Earlier this week, Joseph Corré—son of designer Vivienne Westwood and late Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren—announced festive Thanksgiving plans. On November 26, Corré says he’s going to burn his entire collection of punk memorabilia, worth an estimated $7 million.
The bonfire coincides with the 40th anniversary of the release of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” and is meant to be a protest of more official 40th Anniversary of Punk celebrations in London. “The Queen giving 2016, the Year of Punk, her official blessing is the most frightening thing I’ve ever heard,” Corré said this week. “Rather than a movement for change, punk has become like a fucking museum piece or a tribute act.” He’s urging others to burn their punk memorabilia as well. All in all, a pretty punk move.
The birth of punk music may go back 40 years, but one of the genre’s most definitive histories was published a bit more recently: Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Like many millennials, I went through the requisite punk phase—mine briefly included jelly bracelets—but I was never a committed or authentic enough fan to research the history. My idea of punk was limited to MXPX and NOFX, cheap T-shirts and under-attended concerts in suburban church basements. It was one of my earliest exercises in listening to music made by and for people who were perpetually drunk or high, while being personally and resolutely neither.
In skipping my due diligence 15 years ago, I am not one of those people who read Please Kill Me when it was released, and so not one of those people who felt deeply impacted by this book at a relatively young age. Which is a bit of a shame because assessing that impact now would have been interesting (think about reading Catcher in the Rye at 18 versus 30, or On the Road at 22 versus 58). At the same time, I’m not sure a middle school version of myself, jelly bracelets or no, would have actually been inspired by PKM, so much as reaffirmed in enormous coolness-related insecurities. I wasn’t badass enough to really be punk back then. (I’m not now either, but the older you get, the more okay that becomes.)
Please Kill Me traces the history of the punk movement from its nascency in Detroit and New York to its widespread popularity in London. The book is told, or rather retold, by the people who were there, and authors/editors Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain have created in PKM a seamlessly compiled and surprisingly detailed recollection of the pivotal years in the birth of a genre. There’s Andy Warhol and Iggy Pop, the Ramones and the New York Dolls, David Bowie and Patti Smith, all chiming in on their own ascendancy. In addition to the details and dirt, PKM also artfully traces shifts in the music itself; it’s an education in how each artist or act influenced the genre’s next wave.
For the punk-unfamiliar, PKM can be intimidating at first. There’s a list of characters, but it doesn’t appear until the end, and it took me about 25 pages (and some hectic Googling) before I found my place among the various voices. But once that stride is hit, the narrative is fully engaging and the people within are magnetic, even if you still have to pause for some quick YouTube checks. (Sidebar: I would have actually loved a decked-out digital version of this book, complete with links to relevant videos, photos, etc.)
There are probably a lot of really deep lessons I should have taken from Please Kill Me, messages about the importance of freedom of expression and upending societal expectations. And I do think there’s something to be admired in both the musical and ideological elements of punk, particularly as a rebellion against the peace-and-love flavor of the 1960s. But as with most books about 1970s New York, I was struck most often and most viscerally by how literally disgusting everything was: the filth, the sex, the drugs (dear God, the drugs). I think 1970s Kira would have been too busy wiping surfaces down before sitting on them to actually hang with any artists or musicians of merit. Nineteen-seventies Kira would have been a square. Either that or addicted to heroin.
In the annals of music history, Please Kill Me is a must read, for punk fans certainly, but also for those with no taste for the music. This is first and foremost an interesting story of time and place (which, isn’t music always?) and of a group of people who so thoroughly and aggressively dedicated themselves to musical chaos. There are dozens of PKM anecdotes highlighting this particular blend of I-don’t-give-a-fuck theatrics, but I’ll leave you with one, from Dictators guitarist Scott Kempner on seeing the Stooges play for the first time.
Other guys would punch you in the mouth, that would heal, but Iggy was wounding me psychically, forever. I was never gonna be able to be the same after the first twenty seconds of that night – and I haven’t been.
We went back the next night, and it was the exact same songs, but it was totally brand-new. This had nothing to do with last night, this had nothing to do with rehearsal, this had nothing to do with sound check – this was living and being born and coming for your fucking children in the middle of the night right in front of you…
And every time I saw that band it was the same thing – there was never a yesterday, there was never a set they’d played before, there was never a set they were ever gonna play again. Iggy put life and limb into every show. I saw him bloody every single show. Every single show involved actual fucking blood.
From then on, rock & roll could never be anything less to me. Whatever I did – whether I was writing, or playing – there was blood on the pages, there was blood on the strings, because anything less than that was just bullshit, and a waste of fucking time.
TITLE: Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk
AUTHOR: Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
PAGES: 43o (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose
SORTA LIKE: Just Kids meets Gimme Shelter
FIRST LINE: “LOU REED: All by myself. No one to talk to. Come over here so I can talk to you…”