Play hard

Dave Haslam

  • The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music 1972-93 by Nick Kent
    Penguin, 338 pp, £9.99, May 1994, ISBN 0 14 023046 7

Nick Kent is described on the cover of The Dark Stuff as ‘the living legend of rock journalism’. His status as legend is less to do with the quality of his writing than with his wilful mirroring of the self-destructive, drug-centred lives led by the rock stars he writes about. Kent made his name in the mid and late Seventies as a strung-out stringer, the suburban boy getting high with Keith Richards, hanging out at backstage drug binges, and – on one memorable occasion – being beaten about the body by Sid Vicious wielding a rusty bicycle chain.

Kent’s most fruitful years writing for New Musical Express coincided with the descent into artistic bankruptcy of the Sixties generation, and the fiery emergence of punk. In this collection Kent proves himself an entertaining eyewitness to the characters and casualties of these years, serving us, for instance, Lou Reed stumbling around in New York, the New York Dolls in Paris and Brian Wilson in ‘psychicpain’, as well as Iggy Pop and the Rolling Stones. Chapters on later stars like Morrissey, Guns ’N’ Roses and Happy Mondays lack this vivid authenticity.

Looking back, you can see why Kent made such an impact. When he started writing in the mid-Seventies, rock writing was whimsical, drifting in much the same way as the music. ‘Respected’ music critics such as the Sunday Times’s Derek Jewell, as well as the workaday Grateful Dead fans staffing the music weeklies, produced copy that was the written equivalent of a Jethro Tull flute solo, or a Bachman Turner Overdrive guitar break. Derek Jewell’s reviews regularly ended with a plea for groups to play less loudly.

On the other side of the Atlantic, if not on a different planet, were Iggy and the Stooges. Not for them painterly melodies, studied drum solos, or flute improvisations. Kent describes their ‘anti-social ... muddy, brutal, ecstatic music’ and the challenge it threw down: ‘For some, like myself, being exposed to music this raw and alive had a profoundly liberating effect. But most people in the late Sixties and early Seventies who came into direct contact with it found the experience unsettling and often bordering on the frankly repugnant.’

Kent continued to champion the harder groups, and was as eminent in the battle in the UK press as Lester Bangs was in American journals like Creem, writing with a raw power that sought to emulate the mood onstage: furious, wide-eyed and speed-driven. Bangs, once described by Greil Marcus as ‘a one man orgy of abandon, excess, wisdom, satire, parody’, died in 1982 of a heart attack triggered by stimulants, but his prose – Kerouac’s narrator in On the Road, three steps nearer the abyss – makes Bangs, unarguably, the dead legend of rock journalism.

The brat pack brought personality, honesty and a touch of insanity to rock journalism; they made Derek Jewell and the staid brigade as irrelevant as Iggy Pop made Jethro Tull. Jewell could write about Eric Clapton or Dizzy Gillespie as if they lived in a world as pure as Perrier. Authentically fucked-up, but also soaked in the clichés of bohemian romanticism, Kent dressed in black and explored, instead, the sleazier side of the street.

Kent is unafraid, indeed ever keen, to put his subjects’ excesses at the heart of their stories. In particular, he keeps coming back to their drug-taking. For his heroes, drug use is adventurous, and its downside the price they pay for their genius. For those he does not respect – Sid Vicious (‘the exploding dim-wit’), for instance, and Happy Mondays – a drug-addled self-destructiveness is well deserved. It could be said that The Dark Stuff is a book about drugs masquerading as a book about rock music.

Pop music has never been a clean scene. It has frequently, in fact, been most alive when most wired. Whatever the physical effects, drug use puts you out of the social mainstream, confers rebel chic. For musicians, hard drugs brighten the predictability of the touring-writing-recording-touring cycle; cushion their insecurities in an unstable career; recreate the buzz of live performance. Some musicians actively crave drugs as an aid to creativity; others have more prosaic reasons: Elvis Presley took amphetamines to slim down for tours.

Popular music has often been coy about its connections with drugs. The high-profile casualties like Kurt Cobain, Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix have usually been portrayed as maverick one-offs. The infiltration of drug use into all parts of pop music – from black jazz to white rock, from club dancefloors to record company boardrooms, from the fan to the icon – is rarely acknowledged.

There tends to be a gap between the public’s perception of pop musicians and the reality. In 1988 Shaun Ryder was asked by a music paper to pose with some favourite objects. He chose that most crucial piece of drug-taking paraphernalia, silver foil. The nearest bit to hand was an unwrapped Kit Kat, and the singer was duly snapped holding one. Believing this to be a simple endorsement of their chocolate bar, Rowntrees – the manufacturers – later delivered to him two large boxes full of Kit Kat, Rowntrees’ very own dark stuff. On numerous occasions songs with anti-drug messages have been laying false trails: Canned Heat sang ‘Amphetamine Annie’ even while their guitarist, Al Wilson, was mired in the barbiturate addiction which eventually killed him. I remember Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ being played at the Hacienda while the DJ-box was practically neck-deep in cocaine.

In the early Forties, Down Beat debated whether or not to acknowledge the widespread use of drugs in the jazz scene. Their hand was forced when the situation was exposed in the mainstream daily newspapers. Similarly, the British tabloids recently focused on the use of ecstasy at house music clubs: the coverage was cock-eyed and sensational, but to a degree unillusioned. Nick Kent’s obsession with sniffing out the drug story in the life of his subjects gets boring – much as all conversations between two druggies float round one subject: getting high – but it’s a necessary corrective to the commentators who clean up the acts. But however much Kent believes that drugs fuel the creativity of musicians, or underpin their revolt against mainstream culture, he doesn’t hide the fact that sustained drug use turns geniuses into cabbages. Miles Davis fights a ‘debilitating’ drug habit; Shane McGowan falls apart under the influence of amphetamines and alcohol; David Crosby and Stephen Stills are ‘too coked-up all the time’ to keep their band together; and – playing in front of a ‘zombie’ audience – the New York Dolls announce their desire to be ‘the tackiest boys in New York’ and no one, but no one, is arguing.

In the clash between rock tradition and individual talent, the younger generation usually finds something to reject, and something to emulate. Kent quotes Stephen Stills talking about his early collaborations with Neil Young: ‘Neil wanted to be Bob Dylan and I wanted to be the Beatles.’ Some take this a stage further and find it necessary to emulate the lifestyle as well as the lyrics and the guitar licks. Primal Scream’s recent LP rehashes the Rolling Stones in their early Seventies mode and, if eye-witness reports are correct, they’re a throwback to the Stones backstage as well, with heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, speed and bottles of methadone all in evidence.

Among lesser talents, anti-social behaviour can be the only hope of attracting the interest of record-buyers. Flowered Up are one recent band who did more drug-taking than hit-making. In Kent’s era, those who experienced more excess than success include Johnny Thunders and Nico. Nico herself would have made a good chapter in The Dark Stuff, but her absence – along with Patti Smith’s merely highlights the ‘boy’s own’ nature of rock music’s fascination with living dangerously.

Although all Kent’s chapters are on male musicians, not quite all his subjects are drug-heads. There’s Morrissey. And there’s Elvis Costello. He marks Elvis Costello highly for rebel value when he witnesses him behaving dismissively towards ‘a bourgeois glamour victim’ who works for Costello’s record company. This is in contrast to the hapless Gaz from Happy Mondays (Kent doesn’t even deign to give a proper name), whose meek acquiescence to demands to turn down his ghetto-blaster from a ‘haughty Home Counties-type ... Ms Jodhpurs’ backstage at the BBC has Kent hysterically labelling him ‘an apprentice troglodyte’. At points like this Kent’s journalism is blighted by his embarrassing glorification of trivial outrageousness.

The unambitiousness of The Dark Stuff is marked: its chapters are made up from rewritten versions of old articles. This explains the writing’s curious tentativeness, lacking both the spontaneity of the original moment, and the insights which could have been delivered by hindsight. More surprising still are the numerous factual errors, for instance: misspelling of Whalley Range, Wythenshawe and Pat Methany; confusion over the name of the Stone Roses’ drummer; miscalculation of the number of cover versions attempted by the Smiths; and the retitling of Brian Jones’s favourite blues standard ‘Dust My Broom’ to ‘Dust My Blues’.

One of the unfortunate by-products of the new wave of rock journalism was the foregrounding of the writer; by the early Eighties many journalists spent ten paragraphs describing their train journey to the interview, or their latest hangover, for every one attending to the music. Many of Kent’s better pieces, on the other hand, let the interviewee loose: as when he wisely lets Jerry Lee Lewis do most of the talking. He comes over like a cross between Dennis Hopper and Foghorn Leghorn.

Another legacy of the Kent era is the music press’s addiction to pop-star escapades. Only a certain kind of person is impressed by copious drug-taking and smashed hotel rooms: the kind of person who gets to write in the rock weeklies. Currently, journalists are falling over themselves to document the drinking, fighting and shagging indulged in by Manchester’s latest hopefuls, Oasis. No one is more satisfied by their antics than the band’s press agent. Only a very large advertising budget could get Oasis more coverage in the music papers than they’ve got by throwing TVs out of hotel windows, and fighting on cross-Channel ferries. During the Sixties and Seventies many people indulged in the wishful thinking that the willingness of rock stars to épater la bourgeoisie was part and parcel of their revolutionary outlook on life, that songs like ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, ‘Street Fighting Man’ and ‘Heroin’ were shocking and shaking governments. Kent’s book shows only too well how easily outlaw activity slides into 100 per cent pure self-indulgence.