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Books: Why this is Hell, and I'm out of it

PLEASE KILL ME: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain, Little, Brown pounds 18.99
IF YOUR idea of what an "uncensored oral history" should be is an impartial work of science, then this book is not for you. In fact, compared with McNeil & McCain's monumental and intensely entertaining compendium of bitchiness, whining and relentless self-aggrandisement, the Alan Clarke diaries are a rigorous work of factual reference.

Please Kill Me (the title comes from a T-shirt that punk originator Richard Hell designed but was too sensible to wear) presents itself as an uninterrupted dialogue. A cast of hundreds drops in and out of the conversation, mixing a heady cocktail of reminiscence, conjecture and salacious innuendo. Living and dead, legend and nobody, all mingle at will in a context-free limbo - McNeil and McCain having opted to supplement their own hundreds of hours of taped interviews with extracts from other people's books and articles as they feel the need.

The total subjectivity and all-round untrustworthiness of this approach is very appropriate to the matter in hand, and if the intention was to capture the freedom from constraint which was the protagonists' guiding principle, that goal is achieved. The cut-and-paste methodology also seems nicely in tune with the punk mind-set, recalling both the ground-breaking literary heresies of William Burroughs and the rough and ready hostage- note graphics of Jamie Reid. These two names are worth keeping in mind, as the dividing line between American innovation and British appropriation is one Please Kill Me's authors are very keen to draw.

The basic thrust of the book (and it really is this basic) is that punk was invented by Legs McNeil and his clever New York friends to amuse themselves in between bouts of heroin addiction and trips to McDonald's, but then the dumb Brits went and spoiled it by transforming it into a cultural cataclysm of massive global import. In terms of provocation, which has been Legs McNeil's primary objective since he decided to start a magazine called "Punk" in 1975, this argument has a fatal flaw, which is that it is unarguably correct.

No one doubts the validity of McNeil and McCain's beloved Velvet Underground / Stooges / New York Dolls / Patti Smith / Ramones lineage. Malcolm McLaren cheerfully admits to returning to Britain after his abortive attempt to manage the New York Dolls feeling "like Marco Polo or Walter Raleigh" - except that his cargo was not turmeric or the potato, but the image of Richard Hell in his ripped shirt. And Hell himself confesses to having felt a moment's pique on hearing how direct a steal The Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" was from his own "Blank Generation", before genially acknowledging that "Ideas are free property - I stole shit too."

This last seems a much more sensible and above all a much punkier approach to transatlantic takeover than McNeil's sour-faced "If you want to go and start your own youth movement, fine, but this one's already taken." Yet that same pervasive sense of disappointment - of the anger that results when something that is supposed to be very smart turns out to be extremely stupid - is, perversely, what makes Please Kill Me such an instructive and even uplifting book.

There is nothing so poignant as the disillusionment of an iconoclast. And from the lifelong friend snubbed by a newly in-demand Patti Smith to the well-read drag queen looking back on his disappointing first encounter with a lascivious Lou Reed, the stench of recrimination overpowers even the most basic of human odours rising from these seamy pages. The real issue here seems to be how people behave in a condition of absolute licence, and the answer to that question is "not very well".

By the end of this 500-page litany of pointless drug deaths, sexual betrayal and remorseless oneupmanship, the whole junk-fixated, sunglasses-after- dark edifice of New York cool has more or less been levelled. The only people who emerge from the ruins with their reputations enhanced are the ones who don't fit in - Debbie Harry, for always trying to help people; The Ramones, for having hidden depths (who knew that Joey used to make paintings out of chopped up fruit and vegetables?); and, strangest of all, Sid Vicious, for being made to cry by the music of Jim Reeves. You don't have to have read Richard Hell's terrible autobiographical novel to feel that the final message of Please Kill Me is a liberating get over it.