Two Punk History Stories
- September 2, 2000
Punk 'n' Polk: Eugene photographer
pierces the veil of the New York punk scene
By LEWIS TAYLOR
The [Eugene] Register-Guard
EILEEN POLK was one of the last people to see punk icon Sid
Vicious alive, and one of the only people to see him dead.
On Feb. 2, 1979, Polk learned that the Sex Pistols bassist
had died from a heroin overdose. Returning to the apartment
where she had been the night before, she stayed with the body
while Vicious' grieving mother and girlfriend went downtown
to talk to the police.
For three hours, she sat alongside Vicious' corpse, fielding
phone calls from friends and deflecting calls from scandal-hungry
Twenty-one years later, the experience still haunts Polk, now
a legal secretary living in Eugene.
"I don't know if things would have been different if they had
drug programs then like they have now," said Polk, now 46. "I
don't know where he got the drugs, but he would have found
drugs no matter what anybody did."
As a free-lance photographer and a regular on the New York
City punk scene, Polk saw a lot. Now, she is retelling her
story in words and images.
A month-long photography show kicks off today with a reading
at Foolscap Books in Eugene. And she is appearing in an episode
of "VH-1 Confidential," a series that explores the facts behind
famous events in rock history.
Segments from an interview with Polk, conducted by rock
journalist Legs McNeil, will air on VH-1 at 10 p.m. Tuesday.
"I'm not saying that I know the whole story," Polk said. "I
can only tell one story, and that's the story that I know."
Described by others as someone who was always at the center of
the action, Polk observed the rise and fall of the New York punk
scene. She saw poetry, anarchy, all-night parties, bar fights,
sex, love, arrests, drug addictions and suicides. From the
possessed punk performances of Iggy Pop to the rock-star
shenanigans of the New York Dolls, from the rise of Debbie
Harry to the unsolved murder of Nancy Spungen, Polk witnessed
the brilliance, the ugliness, the triumph and the tragedy of a
music scene that remains just as scintillating today as it was
when it happened decades ago.
"Eileen was there from the very beginning," McNeil said. "She
was the kind of person who everybody gravitated toward. She was
young and cute and sexy and funny and smart and everybody liked
her. She was everybody's friend."
POLK'S CLOSE access to the scene not only provided her with
some good stories to tell, but also allowed her to shoot
fly-on-the- wall photographs that offer rare glimpses of punk
stars with their guards down.
Taken in hole-in-the-wall bars, apartments and backstage at
rock shows, her photos depict a human side of a subculture that
often was stereotyped as self-destructive and nihilistic.
"They really weren't paying attention to me. That's what I liked
to do," Polk said. "If you're around someone long enough, they
forget the camera is there."
Neither Polk nor McNeil denies that there was enough debauchery
to go around on Manhattan's Lower East Side during the 1970s.
But both say the rock journalists and the tabloids got it wrong.
By focusing only on the overindulgences, Polk said, the media
created a monster that required bigger and bigger tales. Myths
were created and propagated, and the real story never was told.
"I think the media has just tried to put forth the sex, the
drugs and the violence," Polk said. "It's the same thing the
rap artists say: `We're a reflection of society. We're a mirror.
We're not telling people to be violent; we're showing them what
the culture is like.'
"They were both reflecting what is already in existence and
creating a work of art that showed society what it was like."
Both Polk and McNeil, who interviewed Polk for his book "Please
Kill Me: The Secret History of Punk Music," said the only way
to sum up early punk is to simply recount what happened.
Documenting the scene was the aim of McNeil's book, Polk's
photographs and today's event in Eugene.
Along with readings from McNeil's book and photographs from
Polk's collection, the event will feature punk memorabilia
such as the first Ramones concert T-shirt; tattered, heavily
zippered clothing made by Sex Pistols Manager Malcolm McLaren;
and an orange skydiving jumpsuit that belonged to Vicious.
"We had come out of an underground scene that was very glitter-
oriented," Polk said. "With the punk thing, you wanted shoes
you could run in. Anything that was seen as too contrived was
looked down upon. ... The idea was to look as extreme as
Polk began hanging out at rock shows as a teen-ager after moving
(with her mother) from Long Island to Manhattan. She saw Jimi
Hendrix, the Doors, Janis Joplin and other big-name rock acts,
but eventually began gravitating toward smaller, seedier clubs.
The punks were taking over dark, cavernous bars such as Max's
Kansas City and CBGB's, where the owners let the bands play
because they thought it might help them sell more drinks, Polk
"By the time I was 18, I didn't want to pay $10 to go to a show
and I didn't have to," Polk said. "It was much more fun to see
the Ramones and Blondie at CBGB's."
Polk also frequented Nobody's, a favorite hangout of Janis Joplin;
the 82 Club, a venue played by Debbie Harry's band Stiletto; and
Mothers, a small club that hosted Ramones and the Heartbreakers,
She dated Dee Dee Ramone, bassist for the Ramones, and Arthur
Kane, bassist for the New York Dolls. She met Andy Warhol and
Frank Zappa. Polk knew Nancy Spungen before she dyed her hair
and started dating Sid Vicious. She started a rock band of her
own, hosted parties at her mother's West 11th Street house, and
made wild punk costumes out of secondhand clothing and discarded
"We knew something was going on; you could feel it in the air,"
Polk said. "We thought we were all going to get rich and famous."
Polk never did get rich and famous from her music or her
photographs; she said she never wanted to cash in on her story.
She was hesitant at first to talk to VH-1, and she ignored
suggestions that she go to the TV tabloids for more money.
Eventually, she agreed to the interview, partly, she said, to
help set the story straight.
"I wanted to tell the story because it's a good story, it's an
important story and people are interested in it," Polk said. "I
feel as though, as long as I tell the truth, it's OK."
Polk has no revelations about Vicious' death, but her version of
the story is different than the widely accepted version of a drug
party that got out of control.
The night Vicious died, she said, was a quiet night with Vicious'
girlfriend, his mother and the few friends he had. The
controversial punk had gotten out of jail that day, and his
friends were there to look after him.
"I wouldn't say that I was a great friend of Sid's; I don't think
he had any great friends," Polk said. "I was one of the few people
who wasn't selling drugs to him or trying to go to bed with him.
I was just naive enough to believe that when someone said he wasn't
going to get off (with drugs), he wasn't going to get off."
Although she left the punk scene - a decision brought about by
Vicious' death, her mother's illness and her own desire for a
healthier environment - Polk has continued to take photographs.
Her photos have appeared in People magazine, Interview and Premiere,
and she's also shot album covers.
Recently, she's become interested in documenting the campaign to
legalize marijuana, a movement that she sees as having some
similarities to the punk movement.
"I just like people who are doing things that are independent,"
Polk said. "Maybe 20 years from now, if it's legal, they'll want
pictures of the movement, and I'll be one of the only ones who
Polk said she's changed a lot since her New York days, but not
entirely. She listens to the blues, world music, jazz and other
types of music, and she holds down a 9-to-5 job, but the punk
spirit is still within her. She doesn't consider herself a card-
carrying Eugene anarchist, but she does believe in challenging
the powers that be and in befriending rather than alienating the
troubled outcasts who make life interesting.
"Today," Polk said, "I think I'd still know someone like Sid
Vicious, but I'd be giving him change at the Saturday Market,
not spending the evening with him."
Entertainment reporter Lewis Taylor can be reached by phone at
485-1234, Ext. 2512, and by e-mail at ltaylor@....
September 1, 2000
Bottom feeder takes high road
LEGS McNEIL MAY OR may not have coined the term "punk" to
describe the no-rules, do-it-yourself music scene that arose
in the '70s in Manhattan. But either way, the co-founder of
the fanzine Punk did his part to disseminate the word - a word
he says, that means something different to everyone.
"We were lousy hippies basically," McNeil said, offering one
definition. "We didn't like health food, we liked
cheeseburgers; we didn't like pot, we liked beer or heroin.
We didn't like psychedelics. We didn't want to feel more; we
wanted to feel less."
If there is a definition of "punk," McNeil probably would be
the one to ask. In addition to chronicling the scene in the
pages of his fanzine, McNeil and writer Gillian McCain
interviewed hundreds of people connected to the music in
order to write the book "Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral
History of Punk."
Rather than offering their own narrative, McNeil and McCain
allowed their sources to speak. Then they cobbled together
bursts of dialogue from different players to create a spoken
history. The technique, which McNeil modeled after a style
used by George Plimpton, creates a sense of immediacy that
serves the subject of punk music well.
"If I was to write my book, my memoir on the punk scene, it
would just be my view and it would be very limited," McNeil
said. "What makes it better and more fun is to have 200
points of view."
McNeil insists he didn't want to write "Please Kill Me" and
only did so to set the record straight. He says most books on
the subject of punk music have either gotten it wrong or have
been more concerned with sociological theories.
"Every time somebody else did a punk book, I'd think I
wouldn't have to do the book. ... No one's really nailed it,"
McNeil said. "I think `Please Kill Me' will hold up."
Now at work on a second book, McNeil is busy compiling an oral
history of the pornography industry. His fascination with seedy
subjects makes sense from a writer's perspective, he said.
"I think literature comes out of the bottom of the barrel,"
McNeil said. "I like writing about the bottom of the barrel.
The extremes are greater."
The Website of Lord Weÿrdgliffe:
The Dan Clore Necronomicon Page:
"Tho-ag in Zhi-gyu slept seven Khorlo. Zodmanas
zhiba. All Nyug bosom. Konch-hog not; Thyan-Kam
not; Lha-Chohan not; Tenbrel Chugnyi not;
Dharmakaya ceased; Tgenchang not become; Barnang
and Ssa in Ngovonyidj; alone Tho-og Yinsin in
night of Sun-chan and Yong-grub (Parinishpanna),
-- The Book of Dzyan.