[Three by Five] 12. Please Kill Me

 

Pedro Paramo is the book I’ve most given away. It’s a thin, easy to read, very influential novel. It will haunt you.

The second book I’ve most given away is Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.

Through a series of alternating interviews, PKM traces the history of punk. From New York to Detroit to New York and London.

Punk Rock’s Origins Will Blow Your Mind 

Picture New York City in the mid-1970s. Gritty. Dirty. Dangerous.

The New York City subway of the 1970s is legendary for its grit, danger and graphiti.

The City was on the verge of bankruptcy.[1]

In contrast, rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1970s is bloated and growing fatter.

Jethro Tull is the perfect example of bad 1970s rock.

On the East Side of Manhattan (on 47th Street to be exact), Andy Warhol’s factory births The Velvet Underground.

The Velvets play a stripped down version of rock ‘n’ roll mixed with avant garde sounds. They sing about mature subject matter: bondage, transvestites, and scoring drugs.

They go on to inspire many bands.

Halfway across the country, Detroit births the MC5 and The Stooges.

The MC5 are known for their aggressive, provocative, loud performances, which contrast hippie, flower-power bands.

The Stooges‘ Iggy Pop’s over-the-top performances earn him the moniker, “Godfather of Punk.”

 

The stage for punk is set long before it arrives at CBGBs, a club on the Bowery. [2]

New York births The New York Dolls, Blondie, the Dead Boys, the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, and Talking Heads.

Before the days of suburbanites dying their hair pink, just wearing black and walking down a crowded street could elicit a reaction.
Chris Stein’s picture of Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Clem Burke. Note the contrast between Debbie and Clem’s all-in-black look, and the reaction from the crowd. [3]
PKM’s cast of characters is extensive AND exhausting: Warhol, David Bowie, David Byrne, Debbie Harry, Malcolm McClaren, Iggy Pop, Dee Dee and Joey Ramone, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith, plus actors (Jim Belushi!), authors, artists, band members and poets.

All of them speaking in their own voices.

Explaining how bands were formed, who always had drugs, who knew how to play music, who didn’t.

To me, the book is an important lesson in making a scene.

By that I don’t mean “create a public display or disturbance” or “complain noisily and display bad behavior” (though punks did both).

I mean surround yourself with people who inspire you, help each other, do great work, perform together, and rinse and repeat.

Some of the people in PKM had talent. Others didn’t. Some used a lot of drugs. There were fights and stolen loves. 

You might not want to be friends with several. Many of their stories are tragic. People died.

Yet, they came together to create something awesome.

By the dawn of the seventies, the philosophy was that you couldn’t do anything without a lot of money. So my philosophy was back to, “Fuck you, we don’t care if we can’t play and don’t have very good instruments. We’re still doing it because we think you’re a bunch of cunts.” – Malcolm McClaren

You can read this book straight through and enjoy the hell out of it.

You could also read it as a science fiction novel and enjoy it in a different way.

In my humble opinion, PKM is the book you read BEFORE Jessica’s Livingston’s Founders at Work: Stories of Startups Early Days, though the subject matter and format are different.

Livingston’s book (which I still come across on startup founders’ desks) is about changing business; McNeil and McCain’s book is about changing culture.

Updated 4/7/2108 to include footnotes.

[1] New York City today is nothing compared to what it was in the mid-1970s. Even in the late-1980s, when I first visited, New York still had an edge. Today, New York City is a santized shopping mall.

[2] I was lucky enough to see a few bands at CBGBs: Sonic Youth, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Sham 69 (where EVERYONE knew EVERY song and sang aloud), Atari Teenage Riot, Bikini Kill, Batmobile, and a show that featured a who’s who of the California bands I’d seen live in L.A.: Circle Jerks, D.I., and 45 Grave. Today, CBGBs site houses a John Varvatos shoe store. R.I.P.

[3] The Blondie image is one of my favorites and it’s from band member Chris Stein who you can follow on Instagram.

[4] The Los Angeles (or West Coast) version of this book is Marc Spitz’ We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb. Sadly, it doesn’t come close to being as exciting or exhaustive or definitive as PKM.