Please Kill Me author Legs McNeil on His New Book, Music and Chuck Berry
Legs McNeil became one of my favorite authors when I first read his Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk as a young teen. Even if you don’t own the book, you’ve undoubtedly seen its ransom-note-styled spine on the bookshelf of your music-loving friend. It’s an assertion that’s been made by others many times before, but I’ll say it here one more time: Please Kill Me is the definitive account of the early New York punk scene. (Trust me, I’ve read them all.)
But McNeil’s pedigree far precedes my birth. He has many professional accomplishments under his belt, but he’s probably best known as the cofounder of Punk Magazine, a New York-based pop-culture magazine famous for documenting the CBGB scene in the 1970s. (Through this, McNeil is also frequently credited with popularizing the word “punk” as we know it.)
Exactly a year ago this week, McNeil came through town on a book-reading tour, and I arranged for him and his beautiful, kind-souled assistant to stay with me. (I came in contact with him a few years back when he interviewed me for an upcoming book.) His St. Louis tour stop was set up at the Silver Ballroom, the friendly punk-rock pinball joint. He did his reading there, gave a great interview at KDHX and in between we basically spent a few days hanging out on my porch and drinking tea while McNeil gamely entertained any of my friends who stopped by with delicious insider tales of Patti Smith, Blondie, the Stooges and all of the rest of our favorite artists.
I texted McNeil a couple of days before his arrival and asked if he wanted to see Chuck Berry while he was here. He replied with an immediate “FUCK YES,” and my wonderful friend Jim got in touch with Joe Edwards and they got us hooked up with tickets to see Berry play his monthly gig at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room. As a proud St. Louis native, I’m always glad when I get to take out-of-towners to see our rock & roll legend in that super-intimate room. McNeil was as impressed by Berry as I was with him, calling him an “original punk.” We stopped for touristy photos at the Berry statue on Delmar Boulevard on the way home.
That night, after thoroughly inspecting my bookcases, McNeil said, “You’re really going to like my next book.” He was right.
Here’s the back-story on the book: McNeil lives in a small down in Pennsylvania and is friends with the man who runs the post office across the street from his house. One day this man’s daughter came by his house to borrow a book, and when McNeil asked her what she’d been reading, she said that the best thing that she’d read lately was a diary written by her best friend’s older sister, Mary Rose, who had died.
McNeil was intrigued. He arranged to meet the girl’s mother, read the journal, and they decided to publish it. Because Mary Rose died when she was a minor, the journal was considered part of her estate and thereby controlled by both of her parents. According to McNeil, Mary Rose’s father was a creep who never paid child support and showed little interest in his child unless he thought he could profit off of her. McNeil and Mary Rose’s mother took him to court to gain control of the publication rights. Six years, four judges and $50,000 later, the diary was finally theirs to publish.
Dear Nobody: The True Story of Mary Rose arrived in the mail at my house last week and, honestly, I didn’t want to put it down. I blew through all 330 pages in two sittings. It’s a fast read and compelling. Mary Rose was resilient, confused, troubled and brave. She wrote about everything she experienced in her young life, from boy troubles to new hair styles to family problems and chronic disease.
At times, I identified so much with Mary Rose’s troubles I worried that I am immature. But Mary Rose’s teenage fretting, lostness and bravery in the face of pain and illness is something that any reader can identify with from time to time. Her words express the kind of deep truths that can only be written in a private journal.
I called McNeil over the weekend to interview him about this new book and about Mary Rose. In the interview he is his usual blend of smart, curmudgeonly and kind.
Jaime Lees: Tell me what drew you to the story of Mary Rose.
Legs McNeil: Nonfiction stuff is just gripping to me, you know. Also, when I read Go Ask Alice I knew it was fake. Even when I found out that the editor had kind of made it up, before that I knew that it was fraudulent. Because no one used the slang that they used in that book. I’d never heard anyone use it. It really pissed me off for some reason, probably because they sold it as a true diary. I don’t know. It just made me furious that they confused everyone. So I’d always been kind of looking for the real Go Ask Alice, and I think I found it in Dear Nobody.
Did you follow the A Million Little Pieces scandal? Do you remember that one, from like, six or seven years back?
Yeah, and what was the one with… the [J.T.] LeRoy book? Yeah, that just seemed like more bullshit, you know.
Yeah, I’d rather read true things any day. But I think I’m weird like that. I think you’re weird like that, too.
You know, you can tell when something is authentic or not. And I think that’s part of what’s great about Mary Rose, is that there’s no doubt about the authenticity. Also, we’re posting original pages from the journals so people know that it’s not another fraudulent literally scandal.
Tell me about the legal issues you had in getting the book published.
Oh, that was a nightmare. In about 2009 when we were going to go out to sell it — after we’d spent a year and a half editing it — our New York lawyer said that because she was a minor when she died that her parents inherited her estate. When a minor dies, the parents automatically inherit the person’s estate. So that meant her deadbeat dad was entitled to half of the money from the mother’s share. And he was really…I mean…this guy was an asshole. I just felt like he wasn’t entitled to anything. So we went to court to open the estate and have him removed as the beneficiary. And that took four and a half years, because no male judge wanted to make a ruling on it, so they passed it to the next judge because they didn’t want it to be overturned in a higher court. I don’t think they knew what the fuck was going on, you know?
It was really frustrating. And it wasn’t until we got a female judge who understood and who ruled on it when we went to court. And I knew the father was a deadbeat asshole, but I didn’t realize how much of a deadbeat asshole he was until the mom testified in court. He wanted to pull [Mary Rose] off life support the week before she died so he could collect on the insurance policy he took out on her. He’s just a scumbag, you know?
So, what do you think is the most interesting part of the Mary Rose story?
Hmm. That’s a good question. I think…she can be so profound one moment and so bratty and just an asshole the next. The main contradiction with her seems to be adolescence, you know? That roller-coaster ride of emotion and mood swings. You know [she wrote things like], “I love him. I love him. I love him. I hate him. I hate him. I hate him.”
I can relate.
[Laughs] Yeah! She just seemed to capture all of those dumb mistakes. She gets high, and she wakes up in the hospital, and they throw her in detention or wherever. I could relate to those fuckups, you know?
When you came across the story, you already knew the ending and you knew that she had died. What if you came across this journal and she hadn’t died? Like, what if you knew her as an adult and she gave you this diary? Is it as interesting to you then?
See, I don’t know. I think I was attracted to it because I knew she had died. It wasn’t until I really read it and realized how shitty this girl’s life was that it really affected me. I think I was just thinking about it superficially when I heard about it, but when I read it and could see all of the pain and torment that this girl went through…it was just shocking.
Yeah, and it wasn’t just that she died, it’s that she knew she was going to die. So she sort of has that hanging over her head the whole time.
Yeah. Impending doom. So, you kind of don’t blame all of her stupid choices. You think about “Well, what the fuck would I have done?” Probably something very similar.
Or worse, even! So, Mary Rose wrote that she liked Nirvana, but what other music did she like? Do you know?
Well, in the actual journals she had all the bands names that she loved, like Hole, Nirvana, Pavement. Who else was in there? She liked those Bikini Kill kind of things. You know, those grrr grrr…
The Riot Grrrls?
Yeah, in the ’90s. I think the book takes place between 1996 and 1999.
Yeah, that’s about the right time period.
Oh and L7, I think, she was into. She had really good taste in music.
She also kept describing that her hair color would change.
[Laughs] Yeah, I know.
Do you have any pictures of her? Or do you know what she looked like?
No, in fact, I refused to look at any pictures of her while we were editing. Because I didn’t want to be swayed by it. I’ve only seen one picture of her.
Are people trying to give you stuff of hers now? Have you become the caretaker of her legacy?
No, no her mom is the caretaker of her legacy. No, I don’t think I’d want that responsibility.
Does this book make you more interested in teenage-girl diaries? Did it change your taste in things that you might find fascinating?
A lot of girls have said to me, “Wow, you should have read my diary.” And I say, “Well, let me read it.” And they say, “I destroyed it.” Or they lost them. And that’s something that is kind of tragic. But I’ve always been kind of interested in teenage writing. I mean, that’s what Please Kill Me is.
It’s teenage writing?
[Laughs] Well, it’s very emotionally retarded. It’s also very smart, like Dear Nobody. But at some point we’re all stupid. Like when Cheetah Chrome throws the guinea pigs out the window, you know? It’s just like, “What are you doing?”
Yeah, there are some adolescent tales in there, that’s for sure.
But you know what? When I was a kid — and I have them all now on the bookshelf right next to my desk — I have all of these gang books from the ’60s. Like Run Baby Run and Down These Mean Streets, and that’s kind of what Please Kill Me was based on. These gang books. I always wanted to be in a gang. I grew up in the suburbs where the only gang of kids were, like, toddlers riding in big wheels. So I always liked the city. And hanging out on fire escapes and smoking cigarettes was always very romantic to me.
Well, you did it!
Yeah! When we did Punk Magazine I did a lot of that, but it was more hanging out on stoops and drinking beer. Talking to girls as they walk by and stuff like that. It was fun. I tried to live out those books, but I was too much of a wimp to join a gang.
Was it as great as you thought it would be? Sitting around on stoops and hollering at girls?
Yeah! And drinking beer! And smoking cigarettes!
Speaking of, when you were here you saw Chuck Berry. Can you tell me about that?
Oh, it was great! I really wanted to see Chuck. I mean, he couldn’t really remember the words, but it was so much fun just to be in the same room with the guy when he’s playing, you know? And he was fuckin’ ancient, wasn’t he?
He’s ancient plus a year, because that was a year ago this week.
Was it? This week? You know, it’s like Chuck Berry will never die. Ever. Even when he physically dies, he will never die.
Well, that’s sort of what you did for Mary Rose, too.
Oh, who knows? It will probably come out and nobody will read it…
Oh, shut up. Now tell me, do you often see bands when you’re out on book tours? What’s your musical intake?
I’m really into garage bands from the ’60s. So over the summer I’m going to try to see a lot of garage bands. I’m going to see the Standells. They’re touring, actually. Their tour starts now. I just want to see them do “Dirty Water” live, you know? And I’ve been buying a lot of records these days. Vinyl is back!
Dear Nobody is available now at Barnes & Noble and other retailers.
link: Riverfront Times
link: OC Weekly