In the early ‘70s a young Legs McNeil was fresh to New York City and struggling to break into the film industry. Friend and acclaimed underground illustrator, John Holmstrom enlisted a reluctant McNeil to help produce a self-published ‘zine, and the result was Punk. Although now a tired genre descriptor, McNeil was the first person to apply the four-word pejorative to the chaotic music scene that was exploding in New York by ‘76.The title’s spiritual home was the iconic CBGB venue, and in its short three-year run Punk would become one of the definitive documents of the revolution that was gripping the city.
Far from being relegated to the margins of music history, McNeil has sustained a lifelong career as an author, notably publishing Please Kill Me, an oral history of punk and The Other Side of Hollywood – an exploration of the modern porn industry. His compelling depictions of fringe cultures continue to resonate with a new era of youth obsessed with revivalism, nostalgia and the grimy era of punk.
I read that you originally moved to New York to make movies. How did that play out?
I was making movies for the state of Connecticut on mental retardation when I was 18. John Holmstrom wanted to start a magazine called Teenage News and I said, “Why don’t we call it Punk?”
So, you weren’t versed in publishing at that point? You were pretty much dedicated to film?
I had been writing a comic strip for Holmstrom for Bananas, which was a Scholastic magazine for junior high school kids when I was 15 or 16, so I’d always been writing something, you know?
Why did you agree to pursue this magazine endeavour?
I thought it was a stupid idea. It wasn’t until he took us to CBGB and we saw The Ramones for the first time. Then we met Lou Reed and we interviewed him that night. It was kind of exciting and fun, plus you got drunk and picked up lots of girls.
How was interviewing Lou Reed?
You know what the awful thing about that was? We were literally starving, he was eating this huge cheeseburger in front of us, and he was just devouring it. We were just staring at it like “Can I have a bite?” I think we could order one Coca-Cola apiece, we were just so broke. He didn’t say, “Hey can I get you something to eat?”
I’m coming from a different time now, where it’s so easy for me to reach out to people because of the internet. How did you reach out to these guys? Especially someone of Lou Reed’s calibre.
We just ran into him at CBGB, that was our first night there. I just went up to him and said “Hey! You’re Lou Reed!” John Holmstrom was always playing Metal Machine Music, which was a double album of just noise. I was always going “Ugh, take that shit off! Cut it out!” So I went up to him thinking of him as that guy who did The Velvet [Underground] – I really liked The Velvets a lot. I said, “Hey, we’re going to interview you,” and John said “Yeah, we’ll even put you on the cover.” Lou Reed deadpan says “Oh your circulation must be fabulous.” He kind of set the gauntlet, so we were like ‘We can do anything with this guy.” I really liked Lou Reed, both his personas. I knew deep down he was a nice guy – you can’t write all those great songs without having some kind of depth and humanity to you.
I’m really intrigued by funding and distribution for independent media. How did you keep Punk mag afloat? Did you have advertisers?
We were in all the 7-Elevens for the first three issues. We were doing pretty good for this magazine that we had just launched with absolutely no money. Holmstrom and our publisher Ged Dunn had a big fight and falling out so John fired Ged. Punk could never keep the print schedule after we lost Ged, so that was kind of tragic.
I’m sure that a lot of people speak to you about coining the term ‘punk’. What did it mean to you prior to being exposed to the magazine, the music and the scene?
To me it meant being smart but broke. You know, an amateur. A guy who knew more than he thought he did. Who was kind of a smart ass, intelligent but also at the bottom of the barrel.
You were only a teenager and you appropriated the word ‘punk’ and looking back, you basically branded this global cultural and historical movement. How does that fact play out with you now?
I’m kind of proud. I mean the word was around, people had been using it. I didn’t know that. I didn’t read rock and roll magazines. Lester Bangs [journalist for Rolling Stone] had used it. A lot of people had used it to describe garage bands. Alice Cooper was named Punk of the Year in 1972 or 1974? It was kind of a word that was bandied about, but I wasn’t thinking of that. I was just thinking of the music that we liked – The Dictators, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground. All of this music that was out there with this great attitude, great lyrics and great songs. Punk seemed to describe that to me.
When did you start working at Spin magazine? What was that like in comparison to Punk, which was quite independent and free spirited?
What was selling in the ‘70s and early ‘80s was crap. There were all of these great bands that people should have known about that were trying to get out there like The Ramones, The Dead Boys and The Dictators but they didn’t really sell. What was selling in the ‘80s was Sting, Bon Jovi, Madonna, all this crapolla. Spin was not fun. I tried to do most of the non-music features because I couldn’t write about that music.
Later on you started a magazine called Nerve – was that your own publication?
The publishers of High Times had a magazine called Reflex that was only selling a certain amount, so they gave me six months to see if I could do something with it. At that time I was doing long-form articles, the internet was taking over and I should never have done it. It was a disaster!
I became aware of your work through your book Please Kill Me which touches on your Punk days. When you wrote Please Kill Me was it purely for nostalgia?
Nerve had just gone under and I was really depressed and lost a lot of money. I wanted to fall in love with writing again. Dee Dee Ramone approached me to edit his book and I said “Why don’t we do this as an oral history?” I started by interviewing Danny Fields [ex-manager of The Ramones and Iggy and the Stooges], who provided the spine for Please Kill Me. He was kind of the unofficial narrator, and then Gillian McCain [co-author of Please Kill Me] came on board. When I was working at magazines you were always on such tight deadlines, so the work always could have been a little bit better. I wanted to do something where I took my time, so that when I looked back, it would be exactly how I wanted it to be. The result was Please Kill Me.
What about now? Obviously there is the nostalgia element but do you still feel personally connected to the content in the book?
Everyone wanted me to write my own punk story and I thought “No, this is bigger than Legs McNeil getting drunk and falling down and hanging out with different bands and all that.” I thought, “What if we interview everybody and talked about all these great events?” And it all came together. What’s my relationship to it? Well, everyone is dying, everyone is dead. I mean every month someone else dies, it’s really sad.
There have been a lot of books since then, and not to say it was the best of its kind…
You can say that it’s the best.
I just read the LA punk history We Got The Neutron Bomb. There are a lot of books in this genre now – I guess you wouldn’t have expected it to have that impact?
There are about 100 oral histories relating to music, all copying Please Kill Me. I didn’t expect the book to sell. Vanity Fair were thinking of excerpting it and I went to my publisher Morgan and said “Is Vanity Fair really going to publish this?” and he was like, “No Legs, it’s a book about junkies and whores.” It was kind of a labour of love. I didn’t think it would sell at all.
Was it an instant success or did it take an extended period of time after the release to find shine?
What they did was send review copies to [acclaimed film director] John Waters, who consequently doesn’t review books anymore. He knew everybody in the book, and he was calling everybody and reading their parts – so the phone started ringing and everyone was like “Where is my copy of the book?” Having John Waters as your advance man is pretty spectacular. We sold the book when it was half way done and then we were on a really tight deadline to finish it. We were pretty exhausted, and we weren’t expecting the avalanche of press. I’d be in my apartment and the phone would ring at 10 in the morning and I wouldn’t get off it until 5 in the afternoon. The publicist, she hated me and gave everyone my home number.
I read you were an assistant director on a porn film and you wrote The Other Hollywood about it. I’m interested to know what led you to that industry? Aside from the obvious…
Before we started Punk I was working at this hippy film commune called Total Impact on 14th street and 2nd avenue. They were making some hippy movie, it was ’75 so the concept of the movie was already out-dated. It was about some copy editor who takes ass and becomes sexually free. They ran out of money and in order to finance their film they decided to do a porn film called Blow Dry. I worked on that as the Assistant Director. After I finished Please Kill Me I thought, “If Charles Dickens was alive, he would be writing about the porn industry.” The porn industry to me was very similar to punk, but made more money. Everything up until that point that was written about porn was coached in the morality of the times, so it was kind of dumb – “Porn is bad for you.” Someone wrote in an introduction of some book “Porn does not describe a thing, it describes an argument.” No one had ever really written a book describing what it is, so I decided to write a book using the oral history format describing it. Unfortunately, I was late. By the time the book came out Jenna Jameson had written her book and Boogie Nights had come out in the middle of it. I thought it was a good book, but it didn’t really sell that well.
I believe there is a strong correlation between the themes of the punk and porn industries, perhaps the theme of excess? What would you say are the main similarities between the two?
There were lots of drugs and a lot of drug addicts, which I’m really happy being around and familiar with. I remember the dinners I would have in LA, everyone would be in hysterics laughing with all the pornstars around for dinner. I didn’t know much about it when I was going in other than that the mob had supported and financed Deep Throat for $22-$40,000 and it made $100 million dollars, and that’s really what created the porn film industry. Of course over time it became legitimate.
Obviously the porn and the punk industries are quite taboo…
They’re not taboo to me! I live in a really small town and everybody is in a hardcore band, and you know porn you can watch on your iPhone now. At the time I guess it was taboo but I never said “Ooh this is the dark stuff,” I just thought, “This is my life.”
Between the two which would you say was seedier?
They’re both pretty seedy. No one made any money in punk, with very rare exceptions. In the porn industry they made a lot more money but there was a lot more seediness with the sex going on. So I don’t know, poverty and drugs in punk –and sex and money with the porn industry? Probably the porn industry because it had Hollywood right there, it had more access to seediness than punk did because no one wanted punk.
Do you find it difficult to deal with the fact that people know so much about your personal feelings and personal experience?
I hopefully write in a way that people can relate to. I think when you’re reading you think about yourself, you’re not thinking about me. Everybody has had tragedies, I’m sure you have too, and if not, you will soon enough.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the print media industry. It’s obviously played a large part in your professional history, but where do you see print media falling into your future endeavours?
I think the great print media – New York Times, Wall Street Journal – the things that are essential will always be there. The superfluous stuff will go online, and the things that people don’t really need to read. The industry has definitely changed. Everybody is scrambling to find how to make money.
Please Kill Me has a digital platform now, are you involved in that?
We’ve had so many problems with it but we’re getting a new guy so hopefully we’ll work out the problems. I mean we’re getting like 20-30 thousand hits a day on it, but then the page was going down so much that people were getting frustrated.
Do you ever proactively read your comment sections?
Oh yeah, I read all the comments! I don’t comment on the comments though, or I’d say, “You’re a fucking asshole,” or “Go blow me,” or “Hey you’re cute. What are you doing?”
What’s the worst thing you’ve read about yourself?
People claim to know me and say that I’m an asshole, which is probably right, but I don’t know who these people are. The worst thing I’ve ever read about myself? Just things like “He’s a dick,” “He’s a jerk.”
Is there any truth to that?
Sure. When I was writing for Spin and I was on deadline and people would stop you and try to talk to you when you’re running to the airport. I don’t know what people expect from me or want from me. If you tell them great stories about The Ramones then you’re showing off, and if you don’t talk to them then you’re an asshole. It’s like you can’t win so why bother worrying about it?
Is there anyone from around that time that you still communicate with? I think I read that you still communicate with Richard Hell [Television].
Arturo Vega [Art Director for The Ramones] was one of my closest friends, but he died last year and that kind of finished it off for me. I still talk to a lot of people, I’m still friendly when I see them but it’s kind of like everyone is getting so old. [Acclaimed photographer] Leee Childers just died and he was a really nice guy.
It’s different coming from a perspective where it’s been documented in a book, so I guess the relationships seem like they’re a lot more solid than perhaps they were?
I thought I would die before everyone else the way I was going, with the way I was drinking and stuff. So I never kind of conceived of myself getting old and having everyone die around me. So it’s kind of awful.
Photography by Ramon Felix