Legs McNeil Talks To Jean Encoule
Legs McNeil, co-founder of Punk Magazine, originator of the term “Punk” & co author of the definitive history of US Punk, “Please Kill Me”, talks with Jean Encoule:
copyright 2005 by Legs McNeil source image courtesy of Keith Green
trakMARX - Tell us a little about your informative years? Were you born and bred in New York City?
Legs - I was not born and bred in NYC, but born in New Haven, Connecticut, and raised in Cheshire, Connecticut. My father, Edward Joseph McNeil, died a few months after I was born. I have an older brother Craig McNeil, who lives in Colorado, and an older sister, Lauren Bachman, who still lives in Cheshire. Since I have no recollection of my father, I was very different from my brother and sister, who still seem haunted by the fact that they lost a parent so young. My father named me Roderick, and my mother still cannot tell me why. Anyway, I was raised as Eddie McNeil, and my mom and old friends still call me Eddie. In fact, I didn’t know my name was Roderick until Miss Coward’s First Grade class. She was taking the roll call, and called, “Roderick...” And I was leading the laughter.
I was also born with dyslexia and with the right side of my body two inches larger than my left, which led to a femoral shortening when I was 14 and 15 years old. A femoral shortening is when the surgeon cuts your leg off, from the femur, two inches. Before the operation I was one of those kids that had to wear a two-inch lift on my shoe. I countered these weird physical deformities by being very funny. Basically I took refuge in the swamp, a beautiful stretch of land punctuated with streams and railroad tracks and stone bridges and ponds, and locks - from the old Farmington Canal - and caught snakes and turtles that I kept in my backyard. Everyone form Cheshire called me “Swamprat.” It was an idyllic, Huck Finn sort of childhood.
trakMARX - What was the first record you bought?
Legs - The first record I bought was the Velvet Underground’s second album, after we started Punk Magazine, and I left it over Kristeen Steen’s apartment on 14th Street and Ave C and would go over there and listen to it. I would runaway from the Punk Dump and stay and Kristeen’s place. (She was the porn star I fell in love with after I was the Assistant Director of the porn film “Blow Dry” in 1974.)
Basically, I couldn’t afford records before that. I bought the “Mellow Yellow” single by Donovan for my big sister’s birthday when I was about 12 or so. My brother listened to Blue Cheer, Cream, Stepenwolf, Grand Funk Railroad, and early Zepplin. My sister listened to the Beatles, Joan Baez, Dylan, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Traffic, Herbie Mann, etc. There was always music coming out of my sister’s bedroom. My brother and sister were always working and had their licenses, so they could drive and were always out of the house. So they could afford records. Since I was such a little drunk fuck-up, I never worked and wondered how the world worked. I still don’t know.
trakMARX - What was NYC like for you before PUNK?
Legs - I had been a big fan of those early sixties gang books, like “Run, Baby Run” and “Down These Mean Streets,” and really loved the idea of being in a gang when I was in Cheshire, Connecticut - even though I was a big pussy. It seemed so cool. So different than the suburbs. Cheshire was a very wealthy suburb, with big rich houses - and little track house developments - and I grew up in one of those track houses. A very small house. Since we didn’t have any money, I hung out with the other white trash kids, who were basically little criminals. While I enjoyed being a little criminal as much as the next guy, I was always taken with ideas more than the stuff. I don’t really know why this is. So New York was always a place with BIG IDEAS and I moved there to see if I could make any of them mine. I moved in with John Holmstrom on 24th Street, where he was attending the art college, “School of Visual Arts”. New York was a very violent, dangerous place in 1974, but compared to all the little criminals I had been hanging out in Cheshire, it was great. I didn’t get beat up in New York, I could drink as much as I could pay for, and could always find some rich homosexual man to buy me drinks when I ran out of money. It was a trick I learned hitchhiking back and forth to New Haven from Cheshire, where I was an usher at the York Square Cinema, a Yalie-Art House, that showed films like “Harold and Maude”, “The Conversation” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”. I would hitchhike home at night and would always be picked up by someone’s father who would confess to me that he was gay. I don’t remember if gay was a term back then, probably queer. I would say, “Let’s go get a drink and talk about it...”
It was amazing to me that all these gay guys were married. So I knew pretty early that everything was not as it seemed. So I would have them take me for beers and I would listen to their stories. I learned how to listen to people from that. This is probably where I learned how to interview people, though it was for beer, not for writing. I also didn’t want to have sex with them or become friends with them - so I had to be very careful and know what I was doing. Which I did.
So when I moved to New York, I continued doing that, getting drunk and trying to make movies. New York was a very different city. It was the end of “White Flight”, the white people’s run for the suburbs, so at night, when all the commuters were safely back home in the suburbs, New York was deserted - or rather felt deserted. It felt like it was abandoned. The perfect movie set on which to project my dreams. A different dream every night.
trakMARX - How did you meet John Holmstrom?
Legs - I met John Holmstrom when I was promoting bands at the local Catholic church and I would skim money off the top, like 50 bucks or maybe even $100.00, which was a lot for a kid like me. After a rather successful concert, I was thinking about other scams to pull - that is, me and my best friend Tom Hearn - when Tommy mentioned that his older sister, Claudia, had been in this theatre group with this crazy guy named John Holmstrom. I called John to try and hire his acting group, “The Apocalypse Players”. John was a serious artist and had the stink of someone who was getting out of Cheshire. Through my friendship with John, I started to learn about stuff, like Lenny Bruce and Art and good writing, and even though I was always arguing with him, John kept me around. The fact is that John really had no need for me, except that I kept him amused with my stories of being a little delinquent.
trakMARX - What made you want to start a music magazine?
Legs - I had no desire to start a music magazine. I never thought of Punk as a music magazine. If you read the first issues, I was interviewing Sluggo from Nancy comics and going to Gilligan’s Island. Now I would say Punk Magazine would be the only magazine that Homer Simpson subscribed to and read every issue. But music magazine, God no!
trakMARX - You are credited with naming both Punk: The magazine and Punk: The Movement. What was the inspiration behind the name?
Legs - I get asked this all the time, so I’ve had to think long and hard about it. So I can tell you what was going through my head at the time, and let you sort it out. I don’t know how much has been mythologized by myself or the press over the years, and what is true and what’s bullshit, but I’ll try to tell you now:
The idea for Punk Magazine came the summer of 1975 when John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn and I were living at Ged’s apartment in the centre of Cheshire, Connecticut. I was getting jobs making movies for private mental retardation institutions that couldn’t advertise for their services, and needed promotional films ($1,500 per movie - I only did two). I wanted to make movies. Ged was running a house painting service and I would help him out in exchange for beer - run to make change when the weekly parole came around - things like that. John Holmstrom came up from New York City, and he took “Blood On The Tracks” off the record player and put on The Dictators “Go Girl Crazy”.
I immediately feel in love with that record. It was so funny and so musical. It was so young sounding: immature, dumb and wonderful. I think I began to see my life in relationship to that record - i.e. not being ashamed of who I was and where I came from. That record made me proud of being the little fuck-up I was.
It was also a fun summer, because that’s when John and I met the McCandles sisters, two twin sisters that later became big New York City models. Amy and Ann - I had Ann, I believe. They were very beautiful girls. Even though they were identical twins John was so competitive with me that he would say, “I’ve got the better looking one.” Which was hysterically funny, and to this day I’m not sure if John was serious or not. John was always like that, I could never tell when he was serious or not.
Anyway, when John said he wanted to start a magazine, I thought it was a shitty idea, until I put it in the context of The Dictators record, which is what John had in mind. I didn’t know anything about publishing, it didn’t seem as glamorous as making movies, and I didn’t want to do it. That is, until John started putting it into a language I could understand. That’s when I said, “Lets call it Punk.”
Now at the time I didn’t know CBGB’s existed or had heard the Ramones or any of what was going on. I was just thinking about my life and The Dictators record, “Go Girl Crazy.” Punk was what every cop and teacher had called me when they found me out drunk or hitchhiking. People in Connecticut are really mean, it’s a mean place. Don’t go there if you don’t have to.
Also, the Dictators had a line in their song, “Weekend” that says, “Eddie is the local punk, eating at McDonalds for lunch,” or something like that (Eddie is what everyone called me, after my father, even though my name is Roderick, but no one ever called me Roderick). That’s what was going through my head when I said, “Let’s call it Punk.” That’s all I have to say. You figure it out.
trakMARX - What was Lou Reed like during the inaugural Punk interview?
Legs - Lou Reed was being an asshole, probably the most famous Lou Reed asshole encounter ever recorded - and very funny. He was just dropping those Andy-Warhol-jibes that flowed from him so effortlessly. He was an artist of the put-down. At one point ee asked him, “How do you feel....” - and before we could finish the question, Lou said, “With my hands...”
He was masterful. A true rock & roll legend, I love Lou Reed, what an amazing writer. Who cares that he hates me or is a boring old fuck now? He really knew what he was doing when he wrote all those great songs that keep going through my head. I can’t believe I ever had anything to do with him. At that time, though, I hated him, because he was great friends with Holmstrom - and John and Lou would be talking at some party - and I’d pull on John’s shirt sleeves and say, “C’mon John, let’s go downtown and pick up chicks...” Lou Reed never even looked at me. I was such a schmuck. Holmstrom would have these intense conversations with Lou and they’d both pretend I wasn’t even there. Well, I guess I wasn’t there. But I must say when I was 19, everybody was so much older than me, it was hard to find someone to hang out with. Thank god for Joey Ramone. I think we both got to be ourselves around each other, which was the basis of our friendship.
trakMARX - Were you surprised by the initial success of Punk Magazine?
Legs - Confused was more like it, because everyone loved it and we didn’t have any money. We never had any money. I was going to say, “It would have been more fun if we could’ve afforded... rent, taxi cabs, meals out, etc.” But it was so much fun none of that mattered, because we knew we were creating the future. Everything was hysterically funny, especially the idea that I had come up with this word, Punk, that had been around before - had been used before - but I wasn’t aware of, at the time. Like most kids, I was so dumb that I felt like I had discovered sex, drugs, (beer) and rock & roll all by myself. I wasn’t concerned with what had come before - just right now, right here - in my orbit. It was a wonderful place to live for a while, but of course, that self-centeredness leads to disaster. But it’s fun for a while. Now of course, I love the past. I love history, I love knowing what came before.
trakMARX - What are you memories of those early CBGB’s days?
Legs - Probably number one on my list was being so impressed with myself that I could get laid. It’s embarrassing now to admit, but I was thrilled with this idea of constant sex and being fucked up. I loved it - being a teenage alcoholic and loser - and CBGB’s provided the perfect place to drink and meet new girls. I just had to go there and get drunk with my friends, who were all very concerned about their careers, while I only cared about what girl I was going home with. I think I had the better time.
trakMARX - Who was your favorite NYC group at that time?
Legs - The Ramones.
trakMARX - Who did you regard as the ones most likely to “become the new Beatles?”
Legs - The Ramones.
trakMARX - In “End of the Century” you allude to the despicable thievery of Malcolm McLaren & the British Punk scene. Do you feel that the record has been set straight in the last few years & that revisionism is letting the Truth come out at last?
Legs - If I was Malcolm I would have stolen the NY scene too. I mean why not? It wasn’t doing New York any good. No one was paying any attention to us. Why not steal a good thing when you see it? As far as me naming Punk and starting the Punk Movement, yes, it is technically attributable to me, but it was something that was in the air at the time. You could feel it. Times were so ripe for a change. Holmstrom has reminded me of what was going on at that time: The Saints in Australia, the pub rock of Dr. Feelgood in England - who I saw open for Patti Smith at the Bottom Line “Horses” had already come out when we were doing the first issue. What I am amazed about is that I knew so little about what was going on when I named PUNK, punk. I hadn’t seen the Ramones yet, or even imagined a band could be like them. I mean, come on, I was only 19 years old in 1975. I tend to run off at the mouth when I get excited about things, so I think a lot of what I imagined punk to be were my own adolescent fantasies that somehow came about.
You know, since Punk was going on all over the world at the same time, I’m not about to tell some English kid that his punk experience was invalid because he never heard of Punk Magazine or me and Holmstrom. The English scene happened overnight, and was huge. And it became something else. Yeah, I wish we could have gotten credit, but it’s spilled milk.
trakMARX - “Please Kill Me” remains one of the best books on the NYC scene. Which other writers do you consider capture the spirit of the times as well as you & Gillian did?
Legs - Michael Herr really captured the Vietnam war in “Dispatches”. Norman Mailer captured Utah pretty good in “Executioners Song”. I don’t read music books. Gillian says “The Dirt” is good, about Motley Crue, but that’s because my editor at Regan Books said they used “PKM” as their model. I read history books mostly, though I am reading a fiction book right now called “Owen Noone and the Marauder” which is pretty good. I’m also reading Richard Helms memoires, he was the former Director of the CIA. I talked to him on the phone once, when I was at Spin, for fact-checking purposes.
trakMARX - What motivated you to resurrect Punk.
Legs - Punk Magazine is John Holmstrom’s baby. Even though I named it, the magazine was John’s genius. So when he said he wanted to do it again, I just said tell me what you want me to do. John has been pissed at me for getting all the credit for the magazine, and I don’t blame him. Now he’s finally getting the acknowledgement he deserves, and I couldn’t be happier.
trakMARX - Have you and John had any success in securing capital to fund further activity?
Legs - I don’t know what I can talk about, but suffice to say there will be a movie about John Holmstrom and the magazine as well as a new publishing schedule for Punk magazine. I think I will have a column, but it’s up to John.
trakMARX - What have you made of the contemporary resurgence of rock & roll in NYC during the last few years - the Strokes, the Star Spangles and their ilk?
Legs - I’ve never seen or heard the Strokes, people tell me they suck, so I haven’t paid any attention to them. I hung out with the Star Spangles a lot last summer, or the summer before, or the summer before that, when they were just some guys who wanted to hang out. They were nice kids and very funny. We mostly hit the clubs and talked about women, which was fun. I felt sorry for the lead singer because he was living with a transvestite, but I’ve heard now they are bigger and he has a real girlfriend. Good for him.
trakMARX What are you listening to these days?
Legs - Ike Riley, some guy from Chicago. My friend Stacey Asip, who is directing the film of her script, “Mrs. Dinsdorf”, that I am Executive Producer of, is a big Ike Riley fan. She’s been playing him the past year. She got me to go see him live, then we went back and took Danny Fields, and now it’s very exciting. He does a song called “Commie Drives A Nova”, which is great - but then all his songs are great. Real catchy, can’t get them out of my head. Also Broadcast from London, Sweet’s Greatest Hits, Bowie’s Greatest Hits - a lot of glam - Alice Cooper. I mostly listen to music in the car, when I’m driving.
trakMARX - What does 2005 hold for Legs McNeil?
Legs - Well, I guess I have to promote my new book, THE OTHER HOLLYWOOD: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry (Out Feb 15th from Regan Books). Then I have to come back from the book tour and hand in the Joey Ramone bio to Simon & Schuster. It’s written by Joey’s brother, Mickey Leigh, and me. I have to finish the proposal for “WATCH OUT! PUNK IS COMING!” - the book about punk magazine by John Holmstrom and me. I guess John wants me to work on the movie, then I have to finish raising the money for “Mrs. Dindorf” - and Gillian McCain, her husband Jim Marshall and I are working on a new book - but I can’t talk about that right now. So - all that stuff - though not necessarily in that order.
Jean Encoule tMx 18 02/05