Please Kill Me author Legs McNeil on His New Book, Music and Chuck Berry
Jaime Lees Legs McNeil at the Chuck Berry statue on Delmar Boulevard
Legs McNeil became one of my favorite authors when I first read his Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk as a young teen. Even if you don't own the book, you've undoubtedly seen its ransom-note-styled spine on the bookshelf of your music-loving friend. It's an assertion that's been made by others many times before, but I'll say it here one more time: Please Kill Me is the definitive account of the early New York punk scene. (Trust me, I've read them all.)
But McNeil's pedigree far precedes my birth. He has many professional accomplishments under his belt, but he's probably best known as the cofounder of Punk Magazine, a New York-based pop-culture magazine famous for documenting the CBGB scene in the 1970s. (Through this, McNeil is also frequently credited with popularizing the word "punk" as we know it.)
Exactly a year ago this week, McNeil came through town on a book-reading tour, and I arranged for him and his beautiful, kind-souled assistant to stay with me. (I came in contact with him a few years back when he interviewed me for an upcoming book.) His St. Louis tour stop was set up at the Silver Ballroom, the friendly punk-rock pinball joint. He did his reading there, gave a great interview at KDHX and in between we basically spent a few days hanging out on my porch and drinking tea while McNeil gamely entertained any of my friends who stopped by with delicious insider tales of Patti Smith, Blondie, the Stooges and all of the rest of our favorite artists.
I texted McNeil a couple of days before his arrival and asked if he wanted to see Chuck Berry while he was here. He replied with an immediate "FUCK YES," and my wonderful friend Jim got in touch with Joe Edwards and they got us hooked up with tickets to see Berry play his monthly gig at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room. As a proud St. Louis native, I'm always glad when I get to take out-of-towners to see our rock & roll legend in that super-intimate room. McNeil was as impressed by Berry as I was with him, calling him an "original punk." We stopped for touristy photos at the Berry statue on Delmar Boulevard on the way home.
That night, after thoroughly inspecting my bookcases, McNeil said, "You're really going to like my next book." He was right.
Here's the back-story on the book: McNeil lives in a small down in Pennsylvania and is friends with the man who runs the post office across the street from his house. One day this man's daughter came by his house to borrow a book, and when McNeil asked her what she'd been reading, she said that the best thing that she'd read lately was a diary written by her best friend's older sister, Mary Rose, who had died.
McNeil was intrigued. He arranged to meet the girl's mother, read the journal, and they decided to publish it. Because Mary Rose died when she was a minor, the journal was considered part of her estate and thereby controlled by both of her parents. According to McNeil, Mary Rose's father was a creep who never paid child support and showed little interest in his child unless he thought he could profit off of her. McNeil and Mary Rose's mother took him to court to gain control of the publication rights. Six years, four judges and $50,000 later, the diary was finally theirs to publish.
Dear Nobody: The True Story of Mary Rose arrived in the mail at my house last week and, honestly, I didn't want to put it down. I blew through all 330 pages in two sittings. It's a fast read and compelling. Mary Rose was resilient, confused, troubled and brave. She wrote about everything she experienced in her young life, from boy troubles to new hair styles to family problems and chronic disease.
At times, I identified so much with Mary Rose's troubles I worried that I am immature. But Mary Rose's teenage fretting, lostness and bravery in the face of pain and illness is something that any reader can identify with from time to time. Her words express the kind of deep truths that can only be written in a private journal.
I called McNeil over the weekend to interview him about this new book and about Mary Rose. In the interview he is his usual blend of smart, curmudgeonly and kind.
Jaime Lees: Tell me what drew you to the story of Mary Rose.
Legs McNeil: Nonfiction stuff is just gripping to me, you know. Also, when I read Go Ask Alice I knew it was fake. Even when I found out that the editor had kind of made it up, before that I knew that it was fraudulent. Because no one used the slang that they used in that book. I'd never heard anyone use it. It really pissed me off for some reason, probably because they sold it as a true diary. I don't know. It just made me furious that they confused everyone. So I'd always been kind of looking for the real Go Ask Alice, and I think I found it in Dear Nobody.
Continue to page two.