Live Through This relives a five-month love affair between McNeil and a woman named Shannon McNamera, who was secretly using heroin. After shooting a dose that was infected with a flesh-eating bacteria, she was taken to a hospital to have her leg amputated. Less than 48 hours after the surgery, she was dead. Although Live Through This sounds like a dark entry into McNeil's body of work, and it is, he reiterates that it's also a love story that's more about their brief but intense time together.
Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain read from Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and Live Through This at Star Bar on Wed., Jan. 30. $8. 8 p.m.
Why take the new book on the road before it's published? Are you looking for feedback?
Yeah, it's also my birthday. The book is about my girlfriend who died, and she died on my birthday, so I thought, let's go somewhere warm and do some readings.
It sounds like a pretty dark tale ...
Well, we had just been in New York for the Punk magazine relaunch party and she went home early - she was from Seattle and had flown home. I was in the middle of interviewing Chuck Traynor - I had to drive down to Gainesville, Fla., to interview him. I was driving from New York City, because I don't fly. She called me and said her leg hurt, so I said, "Please go to the hospital," and she wouldn't go, and wouldn't go, and then finally she went, but once she got there I couldn't talk to her anymore.
I was living in L.A. at the time because I was working on the porn book [The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry], so I had my assistant, Neil, fly to Seattle to find out what the fuck was going on. By the time he got there, her leg had already been amputated.
I was in Baltimore when I finally got her doctor on the phone, who said, "She's infected with flesh-eating bacteria." And I said, "How does somebody get this?" That's when she said from intravenous injections of heroin - I felt like she almost wanted to say, "you fucking moron!" Anybody who reads the book will be able to tell what's going on - she's doing dope.
When did this happen?
It was between 2000 and 2001. I met her on Sept. 6, 2000, and she died on Jan. 27, 2001.
That was a time when flesh-eating bacteria was getting a lot of play in the media, and a lot of people were first becoming aware that such a thing existed.
Yeah, I hadn't heard of it before I started dating her, and the reason I thought that she had stopped doing dope was because she'd had it once already and had to have some muscle cut out. When she told me that story I thought, "Oh my God, how horrifying. Thank God you're not doing dope anymore!"
This must have been pretty traumatic for you ...
Extremely! You know ... I stopped drinking in 1988, but when this happened, I had an amazing amount of anxiety and tantrums and shit. I went into trauma rehab in November 2011, finally. My trauma therapist said, "What is therapy, but putting your life into a narrative? And what do you do? You write, so write it down, you idiot." So I came home and that's what I've been doing since I came home in March of 2012. I've been writing 10-12 hours a day - that's another reason for going out on tour - I've just been sitting here writing!
You carried this around with you for over a decade before writing this book?
Yeah. It really fucked me up and I just kind of avoided it - I was hiding out from it.
Has writing about it given you some perspective or closure?
I think I just had to go through feeling all of this stuff while not taking pills, not getting angry, and deal with it. It was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life, especially the last chapter: The book is written as a memoir, and the last chapter is an oral history, because we're all over the place: Gillian is in New York, Neil is in L.A. and Seattle, I'm stopped in Baltimore and then drove to Pittsburgh. ... I thought I had some time, too. I got on a train from Pittsburgh to Chicago and was going to continue on to Seattle, but when I got to Chicago, Gillian told me that [Shannon's] leg had been amputated and that I should check into a hotel so she could meet me in a few hours and we could fly out together. She died that night.
You didn't get to see her before she died?
No. It happened within 48 hours. I didn't realize just how brutal and violent her death was until I edited together the last chapter, and it just absolutely beats the shit out of you. But up until the end, it's pretty much a love story.
Has writing this book helped you?
Well, I'm not taking pills anymore, and I don't have any anxiety, so I definitely think it worked. I make a horrible drug addict to begin with: I'm really bad at math and can't figure out fractions. Xanax always comes in fractions and shit, so when I couldn't figure it out, I'd just say, "Oh shit, fuck it, I'll just take the whole thing!"
Not good. You need to know your portions!
Are you nervous about putting this all out there for the world, and reliving it in front of an audience?
I was at first. I kept thinking that nobody cares about me and my dead girlfriend. But I did some readings in the Midwest, and everybody seemed to like it just as much as they liked Please Kill Me, which really kind of shocked me. I think I'm just real honest about stuff, and about me, and people kind of like that. Plus, we have our greatest hits, Please Kill Me, so if people hate it - "Free Bird!" [Laughs].
The book is also fun, even though it's a really tragic story. I'm doing it now because it will probably come out in about a year, and by then it will seem very remote to me. Going out now keeps it fresh, and I'm finishing it just now - sending it to my agent tomorrow, which will be nice, because I'm finishing this thing that I started in March. It's going to be my birthday, and it happened. The book kind of wrote itself.
I can imagine that your subconscious had been working on it pretty hard for a good long time.
Yeah, and it's kind of fun, because when we were together, I was working on the porn book and all of these murders were going on, like with John Holmes, so we were going to murder trials all the time. That's how we met, over serial killers. She was reading In Cold Blood when we met, and she was listening to Hole's Live Through This a lot back then, which is why each chapter starts with a lyric from the album. ... She was so much fun, and even now it's difficult to imagine her as a junkie, because she didn't act like any junkie that I had ever met.
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