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ORALLY FIXATED: Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain popularized a new style of oral history with 'Please Kill Me,' and are now working on a similar book about the L.A. rock scene in the 1960s.

The dynamic between
McCain and McNeil is a fascinating one. One of McCain's earliest memories of meeting McNeil speaks volumes about their collaboration.

"We had a mutual friend, and she said 'I'm going over to Legs' to watch a movie.' And we became friends. He lived on St. Mark's and First, and I was working at the Poetry Project at Second Avenue and 10th, so he'd drop by the office," she recalls. "He'd come to readings and really drive me nuts, because during a poetry reading he'd be standing at the back, and whenever he'd move the least little bit, his leather jacket would creak. It just drove me insane. That's how we met."

"It was a doomed relationship," says McNeil dryly. "She does a great imitation of me coming to the Poetry Project: I'd go, 'let's go out for a cigarette,' and then I'd split. I was always embarrassing her."

Disagreements over who and what would make it into the book could be contentious, but McCain says McNeil was able to make tough but necessary editing decisions that she couldn't bear.

"Legs really forced me to edit," she says. "At first I was like, 'No, I want to put in Ed Sanders learning semiotics at grad school at NYU.' And he was like, 'No.' 'But it's so good!' 'No.'"

"Gillian and I argue a lot," says McNeil. "If Gillian really sticks to her guns, then I have to scratch my head and go 'whoa, wait a minute.' I'm pretty forceful, and I have a pretty strong personality. But Gillian seems to be able to cut through the bullshit."

For all of their differences, he's surprised at how much they think alike, which comes out especially when they interview subjects together.

"We always look at each at other knowingly," says McNeil. Also, we never use notes, which is really weird. The person stops talking, and we both come in at the same time with the same question. That happens about 85 percent of the time."

"That's true," says McCain. "I think that's something that makes people comfortable, that we don't bring in notes. We just have conversations with them. Sometimes I have a few notes on a Post-it that I put in my pocket, and when I go to the bathroom I look at it."

"I always lose my scrap of paper," McNeil says. "But since I've written it down, I know what it is."

YOU SHOULD NEVER HAVE OPENED THAT DOOR: After a Ramones-related book project fell through, Gillian McCain prodded Legs McNeil to turn it into a more ambitious book about the history of punk rock.

McCain credits McNeil with eliciting many of the stories that made Please Kill Me both shock and amuse. The book is full of them: Nico giving Iggy Pop his first STD. Billy Murcia of the New York Dolls choking to death in a flat in London while partygoers around him flee. Dee Dee Ramone writing "Chinese Rocks" out of spite toward Richard Hell, but then giving Hell a co-writing credit for it because he wrote two lines. Malcolm McLaren on the differences between New York punk and the Sex Pistols.

"I learned so much from Legs," says McCain. "He gets on the phone with Malcolm McLaren and goes 'First off, I don't want to talk about the Sex Pistols.' And Malcolm McLaren is so fucking relieved! He asks him questions about the New York Dolls, which he was probably rarely asked about before Please Kill Me. And then gradually the Sex Pistols come up, but he's more engaged. Because he didn't think he had to talk about it."

"You disarm people," admits McNeil. "You've got to be immediately intimate with them. Because you're going to ask them everything. You're going to have to ask them who they're sleeping with, what drugs they were taking, what they were thinking, what their emotional state was at the time."

And yet, McNeil says he has yet to interview someone who was reluctant to talk.

"I think for a lot of people, it's almost like therapy. They're really into telling their story. It's kind of fascinating," he says.

McNeil's experimentation with the unfiltered style of Please Kill Me can be traced, to some extent, back to his time with Punk magazine.

"Kind of with the Q&A interviews, which were hysterically funny," he says. "[John] Holmstrom would do things like in the first Lou Reed interview, Lou was talking about his favorite cartoonists, and John drew him in the different styles, like Wally Wood. It was very cool. We did things like when I interviewed Richard Hell at Max's and I passed out—and Richard kept talking. Stuff like that. That was fun, you know?"

Both McNeil and McCain were inspired by Edie: American Girl, the 1982 oral history of Edie Sedgwick by Jean Stein and George Plimpton. Though a bestseller and critically acclaimed for the groundbreaking exposition-free style that anticipated Please Kill Me, it failed to have the same cultural impact. McNeil, however, saw its potential.

"He started doing a book with Dee Dee [Ramone]," says McCain. "Dee Dee asked him to write his autobiography with him. Legs had the idea, because he loved Edie, to do it as an oral history. So he was getting Danny [Fields]'s interviews transcribed, and all these people, and I said to him, 'This story is so much bigger than Dee Dee. He's a seminal character, but it's just such a huge story.' Then Dee Dee got kind of hard to get along with, and when they parted ways, Legs was like, 'Do you want to do this with me?' So that's how it started."

Considering that Please Kill Me would go on to have a huge impact on the book industry, it's ironic that said industry showed no interest in the project at first. Despite 1991 being "The Year Punk Broke," as one documentary title put it, with the success of Nirvana's Nevermind, and pop-punk bands like Green Day and the Offspring storming the radio in 1994, a book about punk was still a tough sell back then. And it certainly didn't help that it was an oral history, a literary genre people at the time associated with Studs Terkel books about old-timey things like the Great Depression and World War II.

"We knew we wouldn't be able to sell it on just a proposal and a chapter, because people wouldn't get it. Not only the subject matter, but also the oral history format. So we had written the whole book before we tried to sell it," says McCain.

The exhausting interview schedule had some out-there moments, like the interview with former Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton, which McNeil counts among his favorites.

"We did like 10 hours in one sitting. Drinking milk and vodka or some weird thing," says McNeil. "I was just listening to him, and he's talking to his cats through the whole thing. 'Leave her alone, Patches!'"

The great white whale for the two of them was Iggy Pop. "We purposefully wanted to leave him for last, because we wanted to be able to ask really informed questions," says McCain.

Pop ended up being her favorite interview that she and McNeil did together.

"I think we ask questions in a certain way that maybe makes people think about things in a different way, or reminds them of certain things. That was our goal, to get stories other people hadn't. But when you ask a question [to Iggy Pop] like 'OK, you're at the Yost Field House. You've stolen some IDs.' This is how Legs framed it. 'You're 14 years old. And you see Jim Morrison come on stage. How do you feel?' I don't think many people have framed questions like that. That's why we wanted to do him at the very end, so we totally knew what we were talking about."

One might think that when Please Kill Me came out, a lot of the interviewees would have been thrilled to finally get their due for the role they played in punk. Not so, says McNeil.

"What happened was we were supposed to have two months off, and they sent out galley copies," he says. "And they sent one to John Waters to get a blurb. John Waters doesn't give blurbs. But John Waters knew everyone in the book. So he was calling everybody, going 'I gotta read you your part!' So everyone was calling me going 'John Waters got the book, how come I don't have it?' No one ever came to me and said 'wow we're really grateful to you and Gillian for doing this book.' It was just complaints."

McNeil went on to co-write another oral history book, 2005's The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry. But for that one, he worked with Jennifer Osborne and Peter Pavia. In fact, he and McCain didn't work together again until they co-edited Dear Nobody: The Real Life Diary of Mary Rose, a collection of one teen's journal entries that came out last year. They then began work on '69, the Please Kill Me-like oral history of L.A. rock they hope to have finished in two years.

McNeil attributes the long gap between their collaborations to the ragged ending of their work on Please Kill Me.

"We were just exhausted," he says. "And Gillian hated me. Understandably. I think she had a nervous breakdown after. I think working with me sent her over the edge."

But she did come around.

"Well, yeah," says McNeil, "but after 20 years." She forgot the hard parts, he says.

And now, on the new book? McNeil laughs. "I reminded her."