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Legs McNeil Hails Tim Mohr's 'Burning Down The Haus' As the Best Punk Book Since 'Please Kill Me'
On Monday night, Sept.10, author Tim Mohr celebrated the release of his new punk history book Burning Down The Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution and the Fall of the Berlin Wall at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, New York. The night featured a Q&A with Legs McNeil, a fellow music journalist and editor most famous for his look at punk rock in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.
Burning Down The Haus is a true-to-life account of the East German punk scene in the 1980s, a time and place in which punk was seen as not just an annoyance or fad, but a distinct threat to the oppressive powers that be. Using firsthand accounts from members of German punk bands -- some who joined Mohr and McNeil onstage -- Mohr writes from a vivid, street-level perspective of what it was like to face down governmental oppression. And, like the punks he writes about, the language is soaked in courageousness and a rock n' roll attitude.
Mohr and McNeil hadn’t met prior to the Rough Trade Q&A, but the repartee came quick and easy; McNeil was so struck by Mohr’s storytelling that it was a no-brainer to bring him on the event. As Mohr tells Billboard, he originally thought he’d write Haus as an oral history, like the classic Please Kill Me, in order to remove himself from the story as much as possible.
But he soon knew he “felt like a vessel” for these rockers he loved and admired and decided to go the narrative route. “They were talking through me,” he explains. “I really wanted these guys to speak for themselves.” Never lacking forthrightness, McNeil was just enthused to finally read a punk rock book that he liked. “I’ve been waiting for a punk book to come out that’s as good as Please Kill Me… and they’re all shit! Well, most of them. Not all of them.”
Mohr’s decision to write about East German punk took root when he worked as a DJ in Berlin in the ‘90s; he picked up German as a second language simply from spending hours in the clubs. “I was a stupid American in a lot of ways, and I wasn’t politically aware,” he explained to the crowd at Rough Trade. “I thought Germany and Oktoberfest would be the same thing.”
But in those clubs, he came into contact with many bands who booked shows and tape-traded under wraps from both the federal authorities and the secret police, the Stasi. “Here I was, confronted with people who had actually paid with their bodies,” he remembers. “They’d sacrificed to fight the dictatorship in a very direct and meaningful way.” And movingly, several members of the bands featured in Haus even dropped by Rough Trade to tell the story from the horse’s mouth -- Chaos, originally from Wutanfall, and Pankow and Micha Kobs from Planos.
Haus, a labor of love that took almost a decade to research and write, goes into firsthand detail of a turbulent sociopolitical environment that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But to Mohr, it’s not just a music book, it’s “a handbook for resisting authoritarianism.” The reader doesn’t need to necessarily study up on the ins and outs of post-war Germany -- he or she can just crack it open and get swept away in the story.
And to both Mohr and McNeil, its themes of individuality and rebellion ring far beyond the book's specific time, place and context under a brutal regime. “You know what I love about the book?” said McNeil post-event. “These kids, who have nothing, figure out for themselves, ‘We have nothing. F--- you. Why should we follow your rules?’ They were put in jail, but they still did it. That’s what’s so inspiring.”