Legs McNeil is one of the three original founders of the seminalPunk magazine that gave the punk movement its name. At the age of 19, McNeil gathered with two high school friends and decided to create "some sort of media thing" for a living. The name "Punk" was decided upon because "it seemed to sum up...everything...obnoxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd, ironic, and things that appealed to the darker side”. A contemporary classic, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk is the definitive oral history of the most nihilistic of all pop movements. Iggy Pop, Richard Hell, the Ramones, and scores of other punk figures lend their voices to this decisive account of that explosive era. It is the number one best-selling Punk book of all time. It has been published in 12 languages and helped launch the oral history trend in music books. McNeil is a former editor at Spin, served as editor-in-chief of Nerve Magazine, writes a column for VICE and his own website pleasekillme.com. McNeil also co-author of The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry,I Slept with Joey Ramone (A Punk Rock Family Memoir)withMickey Leigh, Joey Ramone’s real brother, and Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose which is another collaborative effort with Gillian McCain. For 20 years, McNeil and McCain have been working on 69, a book that documents the late-‘60s California music scene and Manson’s role in it. Boy Scout talked to McNeil about CBGB, Cheeseburgers, and Charles Bukowski.
Boy Scout: If you arrived in New York City in 2019 filled with great ambition, how might you ascend to your artistic summit?
Legs McNeil: I think I would have done the same thing I've always done. Just kind of find something I wanted to do and do it. You know? I mean I hung around Spin Magazine until they hired me. I mean, you just go in and start working, you know? Prove your worth to them and they’ll give you a job.
Boy Scout: The late Harry Dean Stanton believed “Everything is predestined. Nothing is important. Life is an illusion. It’s all a movie. Nobody’s in charge” which is lovingly referred to as his Appreciation of Nothing. Do you have a guiding life philosophy that keeps you on the path?
Legs McNeil: Yeah somebody's got to bring home the bacon. I think the whole punk scene was basically learned everything from Andy Warhol. In the Factory people just keep working, just kept doing it. I mean working is fun. At least I think so. But I don't think anything is predestined. I think you can write your own ticket. At least that's what I did.
Boy Scout: From the outset you have lived hand to heart cataloguing both risk and rebellion. Life’s great reward seems to have came from your all-guts attitude. Can you describe what this kind of artistic endurance means to you?
Legs McNeil: I just like good stories. I like the humanity of it. Cheetah Chrome throwing guinea pigs out the window, I think it's hysterical. It’s also, you know, like their guinea pigs. Cute little furry animals and this guy's having a tantrum and throwing out the window. I think that what works about Please Kill Me and why it’s sold over a million copies now.
I think people would have joined the punk scene had they known how much fun it was. But no one really got it, you know? And Please Kill Meput it into a narrative context and showed you the history of it. So, everyone's like, wow, that sounds like fun. I want to be in that! But it wasn't until the scene was put into a narrative story that people actually understood what was going on
Boy Scout: Do you believe the fashion of the time, the snarling attitude, was an impediment to a national embrace?
LegsMcNeil: Well I think the mainstream media was not very kind to punk and did not try to understand it at all. Pictures of people like Sid Vicious snarling at the camera and saying “fuck off”, and all that stuff, was kind of a turn-off to a lot of people saying “These people a bunch of assholes.” And then, when Sid allegedly killed Nancy, it was kind of like, “See! I knew these guys were assholes. All this guy does is take lots of heroin and kill his girlfriend,” you know? So, I think the way punk was presented to the world for the major media was a kind of disastrous for it and it turned a lot of people off.
Boy Scout: You were only a teenager when you appropriated the word “Punk” as co-founder and “Resident Punk” of influential Punk magazine, which you named. The word to you meant “Amateur; smart but broke.” And “a guy who knew more than he thought he did." Does Punk still make you proud?
Legs McNeil: Oh yeah, yeah, because it's still evolving, you know? And it's still going on, and people are really enjoying it, and doing things, and inventing, and inventing themselves into the lives they want to live. Because when we started Punk Magazine I was nineteen and there were basically only two ways to be, either a “jock” or a “hippie,” and both of those did not appeal to me and it seemed like the world was a bigger place. I mean, isn't there room for all us weirdos who, you know, love The Velvets, and The Stooges, and The Dolls-- kind of defined by the music -- but also by our interests? So, I think it was it was important to make, to introduce, a new faction to make the world bigger and I think punk did that and I'm very proud of that.
Boy Scout: Did you also have hope’s that it might galvanize into movement?
Legs McNeil: In a sense. I just wanted The Ramones to sell records and I want Punk magazine to sell magazines. So, a movement in that sense. But I don't think hip can really be a mass movement, you know?
Boy Scout: You are incredibly active on social media and much like your work, unabashed. Do you find kinship in writings of Hunter Thompson, Lester Bangs, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, and the comedy of Lenny Bruce?
Oh yeah. When I started hanging out with John Holmstrom in Cheshire, Connecticut, he had all the Lenny Bruce albums. I used to go over his apartment and listen to him. I mean money Bruce was really kind of an inspiration, and a hero. And the other writers, Hunter Thompson was great but he got caught in that shtick of being Hunter Thompson and having to live which I think was a little bit sad. And Lester, couldn't write around anything but Rock & Roll which is also kind of sad.
Bukowski basically wrote the same story over and over. He was a brilliant writer privileged the same fucking story over and over again. You know, he woke up, fucked the chick, got some coffee, went through the mail. It's great stuff.
I mean that they're all good. Lester… I was not such a big fan of his writing. Because he wrote, like, a 10,000 word essay on Raw Power, I think it was Raw Power, or one of The Stooges songs, and it was kind of like“Why do you want to read a 10,000 word essay?” why just put on the fucking record, you know? But Lester did expose a lot of people to this music so God bless him.
Boy Scout: Punk, which crystalized in New York, was angry, hilarious, incisive and immediate. Much like your writing. Is writing a therapeutic process for you?
Legs McNeil: Therapeutic in the way that I want to get it right, you know? Where Gillian McCain (Co-writer “Please Kill Me”) and I go back and forth and back and have some of the best conversations of our life when we are arguing it out around our different perspectives. So, yeah, when we when we're doing all this even with even with Please Kill Me, we don't know the story until we talk to the people and then you know then we have to sit down I go “Wow. Maybe it means this?” It's kind of weird going in and doing a book where you don't know what the ending is? But that's what we do and it's a really interesting process, I must say. And fascinating. And I think we're both compelled to keep doing it because we keep finding shit out, and that's great right, you know?
Boy Scout: Your Vice column entitled "David Bowie Stole My Suicide Record So I Ripped the Hubcaps off of His Limo” sums up everything about the great thumb nosers of our time. From the Bowery Boys to Johnny Rotten, there is something innately important about troublemakers who aspire. In finding your way with nothing in your pockets, was desperation a great motivator?
Legs McNeil: Of course, desperation is always… I mean, there's kids out there now that are stuck in the suburbs and they want to just get out to New York or LA, and you know they're just desperate to do something. I mean desperation is just key I think. You know, you have to really hate where you are in order to prevail and have some success, I think. It wasn't just me, it was everybody. Nobody had any money. That’s another thing I'm so proud of. A bunch of people who had nothing, created something. I think that's kind of the genius of the punk scene and people who were inspired amateurs, you know?
Boy Scout: Debbie Harry once told me that she could work a single gig a week pay her rent and have a life in New York and that's something that's obviously no longer possible anywhere in the world, was that your experience?
Legs McNeil: Well, I was just I was just hanging out with Joey (Ramone) drinking and picking up girls. I didn't really think about paying the rent because I just lived at different girls houses. We didn't have a shower in the punk dump (the flophouse/office of PunkMagazine), so I'd say “Hey baby, do you a shower? Can I come over use your shower? Hey, do you think you can make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Come on, come on … buy me a pack of cigarettes?”
I mean it was you know was fun. Like most scenes there was only like 200-core people and you knew everybody. Most of them didn't want to buy you a beer, so you went on to the newer people. But it was some it was so much fun. Plus, besides all the drinking and all the drugs, we were having very good conversations with each other about books and movies, and about things that we thought were good, and things that we thought were bad. So, we were kind of defining it as we went along.
Boy Scout: Anthony Bourdain’s wrenching “Parts Unknown” finale takes place in New York’s lower East Side where a good deal of your history resides. In that episode, Lydia Lunch says: “People were beautiful, doing things because they had to do it—not because of any other grand idea. Happiness was not the goal; satisfaction was the goal, as it still is. . . . We had to do something because we were burning; our blood was on fire.” Lunch made very clear that in the presentday, she wastes no time pining for that bygone time—but Bourdain seemed a little more wistful. As a cultural significant, are you ever wistful for an older, grittier New York?
Legs McNeil: Do I miss the old New York? Yeah, but I'm older now and New York changes all the time. I wrote in Hit Parader… I used to do these Legs McNeil famous-persons interviews and I would make stuff up. In one of the episodes, something happens, and the Mayor congratulates all the punk people, but of course, I'm not invited. You know, it's kind of what happened? Punk is now recognized, and codified, and it's this great contributing to the cultural wonderment of New York City, but we're not invited.
So, I kind of knew it then. I mean one of the reasons I moved to New York was to get rid of all the assholes that lived in the suburbs of Connecticut, you know? And now New York is filled with all those people. They kind of chased us out and made the rents too high, made everything else too expensive. But New York has always been in constant flux, it's always changing, and that's what great about New York. Whether I'm invited to the party or not, doesn't really matter.
Boy Scout: In a time of faltering news platforms, transient facts and generations who opt for digital currency over great literature, how will the stories of those that came before us survive?
Legs McNeil: Well, it's been always been my opinion that 99% of everything that's produced is crap. But there's always that ten to one percent of things … you know, there's always a movie I want to see, there's always a book I want to read, there's always some photographs I want to see too.
So, I've never really paid attention to what everyone else is doing. I think you’ve got to look for that 10% of stuff that’s good stuff. It just means you have to search it out a little harder. I think there's always there's only something good out there. Not everything is complete shit. I mean most of it is. I just think you have to be able to discern, for yourself, what's good and what's bad.
Boy Scout: With the eradication of many of New York City’s cultural landmarks through hyper-gentrification, an act that seems to be eroding the soul of many cultural capitals, will our artistic heritages henceforth be confined to yellowing newsprint and the libraries of the past?
Legs McNeil: There’s places in Brooklyn. There are some cool clubs in New York City still. People are doing interesting stuff in them and they're having fun. We weren’t thinking: “CBGB an important cultural place.” It was a place where we can play original music which was really important. Because there were really only two places in New York City where you could actually play original songs.
It only got hip from the people that it attracted. I mean when you have The Ramones, and Blondie, and Talking Heads, the New York Dolls and everybody else in one place, it's going to be a fucking happening scene because the people are so great. And I think what kind of damages the scenes from happening now is… you know, nobody wanted punk. So, you had about two years from 75’ to about 75’ where people could really work on their craft and really develop their art and what they wanted to say and things. Instead of being bought off right away by the… nowadays, if you have a scene, some vodka company will come in and sponsor you, you know?
But I think the natural the natural ability of people to imagine, and to wonder about things, it's always going to keep. The technology is always going to change and you have to adapt to that. I mean, do I miss physical books? I still read physical books and I loved magazines. I loved laying out Punk magazine on boards, you know, we used to use boards to lay out stuff, because computers didn't exist, and I loved the feeling of that. There's definitely a different … You can see it … you can see it in a magazine that's laid out by computer, and one that's laid out on boards. But I think it's what you do with the technology that's important. Not that it keeps changing and making out making old things obsolete. I mean we have pleasekillme.com. I look forward to reading the articles in it because I never know what's coming up. It's so much fun to me.
Boy Scout: The last couple of years has seen a country divided. Has the current political climate inhibited or infused your work?
Legs McNeil: You know, I hated Nixon I hated him with a passion when I was in high school. It's kind of the same thing. I mean Trump is an asshole and we have to get rid of him. I think you know everyone in the punk scene knew that. I just can't believe that so many people were taken in. I mean, Hillary was an awful candidate, you know? She's cold. She just comes off like this third grade math teacher. A public school teacher who's just mean all the time. I don't think anybody wanted to vote for her. Though I think she would have been much honest and better president than Trump but things happen for a reason. It does affect me but I try not to let it. You know you know you got to keep going. I hate when everything becomes political because it becomes less fun. That’s why on the website (pleasekillme.com), we make allusions to Trump being an asshole but we don't concentrate on it. In fact, at one time I wanted to put on the website “Trump-free content.”
Boy Scout: Did Punk Magazine have a political bent or did you steer clear of politics there too?
Legs McNeil: Well, I think we tried to stay clear of it, you know? You can kind of tell from the writing. But we took on Disco that was our big thing. That was a big political , you know, “Disco Sucks!” … it's much more fun. I don't think you want to divide your audience anymore. I mean, but then in the beginning of Punk, we didn't really have an audience … so we're gonna do whatever the fuck we wanted.
It was a turn in New York City when the Vietnam War had just ended, the gay scene and the woman's movement was just erupting, so no one knew what to be. So, we were kind of like, let's kind of celebrate being alive. Because politics tends to be very dry and boring.
Boy Scout: In your very first interview for Punk Magazine, you ambush Lou Reed at CBGB. As you begin the interview you find yourself salivating over his cheeseburger. To create a sit down for a magazine that's not even formulated yet is incredible but to walk out with a triumphant interview in hand is kind of a fractured fairytale. I love to hear how things begin.
Legs McNeil: John Holmstrom was really the music guy. He had read in Lester Bangs column in Cream Magazine about The Dictators. We got that album and it was fucking great, you know? And John had seen The Ramones,I believe, before we had seen them. So, when we went to CBGB that first night… and John had always been playing Metal Machine Music, which is you know, Lou Reed’s double album of just pure feedback that John thought was the ultimate punk record, which I thought was a piece of shit.
So, when we walked at CBGB's, Lou was sitting there with Danny Fields and I was like “Hey! there's that guy you're playing.” I really didn't know about the Velvets history at that point. I mean, I subsequently went out and bought White Light/White Heat the next week which was a great fucking album. I think it was the first album I ever bought. But I was only 19. I couldn't afford to buy records. I was really that kind of white trash latchkey kid who didn't have a penny to his name.
It wasn't Alice Cooper, it wasn't Iggy Pop. Those were my two big heroes. It's just another fuckin guy who made a shitty album. I mean, I loved Lou Reed Live, the album. But I wasn't really impressed and plus, Lou was with Rachel, who was this trans-something, you didn't know if it was a man… although she had five o'clock shadow. So, I wasn't really impressed with Lou. You know, maybe if he was with a really hot girl I would have been but he didn't present himself well. Later on, when I really got into the Velvets it was kind of like “Wow, this guy's fucking great” and also his solo records too.
The stuff about the cheeseburgers… we were starving. We didn't have any money. And Lou took us to the Lo Cal and was eating this huge cheeseburger. All I kept doing with staring at the fucking cheeseburger. I think we could afford one beer between us. We took a sip and passed it on to the next guy. But Holmstrom was jumping up and down “We got Lou Reed for the cover! We got Lou Reed for the cover.” I was kind of like, “Yeah, but did you see that chick he was with?” I didn't know why John was so excited. Until I saw the stuff that he did with it. When he asked him “who's your favorite cartoonist” and stuff, and then he drew it in, you know Wally Wood… that I thought was fucking fantastic. And you know, I kind of saw the brilliance of the magazine. I mean cause John was kind of the guiding light. And by doing it hand lettered, I think we reestablished a real a real rapport with our audience, because it was almost like someone who written you a note in study-hall passed it on. I like that about Punk magazine a lot you know? The hand lettering, I thought was just absolutely brilliant. And you can manipulate the words better, you know? You can make them pop out, or drip, or whatever you wanted.
Boy Scout: I cannot imagine the impact of what this must have looked like when it hit the street at that time with that name. it must have felt like one of your own and it must have had an immediate reaction.
Legs McNeil: It did. I remember we were collating the first issue by hand and The Ramones were supposed to be playing with The Heartbreakers at a club called Sea of Clouds New Year's Eve, 1976. They ended up not playing because I think The Heartbreakers got ripped off, and they were not going to pay or something. But I had brought like four or five of the magazines to the club, and I walked there. It was on Houston. Our printer was in Soho right there. I walked up to Broadway and people were grabbing magazine out of my hands and running away with it. So, that night was probably the most exciting night.
And I thought the magazine was a stupid idea, John said “No, no… if we do a magazine, people will want to hang out with us and buy us drinks.” I had one copy left of the magazine when I got there, and Danny Fields and Joey Ramone was standing there, I've given it to them, and they started looking at it, you know, studying it really closely, and then Danny turned around to me said “Legs, can I get you a beer?” and I thought “Wow, Holmstrom was right!” … so our scheme worked.
Boy Scout: I could stay on this tangent forever because that hamburger is like your “Rosebud?”
Legs McNeil: Yeah, you know, I still wanted a bite of that hamburger, it looked so fucking good. I was kind of being an asshole to Lou too for not buying us drinks or something, you know…?
Boy Scout: Did Lou Reed circle back and say anything to you and Holmstrom about that issue?
Legs McNeil: He loved Holmstrom. Whenever they were together he would pull Homstrom aside and talk his ear off for an hour and I just thought “This is so fucking boring” and I’d pull on John’s sleeve and I go “Let's go downtown. Let's go back to CBs and hang out. I don’t want to up here. These people are all so old. I don't want to hang up with them. Let's go let's go back to CBGB's and pick up girls,” you know? And John be like “Shhh. Quiet, Legs, Shhh,” and go back to talking to Lou for another hour. I just be sitting here. Lou never even looked at me after that.
Although, when the Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Lou was called up to the stage to receive his award, I was sitting near him, and he bumped into me and he said “Hey buddy, how you doing?” and shook my hand which I thought was very sweet of him. But for most of the time he just thought I was a jerk and had nothing to do with me.
Boy Scout: On that first cover of Punk Magazine it says “Brando. Ramones. Girls. Legs.”
Legs McNeil: It was defined that I was gonna be the Alfred E. Newman of the magazine, which I was happy with, you know, starting my career off as a cartoon character. It was fun. We’d get drunk and go uptown to the Upper East Side and get thrown out of every bar. We were kinda creating the future so everything was just hysterically funny to us.
I mean why would why would they want to have a dirtbag in a leather jacket in an Upper East Side bar with all these yuppies or whatever they were called then?
Boy Scout: Has your bravery grown through the ages?
Legs McNeil: I don't think I'm that brave. At all, you know? You know, I think what made me braver was alcohol and rock and roll. I mean hearing The Ramones, how can you not be brave after you hear a Ramones set? You just feel like driving the car off of a cliff while you're getting a blowjob at 150 miles an hour, you know? I mean the music to me was just so exciting and so powerful. At the Punk Dump, Holmstrom used to… we had a tape of The Ramones before the album first came out and John used to play it in the morning to wake us up instead of having coffee. It was great, you know? When you start your day playing the Ramones album you're going to have a fucking good day.
But I think it was the community that we made each other braver, you know? Like “Yeah, yeah, you could do that you know that'd be cool, fuck man, yeah, try that!” Everyone was very nice. I mean there were a lot of fighting and gossiping and stuff like that, but people were very…. Plus, we were working all the time. You always had a photo shoot. We were always setting something …even if it was just for our own magazine. Everybody cooperated and everybody was very, very nice and very easy to work with. I mean when we shot Nick Detroit --- you know Richard was a bit of a pain in the ass --- but everyone else was great. But Richard's always been a pain in the ass.
Boy Scout: In a media mad world, can sincerity still be a virtue?
Legs McNeil: Yeah, of course it can, yeah but I think it has to be honest sincerity. You know, now if it's Christmastime and on almost every channel there's a remake of A Christmas Carol and none of them none of them compare to the Alastair Sim version. You know, the original version. And (the remakes) are so insincere. We live in an age where everything is constantly remade and updated and the sincerity gets lost. I don't know why they just don't rerun the Alastair Sim version? You know, the thirties version, which is just spectacular. And that has sincerity in it. But I think when you keep remaking it and redoing it, I think the sincerity gets lost. I think it has to be original sincerity.
I mean at the end when Jerry Nolan dies, and I was not good friends with Jerry at all, but when he dies in Please Kill Me,I was sobbing when we were editing that together and I never read it again. I just said “Here, Gillian..” But I think there's sincerity in that. I think that's the great thing about Please Kill Me is it it's equally hysterically funny and equally, you know, hysterically tragic. But I think you need both of those things in a really good book.
Yeah, you can have sincerity but it has to be the white-knuckle sincerity of life. I think if you represent that, people will read you and buy it.
Boy Scout: Abraham Lincoln said “To summon up our better angels,” what are the words that you live by?
Legs McNeil: “God is in the details,” “Just do it.” We also don't know what we're doing when we're doing it, you know? I mean, that's always, it's kind of you find out as you're doing it. And luckily we're in a position where we can afford to do that. And make mistakes and waste some money but not a lot. I'm in my 60s now. I have a very nice life. We love what we're doing. We just love it. And we love the people we work with.
So, I think if you're a broke kid without any prospects, just hang in there. You can… life can be much bigger and much more fulfilling than you think it can be.
Boy Scout: Do you have any regrets?
Legs McNeil: Oh! I have hundreds and tons of regrets, girls I treated badly and you know things I fucked up. You know, when I was too drunk to make it or too hungover to make it the next day to some meeting. Yeah, you know, but fuck it, you know? That's what being a human being is all about, you know? I mean the unfortunate thing about me is, I had to grow up in public. So, there's a lot of interviews where I say a lot of stupid things trying to get reactions and trying to piss people off and stuff. But who fucking cares? At least that's how I was at the time, you know? I have thousands of regrets, yeah.
Boy Scout: What is your greatest fear?
Legs McNeil: Greatest fear? Of not getting it. Of not, articulating it well enough so that other people can get it too, you know? I think that's the big fear.
Boy Scout: How would you like to be remembered?
Legs: I don't fucking care. I won’t be here. Who gives a shit?
Boy Scout: What does 2019 hold for you? What projects you are currently working on?
Legs McNeil: Well, we're just finishing a book that we've been working on full-time for 10-years that's called 69, a narrative oral history. It's about the 60s in LA and going into Manson.
Boy Scout: Did the writing utilize the same Q&A interview structure as “Please Kill Me?”
Legs McNeil: Yeah, Please Kill Me-style. I think it's going to be better than Please Kill Me. But you never know. You never know.