Legs McNeil on Joey Ramone, punk in 2012, and not trusting music critics
Legs McNeil is a legendary rock music historian, author and journalist. He co-founded and wrote for Punk Magazine back in the mid-'70s, is a former senior editor for Spin, and founder/editor of Nerve magazine in 1992. He is renowned as co-author of Please Kill Me: the Uncensored Oral History of Punk with Gillian McCain. Published in 1997, it is the classic book on the lives of punk musicians of the legendary '70s punk rock scene in New York City such as The Ramones, New York Dolls, MC5, The Stooges, Blondie and Patti Smith, and the early years of CBGB's.
Nicknamed "resident punk," in Punk Magazine, Legs is recognized (with co-founder John Holmstrom) for coining the term "punk" to describe the type of music, fashion and attitude of that scene. Legs co-authored I Slept with Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir with Joey's brother, Mickey Leigh in 2009. Legs and Leigh did a reading at Nick and Eddie in 2009, after which Leigh performed Ramones songs.
On Saturday, Legs returns to Minneapolis to read from his new book Girl with the Most Cake, and other favorites from his publishing catalog. Earlier this week, Gimme Noise had the opportunity to interview Legs, and his sharp words for music critics follow.
Gimme Noise: Please tell me more about your new book?
Legs McNeil: It's called Girl With the Most Cake after the Hole song. It's about my 5-month relationship with a girl I met on a book tour. We fell madly in love. And she died. It brought up a lot of stuff for me. She was shooting up black tar heroin infected with flesh-eating bacteria. She had her leg amputated and she didn't survive the operation.
I didn't know she was doing heroin. She told me she had stopped using it seven or eight months before. You know, everyone I know is an "ex" something, an ex-stripper, ex-junkie, and ex-alcoholic. When you get to be my age, people have a lot of damage and stuff. I just assumed she was clean. She didn't act like a junkie. She didn't nod out, she didn't scratch her nose or... she was really full of life. And she was hysterically funny. We got along great. It's kind of my rock 'n' roll romantic fantasy. And it came crashing down on me, you know?
So the book is about that. The book is almost done, I've been writing it since March/April this year. It's been difficult. I've been writing 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. I hit a wall and thought it would be good to get out of the house, and see if anyone would really like it. From last night, I saw that people really seemed to like it, and I was really pleased.
It's a hard story that is good to be told. I appreciate raw, honest stories that bring out the truest self.
Besides her dying and me missing her, I also had my leg cut off when I was a kid. I was born with my right side of my body was two inches longer than the left. When I was 14 or 15 they did corrective surgery and they cut two inches off my right femur and stuck a pin from my knee to my hip. It was very awful. I couldn't walk for a very long time. Besides her dying it opened all this kind of stuff that I probably should have dealt with but I didn't really deal with, when she died. Instead I was doing Xanax and Valium and just popping pills for the last 10 years and trying to avoid dealing with anything. So when I went into rehab in last November almost a year ago, I went into trauma and had a really good trauma therapist. She really helped me. And I've been writing it.
Now doing the tour and that's going well... does it feel you'll be able to go back into it?
Yes! People have been really nice. I'm really shocked. You know, everybody wants to hear Please Kill Me, about Iggy and the Ramones and Lou Reed, and Nico. I thought I'd be like . . . I saw Donovan and he was like I'm going to play my new songs first, and then I'll play my hits. I was like, "fuck you! Just play the hits!" [laughs] So last night when I was reading, I told that story and everyone was laughing. I said 'I feel like Donovan. Here's my new stuff! And I'll read you my hits later!" [laughs]
It's a tragic story. People relate, I'm sure.
I feel like that too. I want to read someone else's story. I don't want to read my own, you know? Like, blech, you know? I'd rather come off like some cool guy than some weenie who's distraught and taking pills and acting like an asshole because I'm distraught over my girlfriend you know? When you write a book, you have to exploit it. And I didn't feel like exploiting my dead girlfriend and the story of it either. I just wanted to write it for myself. I don't write for other people. I just write for myself. But the more people learn about this, the more I realize I'm not unique and a lot of people have lost loved ones to drugs and things and were really fucked up over it. Its been a really nice community, and people meeting over it.
I remember meeting you at your reading with Mickey Leigh for I Slept with Joey Ramone at Nick and Eddie. I'd like to know more about your times with Joey Ramone, your interviews, how you viewed him as a person.
He lived at what's now Joey Ramone Place on 2nd Street. That was right around the corner from CBGB's. In the early days, I used to stay over because I'd get to drunk and I'd spent my cab fare home to the punk dump which is on 10th Avenue and W. 30th St. I hung out with Joey a lot.
Seeing the Ramones was one of the great times in my life. I was 19, 20, 21, 22 . . . they were so much fun and they were so great. They were friends too. And to be writing about them and working with them . . . that first album cover was shot on 2nd street for Punk Magazine by Roberta Bailey. It was I and Arturo and John Holmstrom who was the editor of Punk Magazine -- we all were kind of telling them how to pose. If you'll notice, Tommy was kind of standing on his tiptoes, while Joey's kind of bending over. We wanted them to be symmetrical line, which was kind of hard because Joey was so tall.
Do you think it stands to this day, when people call themselves "punk rock?"
Of course! The great thing about punk is, any kid can pick up a guitar and start screaming, "Screw you, Mom!" and it's just as valid as anything we ever did. And now it seems like its turned into a rite of passage. Its like every kid that grows up in the suburbs is bored and there's nothing to do. It just seems like every kid dyes their hair green and chops it off and forms a garage band. It's generational now, and I think that's the great thing about it. It's valid. Whether I listen to it or not is another story, but sure, if they get good enough, I'll listen to it.
Do you feel there is a place to go now that gets close to CBGB's?
The great thing about punk and starting punk and stuff... it was a very limited time. You could only be a stoner in high school or a jock. And I'm like, "You've got to be kidding. It's like McDonalds vs. Burger King." There's only two choices in America, always only two. Coke or Pepsi or McDonalds or Burger king. And I felt like, what we did was we gave people more room to breathe and to become what they wanted to become. And now there's lots of things. There can be goth and . . . different aspects. People are much more interesting than whether they're stoners or jocks. There's gotta be more room here. Different ways for people to be. So I think it gave people a lot more room.
What do you feel about music journalism today vs. then, as you've worked in journalism for so long?
I don't read music magazines; I never did actually, even while I was working at them [Laughs]. Some people who really get it are great. Someone who comes to mind is Crispin Kott, who's a friend of mine and there are some others who are good. I like James Wolcott in Vanity Fair as a cultural critic. Do I have a favorite music critic? That's a good question. I don't trust them.
Talk about that further...
For straight-ahead rock 'n' roll, I think the problem is music has gotten so much more diverse than when we were putting out Punk Magazine. Now there are so many genres and subcultures that you have to know the language to know what they're talking about. They'll go "this sounds so great, sounds like early Dictators." I'll follow their link and think, "this doesn't sound like the Dictators at all! What the hell were you thinking?" There's stuff that I really like. I like pop music a lot, weird pop music. I really like Broadcast.
If you could change anything with the music journalism today, what would it be?
I don't know enough about it. I always envisioned its guys with tape on their glasses sitting in a room and talking about how great the Doobie Bros. were or something. I never wanted to be a rock critic. I never wanted to be one of those guys with tape on their glasses who didn't get laid. Blech, you know? There's something really geeky about that, its like they replaced rock 'n' roll from going to the Star Trek convention you know? I never really liked rock critics. Lester Bangs was really like that. He was a 7th Day Adventist who replaced Jesus for rock 'n' roll. He'd preach at you. And if you disagreed, he'd get really mad at you, it was really weird. So we'd say stuff to piss him off all the time. It was fun to piss off Lester. He'd get furious. He wrote that horrible piece about White Noise supremacists, that we were racists. We were the least racist people we knew!
How has the tour been going?
I'm really shocked, because the kids seem to love [my new book] more than Please Kill Me. They were talking to me afterwards. There were a couple hundred kids, mostly talking to me about the new book. It surprised me because I thought, "Nobody gives a shit about me and my dead girlfriend." It's given me a lot of energy and strength, in a real way.
Are you working on anything else now?
Yes, I lived in a small town in Pennsylvania and Gillian and I came across a girl's journals that we turned into a diary, called Dear Nobody. That's going up for sale as we speak. It's quite good. You remember reading Go Ask Alice when you were 12 or 13 and thinking that was great? That was made up by its Avon editor. That bugged me because when I read it when I was 12 or 13, I thought nobody I'd ever met used any of the slang used in the book, that seemed fishy. I did research and found there'd never been an original manuscript. I thought there should have been a real Go Ask Alice. Then we came across these journals, that was a diary. She was 15 or 16 and she dies in the end. Again. Everybody tends to die in my books.
How do you feel about Minneapolis?
I like the Minneapolis scene. We're staying with Doug Anderson. Doug's a great guy and we love the food at Nick and Eddie. He better serve his butterscotch pudding at the new place or I'm going to kick his ass. It's amazing. It's almost better than sex. Not quite. But almost. Tell him he better have it or he's a dead man. I want it morning, noon and night.
Legs McNeil and Gilliian McCain Open the Belmore/New Skyway Lounge 25 South 4th Street, Minneapolis Saturday, Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. Free BYO refreshment as no food or alcohol will be for sale
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