Legs-McNeil

Legs McNeil

American Music Journalist

MASTER CLASS NARRATIVE ORAL HISTORY CURRICULUM

Interactive Zoom Class

Copyright December 2021 by Legs McNeil

Photo By: Dina Regine

ZEN AND THE ART OF THE NARRATIVE ORAL HISTORY

 

Introduction

 

Too long has the Oral History format been thought of as the bastard child of literature; assumed to be a “cut and paste” job for hack writers looking to make an easy buck. In other words, the bottom of the prose barrel. But when the art of the narrative oral history is mastered, it can transform the written spoken word by primary subjects—people who were in the room when the event occurred—into actually experiencing the event being described, with all the human emotion, even more so than the traditional one-voice narrator.

Louis “Studs” Terkel laid the ground work for oral histories when, in 1967, he published Division Street America, using 70 city people talking about living in an American metropolis– proving that the voices of ordinary unknown men and women can have a powerful effect upon the reader, as well as vast commercial potential. He succeeded in making the oral history a viable money-making literary venture when he published The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two which became a best-seller and won Studs a Pulitzer Prize– and the admiration and appreciation of historians across the globe, as well as the general public.

Through his earlier books; Hard Times; An Oral History of the Great Depression and Working, Studs Terkel proved that ordinary voices of unknown primary subjects were a goldmine of the human emotional experience and historical significance, but the oral history wasn’t finished evolving yet. Studs usually let his subjects speak for uninterrupted pages without inter-cutting them with other primary subjects on the same topic, somewhat limiting the emotional and narrative impact, but this format was about to experience a radical change.

When Jean Stein embarked to write a biography of Robert Kennedy, American Journey; The Times of Robert Kennedy, using the oral history format, little did she realize that she was inventing a revolutionary new literary genre that would, ten years later, land her a best-seller. Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s masterpiece, Edie; American Girl perfected, if not invented, the narrative oral history genre.

In these times when the term “oral history” is used to define anything from a single edited interview to a collection of interviews published as an anthology, I decided to clarify what I mean by the “narrative oral history.” For the record, when I use this term– I mean a book of edited passages from a collection of interviews that are tightly woven together in an accurate chronology, expertly time-lined, to build a superbly crafted narrative, without using anything but the interviews—and that reads like a fast-paced novel.

Jean Stein used the term “oral narrative,” to describe her first attempt, adding that, “Oral history has been largely thought of as the collecting of interview transcripts for storage in archives in order to provide historians with research material. Somewhat less common is the use of interview transcripts as a literary form—in which the raw transcripts are edited, arranged, and allowed to stand for themselves without the intervention by the historian.”

What some critics deem nothing more than a “cut and paste job,” when the narrative oral history is executed correctly, the collection of quotes becomes a well-considered editing job, placing one story after another, like a brick layer, until the mosaic of quotes culminates into an artful narrative flow. Which I will go into great detail during this course.

Jean Stein and George Plimpton chose their subject well, for not only was Edie Sedgwick a relatively forgotten star when the book was published in 1984, but Edie: American Girl shed new light on a chaotic period of American history in a radical new literary format that inspired Norman Mailer to declare, “This is the book of the Sixties that we have been waiting for.”

But until Please Kill Me; The Uncensored Oral History of Punk was published a decade later, the narrative oral history format was mostly ignored. Since publishing my book with co-author Gillian McCain in 1996, the oral history genre has exploded with over a hundred and fifty books calling themselves oral histories. Most of these have been a huge disappointment, which is why I believe it’s time to teach a course in how to construct a bestselling Narrative Oral History like Please Kill Me, which has been published in 19 different languages, has never gone out of print, and has sold over two million copies worldwide.

Class One: Choosing Your Topic

You need other people in order to make your narrative oral history work, and you need to show them all the respect and courtesy they deserve for allowing you to document their stories, whether it be five people you’re interviewing– or five hundred. Remember you need to adjust your schedule to theirs, as you wouldn’t have anything without their interview transcripts.

I find it best when choosing a topic to consider an industry, art, music or social scene, where your primary subjects all know each other and have been intimate, as it makes for a more dramatic story. But this is not necessarily a steadfast rule, as people who hang out in a bar or restaurant, for example, day after day, and are not that familiar with each other can have just as dramatic lives– just as long as they frequent the same locations and have had casual contact with each other.

So how do you choose? I find it best that you, the interviewer, have a strong interest in the subject you are pursuing, as your primary subjects will immediately know by your body language and eye contact, how interested you are in their story. I find it imperative when interviewing people in person, as opposed to on the phone, to never break eye contact when they are speaking, as the eyes are the windows to the soul, as the saying goes, and the more interested your eyes are, the better the story you’ll get.

This art of listening is a lot more exhausting than it seems, so it’s important to schedule your interviews judiciously, and give yourself time to unwind and digest what you’ve just heard.

For the inexperienced oral historian, I find that family oral histories are almost a sure bet for completing your project, since you will most likely know most of the primary subjects you are interviewing and probably have established relationships with them, and they tend to be more forgiving, and may be more excepting of your short comings. Maybe not. The family oral history can also prove to be invaluable to later generations, as both time and family members pass on, for it can be very informative and exciting to know where we came from.

In my own case– of trying to interview my own family members– I was denied by almost everyone of them, as the story of my family was too painful to relive. On my mother’s side, which I was concentrating on, my grandfather was an Irish immigrant who gained his American citizenship by serving in the American Army in World War One, where he was wounded; losing an eye and a lung during the Battle of the Argonne Forrest, the deadliest battle of that war.

My grandfather met my grandmother while he was recuperating from his wounds in a Connecticut and they were married and lived on a farm in North Haven. My grandfather had a college degree in agriculture, but became a severe alcoholic, most likely brought on by PTSD from the war. He suffered the curse of the Irish: Booze. My grandmother became a sever agoraphobic, never leaving the house and insisting on keeping one of her four kids home from school each day to fend off loneliness.

When World War Two broke out, my grandfather committed suicide and my grandmother committed herself to the State Mental Hospital in Middletown, Connecticut. My mother and her two sisters were split up, as my uncle joined the army, and they were all left to fend for themselves.

After high school, my mom lived at the YWCA and worked for the local electric company where she met my father, a promising electrical engineer, and they married and moved to the suburbs and had three children, myself being the youngest. Sadly, I was born in January, 1956, and my father died of stomach cancer in April, so I never really knew him, which is probably why I became consumed with documenting different scenes, since my own family history was never, ever, discussed. Though it would’ve made a fascinating story.

But I can understand why my mother and aunts and uncle denied my requests to be interviewed. Somethings are just too painful to talk about, so don’t be discouraged if your family turns out to be like mine, there are limitless topics to pursue.

For the purpose of this class, I suggest that each student prepare a short three-page oral history on a subject of their choosing. And trust me, you’ll be glad it’s only three pages instead of five, but if you want to do five, be my guest. But you’ll go back to three.

By keeping the student’s project small, since transcribing interviews are expensive, and the editing process is complicated, it’s actually a feasible task for every class member to accomplish. It’s also thrilling to see how the entire process works—to see what you can create with mere words. Since everyone has a cellphone nowadays, so I suggest each student record their interviews on their phones and transcribe them on their computers, and to keep time and labor to a minimum– only transcribe those parts of the interview the students deem necessary to complete their project. They can always go back to the digital interview if they need to flesh out more of their story.

So again, how do you choose your topic? I’m a big fan of the Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor, and in her short story, “Everything Rises Must Converge,” it involves a mother and son taking a bus ride across town and the mother humiliating herself by giving a young black kid a penny or a nickel in the most condescending manner; expertly displaying race relations in America in the 1950’s. The reason I mention this is because the possibilities for conducting oral histories are endless. The student can take a long bus ride across town and talk to three or four people on the bus and see what he or she unearths. It might be fascinating, or it might be a bore, but I usually find if you are sincere and honest in your approach, people are usually very responsive. I mean, who does not like to talk about themselves?

In other words, you don’t need famous people or spectacular topics to make your oral history work. Church groups, hobby associations, malls, skateboard parks, bars, select neighborhoods—anywhere people congregate over a period of time and are in close contact with each other will do. Holidays can also prove to be a gold mine as a Christmas or Hanukah or Easter or Passover are great because the student will be working in limited time frame and can interject themselves into the story. This is also true of weddings, funerals or baptisms, as you can always go back and interview your subjects over the phone after the event to get their take on what they experienced and compare it with the student’s own reflections.

I like to pick topics that bring up larger issues, which is why I mentioned church groups and hobby associations, because I always wonder why people do what they do. That elderly lady who belongs to a doll collecting club, why is she there? Did her daughter die in a car accident as a youngster? Is that what made her so obsessed with that doll? Or that organist in the church choir, why is he so committed to playing the hymns a certain way? Is he a closet gay guy who has a crush on the preacher? We all have obsessions, and the reason why we pick certain things to obsess on can be very revealing—and can lead to a much larger story.

As Studs Terkel taught us– the most ordinary subjects can prove to be the most illuminating about the human condition.

Lastly, on the subject of picking a topic, I’d like to suggest a retirement village or old folks’ home, as the people who live there are confined to a specific space, have close contact with each other and have lived long, and in some cases, fascinating lives. Talk to the staff of the place you want to explore and be honest and forthright about what you’re doing and I’m sure they will be happy to help you out.

It’s also important to remember that in order to respect your subject’s privacy, the students can tell them that they can change their names, since no one is going to know who they are anyway. It’s not the name that is important, but their story. It can also be a fun way to get familiar with your subject, an ice-breaker– asking them what name they’d like to be called in your oral history.

Class Two: Interviewing Your Subject

As I mentioned earlier, the more attentive you are to your subject, the more the person will be willing to reveal details of their story. Which is why eye contact is so very important in getting gold out your subject. I don’t mean to sound so mercenary, but if you’re going to spend the time and the money conducting a book-length oral history it’s important to be as professional as possible and use all the tools at your disposal.

One mistake that truly makes my blood boil, and I’ve done it on occasion myself, is to talk about yourself during the interview. You are there to get their story, not yours. Leave your ego at the door, your subject doesn’t care about what you have to say, unless it directly relates to the topic at hand. I learned this the hard way when I was working at an early rock magazine and I was interviewing some rock god and I’d interject some dumb anecdote that I thought put me on the same level as them. I thought I was. They’d just give me a dumb look, as if to say, “Are you here to listen to me? Because I don’t have time to listen to you babbling!”

So shut up and ask your questions and listen, really listen to their answers, as they will guide you to your next set of questions. For me, it was a humiliating lesson to learn but an extremely important one. Remember, you are at intruding on the subject’s time, and out of respect and professional curtesy, keep your comments to yourself, unless they are to show empathy, sympathy, or help your subject clarify a point they are trying to make.

Also, try not to do your interviews in a restaurant, as I promise you, just as your subject is getting to the climax of their story, some chatty waiter or waitress will interrupt you, ruining the moment. It has happened to me more times than I care to remember and still makes me angry. If you must conduct your interview in a restaurant, choose the quietist place possible, and you might want to politely mention to your waiter that you’re conducting an interview and do not wish to be disturbed, and that you will approach them if you need anything from the bar or grill. And you will leave them a nice generous tip if they leave you alone.

Another one of the important lessons I learned in conducting oral histories over the past thirty years is that usually your subject has something they want to say or articulate as soon as you begin to record them. Don’t let this upset you, let them spew for the first half hour or so, and be as interested in what they are saying as you will be once you get to the subject you are truly interested in. You don’t have to transcribe the first part of the interview, and it also gives the student a chance to get to know their subject better. I promise you, if you let them talk about whatever it is they have to spew for a decent length of time, they will give you the gold– they will give you the meat of why you are there to interview them. I find it’s kind of an unspoken psychological quid pro quo, and for me, it has worked every time. Be patient with your subject, and again remember, if it wasn’t for them talking to you, you wouldn’t have an oral history.

One of the most important tips I can give any novice oral historian is that, basically, you are creating a world with words. So the physical reality of your story is extremely important. Think about it for a minute; the student is creating entire worlds with mere words. So if someone tells you they got in their car to go have it out with their ex-lover, ask what kind of car it was.

A Mustang? What Year? Or a Rambler? Or a station wagon, four door sedan or convertible?

If your story is about a specific Christmas, ask if the Christmas tree was real or artificial? And if it was real, did they cut it down themselves or get if from a street corner vendor? The more physical questions you can ask, the more of a physical framework you will have to place the meat of your story. Don’t ever assume that the reader knows the physical context the subject is referring to, as the reader is relying on you to bring the story alive, and the physical aspects– the car, the oak tree, the motorcycle– are the interviewer’s job to articulate. And remember, the student can always call the subject on the phone later to get what kind of bicycle, house, apartment, swimming pool or dog– it was what he or she mentioned earlier. Which is why it’s so important to stay on good terms, even if you disagree with everything they are saying.

For example; when I was doing my book on the early porn industry, The Other Hollywood, I had to interview quite a few FBI Agents, as one of the subplots of the book was about an FBI Agent who became his undercover gangster personality in real life– after two years playing the thug role– as the Mob ran the porn biz in the early days. Subsequently, this agent was arrested for shoplifting, fired from the FBI, and his father died of a heart attack after reading of his son’s dismissal in the local newspaper. A real tragedy.

So I had to interview seasoned FBI Agent Bill Kelly and his lovely wife Virginia, a wonderful Southern Belle if there ever was one (she used to have breakfast waiting for us whenever we had an interview session scheduled), about the disgraced FBI Agent. Mr. and Mrs. Kelly were some of the most delightful people I’ve ever met.

But Bill Kelly’s politics were abhorrent to me. He had slippers made from the likeness of Bill and Hilary Clinton and would encourage his cats to use them as chew toys. Yes, but I loved them, and was so grateful for Bill Kelly’s insight and knowledge of the porn biz, as well his generous spirit. You may not like everyone you interview, but you may come to love them for who they are.

Now back to the physicality of your project: The student will almost always be be surprised at how illuminating questions about the physical aspects of the story can be– and can lead to even more interesting anecdotes that will strengthen the overall story.

I cannot stress enough how important the physicality of your oral history is, as in Please Kill Me, my co-writer, Gillian McCain and I had to recreate New York City just using words, which I believe we succeeded in doing, but read it for yourself and tell me if we were successful.

Your oral history has to have the physical elements included so the reader can smell and taste your story, as well as feel it, which helps create the overall emotional reality. I want to be able to smell the turkey cooking in the oven on Christmas morning, as well as taste that delicious stuffing packed inside. And you do this by having someone talk about cooking the turkey, and cut to another person describing how amazing it tastes. But this is for a later lesson on editing your oral history transcripts together.

One of the problems oral historians have to face is whether the subject is telling the truth? We have to be able trust the voice. If we can’t, the entire oral history falls apart. And I’ve found that if someone is lying or misremembering an event, the best way to deal with this is by cutting to the next subject who directly contradicts the liar. Not only is it a fun way to deal with the problem, but it lets the reader know that the interviewer is not taking the subject’s word as gospel. It lets the reader know that they are in on the deception. But what if you can’t tell if someone is telling the truth or not and have no way to verify it? The answer I’ve discovered is to keep asking the subject to repeat the event, usually over several interview sessions, and if the story keeps changing, it’s best to leave it out. If the story is basically the same in each telling, I trust that it is basically the truth. But you never know, which is why it’s best to get two other subjects to verify the story. And if you can’t, then you only have your gut instincts to rely on.

And if it is a libelous or slanderous event being told, and you don’t trust it, it’s best leave it out, or seek a lawyer’s consultation.

Once a subject has agreed to be interviewed, it’s important to be on time and be prepared. The more you know about know about the subject your interviewing, it shows the person you’ve done your homework and are serious about getting their story down right. Of course, this might be impossible in many cases, but remember they are donating you their time, so it’s important to respect that fact by being on time. This might seem like small curtesy, but trust me, people appreciate it and it will go a long way to getting a better story on tape. Most people who agree to be interviewed, especially unknown subjects who have never been interviewed before, get excited about the fact that someone is interested in hearing their story. It’s a natural human response. So it’s important not to disappoint them, and if you need to cancel or postpone your interview session, do so as soon as possible and honestly explain the reasons why, as it will go a long way to showing you are being considerate and value their time and energy. If you cancel at the last minute, you can forget about getting a great story, as it tends to dishearten your subject and allows them to dismiss the seriousness of your intentions. Remember, doing an oral history is about your subject, not you. And would not exist without their cooperation. They are basically writing the story for you. You are there to help facilitate that process. Again, leave your ego at the door.

At the end of this class, I will ask the students to interview each other on what brought them to the class, so they can get an understanding of the interview process. And we will be able to critique and advise them on their methods.

Class Three: Timelining Your Story and Organizing Your Material

Primary subjects rarely tell their stories in a logical, linear manner– they are usually out of order and scattered, so it’s up to the interviewer to figure the correct sequence of events that took place. Books, magazine articles, internet (though extremely unreliable) are helpful when you are conducting a book length oral history. After your initial interviews with your subject, it’s helpful to go back to them and ask for a simple outline of the sequence of events, as best as they can remember. Academic history is being taught by new-fangled methods, but I find the best way to approach the telling of a historic event is by cause and effect. An event happens and that causes a subsequent event to follow it. For example: Pearl Harbor is bombed by the Japanese causing the United States to enter World War Two, and when Prime Minister Winston Churchill learns England is no longer fighting the war with the USSR, he goes to Washington DC and moves into the White House with President Roosevelt for a month, much to the horror of the President’s wife, Elanor Roosevelt. Cause and effect. For every action, there is a reaction.

Of course, the student doesn’t have to document every cause and effect that happens in a subject’s life, but it is helpful to know that is the way life usually works. Usually, but not always, as freak accidents do occur.

As for the subject of organizing material I find what works for me is to make 6 copies of each interview transcript as it is important to always have one copy that is completely virgin, in other words, untouched as the editing process is a furious process. I don’t know how many times I’ve corrupted an interview transcript as an original copy– after I’ve already pulled all the quotes I’ve needed. So it’s imperative that you always have an original virgin copy in your files, so you can check it against your edited copy, making sure you’ve got the voice down correctly.

It’s also important that the transcripts remain in the same font and paragraph formatting as I don’t know how many times I’ve received transcripts from one of my transcribers in different formatting styles that corrupts my entire edited copy. I don’t know how many hours I’ve wasted fixing corrupted edits. This may seem like a small matter, but trust me, when making a cut that should only take a few minutes, it will end up taking hours trying to undo the unnecessary formatting. So I find it best to have a worksheet spelling out specifically; font size, paragraph spacing, etc., etc., to give to your transcriber, if you can afford one, so that you can avoid corrupting your edits.

Class Four: The Authority of the Voice; Slang, Improper Grammar and Obscenity

I love slang; the way people really talk. That’s why I insist that all our transcripts be transcribed verbatim so I know exactly the way a subject speaks. It will also tell you more about that person and give you a feeling for them that most books do not contain.

For example; this is a small slice of an edit of Lee Harvey Oswald shooting Officer J. D. Tippet right after the assassination of President Kennedy. It includes all the incorrect grammar of the subjects speaking, which I think you will agree makes for a more authentic account of the event:

The Police Are Nice and Friendly

Copyright 2021 by Legs McNeil

 

Domingo Benavides: [Mechanic]: I was working at Dootch Motors, it was about 1 o’clock—it was after lunch, I’d already eaten—and this man stalled his car in the middle of Patton and 10th Street and asked me if I could fix it. Something was wrong with the carburetor or the pump had broken. I was in a rush and I ran off—but forgot the number of the carburetor. I got almost up to the parts house, then thought about the number—so I was going to go back and get the number off the carburetor. I turned in a drive and circled back, down the alley that runs right behind Dootch Motors.

I was going west on 10th Street and got almost up to the corner when I seen this policeman—I saw this police car sitting four or five feet from the curb and down about two houses from the corner of Patton Street.

Helen Markham [Waitress]: I saw the man [Lee Harvey Oswald] come over to the police car very slow, and he leaned over in the open car window and put his arms on the ledge of the window.

Well, I didn’t think nothing about it; you know, the police are nice and friendly, and so I thought it was a friendly conversation. Well, in a few minutes this man drew back– he stepped back about two steps– and the policeman calmly opened the car door, very slowly, he wasn’t angry or nothing– and he calmly crawled out of this car. I still just thought this was a friendly conversation, maybe disturbance in the house, I did not know.

Just as the policeman got towards the front of the car– just as he had gotten even with the wheel on the driver’s side—this man shot the policeman.

Domingo Benavides: The man was standing on the right side of the police car—right in front of the windshield, by the right front fender—and then I heard the shot.

I just turned the pickup truck into the curb—hitting the curb—I ducked down and heard two more shots. I looked up and the policeman seemed like he kind of stumbled and fell.

William Scroggins [Taxi Cab Driver]: I saw the policeman grab his stomach and fall.

Helen Markham: The policeman fell to the ground, and his cap went a little ways out on the street.

Jack Ray Tatum [Medical Photographer]: Next this man with a gun in his hand ran toward the back of the squad car, but instead of running away he stepped into the street and shot the police officer [in the head] who was lying in the street. At that point this young man looked around him and then started to walk away in my direction….

Helen Markham: And the man– he just walked calmly– fooling with his gun.

He didn’t run– it just didn’t scare him to death—but he didn’t run.

When he saw me– he looked at me, he stared at me. I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t. I could not yell or scream. I could not say nothing. He looked wild.

I mean, well, he did to me. So I put my hands over my face, and closed my eyes.

Jack Ray Tatum: I saw the man turn around and look in my direction. At the same time, I saw a lady [Helen Markham] on the corner, down on her knees facing Patton. She was covering her head; she thought she was going to be shot, I guess.

Helen Markham: I gradually opened my fingers and when I opened my eyes– he started off in kind of a little trot.

Domingo Benavides: I seen the man with the gun turn and walk back to the sidewalk—he walked maybe five feet and then kind of stalled—he didn’t exactly stop– and he threw one bullet shell—then took about five of six more steps and threw the other shell.


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The incorrect grammar gives the voice much more authority. Which is why slang and obscenity are equally important, because we have to believe the subject who is speaking. And if obscenity offends the student, they might want to stick to interviewing church groups– or reconsider their career choices.

I have interviewed many murderers who I have liked immensely, and many who I have hated, but the oral historian is not there to judge, but gather the facts. The student has to be amoral in their approach, offering no judgement, especially if they are considering controversial topics like punk rock, pornography or murder. This can be extremely difficult. While working on an oral history of the Manson Family, I had to interview a convicted pedophile who had an affair with one the Manson girls when she was 15, as well as his 12-year-old daughters. The man’s arrogance and contempt for conventional sexual standards made me furious, and it was one of the few times my writing partner, Gillian McCain, had to step in a take over the entire interview, as I was afraid my anger would destroy the reason why we were there. Gillian did a magnificent job and she got what we needed. But I say this as a warning to be careful and know yourself, before you decide on your topic, as some subjects are just too dark for some people to handle. Don’t be ashamed if you cannot handle the issue, just be honest with yourself beforehand to avoid these difficult situations.

Class Five: The Editing Process

Now we are getting into the nitty-gritty of he editing process of the Narrative Oral History. It can be one of the most frustrating and complex tasks the student will ever face. It’s best for the student to think of their story as a word-film as they will use the same techniques as a film editor. Jean Stein describes the effect this way: “The technique used is occasionally almost the kaleidoscopic ‘flicker’ technique of films, in which a series of quick images of considerable variety provides an effect of wholeness. The success of such a technique obviously relies on the quality of the voices themselves…”

As always, it all comes down to the quality of voices—and the way you utilize those voices. As Jean Stein put it more succinctly, “Editorial intervention is restricted solely to the placement of the material, so that there are no voices other than those of the interviewees.”

Therefore, the oral historian has to be aware of several factors while editing their chapters together: the fast-paced narrative flow, the emotions of the characters, the chronology of events, as well as the themes that will emerge out of the entirety of the project.

We can do this many ways, for example turning the action scenes to slow motion—and the introductions of a new character or scenes of exposition to normal speed.

What I mean by slow motion is by highlighting different characters telling different parts of the action in short bits.  The next section illustrates an even slower-motion effect in editing, from a new oral history I’m working on, entitled, Tomorrow Is Canceled about the assassination of JFK. It is a good example of the slow-motion technique because it illustrates the urgency, chaos and tragedy of getting a wounded President John F. Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally to Parkland Hospital emergency room, and humanizes the event instead of turning it into another conspiracy theory, reminding us all that these people were human beings, not just famous icons:

Gory Pictures

Copyright 2021 by Legs McNeil

 

[Secret Service] Agent Forrest Sorrels: We went around to the emergency entrance. I jumped out of the car, and I expected to see stretchers there, out waiting, but they were not. So I ran to the entrance door there, and I said, “Hurry up and get those stretchers out!”

Mrs. Nellie Connally [Wife of Gov. John Connally]: We arrived at the hospital and sat there what seemed to me like an interminable time—and the thoughts that went through my mind were how long must I sit here with this dying man in my arms while everybody is swarming over the President?

I felt very sure he was dead– and just when I thought I could sit and wait no longer– John just sort of heaved himself up. He did not rise up in the car– he just sort of heaved himself up, and then collapsed down into the seat.

Agent Roy Kellerman: I immediately got out of the car and yelled to the agents, “GO GET US TWO STRETCHERS ON WHEELS!”

Then I turned right around to the back door of the car and opened it– Mrs. Connally had raised up, and the Governor was lying in her lap, face up. His eyes are open and he is looking at me. I noticed the two stretchers coming out of the emergency room, and I said to the Governor, “Governor, don’t worry; everything is going to be all right.”

He nodded his head, which convinced me that the man was alive.

Nurse Diana Bowron: We took the stretchers to the left-hand side of the car, and we had to move Governor Connally out first because he was in the front.

 Agent Roy Kellerman: I get on one side of Connally, and Special Agent Hill on the other. Somebody was holding his feet, and we removed the Governor and put him on the stretcher and they took him in. Then we helped Mrs. Connally out.

Mrs. Nellie Connally: Someone scooped John up in their arms and put him on a stretcher– and then they took him off immediately to the emergency room– and they ran down the hall with the stretcher– and I just ran along with them.

 Agent Roy Kellerman: Our next move was to get Mrs. Kennedy off from the seat– which was a little difficult…

Lady Bird Johnson [Wife of President Lyndon Johnson]: I cast one last look over my shoulder and saw, in the President’s car, a bundle of pink– just like a drift of blossoms– lying on the back seat. It was Mrs. Kennedy lying over the President’s body.

Senator Ralph Yarborough: I walked up to the car where Mrs. Kennedy was still on the back seat, lying there with her head bowed over, covering her husband’s head, his blood running down her leg and, on her clothes– saying, “They’ve murdered my husband! They’ve murdered my husband!” It was the most tragic sight of my life.

Agent Clint Hill: Mrs. Kennedy was holding on to the President, his head still in her lap. “Mrs. Kennedy,” I said, “Please let us help the President…”

She would not let go.

That’s the one thing that I can’t get out of my mind– the picture of him lying in her lap– with his head exposed to me– just looking into the back of his head—into his brain– his eyes fixed—blood and brains and bone fragments all over the car.

The right rear portion of the President’s head was missing– it was lying in the rear seat of the car. Mrs. Kennedy was completely covered with blood– there was so much blood you could not tell if there had been any other wound or not—and the problem was– she didn’t want anyone to see him, because it was a very gory situation– so I removed my coat and covered the President’s head and upper chest—and then she let go.

 Agent Roy Kellerman: Mr. Hill removed his coat and laid it over the President’s face and shoulder to eliminate any gruesome pictures. And then he and I, along with two other people I didn’t know– lifted up the President and put him on a stretcher.

Nurse Diana Bowron: There was a coat thrown across the top of the President, not completely covering his face—and I helped to lift his head– and Mrs. Kennedy pushed me away and lifted his head herself onto the cart.


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Extremely moving, no? And I believe more effective than one writer covering the same subject, since the heartbreak and explicitness is so clearly evident in each of our subject’s voice. Plus, there is no narrative writer to offer his or her opinion on the scene taking place. I don’t care about his opinion; I only want to hear from the people who were actual witnesses to the scene.

This is the true power of the Narrative Oral History when it’s executed properly. It can put the reader exactly inside the specific event at the exact time it’s happening, without any interference.

The next example I would like to show the student is the broader, fuller example of slowing down the action as it introduces new characters into the story and is ripe with exposition, so the quotes are longer and more descriptive of the culture of groupies, rather than just focus on the violence. It is a very small piece of a chapter from Please Kill Me; The uncensored Oral History of Punk, when Connie Gripp, the girlfriend of New York Dolls bassist, Arthur “Killer” Kane have an argument over the Dolls flying to Los Angeles to play a week of shows at the Whiskey A Go Go. Arthur explains that they cannot afford to take their girlfriends with them, and in a fit of jealousy, when Arthur falls asleep that night, Connie attempts to cut off his thumb so he can’t play the bass in LA. The action is slower because not only do we introduce Connie as a new character, but provide details on the entire groupie scene of the 1970’s. [Warning: The following excerpt contains profanity.]

Separation Anxiety

Copyright 1996 by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain

 

Syl Sylvain: The Dolls had just finished playing a week at Max’s, and Connie got wind that we were supposed to go to L.A. for six days to play the Whisky a Go Go. Connie Gripp supposedly was in the GTOs, which I don’t believe, I think she was this maniac who thought she was in all things, but who was in nothing. She was a bigmouthed talker, that’s basically who she was. She got mad at him. They were living out on East Third Street and Avenue A. She said to him, “Hey, aren’t you going to take me to California?” Arthur said, “No, we aren’t going to take none of our girlfriends, we have no money.” So that night, when he’s sleeping, she fucking stabs him in his thumb and gets him in his tendon.

Peter Jordan: Connie was one of these babes that would just smack you in the face, you know, even just joking around, like, “Oh, that’s funny,” SCHMACK!

She was a big fucking girl, and could really booze up for fucking days– you’d be having a ball, and then she’d fucking smack you on the head with a bottle because you called her a crybaby. You know, “Don’t be a bimmy…” “You can’t call me a bimmy, you big asshole!” SCHMACK!

Arthur had a thing for tall girls. He always found these fucking enormous fucking tall girls, and the nuttier the better. He was very tall himself, maybe six foot two, and he liked to walk around at night. He’d roam through Times Square at four in the morning– he just loved roaming around the street– where he’d meet these enormous women. He had a knack for it.

Arthur came up with a tremendous succession of Amazons. It was incredible. I couldn’t believe that there was so many spaced-out fucking chicks with dyed hair and torn black stockings in every city in the United States.

Where did they come from? A million of them– all enormous and with similar characteristics– all about six foot one, would drink fucking whiskey out of the bottle, and be the kind of girls who would have a broken heel on their shoe. And Arthur would find them everywhere.

Connie was one of them. She was pretty big– big butt, big tits, big laugh. She was hooking at that point, so Connie was the kind of girl who’d carry a knife, because she was peddling her ass and probably needed one for protection. Also, she and Arthur were not the type of people to have a kitchen. So she didn’t go to the fucking kitchen and get a knife out of the goddamn drawer– she had to have a fucking knife in her bag.

Eileen Polk: Arthur told me that he woke up to find Connie kneeling on his chest with the knife, in a kind of ritualistic position. It was like she had taken a knife and slit the part of his thumb that he needed to play the bass with.

She didn’t really cut his thumb off. So he woke up, saw what she was doing, and tried to grab the knife away. She didn’t try to cut his thumb off– she was going to do something weird to him with the knife, and he tried to stop her. She might have been playacting, because Arthur told me all sorts of weird stories about those groupie girls.

He told me about these two other girls, Ginny and Debbie. They were huge, both like six feet tall, and they would play dolls together. They would have tea parties– this was their little playacting routine. The groupies were like that. They thought it was fascinating to play out these roles, like an S&M role, or “I’m going to be a witch for a week” or “I’m going to get into tarot” or “I’m going to play with Barbie dolls and pretend I’m three years old” or “I’m going to have tea parties with my friends and drink opium instead of tea.”

Dee Dee Ramone: All those girls that hung around those glitter bands at Max’s were evil. All those girls worked in massage parlors– which were a thriving industry in New York at that time. You’d go in, supposedly to get a massage, but it was really for a hand job or a blow job. And all your girlfriends worked in massage parlors, “massaging” all day.

Eileen Polk: All these girls lived in fantasy worlds. And they could afford to not work because they were whores or strippers and made a lot of money. And the way they got these guys interested in them was by being so weird, paying for all their drugs, and paying their rent.

And once one of these guys had one of these girls on his tail, he couldn’t get away from her. Because that was their profession, to follow you. If they were interested in a guy in a band, they had to make sure that they gave blow jobs to the security guards at every concert they played, and spent three hundred dollars on cab rides to follow the tour bus, and got plane tickets to California.

Whatever it took. And that’s the kind of girl Connie was. She would do whatever she needed to do to get what she wanted, including threatening people and beating them up and just being crazy.

Malcolm McLaren: The day after Connie attacked Arthur was absolutely horrific. But I wasn’t shocked because I’d sensed the violence of New York already– people were too fucked-up– and Arthur was an alcoholic, and Connie was crazy.

When I first got to New York, I was very naïve, you’ve got to realize. I’d only had one girlfriend in my life. I never quite thought of that kind of jealousy, I was just learning to grow up. I had come to New York to seduce a girl– but when I got to New York I didn’t recognize her, because she’d changed her face. She had gotten plastic surgery.

I mean, things like this were quite shocking to me. Here was a girl I was partly in love with, that I thought I knew, and when I came here– she didn’t look the same.

So, no, I wasn’t shocked by Connie stabbing Arthur– I wasn’t even sad. I was just disappointed, that’s the word.

I was disappointed with the fact that much of their behavior was wasted energy– I didn’t think it even had any philosophical purpose. It was a trashy energy, easily disposable energy, an energy that didn’t really bear any genuine point of view, except jealousy, which is so time-wasting.

Syl Sylvain: Arthur called me up from Beth Israel Hospital and said, “Sylvain, aughh!” I was the first one he talked to. After that, I called David Johansen, then went straight to the hospital, and David met me. We said, “What happened? What happened?” But what was Arthur gonna say? The doctor told me that it wasn’t too bad, he just threw in a couple stitches and put a cast on him.

Peter Jordan: The Dolls still had one more night to do at Max’s, so we all immediately ran up to Leber and Krebs [N.Y. DOLLS managers], and Johnny Thunders says to me, “Well, you know all the fucking songs, why don’t you play them?” Leber and Krebs asked me, “You can do it?” I said, “Of course I can do it.” We rehearsed for two hours and then I played the show.

Cyrinda Foxe: Even after she tried to cut off his thumb, Connie still wanted to be with Arthur, and I think Arthur still intended to be with Connie. I don’t think he knew it was wrong. Syl was the one who told Arthur, “NO! NO! NO! NO! She’s gotta go, she’s horrible, look what she’s done!”


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This previous sliver of Narrative Oral History was included to illustrate that you can use action to showcase exposition; in this example the groupie culture surrounding the musicians. I hope it was helpful. The next section I’d like to show you is what novice oral historians sometimes exhibit what I call the “Studs Terkel Method,” as it involves very little cutting and the use of long single subject quotes that can drag on for pages. The “Studs Terkel Method” should be used as sparingly as possible, as it tends to cause the reader to lose interest, as there is no action (or very little) to carry the story along. Remember, it’s the “flow” of the story and the interaction with the other subjects that engages the reader and keeps them reading.

As Gillian McCain and I wrote in the afterword to the 20th Anniversary Edition of Please Kill Me; “…when the narrative oral history is executed correctly, the collection of quotes becomes a well-considered editing job, placing one story after another, like a brick layer, until the mosaic of quotes culminates into an artful narrative flow, that reads like a fast-paced novel.”

I was reading an excellent Narrative Oral History entitled Salinger, about the life of writer J. D. Salinger, that I was enjoying immensely until I got to page 196, and the authors, David Shields and Shane Salerno, felt compelled to offer their own single narrative exposition, followed by pages and pages of letters between J.D. Salinger and his young lover, Joyce Maynard. It destroyed the action, or what I call the “flow” of the story, and consequently I lost interest in the book.

The main danger of any Narrative Oral History is losing the interest of the reader. And once you do, you’re dead. That’s why long pages using the “Studs Terkel Method” is usually fatal, especially before the student has established the “flow” or the action of the story. This is deadly to the reader, as not only does it stop the continuation and perpetuation of the story, it tragically disappoints the reader’s interest and expectations.

Though the “Studs Terkel Method” can be an effective tool, it should only be employed once the action or “flow” is firmly established. But if the student relies on page after page of the one-voice narrative, you are not really writing a Narrative Oral History, but fooling yourself into believing you are.

In a case where the “Studs Terkel Method” worked effectively was a completely separate chapter of Please Kill Me when the performance artist, Penny Arcade, returns to New York City after a number of years living in Maine, and learns that her good friend, Patti Smith, has become a rock & roll superstar:

So You Wanna Be (a Rock & Roll Star)

Copyright 1996 by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain

 

Penny Arcade: I was living in Maine and I had come down to the city to visit some people, and Robert Mapplethorpe said, “Look, you can’t leave without seeing Patti perform tonight. Horses just came out and she’s gonna be really big.”

He told me she was playing at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club. So I said, “Okay, I’ll go.” I knew the Ocean Club was owned by Mickey Ruskin, who had owned Max’s, and I knew that I could always walk into Max’s, right?

Well, I get there, at one o’clock, and there’s three thousand people trying to get in. I kinda work my way up to the door, and I get the attention of the door guy, and I go, “Excuse me, I wanna come in.” He goes, “Yeah, so do three thousand other people.”

I said, “No, you don’t understand. I’m an old friend of Patti’s. Patti wants me to be here.”

He goes, “Yeah, everybody’s an old friend of Patti’s.”

Eventually Mickey let me in. The place was really crowded, and we muscled our way to the front. So I see Lenny Kaye, standing onstage, looking just like he always looks, and there’s Patti– she’s on her knees, scratching at the guitar, you know, whatever she was doing. I was so excited to see her that I ran to the front and I was going, “Patti Lee! Patti Lee!”

That’s what I always called her at that time when I was friends with her. People didn’t call her “Patti Lee,” so I figured she would know that it was me. But right alongside of me were all these seventeen-year-old kids, and they’re all going, “Patti Lee! Patti Lee!”

I was like, “I don’t get it.”

I was playing music at the time, and I had just bought these new tambourines that I had with me. The band went into one of these long instrumentals, and Patti was underneath the drums, you know, crawling around in between the drum set and the keyboard player– completely oblivious.

So I jumped up and sat on the back of one of the booths. I started playing my new tambourine, a Turkish metal thing, and it had a really incredible sound. The artist Larry Rivers was sitting in the booth across from me, and this woman who was sitting with him leans over and she goes, “Will you stop doing that? It makes Patti nervous.”

I looked at her– Patti was like facedown in the drums– and I said, “It makes Patti nervous? How can you tell?”

But I didn’t wanna bug anybody and I hated this bitch, you know? But Lenny Kaye sees me, and he says, into the mike, “I can’t believe it, Penny Arcade is back!”

Right, so now I’m somebody. Larry Rivers has turned to me, going, “Whoa!” The set ends, and Patti leaves the stage.

But I don’t know if Patti heard Lenny or not, or if she was coked up, but I think she was really flipped out. At any rate, she didn’t acknowledge that I was there. The next thing I know, Leee Childers comes up, and he says, “Man, you just show up, and you never say anything to anybody,” and blah, blah, blah.

So Leee says to me, “Look, is there anything I can do for you? Is there anything you want?”

I said, “I want to see Patti, but I don’t wanna go through any bullshit.”

He says, “It’s done.” So he takes me downstairs, and he’s just pushing people out of the way, saying, “This is Penny Arcade, she’s a friend of Patti’s.”

We get to the last door and there’s the chick who’d been with Larry Rivers, and she’s stretched out across the door and she looks at me. I have my hair in two braids, I’m wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, you know, I live in Maine. And the chick says, “Who are you supposed to be?”

I just went, “I wanna see Patti.” Really flat, no emotions– “I wanna see Patti.” And Leee goes, “Get the fuck out of the way!” He pushes her out of the way, and we go into this room. It’s this cellar, a bare lightbulb hanging down, and there’s a table with food on it. And there’s clouds of people like mosquitoes. A lot of people down there.

Lenny Kaye says, “Penny!” He comes over, hugs me, and gives me a kiss. He introduces me to his girlfriend and he’s going, “Penny introduced me to Patti!”

He was being really nice, and we talked for a few minutes. Then the drummer, Jay Dee Daugherty, comes over and he goes, “Hey, you were the girl playing the tambourine. Man, those tambourines are something, I could hear them over my kit.” And he was really nice to me.

As soon as he moved away, this swarm of like seventeen-, eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-olds, who knows what age– they were young to me, because I was twenty-six– and they’re all like, “Who are you?”

I said, “I’m nobody.”

They kept saying, “Who are you? You were talking to Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee. Like, who are you? You’re somebody, we know you’re somebody.”

I just said, “No, man, I’m nobody.” I said, “Really, you should go talk to somebody else, ’cause I’m nobody.” And they went, “Okay, thanks, man,” and they actually went. I couldn’t believe it. It was so mercenary, like, “You’re not anybody, you can’t do anything for us, we’re outta here.”

I couldn’t stand it anymore. I kept looking at this fruit that was on this table of food, and all I could think was, all night long there were rats down here, rats running around, and this food has been sitting here. The rats have been crawling on this food.

Finally I see Patti and she’s talking to Tom Verlaine. Patti had written me about Tom Verlaine, so I knew about him. So she’s talking to him, and she’s like talk, talk, talk. I’m standing there, and she knows I’m there.

Finally she walks over, and I think she’s come over to talk to me, but this twenty-two-year-old guy grabs her and says, “Listen, Patti, man, I gotta tell you, man, my girlfriend wanted to get in here, man, she’s a real fucking star, you know, she’s a real star and they wouldn’t let her in because she’s a star, they know she’s a star, and they fucking wouldn’t let her in.”

And Patti started having a serious conversation with this guy. I couldn’t believe it. I’m standing there and she’s not talking to me. I couldn’t stand it, so I just stepped up and I said, “Patti.”

I put my hand out, doing our old thing, which was like the boy handshake. She goes, “Wow, Penny, man, wow man, you look exactly the same, man, you look the same.”

I said, “Yeah, so do you.”

But I didn’t feel any connection. I felt there was a Plexiglas screen up. And she goes, “Man, I gotta get a cigarette, I’ll be right back.”

So she goes back to talking to Tom Verlaine, and she doesn’t come back. She’s not coming back. I’m standing there thinking, What the fuck am I doing here? I don’t wanna be here.

As soon as I heard it in my head, I went over to Patti and said, “Patti, I’m sorry, I’m gonna split. I really don’t want to be here. I just came down to see you.”

She said, “Wait a minute, where you going, man? Where you going?”

I said, “Well, I’m gonna split.” So Patti goes, “Well, where are you living, man? Are you living in Spain? Or are you living in Maine? Where are you living, man?”

I said, “I’m living in Maine,” and she goes, “Aw, Penn, Penny, man, I don’t feel so good, I don’t feel so good, my stomach hurts.”

I put my hand on her stomach, and I said, “What’s the matter, Patti?” She was going, “Man, you know…”

I looked at her and I suddenly realized who Patti had been– like who she’d been to her friends– she was now using that in this public way. So she couldn’t be that to me anymore, because it was now for everyone. And I realized that Patti had sixteen people around her telling her that she was the best thing since sliced bread, and for her to see someone like me, who knew her, she just couldn’t see me. And I felt really bad for her. But I still didn’t wanna be there.

So I stumble out onto the street and I have no money. I have eight dollars in my pocket, but I’ve got to use that to get back to Maine, so I flag down a cab, and I say to the cabdriver, “I’ve gotta go to Fourteenth Street and Seventh Avenue, how much is it gonna cost me?”

He says, “It’s gonna cost you like ten dollars.” I said, “Well, man, I can’t do it. I need the money.”

So I’m walking, it’s four o’clock in the morning, and all of a sudden this yellow cab swings around, and there’s Leee Childers yelling, “Penny, where are you going? Get in.”

And I went, “Whoa, man!” You know, like my rescuer, right? So I get in, and there’s this girl in the cab– this skinny girl, with this Patti Smith T-shirt on. And she’s hysterical, she’s like ranting: “I can’t believe it, man, I, I, I fucking met Patti, man. I MET PATTI!”

I’m like looking at her, and she won’t get out of herself, right? Leee introduces me to her, and he says, “This is Patti and she makes these T-shirts of Patti Smith.”

I said, “Oh cool. Great, it’s a photo of Patti on a T-shirt.”

So Leee says to the girl, “I want you to meet Penny. Penny is a very good friend of Patti Smith’s. You want to meet Penny, because she’s an old and close friend of Patti’s.”

I’m thinking, I don’t wanna meet this girl. I have no interest in this girl.

And the girl looks at me, and she goes, “Wow, you know Patti? I mean, like, you really know her? Like, you know, tell me about her.”

I said, “What? Uh, I don’t know. What do you want to know, I don’t know nothing.”

She says, “Man, I met Patti, man, like I met Patti!” Now she’s crying, right? “I met Patti, and, like, I met her, and she, she, she asked ME what my name was, and I, I, I couldn’t tell her that my name is Patti too, so I just said, ‘X.‘”

I went, “STOP THE FUCKING CAB! STOP THE CAB!”

Leee was saying, “Where you going?”

I said, “I’m outta here.” And I got out and I walked, and I was just like, Man, what the fuck is going on?


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The “Studs Terkel Method” can also, once the “flow” has been established, illustrate changes in the relationships that have occurred in the story, and how life has moved on. It’s a snapshot, a still photograph if you will, of how the times have changed. “The “Studs Terkel Method” stops the action in a Narrative Oral History, which is deadly, even if there’s a bit of action happening, the one voice of the subject keeps in concentrated on them. And only them.

So think of the “Studs Terkel Method” as a pit stop or refueling station, where the reader stops and catch’s their breath, before the locomotive of the story gets back on the tracks and starts back full speed ahead. And again, it should never be used until those “times” of your story, the sequence of events and flow of the narrative, have firmly been established, and then only sparingly. And when in doubt it, leave it out.

There is a lot more to talk about in the editing process of the Narrative Oral History, which I feel can best be explained in the classroom setting. I could write a book on the subject, but I don’t want to bore the reader with the tools and methods I’ve found that have worked for me. Instead, I am very excited to talk interactively with students about these special and unusual techniques for mastering a brand-new literary genre, and helping students make it their own.

Class Six: The Students Present Their Narrative Oral History

Legs will be available for phone calls to assist students during the day.

Classes Seven, Eight, Nine and Ten:

The students present their three-page Narrative Oral Histories for myself and the class to critique and analyze.

Legs will be available for phone calls to assist students during the day.

THE FOLLOWING CONTENT IS MEANT FOR ADULTS 18+

BAT STENCH

OR HOW NANCY SPUNGEN WAS REALLY MURDERED (A SEMI-NON-FICTION ACCOUNT).

Warning: Adult Content ©2021-2022 by Legs McNeil & Crispin Kott … Read Chapter One

Legs McNeil

ABOUT LEGS

Legs McNeil is the guy who named a movement, and then told the true story of how that movement came to be in PLEASE KILL ME; THE UNCENSORED ORAL HISTORY OF PUNK, among several other books.

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