The Half Light: Five Great Oral Histories

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It occurred to me yesterday, as I was reading Live From New York, a book about the history of Saturday Night Live, that I had become addicted to oral histories. It’s a genre that has exploded over the past 30 years, putting books about subjects ranging from punk music to failed basketball leagues to civil rights to American labor on the bestseller list. When it’s done well, the dialogue flows, conveying important stories in the colorful language of those integral characters who were on the scene.

Oral histories are formatted like a play, composed almost entirely of interviews with subjects who were part and parcel of the narrative. If someone did an oral history about this article, it would look like this:

Shane Ryan, Writer: I wanted to write a story about my favorite oral histories, and what makes the genre special, so I went to Josh Jackson and asked if he thought it would be a good idea.

Josh Jackson, Editor: It seemed fine to me. I just told him no profanity. Shane Ryan is a crass human being.

You get the idea. The men who compile oral histories are doing what looks like a thankless job. They put in long hours interviewing hundreds (and often thousands) of important people, transcribe every interview down to the last word, and then cull the millions of words into something like a coherent narrative. When they succeed, one story leads into the next fluidly, with segues cued by a key word and multiple sources offering their take on a single event. A good oral history doesn’t just tell a story, but reveals the idiosyncrasies of its subjects, whether they’re uptight, wild, hypocritical or bitter. The psychology lies between the lines, and when that melds with an interesting cultural phenomenon, the result can be astounding.

I can’t possibly give you a list of the five best oral histories ever, because I haven’t read nearly enough. Instead, here’s a list of five excellent works that I’ve enjoyed over the past two years, and show the genre at its highest form.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

By Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain (1997)
I’m not a fan of punk music, though it’s fair to say that I like a lot of music that was at least partly inspired by punk. I spent the first 100 or so pages of this book looking for the songs they referenced on YouTube, but I soon learned to stop and just enjoy the story. And that’s another brilliant aspect of oral history—I’d rather do almost anything than spend more than an hour listening to punk music, but reading about it? Sign me up. In this book, McNeil and McCain trace the American punk scene (especially the New York side) from its origins in Andy Warhol’s patronage of the Velvet Underground through the emergence of legends like Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and The Ramones. Almost every artist here lived their lives on a knife’s edge, and the story of how they created a lasting niche in the face of the establishment while slowly killing themselves with drug abuse and other extreme behavior is endlessly fascinating. In Danny Fields, the journalist and manager who remains one of the most influential figures in punk history, the authors find an ideal subject.


By Jean Stein, Edited with George Plimpton (1982)
There’s some overlap here with Please Kill Me, as Edie explores the Andy Warhol scene in New York. But while punk truly took root later, this is a story of the ’60s, and Edie Sedgwick’s decade-long reign as the country’s best-known counterculture icon. It follows her career as an actress, model and socialite from the Factory days to her relationship with Bob Dylan and Bob Neuwirth to her death in 1971, at the age of 28, of a pill overdose. Throughout the book, there’s never a sense that Sedgwick’s life is anything but brilliant and doomed, and a picture emerges of one of the most unique personalities of America’s strangest decade.

Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live

By Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad (1986)
I mentioned Live From New York above, the SNL oral history published in 2002, but that book pales in comparison to its predecessor, Saturday Night. Released in 1986, Saturday Night goes in depth on the first decade of the show, from its wild origins in 1975 to the brilliance of the late-’70s cast, to the slow erosion of its vitality when Lorne Michaels left for the first time and Jean Doumanian took over. This is the story of SNL at its most essential, before it became the watered-down, corporate version we know today. It’s full of incredible intrigue and melodrama, and the stories centering around characters like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner and the unspeakably arrogant Chevy Chase ensured that my first encounter with this 500-page book would involve two nights of enthralled reading. The original cast, make no mistake, were artistic revolutionaries, and this book is in an indispensable record of how, in the face of censorship and a stodgy, uncooperative network, they changed the face of television.

Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s

By Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer (1991)
After reading this book, it occurred to me that you can’t fully experience the Civil Rights movement in 2012 without hearing the voices of those who lived through it. Sure, the history books give you the gist of what happened, the rampant racism and the incremental gains and the tragic assassinations. But only firsthand accounts can truly convey the horrid violence of their opponents, from their willingness to lynch children to their use of torture and fear to defy racial progress. As fair warning, this book is not always uplifting, nor does it look at the Civil Rights leaders themselves without criticism. You may leave thinking about everything that remains unaccomplished. But you won’t be able to stop reading until the end, and you’ll finish with a heightened sense of the triumphs and disappointments of our country’s second Civil War.

Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association

By Terry Pluto (1990)
I couldn’t possibly do a top five list of books without including at least one about sports. But Loose Balls is unique in the sense that I think it can be enjoyed by non-sports fans as well. Because Pluto’s oral history isn’t really about sports; it’s about business, and America, and what happens when a slipshod group populated by eccentric and unreliable characters tries to keep a nation-wide organization afloat in the face of ridiculous odds and entrenched adversary in the NBA. The ABA lasted nine years, from 1967 to 1976, in which time it managed to avoid folding long enough to earn a merger with the NBA, making a few men very rich and ensuring that their legacy would last in the American sporting scene through former ABA teams like the San Antonio Spurs, the Indiana Pacers, the Denver Nuggets and the New Jersey Nets. But the real jewel of the book comes in the form of the incredibly odd and hilarious human beings populating the league. These are people who played in T-shirts when their uniforms got lost, got in regular fistfights that would make current sports fans blush with indignation, and did whatever they could to survive in conditions that ranged from adequate to miserable, when no paycheck was a guarantee. I didn’t stop laughing the entire time I read this book, but it wasn’t until I finished that I realized I had read a perfect account of the grandiose, inexact rise that accompanies your standard American dream.