David Sinclair hails the writer who reinvented rock journalism from the inside out
Nick Kent was one of a handful of British rock journalists who could plausibly claim to have been “stars” in their own right. A talented writer, and cosmically flawed man, he blazed a trail through the pages of the New Musical Express in the 1970s that helped redefine the course of music journalism and shape the musical future in which we now live. But he got himself into such a mess while doing it that it is a minor miracle that he lived – let alone remembered anything clearly enough – to tell the tale.
Kent began the decade as a virginal teenager, ended it a burnt-out heroin casualty, and crammed all his most important work into the period in between. Indeed, such is the speed of his ascent and the depth of his downfall, that Apathy for the Devil reads more like a morality play than a memoir.
The narrative drive is assisted by the fact that Kent frames his personal story of that period in much the same vivid, fearless and compelling prose style that got him into so much trouble in the first place. For when he, along with Charles Shaar Murray, Ian MacDonald and others, started writing for the NME in 1972, it marked a startling departure from the previous anodyne manner of reporting on music and musicians – a change which one commentator described as roughly akin to substituting neat whiskey for baby milk.
Arriving in London in 1971 to begin studying for a degree in English at Bedford College, Kent had lost his virginity within a week, and lost interest in dissecting the texts of Chaucer and Milton soon afterwards. After picking up some freelance work for underground fanzine Frendz, commissioned in the first instance by one Rosie Boycott, Kent eventually got the call from NME, and by the end of 1972 found himself hanging out backstage with Led Zeppelin on tour.
His association with Zeppelin was one of many “professional” relationships with members of the rock aristocracy in which the fate of the reporter became far more closely entwined with that of his subjects than has generally been the case in music journalism, before or since. Kent first met David Bowie, for instance, in Bowie’s hotel room two hours after he had come off stage. Also present were various members of the singer’s entourage, along with several teenage girls who’d been hanging around in the hotel corridors. Bowie had already seduced one of them by the time Kent took his leave. “This wouldn’t have been especially noteworthy,” Kent remarks, “save for the fact that his wife, Angie, was also present in the room.”
Kent recalls similarly close encounters with Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, the New York Dolls and, later on, Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer, always combining the personal insight of an insider with the wry wit and mischievous indiscretion of a natural observer. The key exception to this air of sardonic detachment is Chrissie Hynde, whom Kent met long before she was successful at anything, and who became the one true love of his young life. They parted, badly, in 1974, and her brief reappearance at the very end of the decade, when Kent’s life has spiralled to the bottom and she is on her way to the top, is a poignant moment.
Whether he was engaged in writing the first posthumous story of any depth on the enigma of Nick Drake or inveighing against the inexplicable popularity of Jethro Tull’s arena-filling tour of America, Kent always combined shrewd insight with a devil-may-care panache. His journalistic skills are of course enhanced, more than 30 years later, by the benefit of hindsight. Recalling a night of surreal activity spent in the company of John Bonham and Keith Moon, he muses that it was no wonder the two drummers were such soulmates. “They shared the same terminal disease [alcoholism]. Moon had only three more years to live, Bonham five.”
As the story progresses, the question that keeps surfacing with alarming frequency is how exactly did Kent avoid a similar fate? Bewitched by belief in his own incomparable genius, he was enthusiastically sucked into the drugged-up world of his rock star heroes (and villains). But without recourse to their support networks or financial wherewithal, he soon found himself descending into a street-junkie lifestyle of unremitting misery and squalor.
The description of this side of his life is a horror story, albeit informed by Kent’s eagle eye for detail and leavened by his grim sense of humour. “You had a hard row to hoe if you were a drug addict in the seventies. There was no Narcotics Anonymous or Priory-styled detox facilities to escape into . . . and almost everyone else treated you like a leper. It was all down, down, down.”
The dream job, meanwhile, turned into a nightmare as the industry which had consumed him now spat him out. He was attacked by Sid Vicious wielding a bike chain in the 100 Club, and the effect on Kent’s already enfeebled lifestyle was unsurprisingly “calamitous”. “I’d been too arrogant and too vain, too immature and too judgemental, too wayward and too godamn hot-headed – and that was just the short list,” Kent now admits. Even so, to have been appointed the all-purpose whipping boy for punk, a movement which he had championed both in print and behind the scenes, was a spectacularly cruel and unjust fate.
Despite all this, Kent has re-emerged with his commitment to the craft of writing intact. “Self-congratulation, self-justification, self-pity and plain old bitterness don’t really make it as motors for good autobiographical prose,” he notes, a little regretfully. “You’re always better off playing up the comedic aspects of your past, blending the light in with the dark and turning grief into laughter.”
It is a testament to Kent’s continuing ability as a writer as much as anything else that he has managed to pull off such a delicate balancing act to tell a story of outrageous hubris and bleak nemesis with rare humour, intelligence and style.
David Sinclair’s Spice Girls Revisited is published by Omnibus.