“The more we fear the future, the more we recycle the past.” Legs McNeil
Growing up, my knowledge of punk rock music was limited to dancing to the Ramones’ “I Want To Be Sedated” at United Synagogue Youth events and watching videos of the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” on MTV. Later in life, as I became more familiar with punk I was struck not only by the creativity of the confrontational music of bands like the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith, but also the do-it-yourself innovation of bands like the Ramones and hardcore punk bands like Minor Threat. My discovery of punk coincided with a societal fascination with creativity; people were touting creativity and innovation as the key factor in everything from a thriving economy to good health and well-being. It was for this reason that I hoped to learn the secrets of punk rock innovation by interviewing a true “punk” original, Legs McNeil.
Legs McNeil was the co-founder of Punk magazine, the first publication to document the punk rock scene in the 1970s. He was also the senior editor for Spin magazine and, later, founder of Nerve magazine. But he is perhaps most well known for being co-author (with Gillian McCain) of the book Please Kill Me, widely considered the definitive history of punk rock. Published in 1996, Please Kill Me documented the events that made up the punk rock era, and helped create a legacy for bands that were in some cases largely unknown to the world. As McNeil puts it, “I’m not saying that we were responsible for breaking these bands but we helped mythologize them. When we did Please Kill Me no one had heard of the Dead Boys before. No one had ever heard of Johnny Thunders.”
Please Kill Me has a unique format: it “shows” the world punk rather than “tells” about it. According to McNeil, this format was innovation-out-of-necessity. He told me: “Please Kill Me isn’t about punk, it is punk. Because you can’t say ‘Hey this is how it happened’ because no one will listen.” So McNeil and co-author Gillian McCain presented parts of interviews with different people as though you were present at a round table discussion with those who were there for a given event. So when we read about Jim Morrison’s role in proto-punk, it feels like a conversation: we can almost hear Ray Manzarek saying, “Jim was a shaman” followed by Danny Fields saying, “Jim Morrison was a callous asshole.” As a result, the book was, as Robert Christgau wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “Immensely entertaining…and all too thought-provoking.”
And so it was that I realized in the interview that I was asking McNeil to tell me about punk rock. But when I first asked him to talk about “punk rock innovation” he responded by saying “I try not to as much as possible.” But what he did was better –- he showed me punk rock innovation.
McNeil explained, “My generation grew up listening to music on the radio, and that was fantastic. And I think that’s why the whole punk thing happened. Because all of these people who came of age in the 70’s we’d grown up with the Kinks and the Stones and the Beatles and heard them on the radio and then when the 70’s came it was all of this soft rock crap. And we were like ‘Hey what happened?’ And I think that’s all the people who gathered at CBGBs they were all just into really good rock and roll. And all kind of got together and supported each other.”
This backdrop was accompanied by the need for punk rock. He explained, “When I was a kid there was a generation gap; the World War 2 guys who were set in their ways, then there was us these hippie kids, or at least alternative thinkers. The reason we started “Punk” magazine was because when we were in high school, the only thing that you could be was a jock or a dope-smoking hippie. What we were reacting to was that the Left had become so didactic. The Left had nothing but rules. Remember we were coming out of the end of the Vietnam War. So when I was growing up the only possibility you had of getting laid was at an anti-war demonstration. We all were against the war in Vietnam, but it got so tedious. And that war went on forever. It’s like the option of McDonald’s or Burger King, Democrat or Republican. It kind of doesn’t work anymore. The world’s bigger than this. We need to make it bigger. And we did create something out of nothing.”
What McNeil and his friends created was a direct confrontation of that choice – both in message and in behavior. Describing Iggy Pop, McNeil said, “Iggy was coming out of 1969 when everyone was a hippie. Just Iggy standing there was a confrontation. Because everyone is singing about peace and love and here comes Iggy singing ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ in a dog collar. Changing your world view basically.” Describing the energy of the time he said, “When you have Debbie Harry, The Ramones, The Dead Boys, Lou Reed, Nico, and John Cale all in the same room it’s going to be kind of exciting.” He likened this to the feeling he experienced when he first heard the Beatles. He said, “Everyone before the Beatles was in a folk group. They traded in their banjos for electric guitars after the Beatles. It happened overnight. It was like punk in a way – suddenly you could do whatever you want.”
But the world wasn’t always so welcoming. McNeil describes: “America for touting itself for being so liberal and free is anything but. Once they figured out that all of this music created all of this activism in the culture they kind of stopped it. They didn’t play it. They didn’t promote it like they did back in ’71 and ’72.”
But they persevered. He said, ““All the great concerts that anyone was at there’s only 10 people there. It’s like with the Ramones, we knew. Everybody was so broke. I was 19 years old and drunk and looking to meet the next girl. I wasn’t looking for a sustainable income I was looking for cigarettes and a six-pack of beer. I thought, let’s just keep going.”
McNeil and McCain’s role in this confrontation was to challenge people’s beliefs on what punk rock was and who were the people involved. As Legs explains: “What Please Kill Me did was put it in a context where people could understand it. All of these people said ‘I wasn’t into punk because I thought they were just assholes who were throwing up all the time.’ And Please Kill Me challenged this perception that these guys were just stupid assholes with no point. And people started to realize that there was something more to punk than taking all of the drugs. There was some method in that madness. And it put it into a context where you could see the connection between the Velvet Underground and Iggy: how Nico listens to the first Stooges album and goes and lives with Iggy.”
Part of the task of confronting the world with a new image of punk rock was trying to establish a developmental path connecting the artists. McNeil said: “Oh, there’s a linear story here. We explained how the Stooges and the Dolls and the Velvets impacted other artists. That’s what happened in ‘60s and early ‘70’s -- they were this incredible force. They influenced so many people. And it was a movement for people who liked this kind of movement and this kind of culture. It took about 30 years for it to explode in the rest of the world.”
What was truly remarkable about the work of McNeil & McCain, and others was that they did it with very little interest or support from the outside world. When asked how he and Gillian McCain were able to persevere in making Please Kill Me he said, “I just depend on my own gut instincts. If I think it’s interesting then other people might. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes that’s not. When we did Please Kill Me we spent more than $100,000 on it but only got a $30,000 advance. I mean eventually it paid off. I didn’t think the book would sell at all. And I even went to my publisher and said Vanity Fair was thinking of publishing excerpts of the book and I said, ‘Is Vanity Fair really going to excerpt this that’d be cool?’ and he said, ’No Legs they’re not going to publish it, the book is about junkies and whores. Vanity Fair doesn’t print that. And I said ‘Oh yeah you’re right.’” But Vanity Fair did excerpt the book. The point of the story is that we didn’t think the book would sell. These bands had not become mythical yet.”
It was at this point in the interview that I started to realize that I was missing the point. McNeil was answering my questions in a thoughtful, intelligent way. But that’s not what was coming through. Rather, the answer to understanding punk innovation was what he was embodying, how he was answering. It was in the process. He talked as if he was still there -- you could feel the intensity as if it was fresh for him. He was immersed. Which in retrospect was the real legacy of punk – that spirit, that energy in which you were engulfed. Lester Bangs later wrote of hardcore punk shows that it was like a “womb” because people had to be immersed to participate.
What McNeil was demonstrating was flow. Flow is a state of “effortless concentration,” a complete immersion in experience. Flow can happen in anything we do: working at our job, playing music, or having a conversation. During this state people are less conscious of a sense of time, and also less concerned about failure.
The experience of flow has been linked not only to artistic creativity but also thriving psychological states. Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad described how this sort of focus and commitment fueled his success – he described having no “back-up plan.” Research has found that mindfulness, a concept similar to flow, can be equally as efficacious as cognitive therapy in the treatment of anxiety and depression.
Legs McNeil is now working on a new book with Gillian McCain on pop culture that brought him out to the West Coast. And he is throwing himself into that world with the same abandon that he brought to punk rock. “My whole life is immersed in what I’m doing. I usually don’t know what I’m doing. There was always someone who was there, who was in the room. You just have to find them. I have the same pre-conceived notions as anyone else. And then you get them in a room and they say ‘No that’s not what happened, it’s this….” And that is what makes it more interesting. People keep coming back to me because I keep re-interviewing people until I get the truth.”
Lesson learned. If you want to be innovative, don’t focus on being innovative. Immerse yourself in something that you love, because you love it. That’s not only your best chance to enjoy what you’re doing, but also your best chance to create something that’s organic and connects with people.
And what’s more punk rock than that?
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. His thoughts are his own. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl