Just prior to the television debut of IFC’s punkumentary, Punk: Attitude, Gothamist spoke at length with the original resident punk, Legs McNeil. A founder of Punk Magazine and former editor at Spin and Nerve, Legs is also the co-author of Please Kill Me and The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry.
How did you get your name?
[John] Holmstrom actually named me Legs.
Where did you grow up?
How did you make it to New York?
By the skin of my teeth. Oh god, it was so awful in Cheshire, it still is. It’s just your basic suburbs, guys in pick-up trucks and SUVs now. But they had pick-up trucks back then. They had hot cars back then. That’s what you’d call muscle cars. And with a Hurst shifter in it. A ‘56 Chevy with a Hurst shifter, vrrroom…vroom. They didn’t need to go to New York to start punk, they were safe with their sexuality.
That’s why you went to New York, because you were not safe with your sexuality?
Yes, because I thought I was a big fag. No, I went so I could drink. I didn’t care about my sexuality. Well, I did. Sexuality and beer were probably the only two things I was concerned about in the world.
So, it’s true what I’ve read that getting involved with the punk movement was a lot about getting laid for you.
Oh, of course. I couldn’t get laid in Connecticut. I was this skinny white trash kid. We were the brokest people in town. It was awful. Really we were.
How did you meet John?
I called him because I had just done a successful concert promoting for the March of Dimes and I skimmed money off the top, like $30 or $40. And John had a theater group and my friend Tommy Hearn, his sister had been in the theater group so I thought I’d hire them and skim some more money off the time. I was just taken by John.
Because he just had incredible vision and I knew he was getting out of Cheshire and I kind of attached myself to him. We were very good friends.
So when you got to New York you spent a lot of time CBGBs, what was it like back in the 70’s?
It was the most beautiful place I’d ever been in my life. Girls and beer. Cars, girls, surfing, beer, nothing else matters here. I live for cars and girls… woohoo…hot cars and girls.
Do you think that the new IFC documentary, Punk: Attitude is a pretty accurate account of the way things happened?
I don’t have any idea.
You haven’t seen the film?
No, I did. Don Letts made that. He’s a nice guy.
Do you remember the first time you met him?
No, I don’t remember the first time I met a lot of people, because I was so drunk.
Ok, any early memories of him…
That he was black, you know, cause there weren’t that many black guys around. And, he was very nice.
Didn’t you have aspirations of being a filmmaker once?
Yes. I did.
And what happened?
I found out you could get laid faster with a magazine. Quicker. I did movies on paper at Punk. I did the legend of Nick Detroit and then I was directing Mutant Monster Beach Party when I got thrown into the first nut house.
The first nut house?
For drinking… I did a script for the movie Please Kill Me that Mary Harron is supposedly in pre-production for. Whatever it is, 16 year old girls are going to come and love it, which is kind of a shame. When things become as big as they are it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s become so acceptable. I mean look at all those kids out there reading Please Kill Me. It’s kind of startling. It just came out in China. You know how many people there are in China? There’s a hell of a lot.
So that depresses you?
Yeah, I only thought like ten people read it. It wasn’t until I was doing the porn book that I realized how big it was. We had to do a reading and then we added all these other dates and there were millions of kids at it, for a bookstore. There were lots of young girls.
Isn’t that a good thing?
I don’t know. What the fuck do I know. I can’t read my own books. It’s too weird. So I don’t know what they are getting out of it.
Why did you write the book?
For me and [co-author] Gillian, so we could live in the 70’s because we hated the early 90’s. They were awful. We didn’t think anyone would read it. Come on, nobody sold any records. Johnny Thunders never sold anything. Iggy never sold and The Ramones never sold anything. And at that time, no one cared about punk. The book is almost 10 years old. It’ll be 10 years old next year. So I was working on this in the early 90’s.
So it wasn’t about the money?
No, we got $30,000, it cost $100,000 to do. I mean eventually it paid off.
But it was more a labor of love situation…
Oh completely. Cause I was depressed too back then and I wanted to fall back in love with writing.
What punk band do you think is the most underrated?
All of ‘em. I just finished telling you they never sold anything. Who sold less? I don’t know. Who was the most undersold band? But now it doesn’t matter because they are all in TV commercials. So they didn’t get on radio but they got on what was better. “Lust for life, hey…ho.” It’s great. I turn on the TV every night and my whole childhood is there. It’s great.
That’s not depressing?
No. What’s depressing is that they all died, that’s what’s depressing. But they would have loved it you know. That’s what’s kind of sad. You know, Joey would have loved it. Joey was really the eternal optimist as Holmstrom says in the movie…or one of those movies. He always thought he was going to have a hit single.
So they just wanted to make money…
They were all trying to sell out, that’s what you try to do. Try to sell as many records as possible, not sell as few records as possible and be an underground cult sensation...who wants that, there’s no money in that. We all want money and pussy.
But, what about integrity?
Yes, but you can make a lot of money not changing your mind and doing it the right way. It’s just that America is a huge fucking country and if you are the group that wants to hear Iggy and the Ramones and the majority wants to hear Billy Joel, well that’s what wins. We live in a country where whatever gets the highest ratings wins, so you hope that you get a high rating so you can win and be popular and stuff.
It takes people a long time to catch up to things. If you came up with a new idea today and you said I’m gonna call this art movement “mud,” the “mud art movement.” And a bunch of people have a scene and you get lots of press in New York and stuff. It will probably take 5 years for the kids out in the suburbs of Denver to get into the “mud art movement.” It takes a long time for things to get out there. That’s why they hammer you over the head with advertising, “please don’t squeeze the Charmin.” I know that because they spent a lot of money telling me that. But if you don’t have a TV and you can’t be on the news all the time, you got to use other ways. And now with the Internet, it will be interesting to see what happens. It’s always interesting to see what happens. Don’t you think?
Yes…now back to the New York Punk scene, was there a lot of violence?
Well, I got into some fights, but usually I went down with the first punch. Holstrom would be, “Get up, get up and fight.” And I would go, “No, I don’t want to. He’s just going to punch me and I’m gonna go down again.” I think I beat up James Chance one night and Dick Manitoba always says, “Oh great Legs, your great victory, you beat up James Chance that wimp.” So I guess that’s pretty hysterical. I didn’t really beat him up badly or anything. But I was such a drunken pussy.
How about Lester Bangs, what’s your first memory of him?
My first memory of him is being at the Punk Dump and Holmstrom was very excited that Lester Bangs was coming to town. He had written something about us. John used to write letters to Creem under the name Happy Jack and they would be printed. I remember he wrote Lester a famous letter, “Come on Lester just admit it, you don’t like rock ‘n roll anymore.” And Lester actually answered him and I remember John reading that out loud in the Dump. Then suddenly this big guy with this brown coat was in our offices.
No, first we went to his hotel room and I wasn’t hungry and he got me ice cream and shrimp and all this stuff and he was like, “Eat Legs, eat.” I never ate in those days. I was really skinny. I just drank everything. I remember that being the first time and then he was at the offices. I didn’t know what it meant and Lester was kind of an asshole. I didn’t think he was this great anything. And eventually he wrote really nasty things about us, the “White Noise Supremists.” He almost put Punk out of business with that piece on the gay mafia. Lester proved to be a pretty big asshole.
Why do you think that was?
I think Lester was deeply disturbed. I think he had been a Seventh-day Adventist and he exchanged religion for rock n’ roll and he would preach at you. He wouldn’t talk to you, he would preach at you and you either agreed with him or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, you were a big asshole. It was a weird kind of relationship. And I think I threatened him because I didn’t care about him.
You think he wanted worship?
No, I think he wanted some respect. I just didn’t know who he was and I didn’t want to read some 2,000-word review of the Stooges. I just wanted to play the fucking record and I think that really threatened Lester.
On the other hand, Lester could be very very nice. I think he was a sweet guy that got caught up in something that he didn’t really know and he was too afraid to find out. I remember taking him to the Ramones the first time and he was just bitching and complaining. He was such a drag. We were so excited; we were taking Lester to see the Ramones for the first time, me and John. I remember they played at Max's.
What was Max’s like?
It was kind of uptowny. It was on 17th, so it was above 14th Street. It had this kind of feeling that if you went there you had to have money. You see CBGBs you could always go without money; someone would buy you a drink. With Max’s you always had to have some money.
How about Richard Hell? What were some things you remember about him back in the day?
I have a lot of memories of him. He was the first person who ever shot up in front of me, and 20 years later he won’t let me smoke in his house. It’s kind of like, that was the same fucking chair and the same fucking table that he shot up in front of me. I’m looking and nothing in the apartment has changed, but now you can’t smoke and Richard plays tennis every morning.
His father died of a heart attack very young so he was very worried about that. He kept including me, and I said “I’m not gonna die of a heart attack, I’m gonna die of lung cancer. Don’t give me your fucking father’s heart attack.”
How did you survive the whole scene?
Good question. I don’t have any idea. I stopped drinking in 1988. That probably saved my life.
But then it just got boring…
Yeah, well when I woke up, Jesus. I found out that people didn’t live like I did. I was under the mistaken impression that everyone was having a good time.
They weren’t? What was everyone else doing?
They were worrying about their careers and stuff. I don’t think you can really worry about your career.
Well, what do you worry about then?
Work. I want it to be good stuff. I don’t want to put out shit. I did that when I was at Spin. The articles, they always could have been a little better. You always felt kind of bad that you could have done a better job. And you were getting laid from the stuff. It was always kind of like, oh, you don’t want to fuck me. I’m not that good. Just cause I sat down with Billy Idol you’re gonna fuck me. Oh please don’t. Put your panties back on, just go home. Of course I never said that, but I was thinking it.
Was that because Spin didn’t push you or because…
No, because I didn’t push me. Spin’s like everyone other stupid rock n’ roll magazine. Plus I’d already worked for the world’s best magazine.
Did you push yourself more at Punk?
Well, when you are in your teens or your early 20s, I think you get some stuff for free. And then you spend the rest of your life working for it. I don’t have too many free days, where something just comes. I have to work at it. I’m a very slow writer.
What about the distinction between work and career?
Because I don’t really have a career. I don’t have a job. Well, resident punk was kind of my career. I was probably more famous as a writer than I was. I wasn’t that good of a writer. I did some funny things and some original things, but no one ever saw them as being interesting.
The logo, Punk #1. “A Story to Fill Space,” that was great stuff. I think you get those for free. But, I couldn’t have been drunk and done Please Kill Me. It’s just too big.
You mentioned the porn book earlier, how did you get involved with that project?
I think it started with the question, what’s it like to fuck on camera for a living? I think a good book starts with a good question. I don’t know if I answered it or not.
The thing about porn is I can never really believe it. I mean, can you really believe the girl wants to fuck that guy with the pot belly. Come on. She’s there for the money babe. If you’re jerking off you sort of want to believe the girl really wants to get fucked. Not just get paid, laid and get out of there. So that kind of erases 99% of all porn.
Ok. What was the question for Please Kill Me?
That was like, did this really happen? Cause I was so drunk. It was kind of like, did we really do something or not? It was like vanishing in the early 90’s. It was kind of like, did I really have that much fun? And, do things suck as badly as they do now? It was kind of like yes and yes.
What do you think of New York now?
It’s nice. Everybody is so young. There is a lot of energy. There are a lot of people talking excessively, loudly. You know, on their cell phones. You can hear what everyone’s doing. “My boyfriend called. You know what I mean.”
Do you have a boyfriend?
No, I don’t have a boyfriend.
Really. Tell me about your last bad relationship.
Wait, I should be asking you these questions.
No sweetie, you don’t know how to interview anybody for shit. I’ll interview you. Tell me about your last bad relationship. Isn’t that a great line? Knowing how to interview someone means you know how to manipulate them.
Who taught you how to interview?
I worked in a movie theater in high school. It was in New Haven and I’d have to hitchhike on route 10 back and forth. All these gay men who were married would pick me up, this was the early 70s. And it was just kind of fascinating. I wanted to drink so I’d say take me out for a beer but I didn’t want to have sex with them or anything, so I would just kind of get them to talk to me. And then I had to get out of there without putting out and stuff.
How did you do that? Because as a woman, I often have to get out of situations like that.
Sweetie if you don’t know by now, you’re not gonna know, sorry. You’re just a pigeon. And I am a predator. I think some people develop predatory instincts in order to survive in life. Then later on, you don’t just lose them.
Right, once a predator, always a predator.
I think so yeah. But now, I don’t really want to be. But it’s good for work you know. It’s bad for your personal life.
What do you want to be? You wanna be a pigeon?
No, I don’t. No thank you.
So if you aren’t a predator, what are you?
I’m a sleeping predator. I’m a hibernating predator. I’m the friendly predator.
Well, hibernating predator means you’ll come back one day, right?
Oh of course, I always come back and I’ll eat you. I wouldn’t want to be interviewed by me. I really wouldn’t.
Ok. Well, back to New York…how about the changes on the Bowery?
There’s a glass fucking building on fucking Astor Place, open your fucking eyes.
What’s going on is that they put the Bowery Bar next to CBGBs and now CBGBs is going out of business. There are no more bums on the Bowery, there are only models. When you have fashion models your rent goes up astronomically. The rent goes up to 40 grand and then there are no more bums. And you don’t want any punk kids in Mohawks screaming you are a shallow fucking model at you. What do you do, you get rid of them. Now hopefully Hilly will go to Vegas and open the American CBGBs casino.
Would you go?
I wouldn’t have to go. It would be so packed every night. Girls with augmented breasts will be sitting in front of Joey Ramone slot machines putting silver dollars in one after another.
What are you working on now?
Well, I taped Danny Fields this morning. I am working on his memoirs. And the Joey Ramone book.
When do you expect to complete those?
Probably next year. The Joey Ramone thing is almost done. Danny Fields, it’s just the first chapter.
How did you get involved with the Danny Fields project?
I don’t know. Just kept calling.
Is that also an oral history?
No, it’s really good. This is Danny’s voice and he has an amazing voice. I don’t know what it is but it just reads so perfectly. Here, I’ll read you a section, it’s just so good. I’ll read you about the nod monastery:
I’m really impressed with the 60s stuff. Stuff that was sort of legendary around me. Not especially Jim Morrison, but Danny Fields was everything. I thought he was always just Jim Morrison, Iggy and Ramones guys. But he was so much more than that. He was like this interconnecting guy where all the spokes of the wheel go out from. He was there trippin’, waking up on the floor at Janis Joplin’s house and there’s Kris Kristofferson teaching her the words to “Bobby McGee.” That’s kind of phenomenal. So that’s what’s interesting to me. And the Joey Ramone book is great. Mickey’s done such a great job on it.
What are you most proud of?
Photo credit: Keith Green