July 2010

Arts & Letters

Rock and roll babble on

By Robert Forster
Nick Kent’s ‘Apathy for the Devil: A 1970s Memoir’

To read the New Musical Express (NME) in the ’70s was one of the great joys of the decade. It was an insider’s choice and the seriousness of any new acquaintance’s enthusiasm for music could be instantly gauged by whether they read it or not. The readership of the London-based weekly was predominantly male and in the 15-to-30 age bracket, and many a school project or office job was delayed subject to the lure of the latest Roxy Music review or the inside story of the current Led Zeppelin tour. At the forefront of the paper were its three greatest writers: Ian MacDonald, Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent. They had been taken on in 1972, when the paper was given just 12 weeks to reverse years of falling circulation. All three were recruited from the embers of the late-’60s countercultural London street press and came with a belief that rock music, the British scene especially, warranted a tougher and smarter level of rock criticism. MacDonald wrote with great authority and tended to concentrate on progressive groups and ’60s artists. Murray, in contrast, had a very engaging, almost slang-like style, and raced from blues bands to The Ramones to Bowie. And Nick Kent? Well, every cliché about rock writers as rock stars begins with him; his prose rambled freely from the overblown to the succinct and powerful, and he had a musical aesthetic second to none. In fact, you could say he helped invent punk rock.

Apathy for the Devil is his second book since leaving the NME in the early ’80s. He has not been prolific, nor has he prospered in a second career. His problem has been drugs: heavy heroin use from 1974 to ’78, methadone until the late ’80s, plus assorted other “chemicals” – to pick up Kent-speak – such as cocaine, amphetamines, valium and marijuana. His music journalism over the last decades has been infrequent, with no body of work to match his glory years at the NME in the ’70s. He has become a legend, both for his writing, which was always handwritten and submitted at the last minute, and for the larger-than-life, or larger-than-print, persona he generated through his prose. His memoir deals in the collusion between music and drugs – how the belief in either can lead to the need of the other, and how the belief in both can only lead to disaster. Apathy mirrors the quandary, and although Kent brings in many theories and factors to dissect the music of the ’70s, the good and bad of the decade, the good and bad of the book, lies at the fault-line where heroin takes over his life.

He was born in London in 1951, the only child of loving middle-class parents. His father was a sound engineer, his mother a schoolteacher – books and music (Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy, Ravel) were in the house. By the early ’60s the generation gap was opening up and what really had the steam coming out of his father’s ears was pop music. Kent was entranced, and in a life-changing episode he not only witnessed the Rolling Stones in concert in 1964, but got to visit the band backstage. Bill and Charlie are towelling down, Keith is almost asleep on a sofa, Jagger is scowling and moody and Brian Jones has three women around him and is perfectly charming; for the bug-eyed 13-year-old, the die is cast: “I was smitten … suddenly I had my future adult agenda mapped out before me.”

The late ’60s and very early ’70s are beautifully evoked in the early chapters, as the hippie dream hardens around London squat life. A fair swathe of prime psychedelia is witnessed, including what Kent still regards as the best bill of his life: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, The Move and The Nice. An interest in literature dictates his choice of university, Bedford College in Regent’s Park, where Kent joins two other male students in a dormitory with 23 women under the spell of Tea for the Tillerman-era Cat Stevens. His virginity is lost here. Kent gains a post as music critic for Frendz magazine and the NME calls soon after. The book swirls at this moment, as Kent lays out a set of influences on his writing while chronicling with great enthusiasm a series of vital gigs that not only sharpen his musical vision but will reverberate down the decade as a trail of fire he will lay to the start of punk. The literary influences are not too surprising: new journalism titans Capote and Wolfe are mentioned, and also their disciples working in the American rock press, such as Hunter S Thompson and Lester Bangs at Rolling Stone and Creem – both magazines at their height in ’71, and forerunners to the NME reign of supremacy. The shows Kent sees in quick succession in 1971–72 are the London debuts of the MC5, Iggy and The Stooges, Lou Reed, Can, Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band, plus Bowie’s first Ziggy Stardust show. This is the future of rock for Kent and he has a readership of 100,000 (and growing) to tell it to.

At heart he is romantic; in music, women (bohemian and French) and drugs, and his writing has always appealed to rock ’n’ roll romantics. No synthesisers, chin-stroking progressive rock or soppy singer–songwriters for Nick Kent. He called his first book, which was mostly a collection of his rock journalism, The Dark Stuff, and that is what has always drawn him. At times, even back in the ’70s, it made him look ridiculous, but his strike rate as a critic was always high.

He wrote a stunning re-appraisal of Neil Young’s On the Beach after its widespread damnation on release as “depressing” and a waste of Young’s talent. Long pieces on Syd Barrett and Nick Drake resurrected artists who had quickly fallen from the public eye. A two-page report from New York in early ’76 alerted most of the world to the existence of The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie. Morrissey wrote to him incessantly as a teenager, and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders left her hometown of Akron, Ohio, to come to London on the strength of a Kent piece about her beloved Iggy and The Stooges.

The first half of the book marches along well; there is focus and fire as we get the career-ascending years from the “Zeitgeist-surfing dark prince of seventies rock journalism”, as he proudly or ironically (hard to tell) calls himself in the first sentence of the third chapter. The book cracks badly, though, midway, and without wishing to push the correlation between drug abuse and talent abuse too hard, the two meet here – to be precise, at an after-show party for Rod Stewart and The Faces at Cher’s home in Los Angeles in 1975. Kent, displaying a typically perverse sense of logic and location, had come to LA to get off drugs and it is during a long, wearisome description of the après-gig celebration seen through a drug haze that the book turns. Kent the truth-teller becomes Kent the rock ’n’ roll-Babylon bore, a transformation capped by two absurd stories. The first, involving guitarist Dickey Betts of? The Allman Brothers Band (who isn’t even at the party), has Betts riding on his Harley and spying a bull in a field, killing it with his bare hands, and then cooking and eating it by the roadside. “Clearly these were fellows not to trifle with,” warns Kent, and presumably they had barbecues on the back of their Harleys too. The second backroom story has the rotund manager of Led Zeppelin, Peter Grant, inadvertently sitting on Elvis Presley’s father. Even Kent doubts the veracity of this one, “but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to believe it’s true”. On such a premise anything could be put into a book.

Apathy does have a villain and it’s clothes-shop owner and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. He’s welcome in any memoir as he gives good quote, is full of crazy ideas and, as Kent admits, got things done because he was one of the few people in the decade not on drugs. The episodes that heavily involve him appear after the LA sojourn and pull the book back into stride for a time. That Kent was in the Sex Pistols is the big secret of the memoir for those who don’t know his ’70s journalism. It was for only two months in the middle of ’75, as McLaren madly shuffled to get the ultimate line-up of the band in place. Kent, who was on guitar, is fired. Steve Jones, who was the singer, becomes the guitarist, and then Johnny Rotten is discovered in McLaren’s shop. It is a supreme serendipity that the man who has been shepherding punk into print for the previous three years finds himself, albeit briefly, in the breakthrough band. It places him exquisitely to chronicle punk when it takes off in the following year, but Kent has scars, some very real, as from a chain-beating inflicted by Sid Vicious supposedly at McLaren’s behest, and others harder to quantify, involving Kent’s continual homeless existence and his full-blown drug use. Both these conditions lead him to form an odd relationship with his attacker, Vicious, and his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen; and so, as London simmers under its greatest musical and cultural surge since psychedelic, Kent tells the tale of Sid and Nancy while pouring invective on the “puppet-master” McLaren.

To read Nick Kent in the ’70s was exhilarating. There were the famous long pieces, there were the defining acts at the heart of his world: Dylan/the Velvet Underground/the Rolling Stones/Iggy Pop – the dark stuff. And importantly, though not so prominently in Apathy for the Devil, there was Kent’s perspective on newer artists. When he praised acts such as The Only Ones, The Cramps, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers or the early Pretenders, people went out and bought their records. An amazing rave on Television’s Marquee Moon was enough to land the album in the British Top 30. Bizarrely Kent overlooks this side of his work, too busy gruffly tearing at his enemies or writing vapid page-long summaries of ‘name’ artists that could be pulled from any rock almanac and then spicing them with a little insider gossip. Kent has managed the improbable: he has written himself out of the decade he helped to shape.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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