Apathy for the devil.
Julie Burchill is full of shit. Or maybe just plain jealous if her bitchy mean-spirited review is anything to go by. She has nothing good to say about Nick Kent’s book or about Nick Kent for that matter. Nastiness in rock-writing has acquired a kind of permanence and old feuds live on. Kent has described her somewhere as Myra Hindleyesque.
Now Kent has written a sort of biography, or ‘ 70’s memoir’ if you prefer. Nothing very unorthodox. His parents were straight middle class people but not unkind (he eliminates the Philip Larkin excuse in chapter one). They thought Elvis was ‘some degenerate hillbilly maniac’ and Frank Sinatra was ‘a smarmy little gangster’. Kent was a fairly typical bedroom hermit. He went to school. Literature attracted him. He’d been impressed by Keats and Elliot and made a serious study of Joyce’s Ulysses. But he liked pop music better. His parents thought he should go to university. The music press at the time consisted mainly of bland promotional copy.
Seeing the Rolling Stones at the tender age of 13 was a pivotal moment. The young Kent was much taken with the Stones. He liked their ‘don’t give a shit’ attitude. As a young man he was shy, awkward and effeminate (his own words), and something of a misfit. The Stones music was exciting and primeval. It drove the girls wild.
Changes came fast in the Sixties. Woodstock and Altamont were seen by some as the high and low points of the so-called counterculture. Rock Sculley called them 2 ends of a mucky stick…the ‘bloating of mass Bohemia’ (there is a distinctly cynical tone to this book). Anyway at some point Kent seems to have had an epiphany. Reading Creem and Rolling Stone he suddenly knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a writer like Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Lester Bangs. New journalism it was called. Kent prefers the term Zeitgeist-surfing. He likes the word Zeitgeist. Kent even went to America to meet Lester Bangs and learn the art of myth-debunking from a master.
In 1972 he landed a job writing record reviews for Frendz, a radical magazine, at £4 a month. Seeing his words in print was exciting. Nick had found his niche. He quickly realized that he was in the right place at the right time, part of a new kind of rock writing. He was free to write whatever he wanted. Hands on stuff where the writer becomes a willful participant.
Alternative magazines like Frendz were struggling in 1972. The revolution wasn’t going well. But there was plenty of music to write about. Music fans were almost begging for an extreme, abrasive kind of writing that would penetrate the pot haze. Kent did some interviews and it wasn’t long before the New Musical Express noticed his efforts. They hired him to increase circulation. He, Charles Shaar Murray and Ian MacDonald had the UK scene pretty much to themselves for a while. He wrote a two piece article Led Zeppelin which really got the ball rolling. Led Zeppelin liked it. So did the NME. Sales figures improved. Everything was going well. Nick found interviews easier to get though Bowie remained elusive.
Rock writing could be dangerous work. There was trouble in the toilet with Bob Marley, a near death experience with Iggy Pop, an unhappy relationship with Chrissie Hynde, and a vicious attack by a Sex Pistol. The bulk of the book deals with his years at NME, interviews, anecdotes, drugs, getting sucked into Keith Richard’s vortex, that kind of thing. Young readers will probably find it all a bit silly and pointless. In retrospect a lot of it probably was. Kent himself seems almost apologetic sometimes. But he was definitely there.
There aren’t many startling new revelations about the private lives of rock royalty however. Kent has dealt with them elsewhere. In the ‘The Dark Stuff’ for instance, when he was on top of his form, he wrote about the down side of rock, people like Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett and Kurt Cobain. Perhaps he got too close to the maelstrom. Maybe he thought he could handle heroine. Maybe he was just young but he became a victim of his own dark side. Compassion was in short supply in the music industry.
Kent can sound whiny at times, as if he feels unappreciated. He has certainly mellowed. Almost fatalistic. There are a few flashes of the younger acerbic young rock-writer but he seems almost embarrassed about some of his excesses which makes for an interesting combination of self-effacement and self-importance. Regrets? Some, but he thinks he got what he deserved. And things turned out OK. Laurence Romance, quel nom alors, replaced methadone in his life. They have a son, James. Kent now lives in Paris and writes the occasional piece for Mojo. Things could be much worse.
So what have we learned from all this? Nick was on top of the music scene for a while but he messed up? That’s too easy. It would be kinder and more accurate to say that he got taken over by events. Rock changed. Yes getting bashed with a bike chain by a three-chord junkie like Sid Vicious was just another McClaren publicity stunt but it must have hurt in more ways than one. Kent says he was too stoned to remember it. He was already pretty strung out by this time, his girlfriend at the time had left him and he was homeless. Still it’s hard not to see the event as a metaphor for the prevailing nastiness. Or some kind of karma perhaps.
The point is he survived it...and he did really love the music, it may have only been rock and roll but he liked it, and he wrote about it well. Which brings us back to the ongoing feud with Ms. Burchill. They seem to deserve each other in a way. It’s tempting to speculate on what kind of loving couple they would have made. Kent is definitely on top when it comes to self-knowledge. Good for him. His book makes a good read. Ms. Burchill can get knotted.