LitMonkey Special: May 2014, Part 2: Punk Edition
Three weeks. Three books. Three very different looks at punk rock – or, more accurately, the punk rock scene – in the mid to late 1970s. Throw in a murder mystery or two and you’ve got quite the adventure that I went on from mid-April through early May when I devoured: (1) Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk , Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s seminal book on the period that lives on through an eponymous website to this day; (2) Sid Vicious: No One is Innocent, an incredibly in-depth account of the life and death of the “face of punk music”, written by Alan Parker, a punk insider and close acquaintance of Sid’s mother; and (3) the latest entry in the 33-1/3 series, Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation , Pete Astor’s analysis of one of the defining records of the era by the man who wore the “PLEASE KILL ME” t-shirt. Call it the circle of punk in a few wild steps.
My journey started with Please Kill Me, because in order to make sense of certain artists within the genre (in this case, Vicious and Hell) I needed to first fully grasp the overall scene. In that spirit, I should share my own personal history with punk rock, so you know where I stand knowledge-wise. I was born after the heyday of punk; in fact, according to the dates supplied by Parker, my birth pretty much exactly coincided with the demise of the Sex Pistols. By the time I was old enough to listen to rock music it was the records handed down by my father (I latched on to the Doors) and the very end of new wave (the Cure, Depeche Mode). I hit high school right when grunge did and though I was instantly blown away by Nirvana, my favorite band was and remained the Smiths. While dabbling in the likes of Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins I never became a full-fledged grunge fan, instead falling deeply into new wave and BritPop, both looking forward (Oasis, Suede, Radiohead) and backwards (Pet Shop Boys, New Order, the Human League). My musical tastes continued to evolve and I touched the outskirts of punk by listening to the Clash, but I would classify myself as an ‘80s/’90s indie/alternative music listener. My musical choices through the first decade of the new millennium didn’t get me any closer to the Pistols or the Voidoids, but I finally started listening to – and learning about – ‘70s punk rock around the start of the current decade. Over the last few years I’ve become a huge fan and a little more educated, but I was still looking for that one text that would be my punk bible, similar to how I feel about Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad’s fantastic account of the 1980’s “American Indie Underground.” I kept my eyes open until finally I thought I found it in Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. I was certain that the book from Hermes – who’s written for Rolling Stone, SPIN, and the Village Voice, just to name a few, and who co-edited SPIN: 20 Years of Alternative Music – would tell me everything I needed to know. After all, it was about New York City during the years 1973-77. It was about CBGB’s and Max’s. It talks at length about Patti Smith, the Ramones, the New York Dolls, Television, and Talking Heads, among others. I believed in the power of this book before I’d even read a word.
In the end, Love Goes turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. As I wrote in my review, I expected the book to be mostly about the downtown punk scene, but that was only about one-third of the story. I learned a lot about the New York Dolls, Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine, but the rest (disco, jazz, and Latin) I could do without. But the foundation was now built for me to find and be ready to read the actual punk bible, which turned out to be Please Kill Me.
I don’t normally enjoy oral histories, but two of the greatest books I’ve read in the past year were long, detailed oral histories. One was Loose Balls, Terry Pluto’s oral history of the zany American Basketball Association. The other was Please Kill Me. It got me thinking about what the ABA and the punk scene have in common. Both are made up of stories that are so crazy that if you didn’t hear it from the participants themselves you almost wouldn’t believe them. Both have a colorful and strange cast of characters. And, most obviously, both existed only for a few years in the mid to late 1970s. What a wonderful and crazy time to have lived through, and the oral history is the closest that a person like me could possibly hope to live through it. And who better to (co-)author it than “Legs” McNeil, one of the three original founders of Punk magazine, whose job for the magazine was “Resident Punk.” McNeil needed a real writer – one who knew punk music – and that’s where co-author Gillian McCain came in. As McCain explained in an interview, explaining her role in the book-writing process:
Legs is good on structure and I’m good with details and the poetry. He would structure it, and we would say, ‘We need something to link Lou Reed, to The Voidoids to Sylvia Reed [nee Klein] to Lou Reed. So I’m going through interviews, going through interviews, and then I found a thing where [Robert] Quine’s talking to Lou Reed, and he’s friends with Sylvia Klein. It just links. He’d be structuring and I’d be reading over the interviews reminding us what we had, and then cleaning up and editing.
There probably wasn’t one single person with enough first-hand experience about the scene and skilled enough as a writer to paint the picture that Please Kill Me does. But in combining the efforts of McNeil and McCain, that person was formed, and the results are extraordinary. The book does the obvious in delivering wild stories – some real, some likely apocryphal. Critically, it touches upon each and every character from the era – from the most obvious and important like the Ramones, to minor groupies and hangers-on – which elevates the book from a mere history of the bands to a portrait of the scene. Of course you can’t talk about punk rock without talking about Dee Dee Ramone, but McNeil and McCain realized that you can’t do it without talking about people like Danny Fields and Bebe Buell either. More than the stories though, and more than the characters, I came away from Please Kill Me with a full understanding of the evolution of punk rock. The prologue acknowledges pre-punk (the Doors) and then discusses in detail the man and band that were the godfathers of punk, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. It’s a perfect metaphor for what the Velvet Underground were: the prologue to punk rock. Music, after all, (even punk music) is an evolutionary process more than a revolutionary one. You can trace a line from everything that followed in the New York City punk scene back to the Velvets, which the authors do over the next four parts of the book, covering the years 1967-1977: the Velvets begat Detroit’s MC5, who led to Iggy and the Stooges, then Patti Smith (more person and poetry than musician), then the New York Dolls, David Bowie, back to Patti (phase two – Patti as musician with the Patti Smith Group), Television, the Ramones, the Dead Boys, the Heartbreakers, a visit overseas from the Sex Pistols, the Dictators, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and finally Blondie, after which things went in a variety of directions, notably mainstream, new wave, post-punk and indie/alternative. By 1978 punk rock was all but dead, and Part 5 (and some of part 4, which covers 1976-77) deals with the sudden collapse of the scene. Patti Smith breaking her neck and back. Handsome Dick Manitoba (of the Dictators) and Wayne County had a bloody brawl at CBGB’s. Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan became heroin addicts. The Sex Pistols imploded. Nancy Spungen was killed. Sid Vicious died. With interviews from dozens of people who saw it all as the scene rose up and burned up in what seems to be almost overnight, the authors of Please Kill Me take the reader on a living, breathing trip through the American punk scene (with its heart in NYC) that has never and never will be surpassed.
Meanwhile, even with their US-centric view of punk, the authors were forced to acknowledge that one UK band had enough influence to have its presence felt across the pond. As far as America was concerned, the Sex Pistols were UK punk, and to hear Alan Parker tell it you would have to agree. If the Sex Pistols were the embodiment of UK punk, Sid Vicious was the face. Parker explains how the man who wasn’t even part of the band when it began (Vicious took over on bass for Glen Matlock in 1977), and whose bass playing is only featured on at most two songs from the Sex Pistols classic debut album Never Mind the Bollocks, became one of the most legendary figures in punk rock history. Although this is the only book I’ve ever read about the Pistols or even more generally UK punk, certain shortcomings are apparent. While Parker doesn’t hold Sid in the highest esteem, he at least treats him even-handedly; that’s not the case with John Lydon, aka Sex Pistols front-man Johnny Rotten. Parker goes out of his way again and again to cast Lydon as a backstabbing friend, the man who got into the Pistols ahead of Vicious purely by chance and abandoned his former mate when Vicious needed him most. I have to believe there is another side to this story. Also, the book is a bit sloppy with its chronology and attention to detail (some dates are clearly erroneous), which isn’t a terrible sin but does make it harder to follow than it ought to be.
These are small complaints though about what otherwise is a terrific biography of a man who meant so much to so many despite perishing at 21. Parker’s excellent research and close relationship with Vicious’s mother Anne Beverley uncover a treasure trove of information about the man with many names (Vicious was born Simon John Ritchie, one of several names he’d be known by) and how he became a punk icon. We learn about his upbringing, his lack of a father figure, his trouble in school and his eventual friendship with Lydon. We hear multiple stories about how Ritchie (by then John Beverley) got the name Sid Vicious, which could be as cruel as depicting his attitude to as benign as referencing a bite he got from Lydon’s pet hamster. We learn about Sid’s joining the Pistols despite being a terrible musician, the influence of Malcolm McLaren (who writes the foreword), and how the power struggle between Lydon, Vicious and McLaren ultimately destroyed the band. And then there was the heroin. Lots and lots of heroin. Between the heroin and the destructive force that was girlfriend Nancy Spungen, Parker illustrates the downward trajectory that Sid was on that could not end anywhere else but in an early grave. The subtitle of the book is “No One Is Innocent”, and Parker means this in a very literal sense. By the time you get to the point in the book where Vicious is laid to rest, you have to feel that everyone who touched his life – along with Sid himself – is at least partially to blame.
No one is innocent in the death of Sid Vicious, but Parker wishes to make clear that at least one person is innocent in the death of Nancy Spungen. Most people believe that Vicious was responsible for the stab wound that led to Spungen bleeding to death on a bathroom floor on October 12, 1978, just months before Vicious’s own death. Not Parker. When she committed suicide in 1996, Anne Beverley left Parker a letter asking him to help clear her son’s name. (Vicious’s case never went to trial as he died while out on bail.) Parker’s goal in writing the book – and the documentary Who Killed Nancy? – was to do just that. In total, he says he conducted 182 interviews and in doing so makes a compelling case that Sid was not responsible for Nancy’s death. Like much of the book, the information could have been presented in a more organized fashion, which would have made his case better. The evidence presented by Parker is very compelling, as is the implication that a local drug addict was the actual killer. Parker is the world’s foremost expert on Vicious, and to not know the full story of Vicious is to not understand the rise and fall of punk rock, all of which makes this book a crucial read.
Vicious may have been the face of punk rock, but the man that I personally found most drawn to when reading Please Kill Me was Richard Hell. As photographer Bob Gruen says in that book, “The first time I saw Richard Hell, he walked into CBGB’s wearing a white t-shirt with a bull’s-eye painted on it, and the words Please Kill Me written on it. That was one of the most shocking things I had ever seen. People had a lot of wild ideas back then, but for somebody to walk the streets of New York with a target on his chest, with an invitation to be killed – that’s quite a statement.”
Hell is one of the few main cogs in the scene that isn’t easily associated with a single band, as he co-formed not one, not two, but three legendary punk bands: Television with best friend Tom Verlaine, then the Heartbreakers with former New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan (the Dolls broke up the same week that Hell quit Television), and finally Richard Hell and the Voidoids. This would seem to imply an egomania, or at least an inability to get along with others, but Hell is quoted in Pete Astor’s 33-1/3 book as giving plenty of credit for classic punk album Blank Generation to his fellow Voidoids. Circumstances seemed to have just conspired to making Hell the wandering soul of punk such that he is often forgotten when talking about the punk legends. He shouldn’t be though – after all, Malcolm McLaren said that Hell was his inspiration for the Sex Pistols and that the song “Blank Generation” was the inspiration for the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant”. That’s high praise.
That is why I’m disappointed with Pete Astor’s Blank Generation. This was a chance to take a truly great album and re-introduce it to the public so that it gets the attention it deserves. That’s one of the critical functions of a 33-1/3 book. It’s what Kevin J.H. Dettmar does so well in his mini-book on Gang of Four’s Entertainment! Prior to reading that book, I didn’t appreciate the complexities and depth to be found in Entertainment! I didn’t agree with everything Dettmar had to say, but I could see where he was coming from. It made me think about and appreciate the album in a new way. Astor’s book didn’t do that for me.
At the very beginning Astor highlights exactly why Hell is such a compelling figure. I highlighted the very first paragraph in the preface, taking particular note of this passage: “Like all the best rock and roll, here was someone … who remained mired in the emotional onslaught that adolescence brings. And had no intention of doing anything other than continuing to wallow in its endless contradictions and rail against it with poise, poetry and an elegant sneer. Just another permanent adolescent, staring down the world.” The book could have been – should have been – an exploration of how Blank Generation exhibits this, how the album is the best example of Hell railing against adolescence with poise, poetry and an elegant sneer. It’s easy to see those qualities in the best tracks off of the album, like the slow “Betrayal Takes Two”, the Frank Sinatra cover “All the Way” (included in the album reissue only, but mentioned in the book as if it were on the original), the brilliant title track, and my personal favorite “The Plan”. It’s there too in most if not all of the other tracks – but it’s not my job to show you to them, its Astor’s. Astor had a theme fall right into his lap, and instead his theme was …
None. There is no theme to the book overall, nor are there ones even within the chapters (which are given headings like “Worlds” and “Texts” that have no apparent meaning). I acknowledge that as someone who wanted to get to know Hell better, there’s a decent amount to like here. I think there is some unique information offered about the man, the song-writing process, and the skills and roles of the other Voidoids (the short bio on guitarist Robert Quine is particularly good). I’m better off for having read it. Having said that, there’s just so much missing. Astor could have (and probably should have) given Blank Generation historical context, explained why it was important. He could have (and most definitely should have) broken down each song, analyzing the structure, instrumentation, texture, and of course the lyrics. Richard Hell is a brilliant lyricist! In a single paragraph review of the album, AllMusic.com says “while most punk nihilism was of the simplistic ‘Everything Sucks’ variety, Hell was (with the exception of Patti Smith) the most literate and consciously poetic figure in the New York punk scene. While there’s little on the album that’s friendly or life-affirming, there’s a crackling intelligence to songs like ‘New Pleasure,’ ‘Betrayal Takes Two,’ and ‘Another World’ that confirmed Hell has a truly unique lyrical voice, at once supremely self-confident and dismissive of nearly everything around him (sometimes including himself).” I’m at a loss as to how Astor could have generally neglected to discuss the album’s lyrics when he spends page after precious page (the book is only 112 pages long) discussing Hell’s non-musical influences, though it’s explained somewhat here: an interview Astor gave to 33-1/3 almost two years before the publication of Blank Generation where he talked about why he chose this particular album and what he hoped to accomplish with the book. Astor is an academic, who intended all along to take at least a partially academic approach to the book. Good for him, but I kept thinking as I read, “Perhaps I’m not enough of an intellectual to understand what Astor is saying.”I personally needed a lot less Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautréamont and a lot more Richard Hell and the Voidoids (or even other punk comparisons).
There are those that believe that punk music is just noise. In tearing down the bloated sound that rock music had become by the mid-‘70s, I can see how that unenlightened opinion was formed. Punk rock doesn’t contain all of the artifice that began with Sgt. Pepper’s, continued with Pink Floyd and then the rock metal bands. Musically, it’s (typically) stripped down to just the noise. But as these three books illustrate, punk rock was so much more. It was politics, culture, art, poetry, and even death. It featured characters with names like Hell and Vicious – surely appropriate, but wholly inadequate, as these men (and generally everyone around them) were far more multifaceted than that. In the end, I’m glad that I read all three books and recommend Please Kill Me as an immediate must-read for anyone who listens to punk music.
 For a counterpoint see Paul Gleeson’s review at Caught in the Carousel. Gleeson is very enthusiastic about the book, saying, “To sum up, Astor’s book is strong in all the right ways. Read it. Listen to Richard Hell. And always remember, as Patti Smith says, ‘Go Rimbaud!’” Ironically (because I read Gleeson’s review after I wrote the words above) he says that Astor’s book is all about CONTEXT. “The key word for Astor – and Hell, for that matter – is CONTEXT. And Astor wants you to know, first and foremost, that the meaning of any record – Blank Generation included – is created by the listener in the context in which it was released.” The context he’s referring to though is entirely different than the one that interests me – the scene, the music, the period. So I acknowledge that if Rimbaud is your thing then Astor’s book will be too.