. Consider the brilliance of the 45 sleeve for the Sex Pistols' "Holidays in the Sun."

Punk rock might not be the monster it was so long ago, but it remains an oft-misunderstood musical genre, usually seen as one-dimensional, inarticulate, and musically incompetent, made by angry adolescents who have no regard for anyone but themselves. This all may be true, but to dismiss it as such is to miss a vital element of rock'n'roll: that is, that is rock’n’roll defined. Jon Savage’s work still stands as the great book on its subject, and one of the finest books on the sociology of music in general. Of course I didn't shell out $27.50 for it on that long-ago day, certainly not with Charles so willing and able to mock me. The book seemed weighty and deadening, a vampire leaching blood from the living. I didn't read it until the late '90s, when I was once again under the music's sway and decided it was time to see if there was something I could learn that I hadn't from the music itself.

Nothing kills punk rock like sincerity; its raison d'etre is mocking vitriol hurled at both one's enemies and oneself. England's Dreaming doesn't have any of that spitting, rabid energy of the best punk rock. It's not a “rock’n’roll book” in the sense that the other titan of punk literature, Please Kill Me, is, but they certainly belong on the shelf next to one another.