Look at the bookshelves of anyone with any countercultural leanings and there's a very good chance you'll see the bright orange & white spine of Please Kill Me.
A seminal oral history of New York's punk scene, Legs McNeil and
Just like the scene it covered, Please Kill Me has become a major influence on the literary world, prying the oral history format loose from Studs Terkel's hands and making it so ubiquitous these days that it's become the subject of parody (you haven't lived until you've read a fake Clickhole oral history). We got the opportunity to talk to McCain and McNeil about the 20th anniversary of their classic book, as well as pick their brains about their next oral history collaboration.
New Times: For the 20th-anniversary edition, you've expanded Please Kill Me with additional material. Is this extra content stuff that you wanted to include in the original volume, but cut out because of length? Or is this stuff that you looked back on and thought, "Damn, we should have included that in the first place?"
Gillian McCain: It was actually someone we hadn't interviewed — James Williamson.
Legs McNeil: We wanted him very badly, but through an intermediary, he told us he didn't want to fucking talk about punk.
New Times: So what changed his mind?
McNeil: Gillian's husband, James Marshall, did a three-part series on The Stooges for our website. James [Williamson] really liked it, so he consented to do an interview with James.
New Times: Was there anybody that you wanted to include in the book, but had to cut out because they didn't fit the narrative you were putting together?
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McNeil: Yeah, there were a few people. We had this shotgun approach where we went very wide. In the beginning, we were going after everybody —
McCain: Like Allen Midgette, who pretended he was Andy Warhol for a week. We didn't put that in. ... There was also a lot of girls who hung out with the Dolls. We just had so much material.
As the narrative began to take shape, we went after specific things.
New Times: Since Please Kill Me came out, it seems to have inspired this wave of oral history books covering other music scenes, movies, even video games! I was wondering how do you feel about that? And how do you feel these other oral history books compare to the kind of approach you used to put Please Kill Me together?
McNeil: I wish somebody would do a book as good as Please Kill Me! Or as good as the Edie Sedgwick book. ... Gillian's more generous; I'll let her take this one.
McCain: There was one on the Seattle Grunge scene-
New Times: Everybody Loves Our Town.
McCain: That was my favorite one that I've read. The MTV one was good too — I haven't read the SNL one yet. ... I find with a lot of them, I'll start reading and realize there's no swearing in it, and it becomes inauthentic to me.
McNeil: Slang is
McCain: And swearing.
McNeil: Isn't slang swearing?
McNeil: She's thrilled.
McCain: He's being cantankerous.
New Times: Legs, I've read your past interviews where you said that you had this theory that the reason why people were so open when y'all interviewed them was because they didn't think the book would ever come out. Since Please Kill Me was published, have you had any cases of "buyer's remorse?" Any instance where people expressed anger or regret over talking to you so candidly?
New Times: I've also read in those interviews that you're currently digitizing your archive of interview tapes. How's that coming along?
McCain: Slow, but good. ... We'll never throw away the tapes. In the long run, cassettes last longer.
New Times: What are your plans for the digital archive? Is it something that you'd make available to the public to use?
McNeil: No, fuck that.
McCain: We might use it for projects of our own. Especially in connection with our website.
New Times: Speaking of future projects- right now you're working on 69, an oral history of the late '60s California Sunset Strip rock scene. I was wondering — because of your stature since the release of Please Kill Me, have you found that people aren't as candid and forthcoming with you? Are they more guarded?
McNeil: I don't think the people from the '60s scenes, the hippies, know who we are.
McCain: Most of the people we've interviewed haven't read Please Kill Me. Maybe some of them Google us and see that we've been successful and go, "Oh, good, at least they won't be wasting my time."
New Times: How far does your book go into that era? Does it cut before we get to late-'60s groups like Love?
McCain: With cultural happenings ... the book's set to end in the early '70s.
New Times: Doing interviews and research, have you noticed any parallels or similarities between the California rock scene and what you covered in New York?
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McNeil: It's funny you should mention that because, basically, when we were doing the New York scene, the punk scene, we all had this idea you could put out a single on the radio and then the next month or for the next couple of weeks you'd be Ricky Nelson ... so we were kinda falling into that mode, that formula. But of course, times had changed so much by then.
McCain: It really did happen that way in the '60s.
McNeil: It really did. They'd hire guys to do demos, like Boyce & Hart, for $15. In L.A. it was more of an industry. You could come in and get a job —
McCain: It was churning out hits.