Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain Bring ‘Please Kill Me’ to Smith College

Legs-and-Gillian

Together, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain created the definitive overview of punk-rock in the 1970s with “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.” Now they’re applying the same approach to southern California culture between 1965-69, a time and place that gave rise to the Laurel Canyon folk scene that included bands like the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas, and to anarchic social phenomena like the Manson Family.

“There seemed like too many unanswered questions to us, and we wanted to go in and get those questions answered, which we think we’re doing,” McNeil says by phone in advance of a talk he and McCain are giving Oct. 23 at Smith College in Northampton. “People go back in and do ’60s documentaries, and they have to cover the same old things and those questions never get answered.”

Though McNeil, 58, grew up in Connecticut and lived for years in New York City (where he co-founded Punk magazine in the ’70s), he has some familiarity with Los Angeles thanks to another of his oral history projects, “The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry.”

Southern California in the late ’60s is all strange territory for McCain, 48, who grew up in Canada and now lives in New York, where she writes poetry when not collaborating with McNeil. “I was a toddler,” she says. “I think my first memory was seeing the moon landing. Age 3.”

McNeill and McCain also edited “Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose,” a collection of diaries by a 17-year-old Pennsylvania girl with substance abuse issues and cystic fibrosis.

Here are three additional facts from a wide-ranging conversation with McNeil and McCain in advance of their appearance at Smith.

1. Writing an oral history is a little like a scavenger hunt. And the best subjects are often not the main players. “Legs and I are trying to interview people who are more on the sidelines, because they’re the better onlookers,” McCain says. “One person leads to another. And Facebook has been really valuable.”

It takes patience to fully nail down a story or timeline, McNeil says. “With ‘Please Kill Me,’ we knew a lot of the people, but I wasn’t that familiar with the people around the Stooges, and we had to keep going back to Ann Arbor three or four times.”

2. The idea to publish “Dear Nobody” came from a recommendation by the daughter of McNeil’s mailman one day when she came over to borrow a book. “I asked her, ‘What are you reading?’” McNeil says. “And she listed off the titles of the day, and she said, ‘But Legs, the best thing I ever read was these journals that my best friend’s older sister wrote, and she died.’”

Finding a publisher who agreed proved to be its own challenge. “They said it was too — I got the impression, not life-affirming enough,” McCain says. “I think it was just too rough and too real.”

They went through 150 drafts, McNeil says, and had to interview the girl’s mother and sister to put together a proper timeline. “And her mom doesn’t come off that well in the book,” McNeil says. “I thought it was very courageous of her to let us publish it.”

3. Writing an oral history is an enormous undertaking. McNeil says his role is to “maintain the structure” of the narrative, while McCain “keeps the thtemes and integrity of the voices complete. “You need two pairs of eyes,” McNeil says. “I don’t know really how it works, but it works, you know? There’s so much information, you know? If you look at ‘Please Kill Me,’ there’s so much information. Plus, you can’t tell anybody anything. You’ve got to show them. I think that’s what we do best. So you have all the emotions and feelings.”

McNeil and McCain are giving a talk titled “Reflections on ‘Please Kill Me’: A Conversation on Oral History, Contemporary Culture, and the History of Punk” this Thursday, Oct. 23, at 7:30 p.m. in the Graham Hall lecture room in Hillyer Hall on the Smith College campus.  

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